Tate Gallery, London/Art Resource, NY

Jacob wrestling a … demon? This turn-of-the-20th-century work by the British painter William Strang depicts Jacob’s famous encounter with a mysterious “man” by the ford of the Jabbok River, related in Genesis 32:24–30. The Bible is unclear who this figure is: Often described—and represented in art—as an angel, his behavior more closely represents the demons and river spirits that, throughout world folklore, beset travelers on their journeys. As it appears in Genesis, however, the creature becomes a servant or even manifestation of Yahweh, bestowing a new name on his adversary: “The man said, ‘Your name shall no longer be Jacob but Israel, because you have striven with God and with mortals, and have prevailed’” (Genesis 32:28).

According to Propp, this episode is an instance of the Hebrew Bible’s “pseudo-demonism,” in which demonic behavior is adopted by God and his servants. Whereas real demons act on their own caprice, demon-like beings of the Hebrew Bible generally manifest God’s will.