The Divine Trickster in Genesis: Filling a Scholarly Gap

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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.

Shalom!

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10 thoughts on “The Divine Trickster in Genesis: Filling a Scholarly Gap

    Jill said:
    May 28, 2009 at 10:49 am

    Have you read J MM Roberts’ article, “Does God Lie?”

    John Anderson responded:
    May 28, 2009 at 11:21 am

    Jill:

    Thanks for your comment. Yes, I have peeked at Roberts’ article. It deals with the issue of divine deception in Israelite prophetic literature, though, and not Genesis. Perhaps I should clarify . . . there is some literature–though still not much–that deals with God as trickster/deceiver in prophetic literature and in the Deuteronomistic History. I plan to cite these texts and the relevant scholarly discussions in my introduction for support, but my emphasis lies solely on Genesis. The scholarship on this topic in Genesis is virtually non-existant. That said, Roberts’ piece is a helpful one for tackling the topic; I’m not coming out of no where on this! But that it does not focus on Genesis makes it less so.

    There is a piece by Whybray entitled “The Immorality of God,” dealing with troubling texts about God in Genesis (and elsewhere) that I am hoping to read soon. Hopefully he moves beyond talking simply about the Akedah.

    anummabrooke said:
    May 28, 2009 at 11:27 am

    With Jill, a definite +1 on the JJM Roberts article.

    There’s a brand of special pleading that some centrist or lefty writers will call “IOKIYAR” (it’s okay if you’re a Republican: the claim is that the media lets conservatives get away with things that they would dog liberals for). I have sometimes argued to my students that there is in Gen 12–50 a healthy dose of “IOKIYAA” (it’s okay if you’re an ancestor). Deception, double-dealing, equivocation, general wiliness: when others do them, it’s bad, but when the ancestors do them, this is simply evidence that “we children of Abraham/Isaac/Jacob” come from good, brainy, survival-type stock. I think that God’s approval of the ancestors’ wily ways is narratively claimed in part by God’s involvement with the pay-offs (Abraham leaving Egypt with riches, Isaac leaving Uncle Laban’s with riches). The ancestors aren’t bad, they’re street-smart, or *savvy*.

    John Anderson responded:
    May 28, 2009 at 11:34 am

    Hey Brooke:

    See my comment above on Roberts.

    And I appreciate your note. It is always good to be affirmed! All too often I think scholars read these texts for timeless truths (which isn’t an inauthentic means of reading, it just misses the point at times). As I say in my article, given that ancient Israel is the ultimate narrator here, it makes little sense to portray their namesake poorly. You also cite some other relevant and very fine texts in Genesis outside the Jacob cycle proper that I would argue corroborates my reading.

    I would, however, press you on whether it is truly ok to be a Republican. Seriously?! Surely you jest!

    [...] of God’s Deception in the Theology of the Jacob Cycle” online. He is inviting feedback here so try not to disappoint [...]

    Brian said:
    May 31, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    Seems in some ways “like Grandfather, like Grandson.” Old Abe was pretty decptive too – making Sarai/Sarah call him her brother and all that – he bilked a lot of sheep and cattel out of those stunts didn’t he? Jacob did too. Chip off the ‘ol block, I say.

    John Anderson responded:
    May 31, 2009 at 7:09 pm

    Hey Brian, thank you for your remarks. You are spot on. Abraham, by my read, has no distinguishing marks that set him apart for election in Gen 12:1-3. He proves to be a deceptive figure in both Gen 12 and 20, as does his son Isaac in Gen 26, all with the infamous “wife-sister episodes.”

    You point out another interesting point, namely that Abraham gets a lot of ‘stuff’ from Pharaoh. What is also important here in a way corroborates my overall reading of God’s role in and with tricker and deception. Notice God does not punish Abram for what he has done; instead, God afflicts Pharaoh and all his house (12:17), resulting in the realization Abram had been deceptive, and it is only then that Sarai is returned to him, he is sent on his way, and he gains a lot of ‘stuff.’ God seems to be involved even here. The ancestors are wonderful characters, but I would venture to go so far as to say one could put it another way “like God, like the ancestors.”

    brianfulthorp said:
    June 3, 2009 at 9:13 am

    John, indeed.

    This idea that being a trickster is seen as good is quite interesting – make sense then if the Pharoah’s gave him a bunch of goods out of respect for his trickster abilities.

    I am curious. How would you respond to those who ask the question “Whatever happened to the blessings of Abraham?” the implication being, of course, that Christians should have similar wealth to old Abe.

    John Anderson responded:
    June 3, 2009 at 9:22 am

    Brian:

    Perhaps that is the reason for Pharaoh’s giving Abraham many things, but as you may suspect, I think God is clearly behind it all (and the narrative seems to hint at that as well).

    On your second question, that is an interesting one to be sure, and a bit puzzling to me. I will hazard a response. I have two, brief ones:

    1) I have another paper under review for publication dealing with the Matthean Jesus as the agent of the ancestral promises, bringing them to fruition. I think it is likely that some of these expectations were carried forward (and seen as realized) in Jesus. But Matthew’s gospel is clear, I would argue, that this is not a matter of supersessionism/triumphalism but instead a matter of mutuality–Christians and Jews (or better yet, Jewish-Christians and Jews) together as the covenant people.

    2) I would suggest you read the final footnote to my article. That may be an adequate response as well.

    Shalom!

    [...] spot on! Unfortunately, this conversation on divine deception (in Genesis especially, see HERE) is still very much in its infancy, but I am glad to hopefully be giving that conversation a [...]

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