"The trickster is a subtype of the underdog. A fascinating and universal folk hero, the trickster brings about change in a situation via trickery. Although biblical tricksters are a much more sedate version of the character type than the bawdy examples of West African mythology, they display some of the same ambiguities in motivation and realization of goals. They never gain full control of the situation around them and often escape difficulties in a less than noble way. Their tale does not end with unequivocal success, but they survive to trick again – and, indeed, are survivors par excellence. Trickster narratives help us to cope with the insurmountable and uncontrollable forces in our own lives, personifying and in a sense containing the chaos that always threatens." Susan Niditch, Introduction to Underdogs and Tricksters: A Prelude to Biblical Folklore (1987, Harper & Row)
I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot as the adventures of Jacob have comprised the Old Testament lectionary of the last several weeks. As discussed in a recent Comic Lens blog, ("Why the Bible Loves Lucy" 7/29), Jacob is a quintessential trickster – an underdog who (like Lucy Ricardo!) pursues what he wants and needs through deception, chutzpah and wit.
The Bible emphasizes that God’s people are descended from such characters. And in many ways, that’s a very good thing! Scripture says we’re created in God’s image and, hence, have powerful minds and imaginations that we can and should use to shake up the seemingly unalterable status quo and accomplish (in surprisingly playful spirit) what otherwise seems impossible.
For example, in a small but personally significant way I continue to find success on my diet with trickery and carrots. Even the baby ones are sizeable and crunchy and relatively calorie-less, and yet they instantly trick my mind into thinking I’m eating something fattening and substantial. Hooray! I’m able to get through lunch (at least) without cheating.
As I suggested in my previous blog, it's no small thing that Jacob is the character who God eventually renames "Israel." Whether this is a portent, a determinant, or merely a coincidence, it can certainly be said that throughout Israel’s history she has often been in the position of the underdog trickster: smaller, less powerful, less honored, less able to control her destiny than those around her, remarkably able and willing to glorify God by using prodigious mind, wit and courage to move the nation surprisingly onward against all odds; greatly influencing global history, culture and spirituality in all sorts of ways as she goes. AND showing us all how laughter and joy can be found amidst great suffering and strife.
As Israel and Palestine have jumped into another heartbreaking round of intensified bloodshed and intractable vitriol aimed at one another, I wonder if what the Bible says about tricksters, especially in the "Jacob Cycle" of Genesis 25-33, can provide helpful insight.
It would seem one of the significant ways the contemporary nation of Israel has chosen to get what she needs and wants in terms of security and power is through the trickster tact of settlement building: sneaking, as it were, onto strategically important West Bank land to build zealous Israeli communities and then claiming legitimacy (however controversial) to do so (or ignorance of boundaries being violated). Despite widespread protest, settlers for the most part manage to remain in their new homes for any number of reasons, including the reality that once you’re planted, it’s simply really difficult to move.
The situation brings to mind the story in Genesis 27 where Jacob -- second-born and thus not privy to anywhere near the land, status or security to be granted to older-brother (and very hairy) Esau -- sneakily disguises himself in animal skins to trick blind old Isaac into thinking he’s Esau and ready to receive his blessing and birthright. Once Jacob sneakily nabs what now gives him the family "power position," he heads out of town. Now it’s going to be realllly hard to for Esau to get the birthright back, especially as Jacob is now on the run, never to return.
Of course what happens next to Jacob (after a fabulous dream with angels and ladders) is that he gets a taste of his own snappy medicine. We’re told in Genesis 29 that he falls in love with beautiful graceful Rachel. Her father, Laban, says Rachel can be Jacob’s bride if he will provide Laban seven years of work on his land. When the moment comes for him to marry his dreamboat, Laban mentions Laban the “fine print," as it were, on the deal : Jacob must first marry Laban’s oldest daughter Leah (she of “tender eyes”…in other words, arf arf). I can just hear the feigned, smarmy innocence in his voice as he tells Jacob, whose mouth is still dropped in disbelief, "This is not done in our country -- giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the [remaining] week on this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years." (vs. 26-7) Boy Laban is going to squeeze as much free labor out of Jacob as he can! Tee hee, tee hee....
And of course what happens next is that in Chapter 30 both Jacob and Laban trick one another several times as to who gets what livestock when they prepare to part ways once all the wedding and bedding of the daughters is done.
It would seem that these stories taken together teach us “Trickster is done to as trickster does.” Whether or not they -- or we -- like it, one good trick invariably leads to another.
Applying scripture’s apparent message to the current situation in the Middle East, it’s not surprising then, that in response to Israeli settlement building there arises wily terrorist groups and plots to pull Israel down. Terrorism could be said to be tricksterism in its darkest form. In the present instance, Hamas has been using Palestine's resources to build underground tunnels to sneak onto Israelite soil and cause considerable damage. Israel may be totally offended that this is happening and loudly cry foul, but…trickster is done to as trickster does.
(We see this happening in “I Love Lucy” all the time: Lucy puts on some get-up to fool Ricky and then after initially being “gotten” Ricky figures out what Lucy is up to and devises a response that he know will fool and scare her in order to “get back." Of course, Lucy's not down for long and we know just around the corner - the next episode if not sooner - is another scheme, another counter-scheme, another put-back, and on and on it goes.)
Seeing how things proceed in Genesis (and on Lucy) we can perhaps further surmise that if either side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict thinks their trickster strategy will ultimately prevail over the other, they should think again. Tricksters NEVER win. Their clever schemes keep things interesting and creative (as do my carrots, to a point). But in the end, there is no end. If there is to be peace, just and effective peace, something more must happen. Even with my diet, I need to stay committed to eating smart throughout the day and through a number of strategies beyond carrots (including prayer!).
In the Biblical story, Jacob finds resolution with Esau only after in Chapter 32 he (1) acknowledges his considerable fear of confronting his enraged older brother and prepares for an elaborate apology; and (2) only after Esau - whoda thunk it - takes the most-high road of forgiving Jacob, and without the need for all the swag. They embrace, bury the hatchet, and go on to later together bury their father.
At the end of the day, the Bible suggests peace can happen, but only when trickster tactics are understood as merely part of the creative/creating process that then need to be relinquished. At some point, honesty and amazing grace need to come into play.
It seems that these are the particular prayers that scripture (and other trickster tales) point us to make for the present situation. May we pray them with the considerable intelligence, courage, and maybe even wit with which we've endowed. (And get ready for what the God says, and through whom....)