The Medieval Popular Bible: Expansions of Genesis in the Middle Ages

By Brian Murdoch | Go to book overview

SIX

PATRIARCHAL TRICKERY: JACOB AND JOSEPH

THE THEME OF THIS final chapter is a broad one: that of human (rather than diabolical) trickery, specifically in the context of the patriarchs Jacob and Joseph and taking us, therefore, down to the end of Genesis.

With many of the stories in the latter part of Genesis which are foregrounded in medieval vernacular texts there are often clear interpretative implications; the sacrifice of Isaac, for example, is almost invariably reproduced without any embellishment, and then explained as an illustration of the mercy of God, as an exemplum of obedience, or, most usually, as a prefiguration of the crucifixion. Only rarely is it omitted (although the Irish Saltair na Rann inexplicably does leave it out), and medieval vernacular writers and their audiences were aware that the literal side is inextricably linked (in the sub gratia world) with the allegory. Even when it is not made explicit, the vocabulary of the would-be sacrifice consistently echoes that of the Passion. 1

Many elements of the stories of Jacob (especially) and also of Joseph, however, pose rather different problems for medieval vernacular writers, and hence for our view of the medieval vernacular Bible, precisely because so much depends upon that all-too-human deceit. Jacob appears first as the deceiver of Esau, but in his journeying to escape the wrath of his brother, he is himself deceived by Laban in the matter of his marriage. Jacob's revenge comes with a somewhat opaque trick by which he gains for himself more sheep than Laban had bargained for, but when he flees again, he manages to recapture what looks like the moral high ground by yet another trick on the part of his wife Rachel, who has, however, stolen Laban's household gods. 2 In the next biblical generation, Joseph, as favoured by God as Jacob was, but considerably less devious, is tricked by Potiphar's wife into wrongful imprisonment.

The question of audience sympathy has to be handled carefully in some of these cases, and it is necessary to keep a watchful eye on the discrepancy

____________________
1
For an indication of some of the literary reflections of the sacrifice see Rothschild, Mistére du Viel Testament II, i―xxvi, and Erffa, Ikonologie, II, 145―91. The Expositor in the English Chester Play sums it up: 'This deed you se done in this place/ In example of Ihesu done yt was,/ that for to wyn mankinde grace/ was sacrifised on the rode' (IV, 465―8, Deimling's edition, p. 83).
2
Admittedly, since much of the story of Jacob and the sheep is pretty well incomprehensible (the translation of Claus Westermann's modern commentary on Genesis uses that very adjective, for example), it is no surprise that medieval popularisers, if they included it at all, were in as much confusion about it as Jerome and some of the other commentators had been far earlier. Claus Westermann, Genesis 12―36. A Commentary, [1981] trans. John J. Scullion (London: SPCK, 1983), p. 480.

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The Medieval Popular Bible: Expansions of Genesis in the Middle Ages
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • The Medieval Popular Bible - Expansions of Genesis in the Middle Ages *
  • Contents v
  • Preface vii
  • Abbreviations ix
  • Introduction: the Popular Bible 1
  • One - Bedevilling Paradise 19
  • Two - What Adam and Eve Did Next 42
  • Three - Lamech and the Other Lamech 70
  • Four - Noah: Navigator and Vintner 96
  • Five - The Tower of Babel and the Courteous Vengeance 127
  • Six - Patriarchal Trickery: Jacob and Joseph 149
  • Conclusion 175
  • Bibliography 177
  • Biblical Index 203
  • General Index 205
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