Flawed forebears. The main characters of the Ancestral Story, both male and female, seem generally strong and determined, but at times they also revealed weaknesses. Can you identify examples of each? Do you see the patriarchs and matriarchs as the movers and shakers of Israel’s future in relation to the promises of God, or were they mostly just passive recipients of the divine promises?
In The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach, Christopher Stanley discusses how the Genesis 12-50 narratives present characters who function as either positive or negative role models “whose words and deeds reveal how the deity wants his people to live” (218). In this sense, the Ancestral Story in the Genesis account functions as a text that presents religious value in addition to a historical background for the people of Israel. Regarding the religious value of the text, the lives and actions of the patriarchs and matriarchs, whether historically “accurate” or not, present truths about how these people perceived God’s role in the lives of people and desires for the actions of people. This textual focus offers much space for thoughtful analysis, but one of the most intriguing issues involves the tensions between strength and weakness, determination and flaws, that are woven throughout the characters in the narratives. Why would the authors of the text choose to tell their story using heroes and events that do not always paint the brightest picture of the lives of these characters? Why would God choose broken people and broken situations in which to accomplish God’s plans?
Strong and determined characters do comprise many of the narratives in Genesis 12-50. Jacob’s story, for example, is highlighted by incidents that depict a sort of strength and determination. Jacob, according to Stanley, plays a “classic trickster” role that “highlights ambiguities or tensions in the value systems of a given society” (220). The tricks he plays on his brother, Esau, and his father, Isaac, show Jacob’s determination to get ahead in life, stealing his father’s blessing from his older brother. Whether this is ultimately “strength” of character informing this action remains questionable, since Jacob’s actions are ultimately self-motivated at this point and he is depicted as taking advantage of his family members. Interestingly, strength and determination also define Jacob’s turning-point toward following Yahweh. On Jacob’s way home to work toward reconciliation with Esau, Jacob wrestles with a mysterious being throughout the night and is left with a dislocated hip joint in the morning. In this scene Jacob is both “humbled and blessed” by the mysterious being (God) and is renamed Israel – “one who struggles with God” (220). Here it is Jacob’s strength of character in transformation that ultimately may teach a lesson to his ancestors.
Another depiction of strength of character is in the story of Jacob. Although Jacob is dealt unfair circumstances by his jealous brothers and by his master’s wife in Egypt, his steady obedience and work ethic continuously elevates him in Egyptian society. He shows strength of character by ultimately forgiving his brothers and caring for his family (although not without tricking them first!).
On the other hand, most of these characters in the Ancestral Narratives also show flaws and weaknesses. Stanley asserts that “virtually all of the characters in the Jacob narrative are selfish, conniving, and untrustworthy…even Joseph brags about his future greatness and deceives his brothers several times before revealing his identity to him (Genesis 42:1-45:8)” (Stanley, 227). Sarah does not trust God’s revelation that she will have a child in her old age (Genesis 18:1-15) and she also manipulates Abraham when she wants rid of his slave Hagar (Genesis 16; 21). Isaac acts passively throughout the text. Jacob tricks Esau. Laban tricks Jacob. And on and on….and we begin to wonder how such broken people managed to create a strong nation.
And I think that in this sort of wondering we can find the role of God in the narrative. It is in the brokenness and flaws and weaknesses of the patriarchs and matriarchs that Yahweh’s transforming power is able to be comprehended by the people. The role of the flawed individual is then more important in terms of God’s ability to “work in the circumstances of his people, despite the vagaries of human behavior and the threats posed by uncontrollable events” (Stanley, 227). This is the core of the religious value of these texts. That, as Stanley writes, “No situation or individual lies beyond the transforming and redeeming power of Yahweh” (Stanley, 227). The people who receive these stories are then able to see their own narratives woven into the narratives of individual, flawed heroes who are characterized by loyalty and obedience to a deity stronger and more capable than themselves. This is an important overarching Truth embedded in these narratives for the people.
So were the patriarchs and matriarchs the movers and shakers of Israel’s future in relation to the promises of God, or were they mostly just passive recipients of the divine promises? I think the answer is “yes” to both. They were movers and shakers in their willingness to radically obey God in all circumstances (even if the obedience came a little later than the initial request). Yet their flaws show them as passive to the extent that Yahweh was able to work through divine power in the lives of the people.
An Enduring Understanding for this unit is “The Bible is a library of composite texts that are substantively diverse in their understandings of God and of the world.” We see this in a slightly different way in these narratives. The diversity seems to lie in the character depictions of the heroes of the people of Israel. “God works through diverse situations – flaws and strengths – to accomplish God’s will for the people” seems to be an overarching message of these texts. An Essential Question for this unit is “What makes a narrative or a claim “true”? Can conflicting narratives or claims both be “true”?” The ultimate truth here is that loyalty to God is desirable for the people and that loyalty produces God’s favor. This truth comes across through conflicting narratives and claims as the theme of the text. Whether or not the stories actually happened in history is irrelevant if the message comes through clearly to the people.