- Isaac’s Blindness: A Case of Narrative Deficiency
In the stories of Isaac’s deception by Jacob and of Samson’s betrayal by Delilah, the central character makes a decision that seems unaccountable. Isaac is immediately and persistently suspicious of the son who presents himself as Esau, so much so that we may be surprised that he gives him Esau’s blessing anyway. Samson, even more clearly, knows that Delilah is going to betray him, but nonetheless tells her his secret. In both cases, an interpretive comment by the narrator attempts to explain the odd behavior—but in both cases, the explanation is, I will argue, incomplete or unsatisfactory. Isaac, we are told, was fooled. This is no help, since the problem is that his suspicions seem to suggest that he was not fooled. Samson, the narrator explains, was worn down by nagging, but this is simply unconvincing given his story to that point and in any case seems a very weak reason for him to effectively throw away his life. If the reasons given for the unexpected action are not satisfactory, what reasons might be? And if there are better reasons, why would the narrator give us weaker ones?
These questions raise the possibility that the biblical narrator could be mistaken about the motives of a story’s protagonist. Traditional interpretation of the Bible holds that the ultimate source of the text is God, that the human author has been provided with the stories by God, and thus that the narrator should be regarded as omniscient. It would therefore make no sense to suggest that the narrator could be mistaken about anything. The belief in divine inspiration is very old, but has little support in the text itself. Moses is traditionally regarded as the author—or as God’s amanuensis—of the [End Page 94] Pentateuch, based on a half-dozen lines in the text in which God tells Moses to write down what God has told him. In each case, the bit to be written down seems clearly enough to be something that God is explaining at the moment.1 Ancient interpreters, however, argued that the commands refer to the entire Pentateuch or Torah—the five books of Moses. More recently (in the nineteenth century), the Documentary Hypothesis posited multiple authors along with a redactor who brought various versions of the stories together, dropping Moses out of the role of author entirely. For the rest of the Bible as well, the assumption that the human writers were directed by God guides traditional interpretation, while more recent “higher critical” exegesis recognizes ordinary human authorship. Any analysis of the biblical narrator will have to take both traditional and modern views of authorship into account.2
In the stories of Isaac and Samson, then, the problem that I wish to point to is the intrusion of a narrator who provides an unsatisfactory account of the protagonists’ motives and actions, either out of a desire to constrain the interpretation of the passage or due to a failure to understand the protagonist of the story. This is not, however, a deliberately unreliable narrator, one who is withholding information or distorting the narrative in ways that the audience is supposed to understand as part of the narrative or authorial plan. Such an idea, which relies on the self-conscious separation of the author and narrator, is antithetical to the traditional view in which God is, in effect, both author and narrator. Instead, as I hope to show, the narrator in these stories is the agent of a redactor who is trying to smooth over a difficulty in the story without changing the received narrative details. In other words, this narrator arises from the re-telling of tales and inadvertently reveals the gap created when different parts of a story or different versions of a story have been pieced together. The gaps are not so great as to disturb most readers, but as we shall see, they are large enough to have engendered a great deal of commentary over time and to call for some rethinking of our assumptions about biblical narration.
Is Isaac Deceived?
The story of Jacob’s deception of...