Blessed are the Tricksters

Did you ever notice how trickery is rewarded in the book of Genesis?

Consider how Abraham twice--twice!-- passes off his wife Sarah as his sister. He first does this with Pharaoh, and is reward handsomely for the deception (Genesis 12.16): "Pharaoh treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels."

Later on Abraham does the same with Abimelek and, once again, makes out like a bandit (Genesis 20.14-15): "Then Abimelek brought sheep and cattle and male and female slaves and gave them to Abraham, and he returned Sarah his wife to him. And Abimelek said, 'My land is before you; live wherever you like.'"

Protestants tend to moralize these passages, arguing that Abraham's deception is sinful. But the text suggests quite the opposite. Abraham is handsomely rewarded for his trickery in both cases.

Why might that be?

Here's my best guess. In both cases Abraham is the weaker player. In both cases Abraham is fearful for his life:
Pharaoh / Genesis 12.12
"When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me..."

Abimelek / Genesis 20.11
Abraham replied, “I said to myself, ‘There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.'"
I'd suggest that Abraham's trickery is rewarded in the story because trickery is one of the few weapons the powerless possess in the face of the powerful. Deception and subterfuge are often the only weapons available to the oppressed and marginalized. Consequently, in Genesis we often see deception and subterfuge rewarded when used by the weaker against the stronger. Deception is found to be virtuous in the story when it is used to interrupt the powerful.

Consider also, as other examples, Jacob's trickery of Esau and Tamar's trickery of Judah. In these cases we also see the weaker--the second born, a woman--overcome the stronger--the first born, a male patriarch--with trickery. And in both cases the trickery is rewarded. As it was with Abraham.

In short, the Sunday School moralization of trickery and deception in Genesis (e.g., Abraham should not have told a lie) misses the commentary about power relations running through the narrative.

(Incidentally, I would expect that there is a scholarly literature about the trickster theme in Genesis, but I've not taken the time to search it out. These are just observations off the top of my head as I was recently reading through the Abraham narratives. Observations like, "Hey, look how Abraham keeps getting rich by lying about his wife!")

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29 thoughts on “Blessed are the Tricksters”

  1. Hi Richard. Much appreciated post as I've been really struggling through my current re-read of the Bible - and this is one of the features that really leapt out this time around. I appreciate your take on these passages, but would point out that:

    1. even more powerless characters are sometimes exploited in the process (e.g. Abraham's wife)
    2. the powerless sometimes become more powerful than those they trick in the process (e.g. Issac and Esau)
    3. the outcome is sometimes increased power and wealth for the deceiver (e.g. Abraham) rather than justice
    4. the deceptions in Abraham's case are unprovoked and based on predicted, not actual threats.

    I continue to scratch my head over these passages and look forward to reading the comments of your illustrious and well-informed readership.


  2. I'd love to see someone better at the Bible than me do a reading, along the lines of Boyd's "Shadows of the Cross." While I think Boyd may be putting a new spin on things, this is basically a remix of the idea of condescension, which has an ancient heritage and is esteemed by Catholics and Reformed folks alike. Along these lines, in what way are these questionable trickster tales possible examples of God's condescension? In what way are they shadows of the cross?

    I'd suggest that dishonesty seems justifiable when you are in a position of weakness, and maybe it even is sometimes. In Christ's own ministry, he never seems dishonest, but he is tricky and reveals things partially. Wise as serpents, innocent as doves. He tells parables that hide the truth in plain sight. He drips out his Messianic vocation bit by bit, until he is killed ... then he returns in power and glory, and the time for even the not-dishonest trickiness of Messianic secrets has come to an end. The disciples then proclaim the Gospel openly, in power, unafraid of death. The power of God, fully revealed, removes the need for even these last vestiges of dishonesty; perhaps the Hebrew Bible's trickster stories point to the cross, in their brokenness, by preparing us for the radical surprise of the resurrection. Yes, God is a trickster, but not in the way we thought. Not dishonest, but so surprising as to be unpredictable, and so surprising as to be able to hide in plain sight. So surprising as to allow the worldly power of death to be a trap into which death itself falls. Maybe, in the light of Christ, we can appreciate these tricks as a foreshadowing, a shadow, of the power of surprising honesty in a world where Jesus truly is Lord.

  3. Oops, Andrew, I hit the "don't like" mark by mistake when going for "Reply." Sorry!

    Just an observation. Since knowledge does contribute to power (e.g., knowing who to kill if you want Sarah), being honest to evil persons can mean complicity in their evil. And that would mean that turning the tables on evil persons by trickery is a good thing. So I think Richard's on to something here. And I know that getting over any moral qualms I might have helps me enjoy the story: It's fun to see the good guy win by tricking the bad guy. Sometimes the heart is smarter than the head.

  4. Thanks Andrew. No doubt this analysis doesn't clean up all the issues. It's mainly a pushback on the easy Sunday School moralizations. In this case telling kids that Abraham's deception was wrong when in both cases he ends up besting a pagan king.

  5. A violent world is morally murky - I like that. And I think perhaps it gets to the heart of the matter. Having been brought up on a diet of simplistic inter-testament parallels ("The five panels of the tabernacle are the five Christian ministries" etc.), I find Dan's shadows of the cross helpful. Perhaps these morally confounding stories are designed to take us away from the absolutes of the ontological proof and throw us headlong into God's relationship with a world of broken relationships and power politics. This is a story of hand-dirtying moral engagement, of dancing with the dark side, rather than world-shunning purity and moral absolutes. And perhaps in this we see something of the gospel.

  6. These passages (regarding Abraham and Sarah) wouldn't normally concern me since the OT has many morally murky passages. However. Peter's use of Sarah as a model for Christian wives makes this a concern for me. (1 Peter 3:5-6: "For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear")

    Do any of you have thoughts on the 1 Peter passage?

  7. This fits pretty well with anthropologist James C. Scott's studies of peasant resistance against oppression. In books like Domination and the Arts of Resistance and Weapons of the Weak, he discusses subversive tactics like jokes, folktales, songs, and theater. And some Native American liberation theology identifies Jesus with the Trickster of indigenous folklore. I can get behind that Christology . . .

  8. The trickery in Genesis is always a response to violence and power that substitutes the suffering of one for another. It always propagates violence instead of solving it until Tamar.

    Judah is the hero of the book because he's the only one who finally gets that this substitution doesn't end well.

  9. Your take on these stories provides an interesting lens for examining Jesus' really strange parable about shrewdness in Luke 16.

    (Presumably you meant Jacob and Esau, not Isaac and Esau?)


  10. I had the same thought. And edit has been made. An unforgivable mistake for a CoC person. ;-)

  11. This is the only thing I've written about that text:

  12. As often, Richard, you've inspired me. If you'd like to see my take on all of this, check out

  13. I'll have to check out "Shadows of the Cross." The more I've thought about morality and justice the more I've come to realize that its not a black and white thing. Especially for one who plays a leadership role, it seems like it is impossible to be fully engaged in leading a flock without bringing judgement upon oneself. To maintain ones own purity is to be aloof and weakly vacillating, abstaining from the dirty earthiness of life. The pretense is that our own purity and asceticism make us closer to God, but if God is one who has chosen to do what he spared Abraham of, sacrificing his only son, then perhaps to become impure, to be unafraid of getting a little blood on your own hands, as an act of utter love for one who is "other," is the ultimate act of solidarity with God in Christ.

    From East to West
    Ever since the world began
    I only mean it for the best
    I want to be with you any way I can

    I been in a brawl
    Now I'm feeling the wall
    I'm going away baby
    I won't be back ‘til fall

    High on the hill
    You can carry all my thoughts with you
    You've numbed my will
    This love could tear me in two

    I wanna be with you in paradise
    And it seems so unfair
    I can't go to paradise no more
    I killed a man back there

    You think I'm over the hill
    You think I'm past my prime
    Let me see what you got
    We can have a whoppin' good time

    Bob Dylan "Spirit on the Water"

    Is there a sense in which God has literally torn himself apart, acting against his own nature, giving up his own holy purity by sacrificing his innocent son, and waits for the time when this act of deepest love has its full effect on humanity, permeating the entire creation until he is all-in-all with us in paradise?

  14. Thanks, Nate. I'm currently reading Moltmann's 'The Crucified God' which addresses your final question and I wonder if this book may be of interest to you too...

  15. I have explored these stories of righteous deception at length in a number of different blog posts. All sorts of fascinating stuff there, especially in the Jacob narratives (some of the deceptions hinge upon false phalluses, another is a pseudo-sacrifices, a few are careful reversals of previous deceptions, and wordplays on colour is also a major theme). Here are a few:

    Abram and Sarai's sojourn in Egypt
    Abraham and Sarah in Gerar
    Isaac and Rebekah among the Philistines
    Jacob and Rebekah's deceptions of Esau and Isaac
    Jacob's deceptions of Laban
    Rachel's deception of Laban
    The deceptions of the Hebrew midwives
    The deception of Rahab

    Other examples could be listed: Tamar, Jael, David, Michal, Esther, etc. These characters are praised for their courage and faith.

    Other important things to notice: 1. The scenes usually involve women deceiving tyrants, which is poetic justice for the serpent's deception of the woman; 2. They are often related to the theme of victory through misperceived weakness. Examples here include Samson, the captured Ark of the Covenant, David against Goliath, and, most importantly, Christ at the cross.

  16. Hi Richard: I recently read Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman, where he talks about how hatred, deception, and fear are often responses by the disinherited / powerless, and suggests that these are harmful and that love is the better way. I'm looking forward to re-reading the book in light of your post and the many interesting responses to it!

    rob g

  17. Thanks Andrew. I've actually been reading Moltmann's book too, in chunks at a time. Been having a huge influence on how I understand and seek to live out the gospel and I'm only a few (very dense) chapters in.

    As I alluded to above, I'd highly recommend recent Bob Dylan. Moltmann's themes (along with some Bonhoeffer and even Girard) permeate his music since at least 1997, possibly back to his first "post-Christian" albums in the mid-eighties. As an aside, I think that Dylan is as close to a prophet of Bonhoeffer's "religionless Christianity" as there has ever been.

  18. Richard, you might be interested in the work of Kester Brewin, English. His first book, "The Complex Christ" was very important for me in considering different ways to look at theological questions. He treats Christ as a trickster figure, and talks about the meaning of that. He's not "an official theologian" but he is quite brilliant, and kindly inscribed a personal message in each book when I ordered them for my book group to read. I haven't read his later books. When he blogs, it is here: He is also interested in the pirate theme.


  19. /chuckle

    I feel your pain. I made a similar mistake in an Amazon book review of _The Blue Parakeet_ and was immediately called out on it. Note to self: Ruth <> Esther.


  20. Jacob and the Divine Trickster: A Theology of Deception and Yhwh's Fidelity to the Ancestral Promise in the Jacob Cycle by John E. Anderson

  21. I am also taking Moltmann in bitesize pieces! Like you, I'm blown away by the dense brilliance of his scholarly insight. It gets a little easier (and better in my view) as it goes on. Thanks for the Dylan signpost - I'll check him out on Spotify straight away...!

  22. I always laugh when I read Peter's comments on Sarah and then flip back to the actual story. Have you read Genesis lately? Sarah is anything but an obedient wife to Abraham. She does what she wants and gets her own way, Abraham be damned. She laughs at angels too. She is no submissive little Neo-Calvinist wife-ideal (or should that read idol). Where is Peter getting this from? You have to go beyond the current Protestant Bible, into the world of second temple Judaism to understand things. Both Paul and Peter appeal to common knowledge (of the day) about Old Testament characters that don't fit well with the O.T. stories we read. Peter is likely drawing on apocryphal writings and pseudepigraphic writings. Remember, in the early church, "the Word" included writings that were later considered non-inspired. That clears up a lot of the confusion when the letters mention Old Testament Characters in a way you just don't see when reading them.

  23. In my reading, I haven't presumed that the larger narrative implicity endorses trickery and suggests "go thou and do likewise." It is a big theme, though, and your take on trickery as a weapon of the powerless is useful.

  24. Yes, and there is the trickery of the midwives when Pharoah ordered the killing of male Hebrew babies. Cleverness is often praised in the Bible.

  25. Looks like you've gotten plenty of book suggestions already, but the book The Faith of the Outsider: Exclusion and Inclusion in the Biblical Story (Frank Spina) was a favorite of mine addressing these same stories and themes.

  26. Interesting points, you might find this link interesting, in relation to tricksters and the bible. Thanks :)

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