Ethics of the Old Testament: Lies, Cheats and Dirty Tricks in Genesis

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Isaac and Jacob are a real couple of bungling wanderers. They lie, cheat, steal and seem completely without moral character. Isaac is the son of Abraham that was offered up to God in sacrifice – an episode that likely freaked him out and led to perpetual trust issues. He married Rebekah and settled in Gerar, telling everyone that Rebekah was his sister because he was afraid that the other men might get jealous of her and beat him up. Abimelech (the local ruler) remembered his father’s treachery and had him watched. He caught Isaac “fondling” Rebekkah in public and summoned him and said “What a thing to do to us! One of the people might easily have slept with your wife. We should have incurred guilt, thanks to you.” Luckily, rather than punishing Isaac, Abimelech gave him legal protection.

Isaac became a farmer, and grew so rich that the Philistines began to envy him. They kicked him out of town, but he dug a new well and settled, increasing his wealth. Later, Abimelech sought him ought and made a treaty with him.

Isaac and Esau

Rebekah and Isaac had twin sons, Esau and Jacob.

Esau was a skilled hunter, a man of the open country, and Isaac preferred him to his brother because of his taste for wild game. Jacob, on the other hand, was a quiet momma’s boy and stayed around the tents all day. But Jacob was crafty: he buys Esau’s birthright for some soup, rather than nicely feeding his hungry brother.

Later, Jacob becomes even more devious (with the help of his mother Rebekah). His father is old and blind and tells Esau to go out in the fields and bring him so meat for a special dish – and that he will give Esau, the oldest son, a special blessing. Rebekah and Jacob quickly kill two lambs to prepare the dish themselves. Then Rebekah dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothes, and even covers his smooth skin with wool from the sheep so to make him seem more like his manly older brother, so that Isaac will be fooled.

And fooled he was! Isaac blessed the wrong son. When Esau comes back and fthe truth is revealed, Isaac is upset but says he can’t take back his blessing. “Your brother came by fraud and took your blessing. I blessed him, and blessed he will remain.”

Esau cries, “Have you not kept a blessing for me?”

Isaac replies, “I have already made him your master; I have given him all his brothers as servants, I have given him grains and wine to sustain him. So what can I do for you, son?” Isaac tells Esau he will live by the sword, homeless, and be his brother’s slave.

Ouch! We must realize – already from this early point in history, the Covenant God established with the Jewish people through the Patriarchs is entirely dependent on characters like Isaac, who cheat and steal. Cheating and stealing was at that time admired, as wit and intelligence; parallels include Homer’s Odysseus and other Sumerian and Near East texts.

Continuing with the narrative, Jacob is sent away by Rebekah, to protect him from the rightfully angry Esau. Jacob is also given instructions not to marry a Canaanite woman. (Rebekah is severely racist and disgusted by the Hittite woman whom Esau marries). Esau learns for the first time how his parents feel about Hittite women so he takes a third wife, still trying to get into his parents good favor. He marries Ishmael’s daughter (Isaac’s niece, Jacob’s cousin.)


Jacob’s story is complicated. On the one hand, he represents some of the traits of a blasphemer. He is independent, confident, and brave. Unfortunately, he is not good. His actions are always opportunistic: He’s always trying to turn a quick buck or get something out of a situation. He never does anything for free – not even for God. This is what principally separates him from characters like Noah or Abraham: he has no sense of duty or loyalty to the God of his forefathers.

We might well wonder how Jacob got to be the central character of this divine heritage. Unlike Esau, who was hard-working, loyal, and honest, Jacob is kind of a jerk. It seems God isn’t seeking good people, or even obedient people. Perhaps, at least in regard to Jacob, he was seeking ambitious people. Looking at God as a learner who is increasing his skills at managing the human race, God at this point needs people who need him. If he started with a king, they would say, “What can you give me that I don’t already have?” God takes migrants, who have no status or power. He looks for people who have big hopes and dreams – ambitious people, opportunists who are willing to do big favors for big rewards.

This works for awhile, but Jacob represents the flaw with God’s new approach to divine management: Jacob gets too confident. He is a rich man’s kid. His mother taught him how to lie and cheat his own father, and – instead of punishment, Jacob was rewarded with power and riches. Jacob has become spoiled, and learned how to manipulate too successfully.

This is demonstrated as Jacob travels to Haran to find a wife from his mother’s brother’s family. On the way, he has his famous dream about a ladder coming down from heaven and God speaking to him. God tells him, I am the God of your ancestors, and I will be your God as well, promising Jacob a lot of descendants. Jacob is not so easily convinced as his forefathers. He has some demands of his own:

“If God remains with me and keeps me safe on this journey I am making, if he gives me food to eat and clothes to wear, and if I come home safe to my father’s home, then Yahweh shall be my God.” (Genesis 28:20)

This passage is remarkable! Jacob is bartering with God. Obedience and loyalty have nothing to do with it. Jacob is making demands; it is God who is trying to sell his services to Jacob and Jacob taking Him for a test drive.

Wives, Whores and Sex-Slaves

Jacob finds his mother’s brother, Laban, and falls in love with his curvy daughter, Rachel. Laban promises to give Jacob Rachel’s hand in marriage in exchange for 7 years of work. Unfortunately, Laban is about as trustworthy as his sister, Rebekah. After 7 years of work, Laban gave Jacob a big wedding ceremony, but at night exchanged the brides! He put Leah, Rachel’s older sister, in bed with Jacob and so that Jacob slept with her (can’t return damaged goods). In the morning, Jacob found out he’d been tricked. Laban told him, if Jacob promised to work another 7 years, he would get to have Rachel as well – and in just a week! So Jacob got two brides. These stories come from an oral tradition – they would have been fascinating and exciting stories to tell around a fire. Unfortunately, writing them down doesn’t do them justice.

Jacob loves Rachel more than Leah, but God sees that Leah is unloved so he opens her womb and makes Rachel barren. Leah gave birth to four sons. Rachel is mortified that her sister is more fertile than she is, so she gives Jacob her slavegirl, Bilhah. Bilhah had two sons, and Rachel said, “I have fought a fateful battle with my sister, and I have won!” (Genesis 30:7). Then Leah, seeing that she had ceased to bear children, took her slave-girl Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as concubine. Zilpah bore two more sons.

The moral of the story? a) Life is a fierce competition and you are unworthy unless you own a slave that can make babies b) Slaves should be used for sex and reproduction c) Men should have lots of wives and women to screw.

Leah’s son Reuben found some mandrakes (aphrodisiacs) and Rachel wanted them. She came to Leah and asked for some of the mandrakes, but Leah said “is it not enough to have taken my husband, without your taking my son’s mandrakes as well?”

Rachel said, “Very well, he can sleep with you tonight in return for your son’s mandrakes.”

When Jacob returned from the field, Leah went out to meet him and said “You must come to me, for I have hired you at the price of my son’s mandrakes.” Leah conceived two more sons and said “Now my husband will bring me presents, for I have borne him six sons.”

Finally, God remembers Rachel (was he too busy or what?) and opens her womb. She gives birth to Joseph.

Meanwhile, Jacob became rich breeding animals. Somehow he managed to breed striped goats and sheep by having them look at reeds when they were mating, and somehow this is a new form of treachery – which the Bible praises as cunning and wit. Through a treaty he made with his father-in-law, Laban, this trick allows him to keep the sturdy and strong animals while giving Laban the feeble ones.

When Laban changed the deal – asking for either the striped offspring or the white ones, Jacob changed his breeding tactics. This he attributed to a miracle by God, telling his wives that obviously God favored him. (Liar!)

Finally, Laban and his family started to get angry that Jacob was somehow cheating them out of their wealth, giving them sickly sheep – so Jacob ran away (Pansy). Rachel, meanwhile, stole all the idols from her father’s household before they left (How low can you get?).

Laban chased after them and accuses Jacob, “What do you mean by outwitting me and then carrying off my daughters like prisoners of war? Why did you flee in secret, stealing away without letting me know, so that that I could send you on your way rejoicing with songs and the music of tambourines and harps? You have behaved like a fool.” (Genesis 31:26)

Laban also says, “Now it may be you really went because you had such a longing for your father’s house, but why did you steal my gods?”

Jacob swears that he did not steal the gods. He tells Laban to search all of his people’s possessions and put anyone to death who was found guilty. (He did not know it was his own wife, Rachel, who had stolen the gods). Rachel, meanwhile, had put the gods under her camel seat and faked having her period so that she didn’t have to stand up for her father’s presence. Another Biblical example of how cunning and lies increase wealth.

Jacob finally heads home. He is still afraid of his brother Esau, and sends lots of rich presents ahead of him to win his favor.

Jacob Wrestles God

There is a curious incident, just before Jacob meets Esau, called “Jacob wrestles an God.”
Someone wrestled with Jacob all night. We don’t know who, but the story makes it clear that it was God. God wrestled with Jacob but could not defeat him. (He did manage to dislocate his hip however – yeah God!) When day was breaking, God begged Jacob to let him go, but he refused. “I will not let you go until you bless me.” Bizarre story… was it an angel? A demon? An Alien?

Esau greeted Jacob with kisses and tears, welcoming back his lost brother. In this Esau once again proves himself a wonderful and loving man – while Jacob is a coward, a thief and as we shall see, a mass-murderer.

Israel Founded on Mass Murder

Jacob’s daughter Dinah gets raped by a son of the region’s headman, Shechem. The boy loves her and wants to marry her. The Schechemites ask for a matrimonial alliance between Jacob’s clan. They offer to pay any bride-price, and promise “the country will be open to you, for you to live in, and move about in, and acquire holdings.”

Not a bad deal. But Jacob’s sons give a crafty answer: they say they cannot intermarry unless the Schechemites first circumcise themselves. The Schechemites agree. Three days later, when the Schechemites are still in pain from the recent circumcision, Jacob’s sons enter the city with swords and slaughter all the males. They kill Schechem and his father, the head-man, and remove Dinah from Schechem’s house. Then they pillage the town in reprisal for the dishonoring of their sister. “They seized their flocks, cattle, donkeys, everything else in the town and in the countryside, and all their possessions. They took all their children and wives captive and looted everything to be found in the houses.” (34:28)

Soon after this – as Jacob’s family is yet again running away, Rachel dies in childbirth. She has given Jacob his 12th son. God renames Jacob “Israel”. Jacob is Israel, and his 12 sons will become the 12 tribes of Israel.

(I for one, am outraged. The Bible is the word of God? I’m disgusted by Jacob, and his clan.)