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Jacob and the Divine Trickster
A Theology of Deception and Yhwh’s Fidelity to the Ancestral Promise in the Jacob Cycle
by John E. Anderson
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The book of Genesis portrays the character Jacob as a brazen trickster who deceives members of his own family: his father Isaac, brother Esau, and uncle Laban. At the same time, Genesis depicts Jacob as YHWH’s chosen, from whom the entire people Israel derive and for whom they are named. These two notices produce a latent tension in the text: Jacob is concurrently an unabashed trickster and YHWH’s preference. How is one to address this tension? Scholars have long focused on the implications for the character and characterization of Jacob. The very question, however, at its core raises an issue that is theological in nature. The Jacob cycle (Gen 25–36) is just as much, if not more, a text about God as it is about Jacob, a point startlingly absent in a great deal of Genesis scholarship. Anderson argues for the presence of what he has dubbed a theology of deception in the Jacob cycle: YHWH operates as a divine trickster who both uses and engages in deception for the perpetuation of the ancestral promise (Gen 12:1–3).
Through a literary hermeneutic, emphasizing the symbiotic relationship between how the text means and what the text means, and a keen eye to the larger task of Old Testament theology as literally “a word about God,” Anderson examines the various manifestations of YHWH as trickster in the Jacob cycle. The phenomenon of divine deception at every turn is intimately tethered in diverse ways to YHWH’s unique concern for the protection and advancement of the ancestral promise, which has cosmic implications. Attention is given to the ways that the multiple deceptions--some previously unnoticed--evoke, advance, and at times fulfill the ancestral promise.
Anderson’s careful and thoughtful interweaving of trickster texts and traditions in the interest of theology is a unique contribution of this important volume. Oftentimes, scholars who are interested in the trickster are unconcerned with the theological ramifications of the presence of material of this sort in the biblical text, while theologians have often neglected the vibrant and pervasive presence of the trickster in the biblical text. Equally vital is the necessity of viewing the Old Testament’s image of God as also comprising dynamic, subversive, and unsettling elements. Attempts to whitewash or sanitize the biblical God fail to recognize and appreciate the complex and intricate ways that YHWH interacts with his chosen people. This witness to YHWH’s engagement in deception stands alongside and paradoxically informs the biblical text’s portrait of YHWH as trustworthy and a God who does not lie. Anderson’s Jacob and the Divine Trickster stands as a stimulating and provocative investigation into the most interesting and challenging character in the Bible, God, and marks the first true comprehensive treatment of YHWH as divine trickster. Anderson has set the stage to continue the conversation and investigation into a theology of deception in the Hebrew Bible.
Publication date: 2011
Bibliographic info: xiv + 210 pages
Trim Size: 6 x 9 inches
Anderson's book fairly bristles with insights backed with solid scholarship. I admire his moving from text into theology, making the audacious (but supportable) claim of Yhwh's being deceptive in achieving the divine will. . . . this is a provocative study in a modern idiom. — Mark Hillmer, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 75 (2013)
"John Anderson has taken up old texts and has given us a bold, fresh reading of the narrative. While his work evidences sound and informed critical judgment, he has moved beyond such critical categories to see that the defining and most interesting character in the narrative is YHWH, the God of Jacob and the provocateur of the dramatic action. This God, of course, does not conform to any conventional faith but is much more thick, suggestive, and surprising than any usual rendering. Anderson works with a careful, self-conscious method that lends force and credibility to his suggestive argument."—Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary
Interpreters of the Jacob cycle have long noted the themes of deception and the trickster; what John Anderson has done is pressed these issues toward theology and the portayal of the divine. With an intentional literary method, Anderson reads the text in both careful and creative ways. The volume makes several fresh contributions on these ancient texts in a lively and engaging style. Anderson's candid and provocative reading of the Jacob narrative has implications that Old Testament theologians will not want to miss! —W. H. Bellinger, Jr., Baylor University
"It is not often that one fundamentally reenvisions a biblical narrative with such
profound theological implications for understanding the God of the OT as John
Anderson has in Jacob and the Divine Trickster. Such ambitious proposals tend to stretch the integrity of the narrative and the patience of the reader. Anderson,
however, has proved capable, engaging, and most persuasive in demonstrating
his thesis that Jacob is not the only trickster in the Jacob cycle—that Yhwh too
is a trickster who engages in deception for the purpose of bringing to fulfillment
the ancestral promise of Gen 12:1–3."—Joseph Kelly in Bulletin for Biblical Research
What Anderson’s work shows, interestingly, is that readers commonly engage in a form of self-deception: they trick themselves into ignoring the deceptive nature of the God of the Hebrew Bible. This works for some, but Anderson’s book makes the job of self-deception that much more difficult. The theological contribution of Anderson’s work, therefore, is twofold: it elucidates the presence of an uncomfortable theology that runs throughout the biblical narrative; and more importantly, in so doing, warns the serious reader not to manipulate the text to make it fit better their own theological presuppositions and desires. — Song-Mi Suzie Park, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Horizons in Biblical Theology 34 (2012)
Anderson takes a closer look [at the evidence in Genesis for Jacob, and God, as "trickster"]—and feels that God’s involvement is not as marginal as Gunkel seems to suppose, and that Brueggemann’s view can be clarified. In order to do so, Anderson offers a thorough interpretation of the entire Jacob cycle (Genesis 25–35). Although at first sight it appears to be a series of loosely connected episodes, there is a clear unifying thread: God is always on the side of Jacob; elected by God, Jacob is the bearer of the ancestral promise given to Abraham (Gen. 12:1–3); in his growing wealth and twelve sons—founders of the twelve tribes of Israel—he sees the incipient fulfilment of the divine promise. Jacob’s life is intimately bound up with and blessed by God. . . . One insight will not fail to impress all readers of Anderson’s skilful and bold study: the book of Genesis is quite unlike
other books of the Bible. It is untouched by the standard (i.e., Deuteronomistic) notion of a God who sets up laws in order to reward or punish people according to their obedience. Here we have another world-view, one based on the divine blessing that will eventually work out to the advantage of those who have received it. — Bernhard Lang, Journal of Theological Studies 2013
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. . . . 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. 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. . . . 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.&edash;Diana Lipton in Journal of Hebrew Scriptures (2013)
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