Morality and the Patriarchs

My Scripture Union Bible reading notes have recently been taking me through the life of the patriarch Jacob. If you don’t know this fascinating story, read Genesis chapters 25-35… or just look him up on Wikipedia. (Previous readers of the blog will know about my general prejudice in favour of his brother Esau, so be warned.) and

Reaching the end of the fortnight’s readings, I found myself sufficiently annoyed by the supplied comments to start composing a rant.

In Genesis chapter 33, Jacob and Esau reconcile, thanks to Esau’s surprising forgiveness. The SU commentator duly gave Esau credit for this, and then noted how disappointing it is that Jacob still doesn’t trust/wants to deceive Esau – saying he’ll follow him to Seir, but in fact settling temporarily in Shechem. (The brothers did eventually meet again, to bury their father.)

But the readings frustratingly skipped over the following chapter, which tells of the consequences of Jacob’s sojourn in Shechem: his daughter was raped, and two of his sons wreaked a horrible revenge. Interestingly, they followed in their father’s footsteps by using religious lies for their own purposes. “She can marry you if your people are circumcised”, they said, and then attacked while the men of Shechem were still sore.)

Missing out this story means missing the opportunity to emphasise that Jacob’s deplorable behaviour has serious consequences for other people.

It also means we lose the story of Dinah, one of the very few Bible stories that explicitly mention and condemn rape. And since the Bible is so full of stories about men, can we afford to overlook one of the few that’s about a woman?

(On the other hand, it’s fascinating how many of the memorable women in the OT are in fact in Genesis. Eve, Sarah, Rebekah, Tamar, Rachel and Leah, perhaps supremely Hagar.)

Before all this, however, we had the tale of Jacob wrestling with “a man,” who is apparently God (chapter 32.)

The commentator says of this monumental experience “His remarkable confrontation at Peniel would change the course of his life, but the very next day his tendencies to fear and to deceive are still apparent. Change normally takes time, requiring the involved process of renewing our minds” (my italics.)

My second objection is that this is an over-optimistic view of Jacob. Apart from one instruction to his family to get rid of idols (and after all this was before the Ten Commandments condemned graven images) there is I suggest no evidence that Jacob’s confrontations with God and Esau ever make him a better person at all.

Or that anything else does. He starts his life taking advantage of Esau and deceiving Isaac. He certainly discovers from his experience with his father-in-law Laban that other people can cheat as well, and presumably learns that this isn’t nice when you’re on the receiving end. It’s also notable, I think, that he treats his various wives pretty well for the culture, arguably better than Abraham or Isaac. But I’ve just been struck by the almost total lack of moral progress in Jacob’s story. He never explicitly repents of his actions to Esau and Isaac; and interestingly God doesn’t seem to tell him to, in any of their several conversations.

These contain no ethical content. God simply makes promises to him, and keeps them, and instructs him occasionally where to go.

In fact, how moral were any of these patriarchs?

Abraham heard God’s call and obeyed, which is faith, and is his key virtue in terms of the Bible. He did a few other things that we can agree were good (letting Lot have first pick of the land), some we can agree were bad (pretending his wife was his sister), some which the Bible approves and we struggle with (preparing to sacrifice Isaac.)

Isaac did a few things on his own, but is mainly in the story as the fairly passive object of Abraham’s faith, and Jacob’s deception.

Jacob, see above.

One might say that it is only when we come to Jacob’s son Joseph that we meet someone with recognisable moral standards – someone who appears to act with integrity, responsibility and kindness in very varied situations, and won’t commit adultery because “how then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Joseph of course also pursues a complicated course of deceit to expose/punish/soften his brothers, but like his Uncle Esau, he (spoiler) finally forgives them.)

Instead of assuming that we must be able to learn moral lessons from the story of Jacob, why not just accept that this part of the story is God establishing a relationship with the often bad people of His choice? God makes promises to Jacob, and keeps them, and all the rest is corroborative detail.

And indeed that was the overall point made by the SU commentator on Jacob’s story: “God is the hero of the Biblical narrative. It is an important corrective to studies of biblical characters, which easily become divorced from their original context and focus on moral lessons…” For all my grumbles, SU notes are a very useful tool.

The next post should arrive on September 11th.

Love from the PPI Blogger

PS Can anyone spot the glaring omission (one of my favourite verses in the Bible) from this grumble?

  • Clint Redwood

    28th August 2020 at 6:15 pm Reply

    When recently reading these chapters of Genesis, I found myself hearing the dialogue between Jacob and Esau in the voices or Tom Hiddleston and Chris Hemsworth respectively.

    Reflecting on the characters of Jacob and Esau, there is a similarity between their rivalry and that of Loki and Thor for Odin’s approval, just that in Genesis the trickster wins out…

  • Penelope Wallace

    29th August 2020 at 2:04 pm Reply

    What a fantastic thought, Clint! It’s even the same kind of trick (physical disguise.)

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