Jacob the Trickster? | The Biblical Hero | Elliott Rabin

The Biblical Hero

The following is an excerpt from The Biblical Hero by Elliott Rabin. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.

Jacob as Boundary-Crosser
Jacob is the first character in the Bible whose experiences on the road are described for the reader. While Abraham is similarly forced to travel, we read uniquely about Jacob’s adventures on the road, alone, in a strange place. “Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran” (28:10)—these are fateful words. In the Bible, to be on the road, journeying from one location to another, is not a condition for romance or envy. Consider what happens when Joseph gets lost on the road: he meets a stranger, who points him toward his brothers, who ambush him, throw him in a pit, and nearly kill him; then he is sold to a passing caravan of traders, who in turn carry Joseph to Egypt and sell him into slavery; the brothers dip his cloak in goat blood and tell their father Joseph was devoured by a wild animal—an outcome entirely plausible to Jacob. The road is a lawless expanse between the comfort, familiarity and safety of inhabited spaces, a place where people can disappear or die without anyone finding out. The most fearsome instance of this danger can be found in the episode of the broken-neck calf in Deuteronomy 21, which conveys a ritual to be performed when a person is found slain in the no-man’s-land between cities.

It is not surprising, then, that the road is where we find Jacob, for tricksters are, to cite one famous example, road-runners by nature. Their fierce native independence renders them eager to cast off societal bonds, or to antagonize and threaten society to the point where they are forced to flee. The Yoruba trickster Eshu, for example, goes on the road to seek “escape from the prescription of social laws.” For his part, Jacob seeks safety after provoking his brother’s rage (his mother is further concerned for his marital prospects). Still, flight often comes with a cost. The Winnebago trickster Wakdjunkaga is “desocialized, to be represented as breaking all his ties with man and society.” Jacob is shorn of family ties and exposed to unseen dangers.

These experiences illustrate another aspect of the trickster tradition he shares: Jacob as boundary-crosser. Tricksters are characterized by their fluidity: they cross boundaries sometimes out of defiance and provocation, but just as frequently change form as an adaptation to new circumstances. Their very bodies are amorphous and changeable, able to alternate between human, animal and divine forms. These forms can shift so subtly and rapidly that the reader may not know what form a particular trickster inhabits until the middle of the tale.

While Jacob does not display this full range of crossings typical of a mythological trickster—he doesn’t actually become an animal, a deity, a woman—he does freely cross boundaries. His earlier triumph over his brother is partly rooted in his ability to cross back and forth over the gender divide. By donning goat-skins, he deceives his father about his masculinity. Even more so, on his travels, when he first lies down to sleep, Jacob experiences being on the crossroads of human and divine encounter in a way that blurs the distinction between these two realms.

Praise for The Biblical Hero

“A fascinating and deceptively accessible look at the commonalities of biblical heroes and heroines with each other and with the heroes of the more modern literary tradition (e.g., Shakespeare, Austen, Whitman, Richard Wright, and Quentin Tarantino). Rabin’s book is a witty and knowledgeable take on biblical heroism, and it is highly recommended to all readers.”
Reading Religion

“In this passionate, erudite, beautifully written book, Elliott Rabin makes a compelling spiritual and literary case for the flawed biblical hero. Drawing on sources ranging from rabbinic commentators to Shakespeare, he reminds us why generations of Jews over the millennia have embraced the biblical heroes as contemporaries, urging human beings in all our brokenness to aspire to spiritual greatness.”
Yossi Klein Halevi, senior fellow, Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem

“Elliott Rabin’s delightful and highly readable exploration of biblical narratives and their counterparts in ancient myths offers us fresh insights into Abraham, Samson, Esther, and other characters, and forever changes how we experience their triumphs and struggles. Ultimately, The Biblical Hero is a story about us: complex human characters who, in heroic fashion, struggle with our imperfections.”
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, CEO, The Hadar Institute and author, Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities

“The book is both superbly written and easily readable. The subject matter is engaging, the world literature references are enlightening, and scholars and laypeople alike will benefit from the many insightful readings of familiar biblical texts.”
Gary A. Rendsburg, Blanche and Irving Laurie Professor of Jewish History, Rutgers University

“The Biblical Hero offers us creative archetypes for understanding some of the most significant figures in biblical history and, arguably, Jewish life. Even more so, it opens up a critical conversation about the hero’s role in society at a time when we need heroes more than ever.”
Erica Brown, Associate Professor, George Washington School of Education and Development

About the Author

Elliott Rabin

Elliott Rabin is the director of thought leadership at Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools, where he edits HaYidion, the leading publication for Jewish day schools. He is the author of Understanding the Hebrew Bible: A Reader’s Guide.

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