Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the theme of deception shows up again and again. In its most negative form, resulting in death or divine abandonment, it is considered treachery. In its more positive occurrences, resulting in triumph and divine approval, it is considered clever trickery. The distinction is connected to where the power lies. When a figure of authority uses underhanded means to achieve an end, it is considered an abuse of power; so King David’s scheme to kill Uriah and claim his wife results in divine retribution. However, when powerless figures use deception to accomplish their goals, it is seen as an admirable reversal of power, reminiscent of the trickster motif in folklore and mythology. Israel, as a nation with frequently less power than the surrounding empires, respected trickster tales as a promise that they too could gain control.
It follows, then, that women, who were largely powerless in a man’s world, in conventional means, often had to resort to fooling the men in their lives to achieve their goals. Three stories in particular involve women deceiving the men with nominal control over their lives in order to either achieve motherhood or protect their child. This deception is largely condoned as a viable means to an end, although the narrators’ final assessment can vary from story to story. This entry will examine Lot’s daughters, Tamar, and Rebekah.
Lot’s Daughters (Gen 19)
When YHWH destroys the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their myriad sins, Lot and his daughters are spared for their righteousness. Hiding in caves after witnessing the total annihilation of their home, his daughters surmise that their father is the only man left on Earth, and it is their duty to continue his name and repopulate the world. His older daughter gets him so drunk he cannot recognize her and sleeps with him one night; the next night, his younger daughter performs the same deceptive act. They both conceive, and bear sons named Ammon and Moab.
Lot’s daughters’ actions would have seemed as repugnant to ancient audiences as they are to modern readers. The book of Leviticus contains very strict rules prohibiting father-daughter incest. However, their deception stems from the noblest intentions: since they believe they are the only survivors of a cataclysmic event, it is their responsibility to preserve their father’s line, and thus the human race. They are not explicitly judged for their trickery; however, their descendants become Israel’s enemies, the Ammonites and Moabites. It is commonly held that this story is a way of mocking these opponents; descent from incest is the most inglorious heritage of all. However, Lot’s daughters themselves are not condemned for their act; “in the final analysis Lot’s daughters act in accordance with their foremost duty within the framework of the biblical patriarchy” (Fuchs 140), and ensure a future not only for their children but for, as far as they know, all humankind.
Tamar (Gen 38)
Judah, one of the twelve sons of Israel, has three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Er is married to woman named Tamar. Er is wicked, so YHWH destroys him before he begets children. Judah then gives Tamar to his next son, Onan. Onan has sex with Tamar but engages in coitus interruptus before conception can take place; YHWH, in turn, kills him. Judah promises Tamar he will give her to his youngest son when Shelah is older, and sends her home to her father’s house to wait. After years go by Tamar realizes Judah lied about marrying her to Shelah. She veils herself and goes to wait by the road. When Judah sees her, he assumes she is a prostitute, and promises to bring a young goat in exchange for sex; he gives her his signet ring, cord, and staff as a pledge in the meantime. They have sex and Judah leaves; when he sends his friend with the goat to pay the prostitute, she is nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, Tamar conceives, and Judah learns she is pregnant. He calls for her to be burned, but she shows him his pledge as proof of his fatherhood. Judah says “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah” (Gen 38:16). Tamar bears twin boys, and the younger son is an ancestor to King David.
Tamar’s act of deception is perhaps the most explicitly condoned of all instances of biblical women’s trickery. Her righteousness, as stated by Judah, is dependent on the Israelite concept of Levirate marriage. If a husband died before having a child, his wife was given to his brother, who was then responsible for getting the wife pregnant. The resulting child was considered the son of the deceased brother, and thus his name would be continued. After Er dies, Onan’s duty is to furnish Tamar with an heir. His rejection of this duty—possibly because he did not want to split his now-larger inheritance with another heir—is a sin, and YHWH punishes him for it. Judah should, by the law, either give Tamar to his last son Shelah to perform the levirate or fulfill the responsibility himself, but since he is not aware of YHWH’s actions he thinks Tamar is cursed. By not performing the levirate and enabling Er’s line, Judah is shirking his duties. Tamar, on the other hand, decisively acts to protect her husband’s name, create a child, and stabilize her own position in society—as a childless widow she is outside the culture’s prescribed roles for women (neither a mother nor a wife). Her deception is undertaken because the men controlling her life fail to take action and do what is righteous. She has no other option; as a woman in a male dominated society, she cannot openly voice the injustice being done to her (and her late husband) and so must resort to disguise and deception in order to right the balance. As a woman of good repute, she can do nothing. But when disguised as a prostitute, she gains sexual autonomy and uses it for good. She acts at no little risk to herself—she barely escapes being burned to death by her cleverness and bravery. Judah’s acknowledgment of her superior righteousness and her place in the ancestry of King David confirms the overall praise of her trickery.
Rebekah (Gen 25:19-28; 27; 28:1-5)
Rebekah travels from her home in Haran to marry Isaac, Sarah and Abraham’s son. She is initially barren, and her husband prays to YHWH that she will conceive. YHWH tells her that she will bear twins: “two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger” (Gen 25:23). She bears first Esau and then Jacob; Esau, the hunter, is Isaac’s favorite, but Rebekah prefers Jacob, the shepherd. Rebekah hears Isaac, who is now blind, command Esau to bring him some game, in return for which Isaac will give Esau his blessing as his heir. She immediately instructs Jacob to go with some stew to Isaac, to trick him into giving Jacob the blessing. She dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothing, and covers his smooth hands and neck with goatskin so he will feel like his hairier brother. The ruse is successful, and Jacob receives a generous blessing meant for Esau, the firstborn. Upon learning of this trickery, Esau vows to kill Jacob. Rebekah overhears, and tells Jacob to flee to Haran. She tricks Isaac into blessing Jacob again, saying her son must go to seek a worthy wife; Jacob thus escapes his brother’s wrath. YHWH later renames Jacob ‘Israel,’ and his sons head the twelve tribes of Israel.
Rebekah has been maligned and misunderstood for centuries. Many perceive her as a manipulative, meddlesome harpy who sacrifices one son for the advantages of the other, and who commits the unforgivable act of betraying her lord and master—her husband, Isaac. One scholar says “that the action of Rebekah and Jacob was utterly discredible and indefensible, is of course obvious” (S.R. Driver, in Garside Allen 192). However, the text is not so definitively unforgiving. In fact, Rebekah’s deception supports the wishes of her true lord and master: YHWH.
It is true that Rebekah favors Jacob, and in doing so acts against her son Esau. But it is also true that she was told Jacob’s ultimate supremacy is ordained by YHWH. Thus she deceives Isaac in accordance with the divine plan, so that Jacob may receive the blessing and gain dominion over his brother. Interestingly, Isaac appears unaware of the prophecy, both literally and figuratively blind to YHWH’s plan. The matriarch, not the patriarch, works with the deity to secure a future for the son who will become Israel. Rebekah is willing to sacrifice herself for Jacob’s security; when he doubts that Isaac will be fooled and fears he will instead receive a curse, Rebekah vows, “let [the] curse be on me, my son” (27:13).
Her two deceptions serve to ensure Jacob’s future: the first, so he receives his inheritance as per the divine plan; the second, so that he can survive to complete his destiny. Rebekah acts decisively, intelligently, and with divine authority. In fact, she, not Isaac, is by far the more active player in the stories. For this reason, scholar Christine Garside Allen believes the common blessing of “in the name of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” invoking the three most influential men in the foundation of Israel, is inaccurate. “If one could break the chain of patriarchy a more proper blessing would be ‘in the name of Abraham, Rebekah, and Jacob’” (211).
These women turn to deception to secure their children’s lives. Despite what modern thought holds, the stories themselves are nonjudgmental of their trickery, instead recognizing manipulation and outright lying as the less-powerful characters’ only means of righting the balance.
Fuchs, Esther. “Who is Hiding the Truth? Deceptive Women and Biblical Scholarship.” In Feminist Perspectives on Biblical Scholarship, ed. Adela Yarbro Collins, 117-144. Chico, CA: Scholars, 1985.
Garside Allen, Christine. “Who was Rebekah? ‘On Me Be the Curse, My Son.” In Beyond Androcentrism: New Essays on Women and Religion, ed. Rita M. Gross, 183-211. Missoula, MT: Scholars for the American Academy of Religion, 1977.