Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Lack of Trust: Deception Between Husbands & Wives in Genesis

There is a peculiar sort of symmetry when it comes to deception in Genesis. Each of these deceptions take place between husband and wife. In the first two cases, the husband deceives the wife. In the second set of cases, the wife deceives the husband. All these deceptions speak of a lack of trust between husband and wife; they do not trust their partner to understand and therefore trick them instead. It's quite sad to look at it from that perspective; one wonders how events could have proceeded differently if only they could have trusted each other.

1. Adam

ג וּמִפְּרִי הָעֵץ, אֲשֶׁר בְּתוֹךְ-הַגָּן--אָמַר אֱלֹהִים לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִמֶּנּוּ, וְלֹא תִגְּעוּ בּוֹ: פֶּן-תְּמֻתוּן.
3 but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said: Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.'

~Genesis 3: 3

Eve was not present when God warned Adam not to eat of the Tree of Life; the Rabbis infer from this that she received the injunction from her husband. Adam did not trust Eve with the truth; instead he gave over his version of the truth, telling her that she was forbidden to touch the tree in addition to eating from it. The serpent used this against her; he pushed her against the tree and she did not die from contact with it; he then logically and persuasively argued she would not die of eating from it.

2. Abraham

ב וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹן--בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן; וַיָּבֹא, אַבְרָהָם, לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה, וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ.
2 And Sarah died in Kiriatharba--the same is Hebron--in the land of Canaan; and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.

~Genesis 23: 2

Abraham did not tell Sarah the truth; in the written text he does not even speak to her about God's command that he offer up their son. He does not trust her; he does not believe that she will abide by God's decree. To spare her the mental anguish he determines that he will do this on his own, informing her, if he tells her anything, that he is going to take a trip with his son. In the meantime, Satan comes and informs Sarah of what her husband means to do; the shock is so great that she suffers from a heart attack and dies. Is it not awful that it was Satan who broke the news to Sarah and not Abraham? The suggestion is that Abraham ought to have trusted his wife, to have told her the truth, to gently have explained to her that their son had been required of them by God. He should have trusted her to have the strength to follow God's decree. Instead, in attempting to spare her pain he brought her more pain; perhaps it was not merely the shock of being told what Abraham meant to do to Isaac that killed her, but the fact that Abraham had not trusted her, had deceived her.

3. Rebecca

יג וַתֹּאמֶר לוֹ אִמּוֹ, עָלַי קִלְלָתְךָ בְּנִי; אַךְ שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי, וְלֵךְ קַח-לִי.
13 And his mother said unto him: 'Upon me be thy curse, my son; only hearken to my voice, and go fetch me them.'

~Genesis 27: 13

Rebecca does not trust Isaac to see that Jacob is the one who deserves the blessings; she does not even bother to speak with him and express her misgivings. Instead, she conceives of a plot whereby she can achieve her ends; she will trick her husband into giving the blessings to her son Jacob. According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, blessings achieved by these means do not truly belong to Jacob and he must actually return them to Esau (since they were ill-gotten gains.)

4. Rachel

כה וַיְהִי בַבֹּקֶר, וְהִנֵּה-הִוא לֵאָה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל-לָבָן, מַה-זֹּאת עָשִׂיתָ לִּי--הֲלֹא בְרָחֵל עָבַדְתִּי עִמָּךְ, וְלָמָּה רִמִּיתָנִי.
25 And it came to pass in the morning that, behold, it was Leah; and he said to Laban: 'What is this thou hast done unto me? did not I serve with thee for Rachel? wherefore then hast thou beguiled me?'

~Genesis 29: 25

Rachel and Jacob predict that Laban will attempt to marry Jacob off to the wrong daughter. For this reason they arrange for a series of signs by which Jacob will know that he has actually married the right woman. Rachel, however, gave Leah these signs (or in one particularly worrisome rendition, was in the same room during the time of consummation and spoke the signs so that Jacob would hear her voice and assume that Leah was she.) Instead of speaking to Jacob and informing him of the situation, hoping that he would take pity upon Leah, she deceived and betrayed him. And Jacob was not such a monster- in the morning he could have spoken angry words to Leah, calling her harsh names. And yet the verse says "he said to Laban." Rachel ought to have trusted him with the truth.

If these husbands and wives had trusted one another, perhaps Eve would never have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, Sarah would not have died in such a sudden and unforeseen manner, Jacob would have received the correct blessings in their proper time and Jacob would have chosen to marry Leah in addition to Rachel (which would perhaps have led to his having loved Leah more, not finding it necessary to "hate" her.)

Isn't it peculiar that none of our early ancestors seem to epitomize a true, loving and honest relationship? That they all deceive and betray one another rather than trusting each other to understand their point of view?

This leads me to wonder where we do find true and honest relationships in Tanakh. The first one that comes to mind is that of Jonathan and David, who were wholly honest with one another. I'm hard-pressed to think of another at the moment.


Anonymous said...

Um, Hashem and everyone? Any Navi and the Jewish People?

Anonymous said...

Moshe and Yehoshua. Ephraim and Menashe. And many of the father/son relationships also, but certainly not all of them.

e-kvetcher said...

>Isn't it peculiar that none of our early ancestors seem to epitomize a true, loving and honest relationship? That they all deceive and betray one another rather than trusting each other to understand their point of view?

This seems like a pretty harsh assessment. Every relationship can have ups and downs, especially in moments of extreme strain, like God asking you to kill your son. Is it fair to judge the relationship based on one failure, or one wrong decision?

Anonymous said...

I don't really agree with you here. You've gone with midrashic interpretations of 1, 2 and 4, but a literal reading of 3, which is inconsistent (the usual explanation is that Rivka was explicitly forbidden to tell Yitzchak about the prophecies, because it was necessary for Yaakov to take them in the way he did).

I certainly can't agree with your points for 2 or 4. I don't believe in the Satan as some kind of independent agency that can go around scaring old women to death, and I don't believe Yaakov would have married Leah had he not been tricked into it, partly because of the idea that the patriarchs kept the mitzvot, which (even if you don't take it literally, and say they acted morally) might indicate that he would have avoided something as likely to lead to discord as marrying to sisters; more likely because he was so in love with Rachel that he wouldn't have considered it.

Incidentally, I'm not convinced that Chief Rabbi Sacks is saying the blessings weren't for Yaakov and he needed to return them (Yitzchak said "I blessed him, and he will also remain blessed" indicating that he agreed that Yaakov was supposed to get the blessings), but that the way he got them indicated an underlying character problem that he needed to rectify.

If you are consistent in your use of midrash to understand the stories, then I'd say that actually Yitzchak and Rivka are actually the best relationship role model. Apart from that one instance where Rivka was forbidden to talk to Yitzchak, we see them discussing their problems (e.g. Esav going "off the derech" and how to stop Yaakov doing the same (27.46-28.1) - although there is a partial deceit there, in that Rivka hides the fact that Esav wants to kill Yaakov) and not only are we told that Yitzchak loved Rivka (24.67), something which I think we are only otherwise told about Yaakov and Rachel, we also see a rare moment of actual intimacy between them (26.8) - so much more moving than the usual "and he knew her, and she conceived, and she bore a child..."

Looking Forward said...

I would point out that hashem seems to bless the latter two incidents, but not the former, as if it is a womans job to decieve her husband if he is obstinant with regard to her will. (ie hashem told avraham that all that sara thy wife shall say to you, thou shalt do, and maise avos siman l'banim)

the first two seem to be adjurations as to what not to do. the latter two seem to be the opposite. (although the last is much more mixed.) They're cited in praise of the individuals in question.

Chana said...


No, because those are both Master-Servant relationships and I am specifically talking about relationships between equals (husband and wife, true friends, etc.) A Prophet has no choice but to speak and often he is hated and reviled, so his telling the truth is not necessarily as laudable.


Also a Master-Servant relationship and I have never heard anything particularly compelling about the Ephraim-Menashe relationship? Which father-son relationship do you refer to; it seems to me that most of them are negative in the Torah...


I think it is harsh but correct. Do you lie to your spouse when you are in a tough or difficult situation or do you try to work through it together? All of these people decided to lie.


Granted that I am not being consistent.


I don't see it like that as all; I think lies and deceptions are very rarely required and in the Torah especially always end up leading to something problematic (just think of Rachel deceiving her father and her husband in terms of taking the terafim.)

While on the subject of Rachel, more interesting points- do you notice it never says that she loved Jacob, only that Jacob loved her? She treats Jacob quite callously; only consider the incident with the dudaim where she trades his sexual favors for mere flowers. Then consider her later outburst when she demands a child, or as it was aptly described in the book The Passions of the Matriarchs,

"It is possible that Jacob's anger at Rachel is rooted, perhaps subconsciously, in his having felt betrayed by Rachel when, years before, she gave the secret signs to her sister and enabled Lavan to trick Jacob into marrying Leah instead of Rachel. Jacob has suppressed his feelings of betrayal all these years because of his great love for Rachel, but now, when she very nearly blames him for her childless state, Rachel's desparation reminds Jacob that her "primary passion" has never been for him. Years before, her loyalty to Leah took precedence over her own marriage, and now her desire for a child overshadows their entire relationship."

If you look at the text, Rachel actually seems quite cool toward Jacob. He is the one who kisses her in Genesis 29:11 (the initiator there), he is the one who loves her (29:18 and repeated in 29:20); she helps to betray him (at least according to the Midrash) by giving her sister the signs, and her relationship with Jacob is predicated upon there being children (30: 2). Once again she is not jealous of sharing her husband with another woman and hands Bilhah to him (30: 3), trades Jacob's sexual favors for flowers (30: 15) steals the Terafim without telling/ trusting her husband (31: 32) and so on.

One almost wonders where this supposed great passion of Rachel's for Jacob originated! Nearly all the texts and commentaries go on about how Rachel gave up so much by allowing her sister to marry Jacob, but she doesn't seem to ever express any kind of favor toward him, she doesn't seem to love him as much as he loves her (if at all!) and doesn't mind sharing him with another woman since she cannot have children.

If you look at the text, this is the story of Jacob's great love for Rachel, not hers for him...

Anonymous said...

Chana - for starters, your question was "This leads me to wonder where we do find true and honest relationships in Tanakh." not honesty between equals - so my answer to your question was correct. Certainly I cannot tell what you are thinking (yet).

Second - If I know that telling the truth is going to get me lynched and i do it anyway, i'd call that MORE laudable, not less so.

Third of all, Tanach is very troubling on many levels.

Anonymous said...

OHHH and you are forgetting Yosef/Binyamin. Yosef was EXTRA careful to make sure the brothers didn't harbor resentment to Binyamin - because Yosef had special love for his only brother of the same mother, not only as a test to the brothers.

Anonymous said...

1) Re: the dudaim - you do know they were seen as fertility 'drugs', don't you? I agree Rachel is putting children ahead of Yaakov again, but not "mere flowers".

2) Somewhat in contradiction to my earlier argument about Yitzchak and Rivka, I've just found this interesting interpretation. It's too long to quote in full here, but it suggests Rivka felt herself so spiritually inferior to Yitzchak that she couldn't bring herself to disagree with him to his face, and had to deceive him instead.

3) I agree Tanakh provides little in the way of perfect romances and marriages, especially when compared with the worlds of myth and literature. It similarly provides many instances of sibling rivalry, family dysfunction, illness, political corruption, war and social breakdown.

Tanakh deals with the real world, and the reality is that there is no such thing as a perfect marriage or a perfect family or a perfect society or a perfect person, and it is better to realise the complexity of the real world and work with that understanding than to try and force human beings to live up to an impossible ideal.

e-kvetcher said...

E-Kvetcher, I think it is harsh but correct. Do you lie to your spouse when you are in a tough or difficult situation or do you try to work through it together?

I don't think I communicated my point well, then. I am saying there is a difference between someone who lied (perhaps by omission) once and a liar.