Jacob and Rebecca – Tricksters!

In the later chapters of Genesis, rather than myth, we’re dealing with folktales. A character commonly found, across cultures and time, is the Trickster. Tricksters are clever in a worldly-wise way. They’re skilled at achieving their own ends, while pulling the wool over the eyes of others. Their scheming and trickery is sometimes light-hearted, but can also cause hurt and distress. Tricksters break rules and flout conventions. They disrupt the normal order, even using lies, theft and deceit. In Norse tales there’s Loki, and in Greek tales, Hermes. African-Americans have Br’er Rabbit, and Native Americans have Coyote. In Genesis, there are Jacob, his mother Rebecca, his uncle Laban, and his own wife Rachel. As readers, it keeps us entertained, while helping to fulfil Yahweh’s purposes, with no ‘tut-tutting’ heard.

Jacob comes second out of his mother’s womb, gripping his ‘older’ brother Esau by the heel, as if trying to pull him back inside, and take first place for himself. He seems to have got wind of the fact that Yahweh, for reasons known only to himself, wants Jacob to inherit the blessings promised to his grandfather Abraham. In which case, you and I might say, why not just ensure that he was the first-born, but it’s not for us to question the boss and, judging by some of what happens in the Hebrew Bible, that might not be to our advantage. Here, Yahweh doesn’t need to intervene to sort things out. The tricksters, Jacob and Rebecca, can do the needful.

Jacob is first off the mark. He’s just finished cooking up a delicious stew (an innocent coincidence?) at the moment when Esau comes back from a (possibly unsuccessful) hunt, and says, “I’m starving. Give me some of that red stuff“. The trickster, seizing his opportunity, is delighted to serve his brother. “I will give it to you, if you give me your rights as the firstborn son“. Just to make doubly-sure, he adds, “Make a vow that you will give me your rights“. End of part one. 

Part two comes when Father Isaac, old and dying, asks Esau to do some hunting and to cook him a meal, after which, he says, ‘I will give you my final blessing“. Rebecca, (whose favourite son is Jacob), overhearing this, reveals her own trickster credentials. She and Jacob ‘cook up ‘ a scheme to deceive Isaac and, in addition to his rights, to deprive Esau of the first-born’s blessing. She cooks Isaac’s favourite meal. Esau is a hairy man, so she gives Jacob animal skins for his arms and neck. She also gives him Esau’s clothing. Although Isaac thinks he hears the voice of Jacob, his senses of touch and smell ‘confirm’ it’s Esau, and so Abraham’s blessing is passed on to Jacob – “May nations be your servants, and may peoples bow down before you. May those who curse you be cursed, and may those who bless you be blessed.” Mission accomplished for the tricksters! Consternation and distress for Isaac and Esau, when the truth is known.

This isn’t the end of the trickery and deceit. Esau having threatened to kill him, Jacob is sent off to visit his uncle Laban, whom he spends 7 years working for in order to marry his daughter Rachel. Laban is also a trickster, and deceives him (courtesy of the marriage veil) into marrying his other daughter Leah. Another 7 years are required to enable Jacob to marry Rachel. When Jacob decides to return home, further trickery ensues. Laban comes up with a scheme to drastically limit the number of sheep and goats Jacob can take away with him. Jacob comes up with a counter-scheme – a magical (it’s a story) method of getting the strongest animals for himself and leaving the weakest for his uncle. 

Just to round things off, when Rachel leaves her father’s house, she steals his “household gods” – images of the divine beings who look after the family’s interests. Laban pursues and catches up with Jacob . He insists on searching his camp, and everyone in it, but Rachel, having sat on the household gods, says she can’t stand up and be searched because “the way of women is upon me“. Yet one more is added to the list of, let’s face it, stealing, lying and deceiving tricksters.

What are we to make of all this? It’s yet another indication of the kind of library of books the bible is. It’s one of the world’s great works of literature, which is meant to capture our interest, and to entertain us, so it’s all right to be amused by some of the goings-on, and to treat them with less-than-seriousness. If this is written by God, then he has a sense of humour, which is good to know. Not so much the “fear of the Lord“, but the ‘fun of the Lord‘, might be “the beginning of wisdom.” 

It is, of course, religious literature and, like other kinds, uses myth, legend, folktale, symbol, allegory, metaphor, simile, parable, proverb, poetry and prose, to tell us things about ourselves – how we shouldn’t, as well as how we should, think, feel, behave and live, so as to make this world a brighter, happier, safer place for all of us to live in. There will always be, however, the trickster in each and all of us. If the Hebrew Bible is about life as it was, it’s also about life as it continues to be.

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