Thursday, August 30, 2012

Challenging Some Prominent Evangelical Narratives

I started John Anderson's Jacob and the Divine Trickster: A Theology of Deception and YHWH's Fidelity to the Ancestral Promise in the Jacob Cycle.

I'd like to start this post by sharing my experiences in evangelical circles.  In evangelical circles, whenever we read or talked about the Book of Genesis, we boldly proclaimed that the stories in the Book of Genesis communicate the message that God is patient with us despite our moral screw-ups.  That does not mean that God approves of our moral screw-ups, for our misdeeds can have bad consequences, or God may punish us as a form of discipline.  But God does not stop loving us, and God also works good out of bad situations.  In the Book of Genesis, the argument runs, God's people screw up: Abraham and Isaac lie to a king to save their own skin, Jacob often deceives people, etc.  And, indeed (the argument is still running), there are cases in which God appears to punish God's people, as when Jacob, who deceived his father Isaac to get the blessing, is himself deceived when Laban gives Jacob Leah instead of Rachel.  But God is still committed to Jacob, and Jacob presumably grows as a person.

I have to admit that I have not always found this evangelical narrative to be satisfying.  (And I'm not saying that it's the only evangelical narrative out there about the Book of Genesis, but I have heard it enough times and in enough places to conclude that it's a prominent narrative within evangelicalism.)  I suppose that I was somewhat convinced by the argument that God demonstrated his disapproval of Jacob's lying by arranging for Jacob himself to be deceived by Laban.  And perhaps an argument can be made that there were negative consequences of the way that Jacob lived his life: Jacob deceived others, and his sons, Simeon and Levi, deceived the Shechemites, slaughtered them, and brought the anger of the nations on the people of Jacob.  But I've wondered: If God is disciplining his people in Genesis for their moral lapses, why do they continue to make the same "mistakes" over and over?  Abraham not only lied to the Pharaoh and Abimelech, but he says in Genesis 20:13 that, everywhere he goes, he claims that Sarah is his sister, not his wife.  It evidently does not register with Abraham that what he is doing in wrong.  If God is disciplining Abraham, then God has failed, or is not communicating to Abraham what is going on.  Regarding Jacob, Jacob deceives throughout much of the story.  Even after Jacob suffers exile from his family for deceiving Isaac, he continues to mislead people in some manner: he tells Esau after they reunite, for example, that he will catch up with him, then he goes another direction.

Another issue that I have encountered in evangelical circles, albeit rarely, is that of divine deception.  Usually, this issue comes up when we are reading the Bible and come across a passage that offends our moral sensibilities, and so we try to explain it away.  For example, in I Kings 22, God sends a lying spirit to the false prophets.  Why would God intentionally try to mislead people?  Well, one attempt at a solution that I've heard is that everything back then was attributed to God, and so, when prophets lie, that is attributed to God, even though God did not cause their lying.  It amazes me that many evangelicals like to thump their chests about how committed they are to the Bible, yet there are salient cases when many of them fail to take what the Bible is saying at face value, or they imply that we should not accept the worldview of the biblical authors.

These are the sorts of issues that John Anderson discusses in his book.  He states his thesis on page 1: "I contend that God is intimately involved in and at times complicit in Jacob's deceptions----a notion that gives rise to an issue that is theological in nature.  What does this deception reveal about God?" Anderson apparently disagrees with the evangelical narratives that I discuss above: that God disapproves of Jacob's lying, and that God himself does not engage in deception.  Anderson believes that the opposite is the case, yet (if I'm not mistaken) he will try to see theological value in that.

In my reading thus far, Anderson mentions a variety of interesting things: the idea of divine deception in ancient Near Eastern, Greek, and even Native American stories, and also in the Hebrew Bible; how the Book of Jubilees (26:18) says that God was actually assisting Jacob's deception of Isaac; and the twenty year debate between scholars R.W.L. Moberly and James Barr about whether the serpent in Genesis 2-3 was right in what he said, namely, that Adam and Eve would not die after eating the fruit but would become like gods.

I think that it's difficult to identify what God thinks about Jacob's deceptions because, many times, we're not told explicitly.  As Anderson notes, there are times when God affirms his commitment to Jacob, without mentioning any disapproval of Jacob's lying.  But how can we know that God was actually assisting Jacob in Jacob's deceptions?  On page 79, Anderson notes parallels between Rebecca and Jacob's deception of Isaac in Genesis 27, and Genesis 21 and 24, in which God's role is more salient.  In Genesis 21, God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah and send off Hagar and Ishmael.  In Genesis 24, God is involved in leading Abraham's servant to Rebecca, the one who is to be Isaac's wife.  Anderson's argument appears to be that, because God is active in Genesis 21 and 24, and because there are parallels between these two chapters and Genesis 27, then God is active in Genesis 27.  Anderson states that, in Genesis 27, "Despite not appearing on stage, God is mysteriously at work in the deception of Isaac."  Whether Anderson's argument sets right with me, I can't really say.  I'd prefer for Genesis 27 to explicitly say that God is at work in Jacob's deception of Isaac, if that is its point; but I cannot rule out that Genesis 27 may be alluding to stories in which God is active.

As I said earlier in this post, a prominent evangelical narrative about the Book of Genesis is that God showed the patriarchs grace----that God blessed them, even though they did not deserve God's blessing.  But Anderson may be challenging that narrative, too.  Anderson states on pages 50-51: "God does not appear at Bethel and cast moral judgment on Jacob and Rebekah's shenanigans; God does not appear and castigate, rebuke, or reprimand Jacob.  Rather, God confers the promise on the most wily, and deserving, of patriarchs!"

I'm enjoying this book so far.  In tomorrow's post, I may address how Anderson deals with the argument that God showed disapproval of Jacob's deception by arranging for Jacob to be deceived by Laban, when Laban gave Jacob Leah instead of Rachel.

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