Jacob and the Divine Trickster

Blogging SBL San Francisco 2011

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I’m back from the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Francisco, which I attended Friday, Nov 18 – Tuesday, Nov 22. It was an excellent meeting this year, though the one complaint I have is that things were quite spread out between sessions and the book exhibit. It was about a 15 minute walk from my hotel, where sessions were held, to the book exhibit. Not a big deal, but it does make it difficult to jump from session to session for those who want to hear only certain speakers.

A few highlights of the meeting from my perspective:

1) Genesis consultation launch: This meeting saw the first sessions of the new Genesis consultation I started and co-chair with Chris Heard. The first session at 1pm on Saturday was themed ‘Genesis and Theology,’ with myself, Terry Fretheim, Joel Kaminsky, and Tammi Schneider presenting papers; Walter Brueggemann served as respondent. We were amazed and delighted when 15 minutes before the session was even to begin the room was already full, with folk standing in the back.

The 'Genesis and Theology' session; looks deceiving, but between the room and the hallway there are about 120 people present!

This is something I had feared when first seeing the room; there were exactly 50 chairs, and all were taken. Jim Eisenbraun said he counted up folk and came up with between 120 and 140 in attendance. We later learned many came, saw the crowd, and left, but remarkably many also came and despite not being able to hear, stayed, no doubt in the hopes of touching the hem of the garment of either Brueggemann or Fretheim! The papers were all exceptional, and Brueggemann’s response was classic Brueggemann. What we all especially appreciated was his conclusion, carving out a new niche for Genesis studies going forward that doesn’t rehearse the traditional historical-critical questions but embraces, what he described, as four main features . . . all four papers, Brueggemann said, shared the following marks: ideological/theological, contemporary, bearing marks of contestation, and interest(ing).

The 'Genesis and Theology' presenters: myself, Terry Fretheim, Joel Kaminsky, Tammi Schneider, and Walter Brueggemann.

He juxtaposed this with earlier studies in Genesis, which would either parrot the biblical text or deal with issues of the numinous history of the text, enterprises which he called, if you read them, “boring.” This was truly a gift. We were also privy to a fun but brief exchange between Brueggemann and Fretheim; Brueggemann was pushing Fretheim on Fretheim’s idea that in the Jabbok wrestling match God had self-limited; Brueggemann rightly asked why not just say God is limited in some capacity. Would that there were more time for such a discussion!The second Genesis session was themed ‘Genesis 1: The State of the Question and Avenues Moving Forward.’ Again, a much too small room, and we had about 100 folk, standing room only again. Chris Heard opened with a paper surveying where Gen 1 research is now, and posing questions to our panelists for where things need to go. I presided over the session. Each of our panelists–John Walton, Bill Brown, Ellen van Wolde, and Mark Smith–have recently published seminal works on Gen 1, within the last two years. After Chris’ paper, each panelist received 15-20 minutes to address Chris, one another’s work, and the larger discipline of Gen 1 studies. There was some very worthwhile and interesting discussion about Walton’s view of ‘functional ontology’ and whether it is an either/or situation or a both/and in regards to material ontology. Walton argues that God is not creating matter but ascribing functions. Also some interesting conversation about method in biblical studies.The Gen 1 panel: John Walton, Mark Smith, Chris Heard, Bill Brown, and Ellen van Wolde.

What I found most interesting–perhaps because of the panelists we selected–is that the conversation focused almost entirely on historical/critical approaches and the ancient Near Eastern cognitive environment, which is no doubt appropriate and fitting, but I was surprised the conversation didn’t ever turn much explicitly to discussion of theological purpose, thrust, or image of God. This is not a critique, merely an observation. I had Walton, Smith, and Brown sign copies of their books for me, and also Terry Fretheim sign my copy of his God and World in the Old Testament.

Both sessions I have heard from various folks were quite well received, and the new Genesis consultation is off to a vibrant start and is one that, I think (and hope) will have a robust and bright future. Did any of you attend, and if so, what were your thoughts?

(I am also looking for someone with an audio recording of the Gen 1 session; I noticed several in the audience recording the session. If you have this, please let me know, as I’d love to obtain the file).

2. Catching up: The more I attend SBL, the less I find myself in sessions and the more I find myself catching up with folk and making new connections. I had a number of appointments scheduled going into the meeting. Saturday morning I had breakfast with my dissertation advisor, Bill Bellinger. Always a joy to see him and catch up, and even more of a joy to see him later in the conference and learn that he and Brueggemann had been together on Baylor’s campus recently, and at the conference itself, and both times they spoke of me, with Brueggemann speaking highly of me and my work; given how influential he has been for me, this is truly affirming. Saturday evening I joined Bellinger with all his former dissertation advisees, as is customary every year, for a wonderful meal and time of conversation. An interesting development potentially arose from this meeting, and that’s all I’ll say right now, but I am hopeful for something significant in the (near) future re: it.

With Eric Seibert

I had lunch with my friend Eric Seibert, author of Disturbing Divine Behavior (if you haven’t yet, see my RBL review HERE), and as always some stimulating conversation re: the character God in the Bible. The more I talk with Eric and the more I use his book in class, the more appreciative I become for what he’s done, though I still stand by all my critiques in the RBL review; he’s asking the right questions, just answering them incorrectly in my view. I was also happy to see he had purchased my book, Jacob and the Divine Trickster, and had me sign it. Very cool!

I had an enjoyable meeting with Michael Thomson, acquisitions editor at Eerdmans, about my forthcoming book with them, An Untamable God. Michael has a great sense of humor, and I am deeply appreciative for his interest in the book. We hammered out some questions about tone and audience, which was my primary query. Now that those are clarified a bit more, I plan to start writing in earnest soon.

Chris Heard and I had supper Sunday night; two Genesis geeks together. What did we talk about, you ask? Mainly bad jokes and how forgiving scholars actually are (right Chris?!). Maybe I’ll share your viewpoint more fully when I’m tenured!

Monday night I was blessed to have supper with Terry Fretheim, who along with Brueggemann, are my biggest influences in how I approach the Bible and understand the character God. It was a truly enjoyable, natural conversation spanning many topics.

With Terry Fretheim

I was especially happy to hear of Terry’s positive assessment of my Jacob and the Divine Trickster (which he also cited affirmingly during his presentation in the Genesis session on Saturday).

Had the good fortune to talk to Walter Brueggemann a few times in the book exhibit; one time he especially praised the Genesis session, calling it “fun” and suggesting that in offering a response to such strong papers, he had to come up with something critical to say for each!

3) Books: I live in the book exhibit at these things. It’s where I run into the most people, make new connections, and of course, buy books. This year I bought two books and God two freebies from publishers. The freebies were Russel Pregeant’s Reading the Bible for all the Wrong Reasons (Fortress, 2011) and Thomas Long’s What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith (Eerdmans, 2011). I bought Philip Jenkins’ Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses (Harper, 2011) and Matt Schlimm’s From Fratricide to Forgiveness: The Language and Ethics of Anger in Genesis (Eisenbrauns, 2011). Started Jenkins in the airport during my 2 hr layover in Denver on the way back to South Dakota.

The highlight of the book exhibit, however, was seeing my book for sale with Eisenbrauns.

The Eisenbrauns booth, featuring Siphrut titles and a banner advertising my book.

They had an awesome banner with my book on it too. What was even more of a highlight was hearing from them that after the Saturday Genesis session in which I presented there was a run on them; by the end of the conference, they only had two copies left!

My book at the Eisenbrauns booth.

It was also pretty cool to sign copies for a few folk, including Bill Brown, who is a big name and has been quite influential also in my own scholarly pursuits, especially in the Psalms but also in Genesis.

Another highlight was catching up with old Baylor friends, including two with whom I stayed. It’s great we can get together at least once a year! And I was also encouraged in the number of folk who asked me–and I was surprised at how many actually did–if I had lost some weight. Imagine their surprise when I replied “yep, 85 lbs.”

4. Sessions: Aside from the two Genesis sessions, I only attended one other session in full: the Book of Psalms session commemmorating the 25th anniversary of the publishing of Gerald Wilson’s seminal The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter. Some great papers on the shape and shaping of the Psalter, as well as some very moving reflections on Wilson the man and scholar, as well as where Psalms scholarship has yet to go. Great session. Earlier I had popped into the Exile/Forced Migrations session to hear papers by Erhard Gerstenberger and Chris Seitz.

All in all a great meeting, and I’m really looking forward to SBL in Chicago next year!

And how was your meeting?

Newspaper Story About Me and My First Book, Jacob and the Divine Trickster

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It’s apparently a slow news day in Mitchell, SD (we are the 8th largest city in the state, boasting a population of about 15,000!), because the Mitchell Daily Republic, our local newspaper, has today printed a large, half-page story on me and my new book, Jacob and the Divine Trickster: A Theology of Deception and YHWH’s Fidelity to the Ancestral Promise in the Jacob Cycle. The story/interview is wide-ranging, talking about my unexpected interest and entrance into the field of religion, my time teaching at Augustana College, and a bit about my second book, which is currently under contract with Eerdmans. The story is available online (though the online version is lacking the dazzling graphics, which include litrally a HUGE picture of the cover of my book, which dwarfs the photo of me also included), and you can read it HERE. Or . . . below . . .

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Professor, a Mitchell native, wins praise for biblical scholarship

John Anderson is one of the few biblical scholars in the state, a professor of religion at Augustana College in Sioux Falls and the author of the new scholarly book, “Jacob and the Divine Trickster.”

By: Jennifer Jungwirth, The Daily Republic

Religion wasn’t always a passion for John Anderson.

“I went to Sunday school and church because my parents woke me up and told me I had to go,” said Anderson, 30, a Mitchell native and son of Ed and Eileen Anderson. “There were plenty of times I pretended to sleep in or went begrudgingly.”

But after taking an introduction to religion course at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, Anderson set down a path that now has him immersed in studies of the Old Testament.

He is one of the few biblical scholars in the state, a professor of religion at Augustana College in Sioux Falls and the author of the new scholarly book, “Jacob and the Divine Trickster.”

The book, which is an updated version of Anderson’s doctoral dissertation, examines the character of Jacob from the book of Genesis. The book looks at Jacob’s deceptive traits and explores why, in the end, Jacob is guided and protected by God.

The book was published in August by Eisenbrauns Publishing in Indiana.

“It was very affirming, validating and motivating,” Anderson said of seeing the first copy of his book.

The book received a positive review from Walter Brueggemann, a well-known Old Testament scholar and theologian. He praised the book as a “bold, fresh reading of the narrative. … Anderson works with a careful, self-conscious method that lends force and credibility to his suggestive argument.”

Anderson was thrilled to receive the review.

“He’s a very big name in Old Testament studies. His work has paved the way for me to be able to offer the type of contribution I am giving. He has been so foundational for the work I’m trying to do. And encouraging, too, of what I’ve done,” Anderson said.

A 2000 Mitchell High School graduate, Anderson originally set out to major in psychology at Augustana.

“Augie requires you to take a religion class. So I took the intro class and ended up having a teacher that was incredibly interesting and motivating. He really made this topic come alive to me,” Anderson said.

The professor, Dr. Murray Haar, is still a faculty member at Augustana and is now a close friend of Anderson’s.

After the intro to religion class, Anderson continued to take other classes to build on the questions and interests he’d formed in the first course.

By the end of his freshman year, he changed his major to religion.

“It was very unexpected and nothing I had anticipated,” he said.

Anderson continued his education at Duke Divinity School, earning his master’s in theological studies. For his doctorate at Baylor University, he narrowed his focus to Old Testament studies.

“The Old Testament is so complex and diverse,” Anderson said. “It is, in a way, very true to life. Some parts are very disturbing and others are very beautiful and empowering.”

Upon his graduation, Anderson knew he wanted to return to South Dakota to teach.

“South Dakota is home. It’s always been home, for my wife, her family, my family and for me. I wanted to come back because it is home, but I also wanted to come back because it is here that this crazy journey into religion started for me.”

As a professor, Anderson strives to give his students the same opportunities he had to voice concerns and raise questions about religion in an “honest and safe environment.”

“I want students to emerge from my class as thoughtful readers of the biblical text and be able to articulate what they believe, and why they believe it. That’s really the heart of what I’m trying to do.”

Anderson is on contract to write a second book, which is due in 2013. The working title is “An Untameable God: Reading the Old Testament’s Troubling Texts Theologically.”

“It’s going to broaden the focus,” he said. “Traditionally in the Old Testament, people have this deception that it is strictly a God of wrath and anger and judgment, and the New Testament is a God of good, grace, mercy and love. That’s wrong. I’m going to try and look more broadly at how do we make sense of the places in the Old Testament where God seems to act problematically.”

A Video Book Recommendation for My Book Jacob and the Divine Trickster

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Jim West has posted up a video recommendation for my new book, Jacob and the Divine Trickster. It’s actually quite funny, but I am appreciative to Jim for highlighting the book as he has. I’ve embedded the video here, but do check out the link to Jim’s post, where I respond!

Thanks, Jim!

My Book, Jacob and the Divine Trickster, is Here! (Or, I’ve got my copy . . . do you have yours?)

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Today I received my box of author copies of my book, Jacob and the Divine Trickster: A Theology of Deception and YHWH’s Fidelity to the Ancestral Promise in the Jacob Cycle from the good folks at Eisenbrauns. Beings that this is my first book (though definitely not my last!), I must confess to it being quite the surreal experience finally seeing the finished project and holding it in my hands.

My sincerest thanks for all those who have already purchased a copy. I am hopeful also that even if you are uable to purchase a copy, you would request a copy for your school’s library holdings. And please, to those who read it, don’t be strangers. I’d love to know your thoughts, and to engage in worthwhile and thoughtful conversation on relevant matters.

I’ve got my copy . . . DO YOU HAVE YOURS?

The REAL Cover of my New Book Jacob and the Divine Trickster Revealed!

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Here is the real (front) cover for my forthcoming book, Jacob and the Divine Trickster: A Theology of Deception and YHWH’s Fidelity to the Ancestral Promise in the Jacob Cycle (buy HERE). The back cover will be identical to the joke pink cover posted immediately below (see HERE), but I understand it will also include endorsements from Walter Brueggemann and Bill Bellinger (see HERE for those).

So what do you think? If you’re going to pick up a copy, drop a note in the comments!

EDIT: Here is the full cover (front and back), which I just received.

click to enlarge

The Cover for my Forthcoming Book Revealed (sort of . . . )

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My fine friends at Eisenbrauns, who are publishing my forthcoming book very soon (see HERE to order a copy) have just now sent me a copy of the cover, and I must say, this thing is going to fly off the shelves. Here it is (click to enlarge):

Wow. Absolutely brilliant! Maybe I should rename the book? How about ‘Edom Means Pink, not Red!’?

So, is your book tough enough to wear pink? Cuz mine is!

Who’s buying a copy now?!

[DISCLAIMER: This is NOT the real cover of my book; at least not the real color scheme. It is a great joke from some of my friends at Eisenbrauns, namely James Spinti].

Blurbing My Book: Two Early Reviews from Brueggemann and Bellinger

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My forthcoming book, Jacob and the Divine Trickster: A Theology of Deception and YHWH’s Fidelity to the Ancestral Promise in the Jacob Cycle (ORDER HERE!) now boasts two blurbs from two well-respected scholars. You can see these blurbs on the book website, linked previously, but I have reproduced them here . . .

From Walter Brueggemann:

“John Anderson has taken up old texts and has given us a bold, fresh reading of the narrative. While his work evidences sound and informed critical judgment, he has moved beyond such critical categories to see that the defining and most interesting character in the narrative is YHWH, the God of Jacob and the provocateur of the dramatic action. This God, of course, does not conform to any
conventional faith but is much more thick, suggestive, and surprising than any usual rendering. Anderson works with a careful, self-conscious method that lends force and credibility to his suggestive argument.”—Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary

and from Bill Bellinger:

“Interpreters of the Jacob cycle have long noted the themes of deception and the trickster; what John Anderson has done is pressed these issues toward theology and the portayal of the divine. With an intentional literary method, Anderson reads the text in both careful and creative ways. The volume makes several fresh contributions on these ancient texts in a lively and engaging style. Anderson’s candid and provocative reading of the Jacob narrative has implications that Old Testament theologians will not want to miss!”—W. H. Bellinger, Jr., Baylor

Not bad, huh? So, does this (hopefully!) whet anyone’s appetite for the book?
University

My book available for preorder . . . !!

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FROM EISENBRAUNS HERE! That site is admittedly quite skimpy right now; the cover art and abstract will be posted on there in due time. You can, however, check out the table of contents.

According to the website, it will be available October 2011, just before SBL, which will make for an exciting meeting, and coincide nicely with the launch of the new Genesis SBL program unit I’m chairing (see HERE and HERE).

For those who are interested, here is the (unedited) abstract for the book:

The book of Genesis portrays the character Jacob as a brazen trickster who deceives members of his own family: his father Isaac, brother Esau, and uncle Laban.  At the same time, Genesis depicts Jacob as YHWH’s chosen from whom the entire people Israel derive and for whom they are
named.  These two notices produce a latent tension in the text: Jacob is concurrently an unabashed trickster and YHWH’s preference.  How is one to address this tension?  Scholarship has long focused on the implications for the character and characterization of Jacob.  The very question, however, at its core raises an issue that is theological in nature.  The Jacob cycle (Gen 25-36) is just as much, if not more, a text about God as it is about Jacob, a point startling absent in a great deal of Genesis scholarship.  Anderson argues for the presence of what he has dubbed a theology of deception in the Jacob cycle: YHWH operates as a divine trickster who both uses and engages in deception for the perpetuation of the ancestral promise (Gen 12:1-3).

Through a literary hermeneutic, emphasizing the symbiotic relationship between how the text means and what the text means, and a keen eye to the larger task of Old Testament theology as literally “a word about God,” Anderson examines the various manifestations of YHWH as trickster in the Jacob cycle.  The phenomenon of divine deception at every turn is intimately tethered in diverse ways to YHWH’s unique concern for the protection and advancement of the ancestral promise, which has cosmic implications.  Attention is given to how the multiple deceptions—some previously unnoticed—evoke, advance, and at times fulfill the ancestral promise.

Anderson’s careful and thoughtful interweaving of trickster texts and traditions in the interest of theology is a unique contribution of this important volume.  Oftentimes those who are interested in the trickster are unconcerned with the theological ramifications of the presence of such material in the biblical text, while theologians have often neglected the
vibrant and pervasive presence of the trickster in the biblical text.  Equally vital is the necessity of viewing the Old Testament’s image of God as also comprising dynamic, subversive, and unsettling elements.  Attempts to whitewash or sanitize the biblical God fail to recognize and appreciate the complex and intricate ways YHWH interacts with his chosen people. This witness to YHWH’s engagement in deception stands alongside and paradoxically informs the biblical text’s portrait of YHWH as trustworthy and one who does not lie.  Anderson’s Jacob and the Divine Trickster stands as a stimulating and provocative investigation into the most interesting and challenging character in the Bible, God, and marks the first true comprehensive treatment of YHWH as divine trickster.  Anderson has set the stage to continue the conversation and investigation into a theology of deception in the Hebrew Bible.

AND here is a blurb on it from Walter Brueggemann:

John Anderson has taken up old texts and has given us a bold, fresh reading of the narrative. While his work evidences sound and informed critical judgment, he has moved beyond such critical categories to see that the defining and most interesting character in the narrative is YHWH, the God of Jacob and the provocateur of the dramatic action. This God, of course, does not conform to any conventional faith but is much more thick, suggestive, and surprising any usual rendering. Anderson works with a careful, self-conscious method that lends force and credibility to his suggestive argument.

So, who’s going to buy their copy?