The Divine Trickster in Genesis: Filling a Scholarly Gap
Readers of this blog are well aware by now that my research interests center on the texts of deception in the Jacob cycle (Gen 25-36). More specifically, I focus on what I have termed a “theology of deception,” which looks at an analyzes the various trickster/deception episodes that pervade Genesis in relation to the characterization of God in Genesis.
As one looks for a dissertation topic, one always hopes to find something “novel,” that no one else has talked about in any meaningful way. These are no doubt hard to come by. Yet I remain struck by how some very good scholarship on Genesis has hinted at or tended towards a line of reading similar to mine above–seeing God as having some role or connected in some way to Jacob’s deceptions–but has done nothing more. A blurb. A throwaway sentence. And, most often, an implication that arises from what they are saying. As I have said before, I am simply unconvinced that issues of ethics and/or morality are front and center (or even in existence at all!) for ancient Israel in these texts. Quite the opposite, in fact, for it seems to me quite clear that within the ancient Near Eastern context trickery was a skill to be lauded, not one to be condemned. Indeed, the second chapter of my dissertation, which will greatly buttress my overall case, will look briefly at various ancient Near Eastern and anthropological/cross-cultural studies that evidence the existence of trickster/deceptive deities. Thus, the scholarly ‘apologetic’ seeking to distance God from these deceptions is problematic; the biblical text is the base out of which one’s theology and understanding of God should arise, not the other way around. A priori assumptions about God, imposed on an ancient text, are problematic for a variety of reasons.
That said, in some of my reading (and re-reading) of various volumes on the topic, in preparation for my dissertation, I have again been struck by how scholarship has either avoided this issue or broached it and then quickly moved on (a brief disclaimer–I have learned very much from those I am about to cite . . . this is not any sort of negative assessment of their work, but rather a means of noting that this issue is there, just has yet to be investigated in any meaningful way). Here are a few representative examples of how the issue has been treated in the history of scholarship.
God’s complicity in Jacob’s deceptions is “especially offensive” and Jacob’s deceptions neither cease nor recede; instead, Jacob continues to perfect his craft with the help of God. (my summary of Gunkel, I do not have the volume ready at hand).
-Hermann Gunkel, Genesis
“The oracle is also the point that made it worth-while for the narrator to tell the story about the birth. This is not the story of just any twins, but about children whose whole lives are going to pass under a very special sign, whose destiny and mutual relationship were decisively determined and predicted by Providence before their birth. By its centre of power scene 1 [Gen 25:19-28] also obliges the reader to read all the events of Jacob’s life in the light of the oracle . . . .”
J.P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis, 94.
“So far in our analysis of Gen 25-28 we have left aside one important question. Who are responsible? The main characters’ behaviour asks for a moral judgment, or does it not? . . . . We are certainly challenged to sharpen and show our moral discernment when we answer such questions as whether Jacob’s and Rebekah’s actions please God . . . . Is not everything fixed, right from the start, when even before birth the new generation partly fulfils the oracle which describes the fate of the twins powerfully and reverses the usual power relationship between elder and younger? Was not it bound to happen that Jacob took the birthright from his brother and next received the blessing? God himself had prophesied this in an oracle! This is a rare specimen of predestination. . . . . Jacob and Rebekah do what they cannot help doing. They perform God’s will and so they act in a morally right way–or rather, they do not; as unfree vehicles of predesination their actions are neither right nor wrong for the tension between right and wrong, thus morality itself, has been extinguished, taken away. How different is our text in reality!”
J.P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis, 115, 116, 117.
“The narrative [Gen 25:27-34] does not offer any moral judgments on Jacob. It simply explains that Esau sold his birthright to Jacob. There was no deception on the part of Jacob, only the calculated manipulation of his impulsive brother. The act no doubt added to the growing animosity that Esau had for Jacob. But God woulse use it as a part of his elevation of Jacob to the place of supremacy.”
Allen Ross, Creation & Blessing, 451.
“It is important to explain that, while God used this incident [Gen 27] for the bestowal of the blessing on the proper son, he did not condone it.”
Allen Ross, Creation & Blessing, 478.
“If Jacob sensed that God was controlling his destiny, then Laban’s explanation that his younger d aughter could not be married before the firstborn would have been sufficient to make Jacob realize that his sin had come back to haunt him. If Esau would forever remember how he was deceived out of his birthright and blessing, Jacoub would have to live with the results of this deception for the rest of his life. He would realize that this deception was designed by God to make him, the deceiver, know that such devices were repugnant to God.”
Allen Ross, Creation & Blessing, 497.
“Read according to the very odd syntax subject-verb-object (or as containing an unmarked nominative absolute), v. 23bB predicts Jacob’s pre-eminence and thus gives Jacob’s purchase of Esau’s birthright (chapter 25) and theft of Esau’s blessing (chapter 27) a veneer of divine approval, or at least of divine foreknowledge, and makes Jacob’s later subservient attitude toward Esau (chapter 33) appear contrary to the divine oracle.”
Christopher Heard, Dynamics of Diselection, 100.
“The notion that human action may be required to bring the chosen one’s election to consummation is here further reflected upon as well as morally complicated. It appears that at times even deceitful actions can be employed in bringing God’s uprposes to pass. While such deceit may lead to family strife and may result in the deceiver himself being deceived in hurtful ways, in this instance, the elect status of Jacob is further reinforced through his morally questionable behavior.”
Joel Kaminsky, Yet I Loved Jacob, 57.
There are others, but these are some of the more potent examples. I still don’t understand at all how Ross rationalizes God using deception to deter Jacob from deceiving; sounds like bad parenting to me. Should a person hit their child to teach them not to hit? Hardly. And Kaminsky’s volume, quite recent (2007), offers just that tantalizing sentence.
Read these, and then read my article (or vice-versa); I am curious as to your comments and thoughts.