Narrative as Law Week 2 Reading Guide

Fraud and International Relations (Jacob)

The second of the three weeks on narrative as law will focus on Jacob and his ethically and legally questionable behavior. As a tool for unpacking the variety of ways of looking at the ethics of Jacob’s behavior, we will put Jacob on trial.

The trial

In class, as long as it is fruitful, we will put Jacob on trial. The hope is to recognize the ethical problems presented in the Jacob stories and the variety of responses among interpreters. The format of the trial will be followed only as a tool for having fun and bringing out arguments and critiques. There will not be a winner. There is no virtue in making other students look bad. Snappy responses and rhetorical style are less important than bringing out the history of ideas of others, and defending your own ideas. It is important to support ideas with texts and properly identify hermeneutical approaches. I will try to be a neutral observer/facilitator as long as possible. We can go slow. Listening to others is important. There is nothing wrong with taking a minute to formulate a response or find a supporting text. As always, I would like everyone to contribute, but this is not a part of the grade more than participation in a normal class meeting.

As we go through the various arguments about Jacob’s behavior, I would like us to be aware of the major categories of interpretation discussed in the first class meeting: premodern, modern, and post-modern.

Premodern interpretation is characterized by the “four assumptions” described in Kugel’s introduction and the sidebar in my introduction to Jubilees. Perhaps the most relevant of those is that biblical heroes are perfect. The arguments in Kugel and Jubilees exemplify the ways premodern interpreters justified Jacob to the smallest detail. It should also be easy to show that the simple sense of Genesis does not support Jacob living to this highest standard.

Modern interpretation is characterized by rejecting the four assumptions of premodern interpretation. The focus is on the meaning of the text to its original authors/audience in the original historical context. Modern interpretation is concerned with dates and chronology and use of external sources such as Hammurabi and other archaeological discoveries. In general, modern arguments about Jacob’s actions will draw from what we know about the ancient standards of law and ethics. We probably won’t be too concerned with the exact chronology of the Jacob stories with respect to the law collections discussed previously in the course (Hammurabi, Decalogue, Covenant Code, Deuteronomy, Holiness Code, Priestly Source). They are all ancient enough for the present purpose.

Post-modern interpretation rejects the modern idea that the one true meaning of the text is the meaning intended by the original author. The interpreter speaks from her own perspective in her own world and describes what it means to her, without being too concerned with that it meant when it was written. “Readerly” interpretation focuses on the meaning that results from the encounter of the reader with the text, not the author and the text. More will be said below in the guide to Dershowitz, who mostly exemplifies postmodern interpretation. In general, arguments are probably postmodern if they sound like “if that happened today” or “if I were in Jacob’s shoes” or “based on my experience.”

Genesis 25:19—35:29

I’m torn between keeping the reading to a reasonable amount, and giving you the context you need to evaluate Jacob’s whole life. If you skim ahead you will encounter additional stories, also discussed by Dershowitz, about Jacob’s sons following in the footsteps of their father, and ultimately turning the table on Jacob.

Normally Collins and Blenkinsopp would be your source for insight into the historical context in which the narratives were written. They don’t dwell on this, and rather than assigning more pages let me give you some major points here.

Kugel, “Jacob and Esau,” pp. 199–214

Kugel gives classic examples of premodern interpretation which defends Jacob as perfectly good and attacks Esau as perfectly evil, well beyond what is explicit in Genesis. Although Jacob and Esau will be the primary focus in our “trial,” I also strongly recommend Kugel on “Jacob and the Angel,” pp. 217–229.

Jubilees 35:9—38:14 (PDF)

Again, I’m torn between keeping the reading limited and introducing you to the wonderful world of Jubilees. Although I expect you to read only a few chapters on the resolution of the Jacob/Esau matter, skimming or searching the book as a whole would tell you much more about Jacob and other legal matters that Jubilees finds implicit in Genesis.

Dershowitz, Alan M. “Jacob Deceives—and Gets Deceived,” in The Genesis of Justice: Ten Stories of Biblical Injustice that Led to the Ten Commandments and Modern Law. New York: Warner Books, 2000. (PDF)

This is another chapter from the book introduced last week. It is a good example of postmodern interpretation in that it draws from the experience of the reader in his own context of the legal profession.

Barmash, Pamela. “The Narrative Quandary: Cases of Law in Literature.” Vetus Testamentum 54 (2004): 1–16. (PDF)

Barmash’s article addresses the general theme for our final unit on the legal nature of narrative material. She introduces some of the problems of using literature as legal information. Fiction, after all, is free to imagine implausible events or logic. Personally, I keep thinking of someone who once told me that the movie “Pulp Fiction” was not realistic because one could not ride a motorcycle without a helmet for five minutes in California without being pulled over. That seems like an understatement of the ways in which the movie is not realistic, both in the major plot turns and minor details of setting. However, compared to science-fiction, for example, the movie takes place in a world comparable to our own. We might get into trouble culling narrative for legal instruction that was not intended by the authors. On the other hand, some background presumptions may be the least tendentious parts of our sparse knowledge of ancient Israel.

Barmash describes three approaches to narrative as law. The first is to read narrative as reflecting legal norms (to the extent that it aims to be realistic rather than fantasy). The second is to use knowledge of the legal context to appreciate the nuances of narrative. The third is to view legal and narrative material as mutually illuminating, particularly when narrative gives an external perspective on the law that would not be possible within the legal material.

Barmash gives three examples of insights into the legal world of ancient Israel that could not be gleaned from the legal material alone. First is the distinction between responsibility and culpability. Second is the judiciary role of the king evident in the David narrative (in this case we could also glean this from comparative evidence from the ancient Near East). This example illustrates how the legal codes can actually illustrate an imagined ideal and the narrative literature might better reflect practical reality (or at least something realistic). Third, sanctuary asylum applied to political asylum as well as manslaughter asylum. Barmash makes her point well with the clearest possible examples from the Deuteronomistic History. It is much more difficult to determine if the behavior in Genesis would have been considered normal, ethical, or legal in ancient Israel. She concludes with a general point that narrative texts, unlike legal texts, address larger issues of justice and government, and moral matters of fairness which would not fit in the genre of legal material (although we have seen some cross-over in laws illustrated with narrative examples). This brings us back to Jacob, who can be seen to navigate the gray area between legal and fair.