The Trickster is a staple of mythic traditions. Famous ones include Coyote, Raven, Weesakayjack and others among Native American groups, Loki in Northern Europe, Reynard in France, Hermes in Ancient Greece, or even the more modern Brer Rabbit in the Southern US. The Trickster is a male (always male) figure who, as the name suggests, plays tricks.

Trickster tales tend to be bawdy, outrageous, and extremely funny. The Trickster is morally ambiguous, sometimes working to the benefit of humans and sometimes to their detriment. He is also ambiguous in form, a shapeshifter. He may disguise himself as an animal or as a different person. Either way, his identity is rather fluid.

One of my favourite aspects of the Trickster is that he’s frequently the butt of his own jokes, concocting overly elaborate schemes that backfire badly.

Chapter 27 is a classic Trickster tale, set in a Hebrew milieu.

The Favoured Son

We found out in Chapter 25 that Isaac prefers his eldest son, Esau, because he hunts and brings home the noms. So now, in his old age and going blind, he asks Esau to go hunting so that he can have his favourite foods. In exchange, Isaac will give him a blessing.

Rebekah overhears this and decides to trick Isaac so that he blesses her favourite son, Jacob, instead. She tells Jacob to go out back and kill some goats, which she then prepares into Isaac’s favourite dishes. He’s blind, so he won’t be able to see which kid he’s blessing, but he still has his other senses. To complete the subterfuge, they dress Jacob in Esau’s clothing and tie some goat skin to the backs of his hands and neck (remember, Esau is the hairy brother).

Esau? Is that really you?

Disguised as his brother, Jacob takes the meal to Isaac. When Jacob presents the food, however, Isaac becomes suspicious and asks him how he found it so quickly. Hilariously, Jacob replies that it’s “because the Lord your God granted me success” (Gen. 27:20).

Isaac Rejecting Esau by Giotto di Bondone, 1290

Isaac Rejecting Esau by Giotto di Bondone, 1290

This is a classic Trickster line. On the obvious reading, it’s clearly a lie. He’s not Esau, the meat isn’t game, and the Lord most certainly did not grant him hunting success. However, the hidden meaning is that God is on Jacob’s side, as the listener (who has likely heard other tales of Jacob) probably knows.

But Isaac isn’t convinced by this explanation. So he calls Jacob to him so that he can touch him, to make sure that he’s as hairy as Esau. When he touches Jacob, he feels the goat skins. “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau” (Gen. 27:22). He then asks Jacob to kiss him and, while they’re kissing, gets in a sniff to confirm that he smells like Esau too (remember, Jacob is wearing Esau’s clothing).

Finally, Isaac is convinced that Jacob is Esau and he gives his blessing. “May God give you of the dew of heaven, and of the fatness of the earth…” yadda yadda (Gen. 27:28).

Esau returns

With the blessing received, Jacob leaves the room just as Esau comes in with his meal. Esau approaches Isaac and offers up the food he’s just prepared and it doesn’t take long before they work out what’s happened.

Esau is in anguish and he begs his father to bless him as well. But that’s not how it works, because Jacob “came with guild, and he has taken away your blessing” (Gen. 27:35). And, because Isaac has already given away his only blessing, he gives Esau something that looks a whole lot more like a curse instead: “Behold, away from the fatness of the earth shall your dwelling me, and away from the dew of heaven on high. By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother” (Gen. 27:39-40).

Esau vows to kill Jacob as soon as Isaac dies and, once again, Rebekah McEavesdroppy overhears. She tells Jacob to flee to Laban, her brother, until Esau cools his jets.

How do blessings work?

As a Trickster tale, this chapter works well. Trickster tales are often funny and light-hearted, and they don’t always make perfect sense. The idea that a blessing is a tangible thing to be possessed and fought over works well in a mythic context. The fact that the audience knows that a father can give multiple blessings, one or more to each of his children, just makes the fact that Isaac can’t all the more funny.

But the status of the Bible for many Christians (and Jews?) must somber our reading. The fact is that there’s a whole lot of people out there who view the Bible as the literal historical truth, and even more who view it as a moral guide.

If we’re to interpret it in light of this, the story goes from humorously ridiculous to just plain ridiculous. Isaac’s blessing was clearly intended for Esau – does God not realize this? Can God’s favour be evoked by magic incantation, to be bestowed or stolen according to human will rather than God’s? Or, if God likes Jacob best and wanted him to be blessed, making this whole episode part of his divine plan, why couldn’t he have just bypassed Isaac and blessed Jacob himself? What do we learn about the nature of God from this chapter?

And then there’s the “Good Book” set of questions: Is it right to lie and steal? Jacob is rewarded for his efforts, and nowhere are we told that there is anything wrong with his methods. Read morally, the interpretation is clear: the ends justify the means. And what about Isaac? Is it right for him to bless only one child, cursing the other? Is it right for him to bless one child by making him “lord over your brothers” so that “your mother’s sons bow down to you” (Gen. 27:29)?

This is the second time in this book that a father has cursed his own son, making him the slave of another. God remains silent.

I’m going to stop here even though there’s a bit more to the chapter. The break is in a weird place, so we get a portion of Chapter 28’s story at the tail end of Chapter 27. I’ll just cover it next time instead.