To Kill and Take Possession, Part 2: The (Im)morality of Guile

In Chapters 3, 4, and 5 of the book To Kill and Take Possession: Law, Morality, and Society in Biblical Stories Daniel Friedmann takes a look at tales of disguise, deceit, and deception in the Old Testament. Here are three significant stories Friedmann examines:

1. "Look how moldy this bread is! Of course we traveled a long way to get here!"
This tale begins after the tribes of Israel have won many noteworthy victories in their plans to invade the Promised Land:

Joshua 9. 3-15
[W]hen the people of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and Ai, they resorted to a ruse: They went as a delegation whose donkeys were loaded with worn-out sacks and old wineskins, cracked and mended. The men put worn and patched sandals on their feet and wore old clothes. All the bread of their food supply was dry and moldy. Then they went to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal and said to him and the men of Israel, "We have come from a distant country; make a treaty with us."

...The men of Israel sampled their provisions but did not inquire of the LORD. Then Joshua made a treaty of peace with them to let them live, and the leaders of the assembly ratified it by oath.

Three days after they made the treaty with the Gibeonites, the Israelites heard that they were neighbors, living near them. So the Israelites set out and on the third day came to their cities: Gibeon, Kephirah, Beeroth and Kiriath Jearim. But the Israelites did not attack them, because the leaders of the assembly had sworn an oath to them by the LORD, the God of Israel.

2. How could you have sex with this woman and not know who it is?
The patriarch Jacob has worked to marry Rachel, the beautiful youngest daughter of Laban. On his wedding night Jacob thinks he's marrying Rachel, but Laban has made a switch. Jacob is tricked into marrying Leah, the older but less attractive sister of Rachel. Here's what happened after the wedding:

Genesis 29. 22-25
So Laban brought together all the people of the place and gave a feast. But when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and gave her to Jacob, and Jacob lay with her...

When morning came, there was Leah! So Jacob said to Laban, "What is this you have done to me? I served you for Rachel, didn't I? Why have you deceived me?" Laban replied, "It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one.

3. Exactly how hairy was Esau?
Wanting the blessing passed down from father to oldest son, Jacob, conspiring with his mother (Rebekah), plots to trick his blind father into thinking he, Jacob, is actually Esau, the older brother to whom the blessing is due:

Genesis 27. 5-30
Now Rebekah was listening as Isaac spoke to his son Esau. When Esau left for the open country to hunt game and bring it back, Rebekah said to her son Jacob, "Look, I overheard your father say to your brother Esau, 'Bring me some game and prepare me some tasty food to eat, so that I may give you my blessing in the presence of the LORD before I die.' Now, my son, listen carefully and do what I tell you: Go out to the flock and bring me two choice young goats, so I can prepare some tasty food for your father, just the way he likes it. Then take it to your father to eat, so that he may give you his blessing before he dies."

Jacob said to Rebekah his mother, "But my brother Esau is a hairy man, and I'm a man with smooth skin. What if my father touches me? I would appear to be tricking him and would bring down a curse on myself rather than a blessing."

His mother said to him, "My son, let the curse fall on me. Just do what I say; go and get them for me."

So he went and got them and brought them to his mother, and she prepared some tasty food, just the way his father liked it. Then Rebekah took the best clothes of Esau her older son, which she had in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob. She also covered his hands and the smooth part of his neck with the goatskins. Then she handed to her son Jacob the tasty food and the bread she had made.

He went to his father and said, "My father." "Yes, my son," he answered. "Who is it?" Jacob said to his father, "I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me. Please sit up and eat some of my game so that you may give me your blessing."

Isaac asked his son, "How did you find it so quickly, my son?" "The LORD your God gave me success," he replied.

Then Isaac said to Jacob, "Come near so I can touch you, my son, to know whether you really are my son Esau or not." Jacob went close to his father Isaac, who touched him and said, "The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau." He did not recognize him, for his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; so he blessed him...

Now, if you know your bible well the stories above are very familiar to you. So familiar, in fact, that we may not be shocked by them anymore. Specifically, Friedmann points out the very odd fact, to us at least, that in each of these stories the deceit actually pays off! This is particularly the case in Jacob acquiring the blessing of Isaac (as this deceit has huge implications upon biblical history). In short, what kind of morality is the bible advocating here? Lie and sneak and you'll be blessed?

The issue of cunning and deciet is a great example of what I talked about in my last post: The evolving morality of the bible. As Friedmann notes, in the cultures that drafted the earliest stories of Genesis deceit and cunning (psychologists would call it Machiavellianism) was seen as a virtue. As Friedmann notes (p. 66), "Guile was regarded as a praiseworthy talent."

In this world, the swearing of oaths became the primary anti-deceit technology. To ensure that you wouldn't be tricked you could demand that your bargining partner take an oath. Dishonesty during the oath or breaking the oath was believed to bring about divine calamity. In this the oath was a kind of divine "ordeal of the tongue" (see prior post on divine ordeals). The Old Testament is full of these oaths.

But over time, the moral sensibilities regarding the virtue of guile began to change. Specifically, in the minor prophets deceit is condemned in dealing with the poor:

Amos 8. 4-6
Hear this, you who trample the needy
and do away with the poor of the land, saying,
"When will the New Moon be over
that we may sell grain,
and the Sabbath be ended
that we may market wheat?"—
skimping the measure,
boosting the price
and cheating with dishonest scales,
buying the poor with silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
selling even the sweepings with the wheat.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus comes down hard against oaths:

"Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

Jesus' comments here become clear when we understand that oaths only make sense in a culture of deceit. Jesus here is calling for a new kind of commitment to truth, a deceit and guile free communication.

Finally, we begin to see in the bible how being guile free is the more virtuous stance:

John 1. 45-48
Philip found Nathanael and told him, "We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph."

"Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" Nathanael asked. "Come and see," said Philip.

When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, "Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is no guile."

In conclusion, when we think of the moral development of the bible we tend to look at the Levitical Codes and note how many of those codes seem irrelevant in the modern context. But I think these tales of deceit provide a little noticed case study on just how far the bible has come, morally speaking.

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5 thoughts on “To Kill and Take Possession, Part 2: The (Im)morality of Guile”

  1. I'm wondering about the apparent assumption that non-commentary upon deceit/guile, or the deceiver getting his wish, is an effective way of understanding the text's perspective on the actions.

    The Gibeonites openly tricked the Israelites; Laban is portrayed as dishonorable and unjust; and Jacob, while not necessarily condemned, is never praised.

    One of the dynamics in play here is what I've read called the "trickster" characters, whereby shrewdness/dishonesty is "allowed" for people in positions of powerlessness. So, for example, Rachel stealing the terraphim or Rebekah plotting for Jacob -- they are "finding a way" since they have no status or ability. The same for Jacob as the second-born.

    Whether you buy that argument or not, I'm not sure we see in these texts an ease with or endorsement of the guileful actions; I would actually make the argument that one of the virtues of the Hebrew narratives is that they often choose not to moralize an obviously compromised story of an important figure.

    All that to say, I wonder what that does for the argument about moral evolution. Regardless, this is still very interesting stuff.

  2. Hi Brad,
    I think you are certainly right in all you say. It may be a bit much to say the Hebrew narratives cast guile as "moral" or "virtuous". And I think your comment about guile in power asymmetries is very interesting.

    But I would argue that the very lack of moralizing we find in these stories combined with the fact that in the great majority of these stories guile pays off (that is, we see success with no moralizing commentary telling us that this success is somehow "wrong") hints strongly at a cultural stance toward guile, one that seems different as the bible evolves. One of these Genesis stories would seem ill-placed in the NT and we'd never see Jesus do such a thing. I think that shows a shift.

    But I'm willing to be wrong. Mainly I'm interested in rethinking some of these puzzling old stories.

  3. Your idea of "a cultural stance toward guile" is intriguing. I'd love to explore the presence of "guilt" throughout the OT and NT to look closer. And I certainly agree about its feeling ill-placed in the NT, contributing to your argument about a shift.

    That may be the case, but what fascinates me even more is that Israel's memory of its own history is so messy! It wouldn't belong in the NT because most everyone told of ought to be mimicked in some way (or, like Peter in the Gospels, is constantly rebuked). But Israel's history is littered with guile, murder, rape, lies, etc., and Israel tells the stories without blinking! (And the NT picks the theme up immediately with Matthew's genealogy.) That's what gets me.

    But as always I am enjoying your perspective. Looking forward to more on shifts.

  4. Regarding "messy" the thing I love about the OT is just how odd it is. I know the oddness is mainly on my end (as a modern reader), but I find the "oddness interface" between myself and the text to be a fertile place for the theological imagination.

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