Review: Jacob and the Divine Trickster

Rating: ★★★★

Author: John E. Anderson is a Lutheran Old Testament scholar. Jacob and the Divine Trickster is Anderson’s dissertation written at Baylor and published with the recommendation of Walter Brueggemann.

Genre: Academic theology, narrative theology.

Overview: Jacob and the Divine Trickster is a theological study of the Jacob cycle. Anderson is primarily concerned with theology proper and not with textual-critical issues. The introduction sets up a challenge for readers who try to iron out tensions in the biblical text. In particular, Anderson believes that God is unquestionably implicated in several deceptive acts in Genesis—although the heavy term ‘deception’ is somewhat lightened in his definition towards “withholding information.”

Anderson develops this idea of cunning as a divine attribute, boldly referring to Jehovah as a “trickster God.” I agree, however, with Diana Lipton’s review:

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.

The key to Anderson’s book is that he catalogues all the ways that the Lord worked for Jacob, in fulfillment of the ancestral promises (in Gen. 12 and 28). This overall optimistic assessment of Jacob will prove to have staying power, I believe, if we can accept the Eastern understanding of ethics given to us in Genesis.

Meat:

Anderson follows the lead of Walter Brueggemann, Eric Seibert, and others in addressing ethical difficulties in the Old Testament head on. Whereas a fundamentalist take would ignore difficulties and systematic theologians cancel them out, Anderson chooses to lean into the difficulties he encounters in the text.

Although its main thesis is overstated in my opinion, the book is an important contribution, as it challenges 1) interpretations that assess Jacob’s deceptive behavior negatively; 2) interpretations that seek to distance God from Jacob’s behavior, when God is real and present in the Genesis text, ensuring the fulfillment of his promise.

A simple review like this doesn’t provide space for the many interesting points in the book. But I can pose some questions evoked while reading this book:

  • If Jacob’s repeated deception of Esau was immoral, would God have allowed him to obtain divine blessing by those means? (Is God’s blessing really so mechanistic that you could obtain godly blessing in an ungodly way?!)
  • Can we trust Jacob’s statement (in 27:20) that the Lord helped him to deceive his father? What if Isaac was in the wrong anyway?
  • What about 31:5, 7, and 9, where Jacob says God is working on his behalf against Laban?
  • Are Jacob’s deceptive acts ethically difficult for non-Western readers? Wouldn’t many Asians see him as merely cunning, a guy with street smarts, who knows how to be in the right place at the right time?

Bones:

Anderson’s book brings up a major ethical problem: is Jacob really immoral, or is it our European ethical framework that cause us to place limitations on the text? Anderson doesn’t answer this question for contemporary readers, in my opinion. He does pretty convincingly argue, though, that the Bible itself does not make excuses for Jacob’s deceptive acts.

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