Michael James Williams on Deception in Genesis

There have been very few (read: nearly none) sustained, book-length treatments on the topic of deception in Genesis.  One volume, though, that tackles the issue head on is Michael James Williams’ Deception in Genesis: An Investigation into the Morality of a Unique Biblical Phenomenon (Studies in Biblical Literature 32; New York: Peter Lang, 2001).  Elsewhere I have called Williams’ study “judicious” (see my “Jacob, Laban, and a Divine Trickster? The Covenantal Framework of God’s Deception in the Theology of the Jacob Cycle,” PRSt 36 [2009]: 3-23), and I have dealt with it in greater detail most recently in my dissertation (which I will publish upon completion!!).

Here is what Williams has to say about how the Genesis deceptions are “unique”:

“The deception events outside Genesis differ from those within Genesis in the criteria that are determinative for a positive evaluation and in the frequent participation of God himself, directly or indirectly, in the deceptive activity” (75)

Williams continues:

“The deceptive activity of God in the materials outside Genesis reflects his efforts to keep Israel within the coveanntal relationship he has established with them.  Thus, he deceives to save Israelite life, to demonstrate his power and gain glory for himself before Israel, and to punish and instruct Israel so that they do not stray from him . . . ” (75-76).

Williams concludes his study with the following conclusions:

“Our consideration of the various parameters of the Genesis deception events yields only one conclusion that can adequately account for all the data.  Within the book of Genesis, deception is positively evaluated only when the perpetrators deceive one who has previously wronged them in order to restore their own situations to what they would have been had they not been disrupted.  Moreover, in their efforts to restore their situations to what they sould be, the deceivers must not negatively affect the ‘normal’ situation of their targets for their behavior to be positively evaluated.  Thus, in Genesis, deception is justified when it functions to restore shalom. [. . . ] Conversely, when deception introduces a disruption in shalom, it is evaluated negatively. [. . . ] Our survey of biblical deceptions outside of Genesis suggests that their positive evaluation is dependent upon a different set of criteria than those operative in Genesis” (221).

Needless to say, I disagree with Williams on these matters.  I do not believe the Genesis accounts of deception are different for the reasons he lists (in fact, they appear quite similar for the very reasons he lists!).  His assertion that’s divine deception is to be evaluated positively by default, simply because it is God acting, is also problematic.  He is also more confident that the narrative/narrator has given some clear indication for how to evaluate these episodes; I am not convinced of this.

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