Lie To MeStories about people who can successfully pull off complicated tricks and schemes are often very compelling. The best trickster stories feature systems that are inherently unfair, or at least stuck-up and unlikable. The hero is smarter, funnier, and more charming than his opponents, and he only cheats those who are really asking for it.
Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch Christian whose family helped many Jewish people escape the Nazis during World War II. Her family turned their watch-maker shop into a hiding place, creating hidden closets and cupboards behind false walls, where people could hide in an emergency. When the Nazi Gestapo came looking for Jews, the ten Boom family would simply invite them into the house and say “see for yourself if we’re hiding anyone”. And of course, the guards could never find the people who were hidden.
While this did not involve telling any lies, Corrie and her family did practice deception. But we would most likely say that what they did was noble and heroic. Does that mean that deception can sometimes be acceptable?
One of the most popular trickster stories in recent memory is that of two brothers who are both friends and fierce rivals. The older son is strong, manly, and not the brightest bulb, but he is his father’s favorite and stands to inherit everything when he dies. The younger son is his mother’s favorite, quick-witted and cunning and not afraid to disguise himself to get what he wants.
I’m talking, of course, about Marvel’s Thor and Loki.
The often funny, yet also heartbreaking rivalry of two brothers – the strong older son and the deceitful younger one – is a classic one, and might possibly draw part of its inspiration from the Biblical account of Jacob and Esau. In Genesis 25:21-34 and Genesis 27, we find the story of Isaac and Rebekah’s twin sons, destined to rivalry from birth. The first baby, born bright red and hairy, is named Esau – literally, hairy. The second baby is born grasping his brother’s heel, so he is named Jacob – meaning “he grasps the heel,” a Hebrew idiom for “deceiver.” Now, as far as foreshadowing goes, this is about as explicit as it gets. It almost makes you stop and question: is Jacob’s name predicting what he would become regardless, or is naming your baby “deceiver” something of a self-fulfilling prophecy?
As the boys grow up, they take on different roles – Esau lives in the wilderness and hunts for food, and Jacob stays close to home with his mother. We get our first hint that trickster Jacob will live up to his name when Esau comes home hungry after a hunt and foolishly trades his right to his inheritance for a bowl of lentil soup. “So Esau,” the author says solemnly, “despised his birthright” (Genesis 25:34).
Fast forward years later. Isaac, now going blind and deaf, knows he will die soon, and decides it is time to give Esau his blessing and the wealth that comes with it. He sends Esau out into the wild to catch an animal and then cook food for him. It’s time for the deceiver’s big con.
Rebekah calls Jacob to her and devises a plan to trick Isaac into blessing him. Jacob kills two goats and she makes stew with one and skins the other one for Jacob to wear on his neck and hands in case Isaac touches him. Esau, it seems, is extremely hairy. Jacob dresses in Esau’s best clothes and takes the food to his father, who is confused. “The voice is the voice of Jacob,” he thinks, “but the hands are the hands of Esau” (Genesis 27:22). He decides, however, that the food, clothes, and hairy skin are sufficient, and he gives Jacob the blessing, decreeing that he will receive abundant blessings and be served by the rest of his family. Jacob had “scarcely left his father’s presence” when the real Esau arrives, and Isaac realizes, horrified, what he has done. The jig is up, but it’s too late. There is no blessing for Esau, and Jacob has skipped town, terrified of his powerful brother’s wrath.
Even as we’re left chuckling at Jacob and Rebekah’s cleverness, Esau’s fury and Isaac’s are inescapable. Jacob has lied, cheated, deceived, and stolen from his family. And – in doing so – he has fulfilled God’s prophecy to Rebekah and completed the next step in God’s path that began at Abraham and leads to the birth of Christ.
The Bible is quite clear about the place of deceivers. “He who practices deceit shall not dwell within my house” says Psalms 101:7. “He who speaks falsehood shall not maintain his position before me.” And yet God chose Jacob – a trickster from birth – to carry out his ultimate plan. Where do we draw the line? What can we know for sure from scripture about lying? Next week we will explore more of the warnings in the Bible about the dangers of spreading untruth.
- The fact that Isaac confused goat skin with Esau’s hair is one of those details that might cause you to pause and raise and eyebrow: could Esau really been so hairy that his arms felt like goat skin? Do you think there’s a chance that Isaac realized the deception and went along with it?
- Is there ever a time when deceiving someone – or perhaps just not telling the whole truth – is morally acceptable? Why or why not?
- Imagine that you are a Christian living in Nazi Germany during World War II. You have hidden Jews in your home. One day, Nazi Stormtroopers knock on your door. “Are you hiding any Jews?” they ask. How do you respond? Why?
- Imagine that you are a Canaanite woman living in Jericho during the time of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt. You have hidden Israelite spies in your home. One day, Jericho city guards knock on your door. “Rahab, are you hiding any Israelites?” they ask. How do you respond? Why?