Brueggemann on God in the Jacob Cycle (Gen 25-36) – and my commentary

Regular readers of this blog will know that Walter Brueggemann is one of the “heroes of the faith” (to borrow a phrase from my teacher, Bill Bellinger) for me.  Not only do I find his work engaging, powerful, and relevant to contemporary communities of faith, but I also feel he struggles with some of the most poignant and troublesome questions in the Hebrew Bible; he does not shy away.  Of course, I do not agree with Brueggemann on many things, but his work–on Genesis specifically–is seminal for the work I am doing.

I recently finished re-reading Brueggemann’s commentary on Genesis, and I must say it still impresses, especially for the Interpretation series (which is a very fine series, to be sure, but Brueggemann’s volume is especially astute in my view).  Foundational for Brueggemann is the notion that the Genesis narratives, Jacob cycle included, are highly theological (which challenges the notion of von Rad in his OT Theology vol. 1, where he says very little theological shaping or insight is evident in the ancestral narratives).  I, obviously, agree with Brueggemann.  It seems ill-conceived to discuss Genesis without discussing the central role God plays in the text.  And those who have read my article know, God plays some quite interesting roles in the Jacob cycle.

So, I offer here a few snippets of Brueggemann’s conception of God in Genesis (with some brief commentary by me)–one that I am appreciative for in that it meshes well with my own understanding, but also one that I do take issue with at times.  Such is the nature of our discipline.  Please do weigh in; I am curious as to your thoughts (especially if you have read my article . . . how do you see the two going together?).

“The call of God places Jacob in a series of unrelieved conflicts. The entire narrative is marked by strife . . . But the dispute is not of Jacob’s making.  It is evoked by God’s initial oracle (25:23).  The narrative affirms that the call of God is not only a call to well-being. It may be a call to strife and dispute.” (209).

Brueggemann is here not only entirely correct, his view corroborates my reading of Gen 25:23 (which I have dubbed in my writing and dissertation a “trickster oracle).  I will be presenting a paper dealing with this point at SBL New Orleans . . . if you find my article interesting or compelling, or Brueggemann here, please do attend the session.  You can read the abstract HERE.  I simply cannot conceive how scholarship has been able to argue the oracle in 25:23 governs the entire Jacob cycle, yet God has no role (or a whitewashed one) in Jacob’s shenanigans.

“Theological exposition will not focus on the person of Jacob.  He holds our attention and warrants it.  But finally the text concerns the God of Jacob . . . . Jacob is a scandalous challenge to his world because the God who calls him is also scandalous.  We are not told why God challenged the legitimated convention of the community by designating this ‘heel’ of a man (25:26).  But he does! It is this same God who will later struggle with Jacob and leave him crippled (32:22-32).  At many points the narrative presents the inscrutable, dark site of God” (209).

Brueggemann’s words here are latently powerful and imply many of the very same questions that first drew me to this topic: why choose Jacob given his character?  what does such a choice say about ancient Israel’s self-identity?  what does this decision say about God?  I do struggle a bit with the words “dark side;’ while they are no doubt a strong and bold designation of the divine, Brueggemann and I seem to disagree on exactly what God is doing in selecting Jacob.  For Brueggemann, as he says, no choice is given, but he appears elsewhere to hint at the fact that God has an intimate concern for the ‘underdog.’  I think this is right, but I don’t know that it is the reason for God’s selection of Jacob (as I argue in my upcoming SBL paper).  I also don’t believe Jacob is truly the underdog very often . . . the birthright episode (25:27-34) seems to make his cunning quite patent.  And with God on his side (implicit in 25:23, corroborated in 28:13-15 at Bethel) things seem very much to turn out for the better for him (again, see my article).

“[Genesis] is not a spiritual treatise on morality” (229).

Spot on!  By the very fact such texts are preserved and shaped as they are–about Israel’s namesake, Jacob, no less!–I am convinced issues of morality and ethics are foreign to these texts.  ANE parallels exhibit plenty of evidence of deception and tricksterism at work; ancient Israel appears no different.  All too often assumptions that ethics and morality are central and operative here, I argue, has led scholarship to advance an unnecessary (and problematic) divide between God and Jacob.  At bottom, I see my task as primarily reading these texts against their own backdrop and not importing, a priori, my own modern assumptions about ethics and morality.  Doing so is an unfair imposition on this ancient text.

“The blessing of God has its way whether we are attracted to or repelled by the object of hte blessing.  The narrative shows God strangely at work for Jacob without regard for our emotions about Jacob.  Given the oracle of 25:23 and its undoubted continuing importance for the Jacob tradition, we may dare to conclude that the real issue here is not primarily about Isaac and Esau, nor about REbekah and Jacob.  It is, rather, about the power of the blessing in the service of God’s purpose of inversion.  It is dynamic of the blessing that makes moral censure of REbekah irrelevant.  For this narrator, Rebekah plays a role she does not know about and did not choose.  There are no hints in the entire narrative that she knows what she is doing . . . The bargaining for the birthright (25:29-34) and the scheme for the blessing (27:1-45) implemented the oracle in ways unrecognized by every participant.  God has evoked the conflict.  The conflict causes pain or shame to every player.  But God does not shrink from the conflict, for a holy purpose is underway.  The way of God will not be explained.  The narrative invites the listening community to marvel rather than to explain. The reality of blessing is not simply the result of human ingenuity.  Nor is it a matter of good luck.” (235).

No comment is necessary.  It is likely clear that I assent very much to this view.

I welcome and look forward to your comments!



4 thoughts on “Brueggemann on God in the Jacob Cycle (Gen 25-36) – and my commentary

  1. John Anderson says:


    First, for those wondering, here is the full bibliographic reference for the volume being considered here:

    Hendel, Ron. The Epic of the Patriarch: The Jacob Cycle and the Narrative Traditions of
    Canaan and Israel.
    Harvard Semitic Monographs 42. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987.

    I have found the volume helpful in my work; it is not to be found in my current article, if you have read that, but I do use it at several points in my SBL paper for New Orleans. Hendel’s work is well done for those that are more interested in the historical-critical questions (to clarify, I find these questions interesting, but have little interest in making such arguments myself). That said, I have encountered and used his work when I did some work on Ugaritic parallels to the Jacob material, such as KTU 1.15 III, 5-21 (which relates reversed birth-order; if you come hear my SBL paper, though, you will realize my view of what is going on in Gen 25:23 is a bit different). His reading of texts is fine, in my view–not bad, not off the charts, but fine; we have moments of general agreement and some of wholesale disagreement.

    I’d have to look at his volume again to remind myself further . . . it’s been over a year since I’ve peeked at it. But all in all, it is well done from the historical-critical perspective, and despite being over 20 years old is still quite helpful.

    What are your views on this volume, Jill?

  2. Larry Isbell says:

    John, the claims about “the dark side of God” seem to resonate well with some of the theology of the Reformation, in particular Luther and Calvin. Walter B. is not especially daring in this approach. He has articulated well some basic features of Reformation theology regarding the Sovereignty of God and the elusive mystery of God.

    • John Anderson says:

      Hi Larry,

      While I am not a scholar of church history or the Reformation, I can see the potential for some resonances. That said, I still think in relation to Genesis and in the climate of recent (last 100 years) scholarship on that book, Brueggemann’s take is quite unique. I discuss this in my forthcoming book; check the “my book” tab at the top of the page. Where Brueggemann seems to push beyond, I would argue, is not just in affirming the sovereignty and mystery of God, but in affirming the disconcerting ways these two are often expressed, and not giving them a positive sheen.

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