What is the Significance of Trickster Characters in the Book of Genesis?

Introduction

When a reader hears the term ‘trickster character’, old folk figures such a Br’er Rabbit usually come to mind. The association of the trickster character to folklore and fiction makes it easy to overlook this as a character archetype in sacred texts. In some instances, it’s hard to label characters like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob with the title of trickster because of their theological and historic importance. With that said, the opening book of the Pentateuch, the book of Genesis, gives the reader a multitude of stories and characters that fit perfectly into the genre of the trickster. By taking an in-depth look at the literary meaning of the trickster archetype, as well as exploring the active characters and stories in the book of Genesis that exemplify this motif, we can try to answer the question surrounding the significance of trickster characters in the Book of Genesis.


The Trickster Defined

The role of the trickster is as old as written literature itself. Regardless of origins, it’s fair to say that every culture in some way utilizes the trickster character in their oral traditions, folklore, or written literature. Barbra Babcock-Abrahams writes on the importance of the trickster archetype, saying, “The “trickster” plays tricks and is the victim of tricks. The trickery of such stories extends as well to symbolic play reguarding culturals forms, rules, and worldviews.” The opening book of the Pentateuch, Genesis, is no different offering a wide range of trickster characters and tales, while establishing the roots of the Hebrew Nation. Babcock-Abrahams offers a unique perspective on the Winnebago trickster cycle writing, No figure in literature, oral or written, baffles us quite as much as trickster. He is positively identified with creative powers, often bringing such defining features of culture as fire or basic food, and yet he constantly behaves in the most antisocial manner we can imagine. Although we laugh at him for his troubles and his foolishness and are embarrassed by his promiscuity, his creative cleverness amazes us and keeps alive the possibility of transcending the social restrictions we regularly encounter.” This outlook on the trickster character sets up a basic pattern by which we can start to identify and categorize certain characters as tricksters based on their profile and actions in the text. Examples include, the wandering patriarchs who provide stability to up-and-coming Hebrew lineage through trickery, as well as women tricksters that better understand the need deceive to preserve the protagonist’s plan. But not so fast! Not all tricksters fit into this black and white definition as Babcock-Abrahams’ colleague Mary Magoulick points out. “It’s difficult to pin down the trickster to any fixed set of characteristics or given forms. Part of his/her attraction is defiance of classification and analysis. Sometimes the trickster appears as human, sometimes as animal.”  By understanding the broad range of the role of the trickster, the reader is allowed the opportunity to explore the possibility of such characters showing up in the books of sacred text, such as Genesis. Trickery might not be as glaringly obvious but plays a significant role in the characters ranging from the serpent in the garden, the patriarchs Abram and Jacob, and vital women such as Rebekah and Rachel. Furthermore, the ability of the trickster to expand into issues regarding cultural ideologies through clever creativity will come to define a majority of the tricksters we encounter throughout the book of Genesis.

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The Serpent: Trickster or Not?

Numerous roles have been attributed to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Many view the serpent as the embodiment of original evil, or even a first look at the ‘devil’ himself. From a literary point of view, the serpent can serve as the first example of the trickster character in the book of Genesis. The evidence to support this claim can be found in the opening line of Genesis chapter 3. “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made.” (Gen. 3:1 ESV) The serpent is characterized to be different from the others animals of the garden by using craftiness that becomes more apparent as the narrative continues. Or does it? Orthodox views of the serpent as a deceiving extension of Satan might not hold as much merit as one might think; furthermore, textual evidence may also exonerate the serpent as a trickster character totally. On the subject of the serpent as a deceiver, Daniel Sarlo writes, “Firstly, the word used to describe the snake, םרע, refers to intelligence and does not carry a negative connotation, nor does it imply the act of lying.” Solely using the description of the serpent’s craftiness or intelligence does not in itself warrant the title of a trickster. Next, we look at the supposed deception of the serpent. Sarlo states, “The only reference to the snake having lied is the woman’s (false) statement in v. 13. The snake’s response to the woman in v. 4 in fact consists of two truthful statements, a) “you will certainly not die” and b) “God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened and you will be like the gods, who know ‘good’ and ‘evil’” (cf. 3:22).” Sarlo’s defense of the serpent presents itself as a topic that could be hotly debated on many levels. Nevertheless, the protagonist’s actions to curse the serpent, saying, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beast of the field…” (Gen 3:14-15 ESV), reads as an excellent textual source that points to the serpent as a true trickster in the book of Genesis. Trickster or not, the story of the serpent in the garden shows the reader the significance of falling into deception as a hindrance of living to the expectations of the protagonist. Furthermore, this event starts a trend showing the fallibility of human nature, as well as framing the origins of struggle that replay throughout the origins of the Hebrew nation.

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The Patriarch Tricksters

Abram’s Wife/Sister Episodes:

Starting with Abraham (Abram at this time), and later repeating with Isaac, the reader can observe a repeating cycle of trickery regarding the identity of the wives during each characters’ journey into foreign lands. Chapter 12: 10-15 gives Abram’s account of entering into Egypt with a specific fear on his mind. “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live.” (Gen. 12:11-12 ESV) Abram seems to be genuinely concerned with his wife’s beauty leading to his death. In the midst of his turmoil, the reader observes Abram’s inner-trickster come alive. Sarlo writes, “It is Abram’s fear of death that leads him to come up with a scheme to avoid the inevitable problem of telling the Egyptian king that his beautiful wife is off limits. Therefore, they decide to say she is his sister (v. 11–13).” This scheme looks perfectly applicable to the dire situation Abram finds himself in; a small lie to save his own life. But, then comes the trickster’s twist. Abram tells Sarai to refer to herself as his sister so “that it may go well with me because of you…” in verse 13. Not only does Abram keep his life, but comes out very well as we find out in verse 16, “And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.” The result of Abram’s deceit is the acquisition of great wealth. Moreover, the reader notices the deceit of Abram does not bring scorn from the protagonist. Sarlo elaborates:

“Later, when Yahweh enters the narrative, he curses Pharaoh for abducting Sarai yet provides no assessment of Abram’s action. Williams argues that the text does in fact evaluate the lie negatively, since Pharaoh chastises Abram and exiles him from Egypt (v. 18–20). But it is strange that the ethical standard should be placed in the mouth of a foreign ruler. Instead, we should look to Yahweh’s treatment of Abram following this episode. We see that Abram continues to enjoy wealth (13:2) and the ancestral promise is reiterated to him, still unconditional and without a word of advice for improvement (13:14–17).”

The spoils of the trickster’s scheme do not seem to have an impact on the protagonist’s outlook on the character of Abram; in fact, this wife/sister trickery is seen two more times in the book of Genesis. Abram employs the same tactics in chapter 20 after journeying to the land of Gerar. Abram once again passes off Sarai as his sister to king Abimelech. In this instance, the reader receives insight into a possible significance of these wife/sister narratives. When asked why he would be so deceitful, Abram replies, “I did it because I thought, there is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. Besides, she is indeed my sister…” (Gen. 20:11-12 ESV) The reader begins to see a pattern of the use of deceit and trickery as a way to exist in a world that cannot comprehend the relationship between Abram and the protagonist. A primitive argument for the protagonist’s extension of  grace to Abram is applicable in this case, but to imply Abram’s life was easy is far from the truth. Furthermore, the protagonist is shown as working behind the scenes in both episodes to silently assure the preservation of people responsible for the eventual rise of the Hebrew nation. The trickster acquires the worldly items needed to survive and prosper through deceit, while the protagonist acquires the fear of neighboring kingdoms and their leaders.

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Jacob & Rebekah:

When looking at the book of Genesis, no character exemplifies the role of the trickster better than Jacob. The reader receives a type of foreshadowing into Jacob’s character simply by the meaning of his name, ‘he takes by the heel’ or ‘he cheats.’ Shortly after Jacob’s birth the reader gets a first-hand glimpse at the appetite of Jacob to get ahead in life by securing his brother Esau’s birthright. This trend is amplified in chapter 27 in a story known as ‘The Stolen Blessing.’ The complexity of this story far exceeds to simplicity of the text. As a trickster, Jacob exploits a weakness of his father, Yair Zakovitch explains, “…the reason for Isaac’s desire to bless the firstborn Esau is his craving for meat: “. . . make me a dish of the kind that I love and bring it to me that I may eat, so that I may solemnly bless you before I die.” (v. 4).” Not only is Isaac’s blessing based on his appetite for meat, but Esau gaining favor in his father’s eyes is based on this ability to solely hunt for his father. Zakovitch adds, “Isaac is ready to seal the fate of his sons and descendants for generations (as becomes apparent from the blessing, (vv. 28-29), all for the satisfaction of his most basic physical needs: taste and smell (v. 27).” With the help of his mother, a scheme is hatched to fool Isaac and secure the blessing Jacob seeks. Jacob’s trickery revolves around him assuming the identity of Esau to fool his blind father. Rebekah prepares the meal exactly as Isaac would want it served. Rebekah adorns Jacob with the best garments Esau owns, she even places goat hair on the hands and smooth part of Jacob’s neck to mimic the hairiness of Esau. At this point I know you’re asking yourself, “Isn’t this about Jacob the trickster?” I assure you, I will be examining Rebekah soon! Jacob’s deceit comes from directly lying to Isaac, the passage reads, “So he went in to his father and said, “My father.” And he said, “Here I am. Who are you, my son?” Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat from my game, that your soul may bless me.” (Gen. 27:18-19) After a short spell of scrutiny, Isaac bestows his blessing on Jacob and the trickster prevails. Zakovitch offers a motif for the depth of Jacob’s deceit, writing, “admitting Jacob’s misdeeds has to do with the character of biblical literature from the First Temple period. That literature, we find, avoids providing readers with perfect heroes: what can we mortals learn from heroes who exhibit no speck of wrongdoing?” This would make sense seeing that none of the hero/trickster characters we encounter in Genesis are without flaw. The protagonist shows a pattern of choosing people who regularly expose their own folly and moral decadence openly, only to be pulled closer to the protagonist by the end of their time in the book.

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Women’s Trickery in Genesis

One cannot write a blog on the trickery observed in Genesis without including the role of female tricksters. We’ve explored a little of Rebekah’s role in helping Jacob deceive his father Isaac to receive Esau’s blessing. Rebekah prepared the meal to Isaac’s liking, dressed Jacob in Esau’s finest garments, and placed goat skin on Jacob’s non-masculine body parts. But, what is Rebekah’s true motif for doing these things? The reader knows form Genesis 25:26 that “Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.” (ESV) From the beginning, the reader is left with this feeling of paternal favoritism between Isaac and Rebekah, but is that truly all that brings into fruition the events of the stolen blessing? An article by Mary Jo Bowman expands on Rebekah’s possible motive, writing, “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.” Adding, “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.” This shows the significant role of the woman in Genesis as enlightened to the broader plan of the protagonist; moreover, it shows the woman’s dedication to serve the cause of the protagonist even at the expense of deceiving a husband ‘blind’ to the agenda.

Another example of trickery by women in the book of Genesis centers around Rachel. While Jacob, Leah, and Rachel take flight from Laban, Rachel returns to Laban’s house and takes the ‘household gods.’ (31:19) After finally catching up to Jacob, Laban asks, “…and why did you steal my household gods?” (Gen. 31:30) Jacob responds by telling Laban that anyone found with his household gods would be killed. Of course, Rachel never told Jacob that it was she that took the household gods, but instead sat on them while menstruating to keep them hidden while Laban searched their quarters. So, what’s the big deal with household gods? Bowman explains, “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.” Adding, “Alice Ogden Bellis suggests that the gods represented matrilineal leadership in the family, with inheritance rights to be reckoned through the mother.” Rachel knowingly or not would have defiled the gods of Laban by getting menstrual blood on them, as well as not being caught as the thief.

The significance of the woman’s role as a trickster in the book of Genesis seems to differ from the role of the patriarch. In some ways, the woman is portrayed as having purer intentions than the male counterpart. Bowman elaborates:

“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.”

In a time where women often took a back seat to the role of the husband, these women and more that I have not mentioned take a central role in the narrative of Genesis. These foreshadows the significance that women will continually play in the rise of the Hebrew Nation.

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Conclusion

Through this journey exploring the significance of the trickster characters in the book of Genesis, the reader is often left dumb-founded with some of the acts they encounter. The role of the trickster, though straight forward sometimes, often involves a complex use of logic to arrive at the significant reasoning of their actions. In some cases, such as the serpent in the garden, we find that labeling a character as a trickster is not always definitive. The serpent’s significance does not lie within a character profile, but as the driving force that highlights the shortcomings of human nature. In the patriarchal trickster stories, the reader encounters flawed men who often use trickery and deception to acquire wealth while also fulfilling the commands of the protagonist (often with enigmatic help). The feminine trickster narratives give an inside look into the true strength possessed by women at the time. The deceptive woman plays a significant role in the context of the family and cultural aspects of the rise of the Hebrew nation; moreover, these stories show the protagonist plan to use women as an important part of the survival of the covenant.

By: Bryan Hawk

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