When I looked through my previous posts on this week’s Torah portion, Toledot, the one that grabbed my attention was Toledot & Vayeitzei & Vayishlach: Goat Versus Snake. (Click on the title to read an updated version of my 2012 essay.)
In the story of Esau and Jacob, the contrast between the twins is described in language related to the goat and the snake. Esau is hairy as a goat, and goatish about sex. He becomes the chieftain of “the land of the goat”.
Does the description of Esau also allude to the most famous goat scene in the Torah, the instructions in Leviticus 16:5-30 for the Yom Kippur ritual with two goats? One goat, chosen by lot, is sacrificed to God. The high priest confesses the sins of the whole community on the head of the other goat, and it is sent out into the wilderness to Azazel, a mysterious goat-demon. The Ramban and the Zohar claimed that Azazel represented the heathenism of Esau.1
Jacob, Esau’s twin brother, is smooth and hairless like a snake. He is also clever and a heel-grabber, like the snake in the Garden of Eden.
We have been seeing a lot of symbolic animals in paintings and sculptures during our travels in Europe. The most common is the lion, the ubiquitous symbol of royal or religious power. There are also beasts that stand for powerful families or cities. For example, in Florence we saw dolphins carved in relief on many buildings because dolphins stood for the Pazzi family. Other heraldic animals I have noticed include ravens, eagles, stags, wolves, bulls, boars, bees, dragons, and griffins.
The most widespread subject matter for art in the middle ages and the Renaissance was Catholic. So we have seen a lot of sheep, as well as the beasts associated with certain saints, such as Jerome’s lion, George’s dragon, and John’s snake-in-a-chalice.
The two most popular subjects from the “Old Testament” have been the near-sacrifice of Isaac (considered a prefiguration of Jesus’ self-sacrifice) and the story of the Garden of Eden (which Catholics interpreted in terms of “original sin”, a concept important to their idea of redemption through Jesus).
The snake in the Garden of Eden appears with a human head in this weathered fresco on the wall of the Santa Maria Novella refectory in Florence, Italy:
As far as I know, goats did not appear in symbolic Christian art. But Italian Renaissance artists did borrow themes from the ancient Romans and Greeks. One of their favorites was the story of Leda seduced by Jupiter in the form of a swan. They also revived the image of the satyr, a hybrid goat-man representing impulsive sex and drunken orgies. Michelangelo included a satyr in one of his lesser sculptures, now in the Bargello in Florence. The Greek satyr is a separate tradition from the story of Esau, but both feature sex, impulsive decisions, and an allusion to goats.
This repost covers two Torah portions—Toledot this week and Vayeitzei next week. I am staying up late tonight in Barcelona so I can post it. Tomorrow we get up early for a day trip to Girona, and then we are off to Granada, with its famous Moorish palace, the Alhambra. Will we see any goats or snakes there? I will let you know.
- “Ramban” is the acronym of 13th-century Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, a mystical Torah commentator from Girona, Spain. The Zohar is a kabbalistic work written by Moses de Leon in 13th-century Spain. (See http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/2203-azazel.)