Sleight of Hand


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, Genesis 27:1-29, Romans 12:1-8, John 8:12-20

Sometimes the Bible reads like a soap opera. In Genesis 27, Rebekah convinces her son Jacob to wear goat skin on his neck and hands to fool his blind father into thinking he is his older, hairier twin brother Esau. He does this to secure his father Isaac’s blessing, which will mean he inherits leadership of his clan. Isaac does indeed (and improbably) grant his blessing to the “wrong” son, in an apparently irrevocable act. When the real Esau demands things be made right, all Isaac has left to offer is a meager consolation prize of a blessing that basically promises Esau the things Jacob didn’t already get.

To our modern sensibilities, developed in a culture of upward mobility, it seems unfair that deception is rewarded thusly. In Jacob’s time, though, people couldn’t earn authority based on merit; authority was inherited or taken by force. If Jacob (or his mother on his behalf) wanted equal opportunity without resorting to outright violence, he had no other choices but to scheme his way to it.

Many cultures have a “trickster” figure: Loki in Norse mythology; Raven in Native American lore; Anansi in West African folk tales. Jacob is a similar figure who outwits his brother multiple times, and even outwrestles an angel physically and mentally. Trickster figures, despite having questionable ethics, often bring benefits to mankind despite the will of the gods. This is where Jacob differs: God had already chosen him to continue Isaac’s lineage, and the tricks seem to support that.

For the most part we want and expect people to play by the rules. Deception rubs us the wrong way and leads to chaos. But what if the rules are not the same for everyone (as they almost never are, especially the unspoken ones)? The Bible has many stories of oppressed people who use the methods available to them to overcome. Deception is not a virtuous act, but sometimes it takes a trickster to turn oppression around. Someone who, say, subverts Roman and Jewish expectations and leads us to eternal life by sacrificing his own. The difference between a hero and a villain often depends on who writes the history book.

Comfort: God’s will eventually plays out.

Challenge: It may not play out in ways we like.

Prayer: Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge. Amen. (Psalm 16:1)

Discussion: “The ends justifies the means” is a sentiment which can cut both ways. Do you think questionable means are ever justified?

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