Friday, August 31, 2012

Completing Jacob and the Divine Trickster

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

Anderson's argument appears to be that God supported Jacob's deception of people and Laban's deception of Jacob as ways to fulfill God's promises to Abraham: that Abraham would have numerous offspring, which would possess the Promised Land and be a means for the nations to experience blessing, and (if they curse Israel) cursing.  According to Anderson, Laban's deception of Jacob in giving Jacob Leah instead of Rachel was not divine punishment of Jacob for deceiving Esau; rather, Laban's deception gave Jacob two wives, which enabled Jacob to have lots of offspring.  Moreover, Jacob's negative experiences at the hands of Laban set the stage for Jacob to leave Laban and go to the Promised Land, after his presence with Laban had brought Laban blessing.  Anderson also shows that God in the Genesis narrative endorses Jacob's shady ploy to breed spotted and speckled animals, the ones Laban agreed would be Jacob's, for God saw Jacob's affliction at the hands of Laban.  And, after Jacob reunited with Esau, Jacob deceives Esau when he tries to get out of going with Esau to Seir, for Jacob wants to head to the Promised Land.

Anderson's discussion of Genesis 32 was a good read, especially on account of his insight that God disjointed Jacob's thigh and gave him a limp to remind Jacob of God's commitment to him within the covenant.  Anderson appeals to Genesis 24, in which Abraham's servant puts his hand under Abraham's thigh in making a promise to Abraham.  I was a little unclear, however, about why Anderson believes that God wrestled with Jacob.  Anderson argues that Jacob's wrestling with God had something to do with Jacob's wrestling with Esau, which was lifelong but which was a concern of Jacob when he was wrestling with God, since Jacob feared that Esau would kill him.  Perhaps Anderson's idea is that God wrestled with Jacob to show Jacob that he would survive his wrestling with Esau.  Yet, there is something significant in the text about Jacob wrestling and prevailing with God, specifically, and I wish that Anderson had gone into more detail about that (or perhaps he did and I missed it). 

Anderson does not go into a great deal of detail about when the divine trickster idea would have appealed to Israel, but he does speculate on page 176 that it would have spoken especially to Israelites dealing with empire----such as Assyria, Babylon, and Persia----for he says that "one has less use for a trickster God if one is in a position of power and authority."  In my opinion, the divine trickster idea looks pretty good when its supposed historical setting is juxtaposed with Anderson's view on the idea's theological significance: that it pertains to God's commitment to God's covenant with Israel, which blesses Israel and the nations.  I can somewhat sympathize with the divine trickster idea when it relates to God helping a people who were vulnerable in the face of powerful interests.  Otherwise, the divine trickster idea can easily degenerate into us vs. them (Israel vs. the nations, with God supporting Israel), unless the notion that Israel blesses the nations somehow counterbalances that.

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