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Theomachy

May 24, 2011

From the Oxford English Dictionary:

theomachy, n.
Pronunciation: /θiːˈɒməkɪ/
Forms: Also 15 in Greek-Latin form theomachia /θiːəʊˈmækɪə/.
Etymology: < Greek θεομαχία, < θεός god + -μαχία fighting.
1. a. A striving or warring against God; opposition to the will of God.

I first came across the word “theomachy” reading about the titanomachy–the uprising of the titans against the Olympian gods. But the word immediately made me think of “striving or warring against God” as a human activity, and from there to consider Genesis 32:23-32:

And when all things were brought over that belonged to him, ‘ He remained alone: and behold a man wrestled with him till morning. ‘ And when he saw that he could not overcome him, he touched the sinew of his thigh, and forthwith it shrank. ‘ And he said to him: Let me go, for it is break of day. He answered: I will not let thee go except thou bless me. ‘ And he said: What is thy name? He answered: Jacob. ‘ But he said: Thy name shall not be called Jacob, but Israel: for if thou hast been strong against God, how much more shalt thou prevail against men? ‘ Jacob asked him, Tell me by what name art thou called? He answered: Why dost thou ask my name? And he blessed him in the same place. ‘ And Jacob called the name of the place Phanuel, saying: I have seen God face to face, and my soul has been saved. ‘ And immediately the sun rose upon him, after he was past Phanuel; but he halted on his foot. ‘ Therefore the children of Israel, unto this day, eat not the sinew, that shrank in Jacob’s thigh: because he touched the sinew of his thigh and it shrank.

Striving against God, then, does not seem necessarily a sinful activity; but how it can be not sinful perplexes me. And so I do not know exactly what to make of theomachy, even as I find myself focusing in on images of it.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul Sampson permalink
    May 25, 2011 6:54 am

    This is really interesting! I wonder what this idea of striving against God, and the possibility of it to bring us closer to God says about the nature of sin. I mean, I think that sometimes the commission of evil acts can make us realize our own sinfulness and distance from God and can bring us to seek Him. So does that make sinning a necessary part of our spiritual growth? I don’t know. I’m definitely going to keep avoiding it as much as possible, but this question does bear thinking about. (This idea reminds me of the cult of which Rasputin was a member that encouraged individuals to sin as much as possible so that they could experience the true redeeming power of Christ.)

  2. May 25, 2011 7:04 am

    Yeah, it’s really hard to make sense of it without resorting to something like Rasputin-like encouragement to sin. Traditionally the Jacob-wrestling-with-the-angel episode has been seen as an image for the power of prayer, akin to “knock and the door will be opened.” There’s something to that, probably, but I don’t find it entirely satisfying, since wrestling implies an antagonism not found in door-knocking. Gerard Manley Hopkins has a poem about this, actually, which I only didn’t mention because it would have taken too much time to go into it: “Carrion Comfort.” The question in the last few lines about whether to cheer God or the man wrestling with him seems related to the confusion we’re talking about:

    Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
    Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
    In me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
    Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
    But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
    Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
    With darksome devouring eyes my bruised bones? and fan,
    O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

    Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
    Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
    Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, cheer.
    Cheer whom though? The hero whose heaven-handling flung me, foot trod
    Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
    Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

  3. Nick Weil permalink
    May 25, 2011 5:28 am

    I don’t think “wrestling” or “striving” need necessarily to be antagonistic. I physically fight my brother all the time, and only half the time because I loath his existence. Fighting can be as much a sport as a hostile engagement. And what do sports accomplish? Physical and mental health, mutual fellowship, personal improvement: all things a relationship with God should cultivate. Maybe what Jacob seeks from this fight is the important difference. The Titans sought to supplant the Olympians: theomachy. Man in the garden sought to supplant God in the same way: theomachy. But with Jacob there is no such pride, only a desire for God’s blessing. And that is granted, and more. Maybe there’s the point?

  4. Tom Buoni permalink
    May 25, 2011 12:02 pm

    yeah, reminds me of a lot of other stories too, like Pandora, Prometheus… I think there’s something to struggling with a force that is clearly greater than you. The “underdog” story. Also, it definitely is a growth thing. Think about when a son first becomes taller than or stands up to his father.

    It’s hard for me to see anymore how a strict sense of Sin can apply – but it seems that the standing up against authority (regardless of who it is, or how Good they are) is a way of gaining respect, and perhaps finding your place beneath that authority, or if it is not “Good Authority”, then overthrowing it. Consider when you first get into an argument with a professor – that’s a respect-gaining, and growing activity. (As long as you fight well.)

    Also this reminds me of animal instinct in like wolfpacks, standing up to the alpha-male etc. I think there could perhaps be a human instinct to rebel against and fight the idea of authority, for better or worse, even perhaps including God.

  5. May 25, 2011 2:08 pm

    Wrestling isn’t necessarily a hostile activity, but even when it’s not, it’s an example of what I think would be called “sublimation” by psychoanalysts. Maybe that’s the point: we have an instinctive anger against God, like Tom said, but can express it either as rebellion–fighting–or as prayer–wrestling. It’s an interesting distinction, but I still have a hard time describing exactly what the difference is.

    To further confuse the issue, note that in the Easter Exsultet can be found the line “O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam,” happy because it made possible Christ’s coming.

    Incidentally, Melville is particularly fascinating on this subject; see, specifically, Billy Budd.

  6. Will Slattery permalink
    May 27, 2011 1:10 am

    alternatively this can refer to the basic plot of nearly everything produced by the nation of Japan since WWII

  7. June 1, 2011 2:34 pm

    Sorry to get in on this late.

    Your original confusion was how this wrestling with God could not be sinful. If it is not sinful, I think we can agree that is so because it is somehow connected to a particular virtue, if not a virtue itself. I would suggest, then, that the virtue exemplified in theomachy is honesty. In this sense, such an exercise consists in recognizing one’s own sinfulness and then relating it or presenting it to God, albeit not in the traditional way–mea culpa, mea culpa–but through a sort of confrontation or facing up to God.

    Yet, I think that there is another virtue at work here that is in the final assessment more profound. That is humility. How could a fight with God be an expression of humility? I do not think anyone exercising theomachy, even Jacob, really thinks he is going to win, per se. Even if one entered upon such a bout with God, it would think that the initial face off would reveal this obvious truth. With this in mind, anyone entering such a fight is not, then, challenging God as if to say jeeringly, “I’m gonna crush you.” No, rather it is quite the opposite. It is a submission of one’s self to a greater authority for humility. The words of John Donne come to mind here: “Batter my heart, three person’d God.” Later, “o’erthrow mee,’and bend Your force, to breake, blow, burn and make me new.”

    In this final assessment, theomachy is not sinful because in honest humility one presents oneself before the Lord to be conquered by grace, liberating his soul through transformation. Oh to be joyfully defeated by grace (Alice von Hildebrand referring to Book VIII of St. Augustine’s Confessions)

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