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Mary Jo Bowman
Pentateuch BVOT 642
February 15, 2005
The stories of several women in Genesis illustrate how deception was used by the people of Israel to tell stories about themselves. By exploring the schemes of Lot’s daughters, Rebekah, Rachel, and Tamar, this paper will highlight various interpretations of the use of trickery in the stories of patriarchal families. These stories can be interpreted as lessons in the status and character of women in early Israel. They can also be understood more broadly as entertainment, sagas of survival, and expressions of nationalistic pride and even religious piety. Themes of sexuality, alcohol, family dynamics, violence, justice, divine will, customs, and law presented in these stories suggest multiple ways to study and interpret them. We can only hope to glimpse some of their meaning in this brief exploration.
A striking theme throughout each of the stories in this study is that there is no explicit moral indictment of the use of deception. In his thesis on these and other stories in Genesis involving trickery, Adam White asserts that the functions of these stories would be spoiled if the narrator were to pass judgment on the deceptive behavior. The scheming characters “get away with” scandalous acts. White puts forth four paradigms for understanding the use of deception in these stories: humor, survival, nationalism/patriotism, and exoneration. First, he insists that making a moral judgement about cunning would spoil the humor, irony, and intrigue found these stories. Second, when viewed as stories about survival in precarious social and political settings, deception can be viewed as a necessity for survival when faced with limited options. Third, within a nationalist/patriotic paradigm, stories of deception can be used to express prejudice against and claim supremacy over other nations. Finally, White suggests that tales of trickery were told without a moral tone because deceptive humans are understood as agents of divine will among God’s chosen people. The narrators are matter-of-fact about deception in various Genesis stories as a way of preserving the “piety of the ancestors.” 1
White asserts that stories involving deception were preserved because they express the “hope, dreams, and identity of a people.” 2 While his study is not focused solely on the female characters, White’s conclusions are pertinent to this study of women in Genesis as tricksters. He points out that the narrators of the stories in Genesis saw themselves as “apiru,” a class of marginalized people in the ancient near east. He cites Naomi Steinberg’s argument in her work on “Israelite Tricksters.” She writes that the motif of trickster is a part of “an expression of the values of the oppressed—both men and women” where, in a subversive way, the lowly get the upper hand over those in power.3
Melissa Jackson explores the trickster theme in more depth. While trickster stories are common in folklore, especially in African and Native American traditions, she notes that there are many tricksters—both male and female—in the Hebrew Bible. She highlights Jacob as probably the best known. The women featured in this study, Lot’s daughters, Rebekah, Rachel, and Tamar, are all on her list.4 Jackson summarizes Ann W. Engar’s description of the unique characteristics of female tricksters in the Old Testament: “First, in using her intelligence, the female exhibits greater understanding of the needs of her family and nation than the corresponding male does. Second, as a matter of faith, she more closely understands God’s purposes than does her male counterpart. Third, with regard to sexuality, she is not a passive sexual object. She determines when and with whom she will have sex and bear children.”5 With these broad views of how to read these narratives of feminine deception, let us now turn to the stories themselves.
In Genesis 19:30-38, Lot (the nephew of Abraham) and his daughters have fled the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and are living in a cave. The men who were to marry Lot’s daughters have been left behind. Lot’s daughters, who saw no other potential men to give them children, plotted to get their father drunk so he would have sex with them. Their scheme worked. They each became pregnant and bore sons, the ancestors of the Moabites and the Ammonites. At first glance, it is easy to agree with Willis: “That the author of Genesis condones or commends Lot’s daughters’ having sexual relationships with their own father is incredible…If (this) had been acceptable, there is no reason why they would have felt it necessary to make him drunk…Their father would not have approved of such perverted sexual practices … At the same time, Lot is no less guilty or responsible just because he was so drunk that he did not know what his daughters were doing…That his daughters knew he was so weak…is a further reflection on his inferior character and influence.” 6
Unlike Willis, White has an explanation for the inclusion of this story in Genesis. In his view, the story serves an ethnological function, representing nations rather than individuals. The namelessness of the daughters further suggests that this story is not meant to portray an historic event. When told from an Israelite perspective, this story functions as an ethnic joke about the incestuous origins of Israel’s neighbors, a mockery of Israel’s enemies.7 There is also evidence that his story has Ammonite-Moab origins, which accounts for its shameless portrayal of the women as maternal heroes, and the depiction of Lot as passive.8 This story then serves a patriotic purpose for both the non-Israelite descendents of Lot’s daughters and for Israel.9
According to Sharon Pace Jeansonne, this incest story needs to be read in the context of the earlier part of Genesis 19, where Lot disregarded the welfare of his daughters. In the face of the humiliating possibility of homosexual gang rape of his guests, Lot offered his virgin daughters to the men on the streets of Sodom.10 It is important to note that homosexual acts were a capital offense in Old Testament law, although for non-Israelites consensual homosexual acts were likely allowed. Homosexual gang rape would have been completely outside the norms of hospitality for the ancient near east. By offering his daughters to the mob, Lot put protection of his guests over protecting the welfare of his daughters.11 Further, Jeansonne points out that Lot was generally inept at protecting his family and put his daughters in a position of desperation regarding their desire to have offspring to continue their family.12 She sees the daughters’ trickery of Lot as a “poetic justice” in the face of his disregard for their welfare. Deception became resourcefulness.13
Our next story (Genesis 27:1-40) is about Rebekah, wife of Abraham’s son Issac. Rebekah helped her favorite son Jacob trick his father Issac into giving him the blessing intended for his twin brother Esau. In fact, she seems to have initiated and directed the plot. Willis sees all the participants in this event as “guilty of the grossest sins.”14 According to Jeansonne, Rebekah’s role in this deception is often viewed pejoratively-- as favoritism, disrespect for her husband, and harmful to the family.15 In the Hebrew family system, wives were expected to defer to their husbands, and sons were expected to have a higher regard for their father than their mother.16 Rebekah overstepped these bounds.
An important clue to Rebekah’s motives--the prenatal oracle (Genesis 25:22-23)--is often overlooked. In that part of the story, God reveals to Rebekah what Isaac does not know: Jacob, who would be the second born of the twins, is God’s chosen. White argues that Rebekah believed that Isaac was attached to the social convention of giving the blessing to the firstborn son, who was Isaac’s favorite. Issac was unable to see that Esau, a hunter who sold his birthright and chose Hittite wives, was a poor candidate for carrying on the blessing promised to his grandfather Abraham. Rebekah’s awareness of Issac’s “blindness” motivated her to act to fulfill God’s will. Her willingness to take the risk of bringing a curse upon herself underscores Rebekah’s determination to fulfill God’s purposes, even with deception. White notes that some ancient interpreters suggested that God had an active hand in the deceiving, by preventing him from seeing through the sham. 17 Jeansonne accesses Rebekah’s role in this way: “The portrayal of Rebekah shows that women in Israel were viewed as persons who could make crucial decisions about their futures, whose prayers were acknowledged, who might know better than men what God designed, and who could apparently take the steps necessary to support God’s plans for the community.” 18
Along with interpreting this story as a use of deception to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham, White also points out that this story fits into other paradigms. The rivalry between Esau the hunter and Jacob the semi-nomadic farmer expresses an ethnological theme of the national rivalry, which can be read in the triumph of the younger son ( Israel) over the older son ( Edom).19 Closer to home, the conflict between Jacob and Esau which began in the womb contributed to a dramatic family saga in which rivalry, deception and humor continued to play out for generations.
We turn now to Rachel, daughter of Rebekah’s brother Laban, an Aramean whose people were noted to be “crafty and cunning.” 20 Rachel was married to Jacob, as was her sister Leah. Jacob and his father-in-law Laban had a long history of deception and conflict. Rachel’s use of deception (Genesis 31:17-35) arose out of Jacob’s decision to take his wives and children and livestock, and to get away from Laban. In the process of packing to leave, while Laban was away for sheep-shearing, Rachel stole her father’s household gods (vs. 19). Jacob didn’t know she had done this, so when Laban accused him of stealing them, Jacob declared that whoever was found to possess them would be put to death. When Laban went looking for them, he entered Rachel’s tent, but did not find them. She was sitting on them, and told him she could not get up because she was menstruating.
The significance of the household gods (teraphim in Hebrew) is crucial to understanding this story. The function and importance of the teraphim is not altogether clear. Most scholars agree that they likely were portable images objects of worship that were believed to protect the family. They may possibly have been images of ancestors, whom the living were expected to consult and honor. In the Old Testament, they were associated with the power to predict the future, or to reveal unknown information. Ownership of these images was connected with inheritance rights. 21 Alice Ogden Bellis suggests that the gods represented matrilineal leadership in the family, with inheritance rights to be reckoned through the mother. 22
Rachel’s menstrual blood would have defiled Laban’s teraphim. In ancient near east culture, menstrual blood was considered unclean. Men were not to touch menstruating women. It is not clear from the story whether Rachel was actually menstruating, or whether she was telling a lie. The point is, she used her wit to escape being found (and executed as the thief), and in the process apparently defiled the gods. We do not know what Rachel believed about the power of the teraphim. Her action can be read as a strong theological statement about the impotence of Laban’s gods and the superiority of Yahweh. Or perhaps she wanted to claim the power of the teraphim for economic purposes, or to prevent Laban’s use of them as a primitive compass to find her fleeing family.23 White argues that she was trying to ensure Jacob’s rightful claim to Laban’s estate; since Laban had sons of his own, and Laban and Jacob were at odds, this claim had poor chances of being realized otherwise. 24 Whatever her intent, she used “the way of women” to defy her father’s control over her destiny and to circumvent the punishment invoked by her impetuous father. Rachel’s use of deception makes a statement about feminine power amidst a larger drama of deception and counter-deception in which the men are the main tricksters.
Paul Borgman points out that Laban had cheated Rachel out of the promise of being Jacob’s first wife. By stealing her father’s household gods, Rachel was exercising poetic justice. Her thievery and cover-up may have primarily been her exclamation of her resolve to leave her father and homeland in solidarity with her husband. 25
The legacy of deception in Jacob’s family provides the context for the last story of this study, Tamar’s deception of her father-in-law, Judah (Genesis 38:1-26). In the midst of a long narrative centered on Joseph ( Judah’s brother, favored by their father Jacob) we find the story of Tamar. She was the childless widow of Judah’s eldest son, Er. According to levirate marriage laws, Judah had assigned his next son, Onan, to fulfill his duty to marry Tamar and give her children. He obliged by having sex with her, but each time “spilled his semen on the ground”(vs. 9) to avoid providing her with offspring. After Onan died, Judah promised his remaining son, Shelah, to Tamar once the boy was old enough to marry. When Shelah came of age and the marriage did not happen, Tamar saw that Judah was failing to fulfill his responsibility for ensuring that she had children to carry on the family line. Taking matters into her own hands, she disguised herself as a prostitute and placed herself along Judah’s travel route. Judah propositioned her. She bargained for his signet, cord, and staff (signs of his wealth and authority) as collateral for the payment he promised to deliver later. He lay with her, and she became pregnant. When he learned of her pregnancy, he ordered her execution by burning, the penalty specified for the act of prostitution by a priest’s daughter (Lev. 21:9).26 Tamar vindicated herself by presenting Judah’s personal affects as proof that he was responsible for her pregnancy. Judah admitted his guilt and declared that “she is more in the right than I, since I did note give her my son Shelah.” (vs. 26).
White declares that this “fits into the league of stories depicting powerful, self-actualizing women who seemingly begin the narrative on the down side of advantage only to ascend to greatness by cunning and thoughtful action.” 27 Tamar obtained justice. She found a way to make Judah provide her with children, to ensure the survival of her people. Remarkably, one of her twin sons, Perez, was an ancestor of David. The story of Tamar and Judah found its way into Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. Tamar “the prostitute” became a heroine of nationalistic proportions. She moved from belonging nowhere, as “neither a virgin nor a wife nor a mother… on the fringes of Israelite culture”28 to becoming the “sole arbiter of her own fate, the prime mover and protagonist of her own story…and the “only woman in the Bible who is declared righteous.”29 This story goes farther in making a moral statement than the others in this study.
While Brueggemann puzzles over the placement and intent of this story, and suggests that its primary function may be as genealogy, he points out the text makes judgment about relative guilt: “Tamar has committed the kind of sin the ‘good people’ prefer to condemn—engaging in deception and illicit sex and bringing damage to a good family. For a moment, until aware of his own involvement, Judah reacts on the basis of that sort of ‘morality.’(v. 24). In ways apparently congruent with popular morality, Judah has spurned the claims of his daughter-in-law. By his indifference, he has violated her right to wellbeing and dignity in the community (v. 11). The narrative juxtaposes his prudent but self-serving withholding and her deceptive harlotry.”30
Each of these stories of deception by women fits into a larger context of family, culture, nation, and theology. While some commentators rush to add a moral lesson to each story, most of the scholars consulted for this study resist quick judgment and point to the moral complexities of the stories. Because the focus of this study is on the women in the narratives, their status, personality, and motives have been emphasized. These stories provide a window into the lives of women in early Israel, and how they exercised their power as daughters, wives, and mothers. As tricksters, women showed their intelligence, their discernment, their courage, and the power of their sexuality. These stories from Genesis add to the rich tapestry of tales about the people of God—full of humor (much of which may be lost in translation), pride, pathos, hope, and moral ambiguity. These stories of deceptive women evoke compassion for marginalized and desperate people. They demonstrate feminine resourcefulness in the face of difficulty. These stories help us to look at the Bible and at ourselves with fresh perspective on the mysterious ways of God.
Bellis, Alice Ogden. Helpmates, Harlots, Heroes: Women's Stories in the Hebrew Bible. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.
Borgman, Paul. Genesis: The Story We Haven't Heard. Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2001 .
Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982.
Jackson, Melissa. " Lot's Daughters and Tamar as Tricksters and the Patriarchal Narratives in Feminist Theology." Journal for the Study of the Old Testament no. 98, June (2002): 29-46.
Jeansonne, Sharon Pace. The Women of Genesis: From Sarah to Potiphar's Wife. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.
Meeks, Wayne A., ed. The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1993.
Petersen, John. Reading Women's Stories: Female Characters in the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.
Wenham, Gordon J. Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 2, Genesis 16-50. Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1994.
White, Adam J. "On Getting Away with It: Toward an Understanding of Deception in Six Ancestral Sagas, Genesis 12-38, a Thesis." Eastern Mennonite University, 2004.
Willis, John T. Genesis. Austin, TX: Sweet Publishing Company, 1979.
Adam J. White, "On Getting Away with It: Toward an Understanding of Deception in Six Ancestral Sagas, Genesis 12-38, a Thesis" (Eastern Mennonite University, 2004), 5,143-44.
Melissa Jackson, "Lot's Daughters and Tamar as Tricksters and the Patriarchal Narratives in Feminist Theology," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament no. 98, June (2002): 31-32.
Ibid.: 32. quoting Engar, ‘Old Testament Women’,pp. 143-57.
John T. Willis, Genesis (Austin, TX: Sweet Publishing Company, 1979), 269-70.
White, "On Getting Away with It",37-38.
Sharon Pace Jeansonne, The Women of Genesis: From Sarah to Potiphar's Wife (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 36.
Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 2, Genesis 16-50 (Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1994), 55-56.
Jeansonne, The Women of Genesis,41.
White, "On Getting Away with It",46.
Jeansonne, The Women of Genesis,65.
Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 2, Genesis 16-50,207.
White, "On Getting Away with It",63-68.
Jeansonne, The Women of Genesis,69.
White, "On Getting Away with It",83-85.
Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 2, Genesis 16-50,273.
Alice Ogden Bellis, Helpmates, Harlots, Heroes: Women's Stories in the Hebrew Bible (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), 85.
White, "On Getting Away with It",103.
Paul Borgman, Genesis: The Story We Haven't Heard (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2001), 170.
Jeansonne, The Women of Genesis,105.
White, "On Getting Away with It", 135.
John Petersen, Reading Women's Stories: Female Characters in the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 133.
Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 308-11.
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