Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Anderson, John E., Jacob and the Divine Trickster: A Theology of Deception and YHWH's Fidelity to the Ancestral Promise in the Jacob Cycle (Siphrut, 5; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011). Pp. 210. Hardcover. US$37.50. ISBN 978-1-57506-219-8.

More than a decade ago, when I was a Fellow of Newnham College Cambridge, I was invited to give an evensong sermon at Emmanuel College. I opted to speak about the chapel's equivalent of the parashat hashavua, the lectionary reading for the week. It was Gen 29, When Jacob met Rachel, but I spoke mainly about Jacob:

When … I made a leap of faith from English Literature to biblical studies, I was taken aback to encounter the passionate low regard in which Old Testament scholarship holds Israel's eponymous ancestor… [E]xamples are myriad, but one has stayed in my mind. Gerhard von Rad, mainstay of every Old Testament reading list, is commenting on the ladder with ascending and descending angels of which Jacob dreams on his first night away from home: “As for Jacob and his human nature, i.e., any worthiness that he might perhaps possess: no art of human empathy can succeed in understanding the incomprehensible, namely, that the fleeing deceiver received such a word of grace.”[1]

By highlighting the patriarch's typological role in the Hebrew Bible and beyond, I hoped to explain why scholarly arrows aimed at Jacob may land elsewhere. Needless to say, though, I left a great deal unexamined, and was therefore delighted to encounter a book that—from an entirely different starting point—addresses my concerns, and more, with intelligence, insight and deep integrity.

John E. Anderson sets himself two main challenges in this well-written, thoughtful, stimulating, and unsettling revised doctoral dissertation from Baylor University. First and foremost, he tackles difficult and important questions about the portrayal of God in the Hebrew Bible, especially in the Jacob Cycle. In a nutshell, Anderson claims that God was implicated in Jacob's bad behaviour and that God himself behaved badly. Second, he asks why biblical scholars so often evade these difficult questions about God and Jacob. He thinks that for the most part they want to distance God from Jacob. Chapter 1 identifies three broad categories of scholarly approaches to divine deception in the Jacob cycle: scholars who alienate God from Jacob altogether and do not countenance the idea that God was a deceiver like Jacob; scholars who imply that God deceives but do not state it explicitly; and scholars who acknowledge but do not explore cases of divine deception in the Jacob cycle. Anderson's discussion of these approaches serves as a foundation for a survey of ancient Near Eastern trickster deities and modern anthropological approaches to them. Chapter 2 deals with the early relationship between Jacob and Esau (Anderson labels this period “between beten and Bethel,” p. 48), focusing on what he calls the “trickster oracle” of Gen 25:23 (p. 51). Chapter 3 addresses Jacob's sojourn in Laban's house, identifying this as an especially intense period of divine deception. Chapter 4 deals with the reunion of Jacob and Esau, and Chapter 5 sums up and hints at what might come next.

Anderson's theological claims about God the divine trickster are built on detailed textual exegesis characterized by unobtrusive theoretical sophistication and sensitive engagement with secondary scholarship (full disclosure: that includes mine). He makes some nice general methodological points; I appreciated his caution about the need to privilege probable interpretations over possible interpretations (a valuable lesson for many of us!). And his readings are often persuasive. I am convinced, for example, that the “trickster oracle” should not be read, as it usually is, as “the older will serve the younger”; that God is involved in Jacob's sheep-breeding activities chez Laban; and that the figure with whom Jacob wrestles is best understood as a kind of hologram of God and Esau. Anderson does not claim originality for all his exegesis. Rather, he builds each case afresh from a synthesis of his own readings and secondary scholarship to promote his general argument that God both supports Jacob's tricks and is himself a trickster.

I opened this review with a personal anecdote to signal that the subject of Anderson's book is one that affects me personally. Since I have long been disturbed by a tendency in biblical scholarship to disparage Jacob and distance him from God, I welcomed this impressive monograph that demonstrates these phenomena with many examples, challenges them through powerful exegesis, and attempts to account for them. And yet, for different reasons, I too found this book challenging. What unsettles me is Anderson's use of the term “trickster.” At a psychological level, this may be a bit of a Beruriah complex on my part: concern yourself with sins not sinners (see Midrash Tehillim on Ps 118), in our case, tricks not tricksters. Methodologically speaking, my unease arises from my sense that while the primarily anthropological category of “trickster” works well for certain types of ancient Near Eastern and classical literature, it is less at home in the Bible. To be sure it has been applied to good effect by Susan Niditch and others to certain biblical stories and figures,[2] but, for me, its limits were revealed by Erich Auerbach's iconic explanation of why Jacob can never be known as “Wily Jacob.” Auerbach claims that Hebrew Bible characters are developed differently from Homeric characters, who are fixed from birth:

Herein lies the reason why the great figures of the Old Testament are so much more fully developed, so much more fraught with their biographical past, so much more distinct as individuals than the Homeric heroes. Achilles and Odysseus are splendidly described in many well-ordered words, epithets cling to them, their emotions are constantly displayed in their words and deeds—but they have no development and their life-histories are clearly set forth once and for all… But what a road, what a fate, lie between the Jacob who cheated his father and the old man whose favorite son has been torn to pieces by a wild beast![3]

The Hebrew Bible is not a literature of epithets; its characters are far too complex and, above all, they change. What is true of human figures in the Bible applies in spades to God.

As the title indicates, Anderson's monograph is dedicated to convincing his readers that, according to the Jacob cycle, God is a trickster like Jacob and fulfils his purposes through tricks. Even if I can come to terms with the idea that God tricks people, I cannot see tricksterism (this may be the wrong term but no better one comes to mind) as a divine attribute, as Anderson seems to. Moreover, for reasons closely related to Auerbach's contrast between Hebrew and classical literature, I do not think that tricksterism is the notion that best defines what God and Jacob do. As I see it, they do not advance their causes primarily by tricking people—even if they do trick people—but through a combination of constancy and change. In these narratives, at least, both God and Jacob appear fluid, mutable, and hard to pin down, and their words and actions seem ambiguous and open to interpretation. All these qualities are related to, but distinct from, tricksterism. Time and time again Anderson's book seemed to me to point not to figures who trick to survive and prevail, but to figures who survive and prevail by adapting. (I am not speaking here, as many commentators do, of progress or development in Jacob's case, but of perpetual, non-directional change.) Thus the “trickster oracle” as Anderson describes it looks to me less like an oracle intended to deceive and more like an oracle that shifts its meaning depending on the hearer and the circumstances. The notorious birthright and blessing narratives certainly involve deception, but even more they highlight ambiguity and change, the latter underscored by the focus on food, in which par excellence ingredients transmute into dishes and taste is an individual matter. And finally the wrestling episode, especially in light of Anderson's subtle reading, shows little sign of straightforward deception but abounds with examples of shape shifting and ambiguity. It may sound as though I am saying that I wish Anderson had written a different book. Far from it! I am suggesting that his expertly marshalled evidence may point to a different conclusion than the one he himself drew. I hope that his future projects will include a consideration of this possibility.

Diana Lipton, Rothberg International School, Hebrew University

[1] Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (rev. ed.; OTL; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1973), 207. reference

[2] Susan Niditch, A Prelude to Biblical Folklore: Underdogs and Tricksters (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000). reference

[3] Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (trans. Willard R. Trask; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953), 17. reference