Yoram Hazony and the Deception of Isaac

Perhaps one of the most stimulating sections of Yoram Hazony’s The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture addresses the question of how we are to discern the meaning of biblical narratives, especially how biblical narratives might present arguments of a more general nature. Hazony quotes John Barton’s remarks about the difficulty of recognizing the moral stance of the writers of the biblical narratives relative to actions of many of their protagonists: ‘where a writer as reticent as the “Yahwist” is concerned, one can hardly say with assurance how he viewed the actions of his characters—whether with approval, disapproval, or benign indifference.’1

The difficulty of understanding the viewpoints of the biblical narratives is an underexamined problem, yet one that explains much of both the mishandling of biblical narrative and its relative neglect. On the one hand, many people, when faced with the challenge of tracing an authorial argument being advanced in scriptural narrative, retreat to the relative safety of the expositional portions of Scripture and those narratives, chiefly in the gospels, where the nature of the actants is very clear near the surface of the narrative (e.g. Jesus is the hero, those who crucify him are the villains).

On the other hand are those who presume that the moral status of characters is easy to recognize. Abram goes into Egypt on account of a famine in the land in Genesis 12 and deceives Pharaoh concerning Sarai. Clearly there is a lack of faith being displayed here. Clearly he is sinning by lying to Pharaoh. The possibility that matters might not be so straightforward is not entertained for a moment.

We must recognize that, in such an approach to the text, there is seldom any effort undertaken to discover a moral viewpoint of the narrative itself. The reader presumes that the narrative does not advance a moral viewpoint of its own. Nor does it need to: the ethical status of its characters and their actions is entirely obvious. However, although this is occasionally true, much of the time it is nothing of the kind.

Hazony describes this view in relation to the example of Jacob’s deception of his father Isaac and his taking of the blessing from his brother Esau:

The author of this story may well have approved of Jacob’s doings, thinking it morally justified given Esau’s brutish character and apparently amoral behavior. Or he may have been appalled, and included the story in the narrative as an example of immoral behavior. Or perhaps he neither approved nor disapproved of Jacob’s trickery, considering it simply an exploit by a “larger-than-life figure” in whom the reader “is to see the great past of the nation, when the divine purposes were achieved by men and women did things which would hardly be permissible or possible in the reader’s own day.” There’s just no way to tell, because narrative literature is, by its nature, too imprecise to give clear expression to the ideas of its authors.2

There are some who, in opposition to such a position, have argued that narrative is moreapt to conveying the truth that is revealed in particular contexts and circumstances, on account of its complexity and subtlety. Such a position can rest upon an opposition between the general or the abstract and the particular, with the particularity of narrative revealing certain things that abstract positions cannot. However, Hazony is concerned to press things further, maintaining that biblical narrative is capable of advancing general positions through the particularity of its narratives: ‘The biblical authors do possess techniques for using narrative to propose conceptual schemes just as abstract as those that appear in Aristotelian-style treatises with paragraphs that begin, Now there are three kinds of X.’3

Hazony studies three examples of such techniques: type contrasts, the repetition of patterns of events, and the use of repeated expressions that have come to bear very specific connotations. He proposes that readers familiar with such techniques are far better equipped to recognize an authorial stance communicated in the biblical narrative, even apart from direct authorial statements or exposition.

The first technique, type contrasts, can often be seeing in the contrasts between characters within the narrative, contrasts that are elaborated in the rest of the biblical history. Hazony offers the examples of Cain and Abel and of the conflict and contrasts between Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, and Joseph. The contrasts and conflicts between these characters are developed over the course of the biblical history and not merely in the brief scope of the narratives that directly concern them. We also see the biblical authors carefully juxtaposing such characters, for instance in the contrasts that Genesis highlights between Judah and Joseph by its placing significantly contrasting stories concerning the two characters alongside each other in a sort of literary diptych.

The second technique, involving the repetition of patterns of events at various points in the larger narrative, enables readers to achieve a more general account of the meaning of events. ‘What results from the construction of these sets of events from far-flung instances is a generalized account of a certain kind of circumstance—often including both the motives of the individuals involved and the consequences of their actions—which can easily be seen as referring to a thesis of a general nature.’4 For example, the pattern of the Fall recurs on several occasions and in different forms in the biblical narrative.5 Once we recognize the underlying template provided by the Fall narrative, both the similarities with and the differences from that template are thrown into sharp relief, enabling us to make much better sense of the events and to place them within a larger meaningful narrative.

Related events don’t need to involve deep patterns such as that of the Fall or the Exodus. Hazony offers the example of Gideon’s creation of a fetish object with the donated earrings of the people after his victory over Midian in Judges 8, an event that recalls Aaron’s fashioning of a golden calf using the donated gold earrings of Israel after God’s establishing of his covenant with them at Sinai. Hazony observes:

The repetition of the story, then, permits us to escape the supposition that the sin of the golden calf was an event unique in human history, and to recognize that a more general thesis is being offered concerning human nature, and how it operates under certain kinds of circumstances. Coming out of a terrifying bondage, a people may believe that what it wants above all else is freedom. But this is illusion. True freedom—in which a man stands on his own feet, responsible for his own actions, with nothing but the open sky between himself and God—isin such cases experienced as something terrifying and even dreadful. What a newly liberated people want more than anything else, the narrative suggests, is to have someone above them again, someone who can bear responsibility for them so that they do not have to shoulder this terror and dread themselves.6

The final technique that Hazony discusses is that of repeated expressions with specific connotations. He presents hineni(“here am I”) as one such example, remarking upon the subtle way in which the use of this loaded expression by Abraham in relation both to the angel of the Lord and to Isaac his son in Genesis 22 offers the reader a window into the conflict in Abraham’s mind. This technique can be seen on a great many other occasions in the biblical narrative:

[O]ther biblical expressions come through repetition to bear specific connotations that can be deployed as a technical language. Thus the expression “he lifted up his eyes” (vayisa et einav) suggests a shift in the character’s understanding such that something that was hidden from him is revealed; “he rose early in the morning” (vayashkem baboker) designates actions undertaken with focused and even aggressive intent; “wood and stone” (etz va’even) refers to taking the concrete and common for a god; “what was just in his eyes” (hayashar be’einav) indicates that which appears right by a certain standard; “each under his vine and under his fig tree” (ish tahat gafno vetahat te’enato) refers to times of abundance and personal well-being for the nation as individuals; “what does not profit” (lo mo’il) refers to those things that are wrong because they do not contribute to man’s well-being; and so forth.7

Employing such techniques, the reader of the biblical narrative need not content themselves merely with their own private judgment concerning the wisdom, morality, or significance of the actions and events recorded in the biblical narratives. This does not mean that discovering the biblical viewpoint on these things is a simple matter, yet, if we are attentive, it is possible.

However, if we are to perceive the meaning of the arguments being advanced in biblical narratives, Hazony maintains that we must first be disabused of our expectation that the viewpoint of the biblical authors is a simplistic one. This attitude is especially pronounced among those who approach biblical narratives seeking a tidy ‘moral of the story’, assuming that ‘the author’s view of what is taking place in a given passage must be locatable on a map of simplistic categories such as: (i) approves, (ii) disapproves, or (iii) is amused and intrigued but passes no moral judgment.’8 Rather, we must recognize the sophistication and subtlety of the biblical authors. While we may discover a clear authorial standpoint, we should not expect it to be such a simplistic one:

The initial moral ambiguity that is present with respect to a certain biblical figure or event is rarely, if ever, just a smokescreen that the author, as artist, imposes in order to delay the onset of an otherwise quite black-and-white view to be delivered later. Across a large number of significant questions, the biblical narrative continues carefully to keep the ambiguity of the moral circumstances it is treating fully in view, even after the reader has a pretty good idea of where the text’s commitments are.9

As readers of the story, we often content ourselves with seeking to identify the ‘good guys’. However, Hazony remarks upon the manner in which biblical narratives can offer very nuanced assessments upon their characters. For instance, Hazony’s discussion of the way that the characters of the five foremost sons of Jacob—Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, and Joseph—exposes them as representing complex types of contrasting national figures with various strengths and flaws:

The struggle for predominance among the five young shepherds extends, in its initial telling, over one-third of Genesis, with each son representing a complex of characteristics and values associated with a politics of a certain type: Reuven, the protectiveness, sentimentality, and foolishness of the first born; Shimon, the tendency to assert leadership through violence; Levi, the relentless insistence on justice and purity in all things; Judah, the capacity to correct one’s course and reestablish moral principle despite personal weakness and error; and Joseph, the unmatched capacity to manipulate power in the service of some end.10

These figures, whose contrasting characters become more apparent over the course of the biblical narrative, need to be carefully harnessed for the service of the common good. Joseph’s accommodation to Egyptian ways will prove impotent to deliver Israel from Egypt, while the zeal of the Levites comes to the foreground at that point and wins them the priesthood. The willingness of Judah to mend his ways ultimately leads to that tribe being preferred over all of the others for the rule of Israel.

A key dimension of Hazony’s approach is found in his appreciation that ‘no amount of poring over the story itself will yield up the standpoint of the narrative towards the characters or their actions, because this standpoint isn’t expressed within the confines of the story itself.’ Rather, we must often wait for a long time before the standpoint becomes apparent. Biblical passages do not stand in splendid isolation from each other as detached fables, but are intricately intertwined, deeply integrated, and mutually disclosing. Hazony underlines this point with the Talmudic saying: ‘The words of the Tora are impoverished in their own place, but rich when read elsewhere.’11 To discover the significance of certain actions and events, we will often need to wait in order to see the succeeding consequences that serve to disclose their true character.

Hazony offers a reading of the story of Jacob and Rebekah’s deception of Isaac, in order to obtain Esau’s blessing. Freed from a need to cast a simplistic moral judgment upon the actions in this detached episode, he claims that we are able to arrive at a clear, yet not unequivocal, position with respect to the actions of the various characters in the story:

I don’t think … that there is much question that the narrative portrays Jacob’s having deceived Isaac as a significant moral failing. In a sense, Jacob’s entire life is described as being lived in the shadow of this one terrible mistake he made as a young man. And yet the narrative is equally insistent that Jacob was right to resist Isaac’s wish that Esau, the firstborn, be his heir. The very name “Israel,” which God gives Jacob, is said to mean “you have contended with God and with men and have prevailed”—reflecting the pleasure that God takes, not in Jacob’s execrable deception, but in the fact that Jacob has resisted the fate his birth as the second twin had decreed for him. This means that as the story unfolds, Jacob is punished for the way he treated his father and brother, even as the narrative reconfirms that his motives were the right ones, and even shows respect for his willingness to act on these motives.12

Hazony supports his reading of the deception of Isaac by claiming that its significance is disclosed when it is read in the light of two subsequent deceptions that bear deep similarities to his deception of his father, deceptions that represent the long and tragic shadow of that initial sin over his life. The first deception is Laban’s deception of Jacob, giving him Leah instead of Rachel. In Jacob’s blindness in the darkness, Laban asserts the rights of the firstborn Leah over her younger sister, Rachel. The second deception occurs when Jacob’s own sons deceive him using the blood of a kid of the goats, much as he deceived his father using the skin of a kid of the goats. This second deception is employed in order to remove the preferred son and secure the blessing of their father for themselves.

I believe that Hazony’s principles for discerning a textual standpoint upon the actions and events recorded in scriptural narratives are exceedingly illuminating and important. They serve explicitly to articulate many of the principles that are implicit in the interpretative approaches adopted by some of the best readers of Scripture. Following these principles to understand specific narratives introduces further challenges, in which the mutually sharpening interactions between skilled readers will be a necessary endeavour.

For instance, James Jordan has explored the narrative of the deception of Isaac in some depth in various contexts, such as in his book Primeval Saints. Jordan is primarily engaging with the simplistic readings of many evangelicals, who typically portray the actions of Jacob in the deception of Isaac as a proof of his sinful character, prior to a supposed conversion at a subsequent point. However, as Jordan stresses, at the very outset of the narrative of Jacob, he is explicitly spoken of as a ‘perfect’ person (Genesis 25:27), the same term that is used of Noah (6:9), Abraham (17:1), and Job (1:1). In a manner not unrelated to Hazony’s third technique, this is a characterization that, when related to other occurrences in Scripture, can be seen to bear very strong positive connotations.

The characterization of Esau and Jacob also recalls existing type contrasts (Hazony’s first technique), not least between the characters of Cain and Abel, being played out within their story. Jacob is shrewd (note the way that he plays the role of the serpent in deceiving his brother concerning supposedly forbidden food), but is contrasted with his wicked brother who despises his birthright and is related both to Adam and to the figure of Laban who appears subsequently. Esau is related to Adam by his despising of his birthright and by the way that he is called ‘Edom’ immediately afterwards. Esau is related to Laban, whose name means ‘white’, as Laban is outwitted by Jacob using white strips peeled from the white tree poplar (the other two trees Jacob uses most likely pun on the name of Luz, where Jacob encountered YHWH in Genesis 28:19, and the word for ‘cunning’), while ‘Edom’, whose name means ‘red’, is outwitted by Jacob using the red, red stew.13 These contrasted characters are developed throughout the biblical narrative in various ways, both as oppositions between individuals and nations.

Jordan employs something similar to Hazony’s second technique to interpret the deception of Isaac when he foregrounds the role played by Rebekah in the narrative. Rebekah, who is seldom prominent in either Hazony’s or typical evangelical readings of the passage, instigates the entire deception, not Jacob. And, as Jordan points out, Rebekah’s role in the narrative fits with a number of narratives in which ‘serpent’ or tyrant figures are deceived by the woman, often for the sake of the seed. These play out the pattern of the protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15 and also represent poetic justice for the woman, who deceives the figure who once so catastrophically deceived her. Once again, this gives us further purchase upon the meaning of the deception of Isaac.

A further related event that should be mentioned occurs near the end of the book of Genesis, where Jacob, now blind like his father, blesses the sons of Joseph. However, presented with Manasseh and Ephraim, Jacob insists, against Joseph’s protestations, on giving the firstborn blessing to the younger over the elder of the two. It is as if, at the very end of his own life, looking back on all that preceded, Jacob reaffirms the goodness of the replacing of the firstborn by the younger son.

Taking these further details into account, the meaning of the story of the deception of Isaac can be seen to play itself out in very complex ways, producing a reading of it that is very far from unequivocal. Considering both Hazony and Jordan’s readings of this incident, I find myself departing from both in some respects. Hazony’s observations about the parallels between the deception of Isaac and the two terrible deceptions that marked the rest of Jacob’s life by misery are very important and, taking them into account, I do not believe that Jordan’s more positive reading of Jacob’s actions can ultimately be sustained.

On the other hand, Jordan brings much into the picture that Hazony misses, providing important mitigating considerations for Rebekah and Jacob’s actions, challenging the force of Hazony’s condemnation. Following Hazony’s principles, and taking the lines of evidence that both Hazony and Jordan bring forward, I believe that an even more nuanced picture develops. This picture does not involve a return to the simplistic negative reading offered by most evangelicals, but nor does it represent a straightforwardly positive instance of righteous deception. Isaac is not inappropriately characterized as an unrighteous obstacle to God’s purpose in the narrative, deceived by a woman who is seeking to uphold it. Esau is a wicked man, who has despised his birthright and threatens the integrity of the covenant. It seems to me, however, that Jacob emerges as a much more complex figure, who oversteps a line in the pursuit of a good end, with some serious consequences that play out over the rest of his life.

Here it might be helpful to read the story of Jacob in intertextual conversation with the story of David in 1 Samuel 24 and 25. David is opposed by the father figure of Saul, who insists upon giving the kingdom to the wrong son. He is also challenged by the fool Nabal (Laban’s name backwards).

Treating the second account first, in 1 Samuel 25, David cares for Nabal’s flocks, much as Jacob cared for Laban’s flocks. Much like Laban, however, Nabal is an ungracious man and treats David unjustly, even though he has helped to build up his house. Seeking vengeance, David takes on characteristics that are reminiscent of Esau, before he is arrested in his plans by the righteous and beautiful Abigail (who reminds us of Rachel, who later deceived her father Laban). He is on his way with about four hundred men to wipe out Nabal’s house (25:13), much as Esau came to meet Jacob with four hundred men (Genesis 32:6). As he nears Nabal’s house, however, he is met by gifts sent towards him ahead of Abigail, Nabal’s wife, who prevents him from carrying out his intended bloodthirsty action, which would have made him similar to Saul. In this action, Abigail follows the pattern of Jacob himself in Genesis 32, who pacified Esau with gifts sent ahead of him. Righteous Abigail recalls David to his Jacob-ness. David will not be avenged by his own hand. Rather, God is the one who destroys Nabal.

Looking back to the preceding chapter, in 1 Samuel 24, we see many of the themes of Genesis 27, where Jacob deceived Isaac, in play. Saul is a wicked father figure and David, in the darkness of the cave, approaches Saul and cuts off a corner of Saul’s robe (something we should recognize represents the kingdom). However, immediately afterwards, David is troubled in his conscience, recognizing that despite Saul’s wickedness he has acted wrongfully.

In the conversation that follows, where David’s righteous restraint in seeking to take the inheritance for himself is revealed, Saul’s words, ‘is this your voice, my son David?’ recall the interaction between Jacob and his blind father Isaac. The chapter ends with Saul declaring that David is more righteous than he is, that the kingdom will be established in his hands, and blessing him. Here I believe we find a key to understanding the complicated story of the deception of Isaac. Here Jacob steps back from snatching the blessing and inheritance from the blind father, yet receives it nonetheless, on account of his righteousness.14

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham) is adjunct Senior Fellow at Theopolis and is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast.  He is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged

References   [ + ]

1. Cited in Yoram Hazony, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (Cambridge University Press, 2012), 67.
2. Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, 67
3. Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, 68
4. Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, 75
5. Some examples include, the sin of Ham in Genesis 9, Esau’s giving up of his birthright in Genesis 25, Israel’s sin with the golden calf at Sinai in Exodus 32, Saul’s consultation with the woman of Endor, Jezebel and Ahab’s plot to kill Naboth, and Zeresh and Haman’s plot to kill Mordecai. There are also a great many stories that include characters that evoke the Fall story, while reversing its pattern, such as the many narratives where women deceive ‘serpent’ figures.
6. Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, 76
7. Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, 78-79
8. Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, 79-80
9. Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, 81-82
10. Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, 70
11. Cited in Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, 81.
12. Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, 82
13. Puns are a prominent literary device employed throughout the Jacob narrative.
14. There may also be an echo of the story of David’s own ancestors Judah and Tamar here: as Saul admits that David was more righteous than he, we might see a sort of reversal of Judah’s self-condemnation (1 Samuel 24:14, cf. Genesis 38:26).