My SBL 2009 Paper Abstract

With SBL New Orleans now less than a month away, I have begun the task of looking at my paper again (especially given that it has now been expanded as the second chapter to my dissertation).  For those of us who will be attending the meeting, I wanted to share (again) the abstract for my paper, which I will be presenting in the “coveted” Tuesday morning time slot, at 9 am. 

Here is the abstract:

In this study I set out to read Gen 25:23, YHWH’s oracle to Rebekah, as a trickster oracle. I argue that one should not read it under the a priori assumption that it coheres with other narratives of inverted primogeniture elsewhere in Genesis. Rather, in light of Robert Alter’s understanding of the biblical type-scene, what is seminal in understanding the oracle is how it differs from the convention of annunciation of birth elsewhere in Genesis.
Against this backdrop, the oracle is seen to be ambiguous in matters of diction/meaning, syntax, and context, which thus further impels the narrative’s human characters–Rebekah and Jacob–to bring about their own interpretation of the divine will, which they succeed in doing by means of several deceptions. Against this backdrop, I contend that the final line in 25:23 is best translated “the greater will serve the lesser” rather than “the elder will serve the younger,” which ultimately has implications for the entirety of the Jacob cycle, including the texts of deception.
With this point in mind, I interpret two scenes of deception–Jacob’s extorting the birthright from Esau (Gen 25:27-34) and the deception of Isaac (Gen 27:1-45)–in light of hte oracle. Givent he oracle’s function, in all its vagueness, as an introduction to the entire Jacob cycle, God is both involved and complict in the deceptions in various ways. Corroborating this point is the Bethel theophany (Gen 28:10-22), in which Jacob receives the ancestral promise solely at YHWH’s behest. And it is the perpetuation of this very promise, at times by deceptive measures, that is the principle concern of YHWH in Genesis.
In the end, the oracle does not appear ever to have been concerned with Jacob becoming the greater. Instead, he is the greater from the womb, a status substantiated through his cunning and shrewd characterization as opposed to the dimwitted and overly-dramatic Esau. A potential reason for why God has chosen such an individual, then, presents itself: God the Trickster selects Jacob because it is he, not Esau, who is a trickster from the very start.


I hope those who will still be in attendance will be able to make the paper. 

Any questions?  Comments?  Thoughts?  Are you able to hear it?


12 thoughts on “My SBL 2009 Paper Abstract

  1. dannyfrese says:

    “Coveted” Tue morning time slot?

    My former prof Dick Friedman also thought the prenatal oracle was Delphic, but he did so based on syntax, not semantics. He points out there’s no direct object marker, so we can’t tell who’s serving whom. He tries to preserve the ambiguity in his translation: “The older the younger will serve.” (See his Commentary on the Torah.) This works for your point, too. I’m not sure I buy it, though, since the very presence of the announcement seems to indicate that something abnormal will happen – meaning that the traditional interpretation is the most likely.

    Unfortunately, I’ll be cruising at 30,000 feet come 9:00.

  2. John Anderson says:

    Karyn: Thanks! Please do introduce yourself; I will look forward to meeting you.

    Danny: My argument notes syntax, as the abstract states, as part of that which contributes to the ambiguity. That is only one step, however, but it is an important one. I talk about why, obviously, in the paper, and couch my observations in literary categories. Not incidentally, folk such as R.E. Friedman and Chris Heard have argued something similar to what your former teacher did; I have yet to find anyone, though, who argues what I am arguing. I am unconvinced that “older” and “younger” are the best translations.

    Sorry you will miss the presentation, but again, I hope yours goes well. I did two papers last year at the national meeting as well, on the same day . . . one in Hebrew Bible (Psalms), and one in NT (Matthew). That was a busy day. It’s hard to be bi-testamental in so short a time! ha!

  3. Nathan says:

    Not attending SBL this year. I am a bit skeptical of ṣā‘îr meaning anything other than “younger” here, and thus little to no semantic ambiguity. The syntactic argument noted by Danny is more interesting, but I would have to see other examples of a preposed direct object in a case like this where the subject is also stated, but appears after the object and verb. If you have any such examples, please let me know. Otherwise, it seems more plausible to see the subject preposed for emphasis, and the object following both S and V. I have to admit that I have a degree of skepticism when it comes to arguments for deliberate ambiguity.

  4. John Anderson says:


    Fair enough. I think your final statement clarifies the reason for much of your questioning. It is a shame you won’t be able to hear my paper, as I make the case based upon a careful literary and semantic/intertextual analysis of these words in Genesis.

    I also would not claim, at least not yet, that this is “intentional ambiguity” — I don’t say this in the abstract. That’s a bit too post-structuralist for me. It is rather a ramification of my methodological take on things. In the final, literary form of the text, one can make such a case. Attempts to speak of authorial intent have become increasingly problematic to me.

  5. Nathan says:


    So are you suggesting that in fact the utterance in Gen 25:23 could have been unambiguous, but that certain features of the larger narrative allow you to read ambiguity into that utterance?

    I am probably not thinking in a methodologically sophisticated way, but as far as I understand it, either the statement is ambiguous in its original context or it is not. If it is not ambiguous, reading it as ambiguous tells us about the reader and not the text being studied. If it is unintentionally ambiguous, assigning meaning to the ambiguity again appears to say more about the interpreter making the proposal than about the ancient text itself.

    I don’t speak necessarily of authorial intent either since the concept of a singular “author” may be a anachronistic. Still, for me the focus of study is what the text means and, yes, intends.

    • John Anderson says:


      A few brief points:

      1) I don’t know that one can identify a single original context. What is that context? The original utterance? The final moment in the transmission history of the utterance? The oral tradition from which it originates? The context of the book itself. I would speak rather of contexts . . . and I don’t know how (nor am I interested, in this particular project) in adjudicating the “original” context.

      2) You say that if the text is not ambiguous (originally?) that tells us about the reader and not the text. I would agree and disagree. You certainly sense the bit of reader-response (though I would hesitate to use that label of myself) evident in what I am saying. But, I think we all have a bit of this evident in our interpretations . . . none of us is a disinterested reader. So naturally my readings would say something, either explicitly or latently, about me, my own experiences, etc. But I also think the text puts a certain set of strictures . . . boundaries . . . on things. The text serves as a control to keep the reader in check. It is a balance.

      3) Methodologically, my approach is a literary reading of the text. I am not concerning myself with issues of the numinous history behind its composition, or its constituent parts or so-called sources, etc. I am after what the final form of the text says, and HOW it says it. I would encourage you to look at folk like Robert Alter and Meir Sternberg to get an idea of what I am doing. Also, Brueggemann’s massive Theology of the Old Testament is a good example in some respects of the underlying assumptions I have.

  6. Nathan says:

    Thanks for your response. I’ve read Alter and Sternberg (Sternberg’s book was a wild ride!). I find this literary approach interesting and valid in its own right (although Alter’s idea about prose as a rejection of paganism is absurd), but my concern is that it is all to willing to read “literary” reasons into narrative contradictions (the infamous seams) and thus fail to a large measure to understand the text even in its final form.

    I do wish I could come to your talk. I’m going to try to go to SBL next year, so make sure you present something then too!

    • John Anderson says:


      Absolutely. Some have accused literary interpretations as being a way to soften seams. Conversely, I often accuse historical critical scholarship of being too ready to say something that appears contradictory or in tension is automatically evidence of redaction, etc. I don’t know that it is that cut and dry.

      Also, in line with the above, I actually find literary interpretations to do exactly what you worry they do not . . . for me, at least . . . that being to note places of tension and try to make sense of them in the final form. I don’t see it as a softening at all but rather as a place where further meaning and import arise. An example: in Gen 27 Jacob has to flee because of Esau’s murderous intentions. At the end of the chapter, however, Rebekah also says to Isaac that Jacob should flee because of her displeasure at Esau’s odious Hittite wives. Many historically minded scholars, von Rad among them, have interpreted this as a composite text providing two possible reasons for why it is Jacob needs to leave for Haran. In the final form of the text, however, something quite different is going on. It becomes yet another scene of deception with Isaac as the deceived and Rebekah the deceiver. She tells Isaac it is because of Esau’s wives, but in reality it is because she knows of Esau’s murderous machinations. This is one such example where I think a literary approach does a very fine job of making sense of a seeming narrative contradiction. And in arguing this I don’t mean to say or reject the idea that the text may very well be composite at this point. Indeed, it probably is. But I am not concerned in my own scholarship at present with asking that question. I find it more important (and interesting) to deal with the text we have rather than the text we reconstruct.

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