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Growing up a good Protestant boy, I was never much concerned with the Old Testament.  For one thing, how important could any of it be if Christ hadn't even bothered to show up yet.  Then, the stories are somehow just too senselessly brutal, the God they portray too inscrutable and all those lists of names and those "begats" are just brain deadening.  Other than the Creation, the Garden of Eden and the story of Moses and the Commandments, the rest of it never struck much of a chord.   So as I was reading Frederick Buechner's novelization of the life of Jacob, I actually had to look the story up in the Bible, because it just seems so bizarre.  You know some guy dressing up as a sheep to steal his Father's blessing just isn't quite the same as the Sermon on the Mount.  But there it all is in the book of Genesis:

Genesis 25

20: And Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah to wife, the daughter of Bethuel the Syrian of Padan-aram, the sister to Laban the Syrian.
21: And Isaac intreated the LORD for his wife, because she was barren: and the LORD was intreated of him, and Rebekah his wife conceived.
22: And the children struggled together within her; and she said, If it be so, why am I thus? And she went to inquire of the LORD.
23: And the LORD said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger
than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.
24: And when her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold, there were twins in her womb.
25: And the first came out red, all over like an hairy garment; and they called his name Esau.
26: And after that came his brother out, and his hand took hold on Esau's heel; and his name was called Jacob: and Isaac was threescore years old when she bare them.
27: And the boys grew: and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a plain man, dwelling in tents.
28: And Isaac loved Esau, because he did eat of his venison: but Rebekah loved Jacob.
29: And Jacob sod pottage: and Esau came from the field, and he was faint:
30: And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint: therefore was his name called Edom.
31: And Jacob said, Sell me this day thy birthright.
32: And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me?
33: And Jacob said, Swear to me this day; and he sware unto him: and he sold his birthright unto Jacob.
34: Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentiles; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright.

Genesis 26

1: And there was a famine in the land, beside the first famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went unto Abimelech king of the Philistines unto Gerar.
2: And the LORD appeared unto him, and said, Go not down into Egypt; dwell in the land which I shall tell thee of:
3: Sojourn in this land, and I will be with thee, and will bless thee; for unto thee, and unto thy seed, I will give all these countries, and I will perform the oath which I sware unto Abraham thy father;
4: And I will make thy seed to multiply as the stars of heaven, and will give unto thy seed all these countries; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed;
5: Because that Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.
6: And Isaac dwelt in Gerar:
7: And the men of the place asked him of his wife; and he said, She is my sister: for he feared to say, She is my wife; lest, said he, the men of the place should kill me for Rebekah; because she was fair to look upon.
8: And it came to pass, when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out at a window, and saw, and, behold, Isaac was sporting with Rebekah his wife.
9: And Abimelech called Isaac, and said, Behold, of a surety she is thy wife: and how saidst thou, She is my sister? And Isaac said unto him, Because I said, Lest I die for her.
10: And Abimelech said, What is this thou hast done unto us? one of the people might lightly have lien with thy wife, and thou shouldest have brought guiltiness upon us.
11: And Abimelech charged all his people, saying, He that toucheth this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.
12: Then Isaac sowed in that land, and received in the same year an hundredfold: and the LORD blessed him.
13: And the man waxed great, and went forward, and grew until he became very great:
14: For he had possession of flocks, and possessions of herds, and great store of servants: and the Philistines envied him.
15: For all the wells which his father's servants had digged in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines had stopped them, and filled them with earth.
16: And Abimelech said unto Isaac, Go from us; for thou art much mightier than we.
17: And Isaac departed thence, and pitched his tent in the valley of Gerar, and dwelt there.
18: And Isaac digged again the wells of water, which they had digged in the days of Abraham his father; for the philistines had stopped them after the death of
Abraham: and he called their names after the names by which his father had called them.
19: And Isaac's servants digged in the valley, and found there a well of springing water.
20: And the herdmen of Gerar did strive with Isaac's herdmen, saying, The water is ours: and he called the name of the well Esek; because they strove with him.
21: And they digged another well, and strove for that also: and he called the name of it Sitnah.
22: And he removed from thence, and digged another well; and for that they strove not: and he called the name of it Rehoboth; and he said, For now the LORD hath made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.
23: And he went up from thence to Beer-sheba.
24: And the LORD appeared unto him the same night, and said, I am the God of Abraham thy father: fear not, for I am with thee, and will bless thee, and multiply thy seed for my servant Abraham's sake.
25: And he builded an altar there, and called upon the name of the LORD and pitched his tent there: and there Isaac's servants digged a well.
26: Then Abimelech went to him from Gerar, and Ahuzzath one of his friends, and Phichol the chief captain of his army.
27: And Isaac said unto them, Wherefore come ye to me, seeing ye hate me, and have sent me away from you?
28: And they said, We saw certainly that the LORD was with thee: and we said, Let there be now an oath betwixt us, even betwixt us and thee, and let us make a covenant with thee;
29: That thou wilt do us no hurt, as we have not touched thee, and as we have done unto thee nothing but good, and have sent thee away in peace: thou art now the blessed of the LORD.
30: And he made them a feast, and they did eat and drink.
31: And they rose up betimes in the morning, and sware one to another: and Isaac sent them away, and they departed from him in peace.
32: And it came to pass the same day, that Isaac's servants came, and told him concerning the well which they had digged, and said unto him, We have found water.
33: And he called it Shebah: therefore the name of the city is Beer-sheba unto this day.
34: And Esau was forty years old when he took to wife Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Bashemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite:
35: Which were a grief of mind unto Isaac and to Rebekah.

Genesis 27

1: And it came to pass, that when Isaac was old, and his eyes were dim, so that he could not see, he called Esau his eldest son, and said unto him, My son: and he said unto him, Behold, here am I.
2: And he said, Behold now, I am old, I know not the day of my death:
3: Now therefore take, I pray thee, thy weapons, thy quiver and thy bow, and go out to the field, and take me some venison;
4: And make me savoury meat, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless thee before I die.
5: And Rebekah heard when Isaac spake to Esau his son. And Esau went to the field to hunt for venison, and to bring it.
6: And Rebekah spake unto Jacob her son, saying, Behold, I heard thy father speak unto Esau thy brother, saying,
7: Bring me venison, and make me savoury meat, that I may eat, and bless thee before the LORD before my death.
8: Now therefore, my son, obey my voice according to that which I command thee.
9: Go now to the flock, and fetch me from thence two good kids of the goats; and I will make them savoury meat for thy father, such as he loveth:
10: And thou shalt bring it to thy father, that he may eat, and that he may bless thee before his death.
11: And Jacob said to Rebekah his mother, Behold, Esau my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man:
12: My father peradventure will feel me, and I shall seem to him as a deceiver; and I shall bring a curse upon me, and not a blessing.
13: And his mother said unto him, Upon me be thy curse, my son: only obey my voice, and go fetch me them.
14: And he went, and fetched, and brought them to his mother: and his mother made savoury meat, such as his father loved.
15: And Rebekah took goodly raiment of her eldest son Esau, which were with her in the house, and put them upon Jacob her younger son:
16: And she put the skins of the kids of the goats upon his hands, and upon the smooth of his neck:
17: And she gave the savoury meat and the bread, which she had prepared, into the hand of her son Jacob.
18: And he came unto his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I; who art thou, my son?
19: And Jacob said unto his father, I am Esau thy firstborn; I have done according as thou badest me: arise, I pray thee, sit and eat of my venison, that thy soul may bless me.
20: And Isaac said unto his son, How is it that thou hast found it so quickly, my son? And he said, Because the LORD thy God brought it to me.
21: And Isaac said unto Jacob, Come near, I pray thee, that I may feel thee, my son, whether thou be my very son Esau or not.
22: And Jacob went near unto Isaac his father; and he felt him, and said, The voice is Jacob's voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.
23: And he discerned him not, because his hands were hairy, as his brother Esau's hands: so he blessed him.
24: And he said, Art thou my very son Esau? And he said, I am.
25: And he said, Bring it near to me, and I will eat of my son's venison, that my soul may bless thee. And he brought it near to him, and he did eat: and he brought him wine, and he drank.
26: And his father Isaac said unto him, Come near now, and kiss me, my son.
27: And he came near, and kissed him: and he smelled the smell of his raiment, and blessed him, and said, See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field which the LORD hath blessed:
28: Therefore God give thee of the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine:
29: Let people serve thee, and nations bow down to thee: be lord over thy brethren, and let thy mother's sons bow down to thee: cursed be every one that curseth thee, and blessed be he that blesseth thee.
30: And it came to pass, as soon as Isaac had made an end of blessing Jacob, and Jacob was yet scarce gone out from the presence of Isaac his father, that Esau his brother came in from his hunting.
31: And he also had made savoury meat, and brought it unto his father, and said unto his father, Let my father arise, and eat of his son's venison, that thy soul may bless me.
32: And Isaac his father said unto him, Who art thou? And he said, I am thy son, thy firstborn Esau.
33: And Isaac trembled very exceedingly, and said, Who? where is he that hath taken venison, and brought it me, and I have eaten of all before thou camest, and have blessed him? yea, and he shall be blessed.
34: And when Esau heard the words of his father, he cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry, and said unto his father, Bless me, even me also, O my father.
35: And he said, Thy brother came with subtilty, and hath taken away thy blessing.
36: And he said, Is not he rightly named Jacob? for he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing. And he said, Hast thou not reserved a blessing for me?
37: And Isaac answered and said unto Esau, Behold, I have made him thy lord, and all his brethren have I given to him for servants; and with corn and wine have I sustained him: and what shall I do now unto thee, my son?
38: And Esau said unto his father, Hast thou but one blessing, my father? bless me, even me also, O my father. And Esau lifted up his voice, and wept.
39: And Isaac his father answered and said unto him, Behold, thy dwelling shall be the fatness of the earth, and of the dew of heaven from above;
40: And by thy sword shalt thou live, and shalt serve thy brother; and it shall come to pass when thou shalt have the dominion, that thou shalt break his yoke from off thy neck.
41: And Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing wherewith his father blessed him: and Esau said in his heart, The days of mourning for my father are at hand; then will I slay my brother Jacob.
42: And these words of Esau her elder son were told to Rebekah: and she sent and called Jacob her younger son, and said unto him, Behold, thy brother Esau, as touching thee, doth comfort himself, purposing to kill thee.
43: Now therefore, my son, obey my voice; and arise, flee thou to Laban my brother to Haran;
44: And tarry with him a few days, until thy brother's fury turn away;
45: Until thy brother's anger turn away from thee, and he forget that which thou hast done to him: then I will send, and fetch thee from thence: why should I be deprived also of you both in one day?
46: And Rebekah said to Isaac, I am weary of my life because of the daughters of Heth: if Jacob take a wife of the daughters of Heth, such as these which are of the daughters of the land, what good shall my life do me?

Genesis 28

1: And Isaac called Jacob, and blessed him, and charged him, and said unto him, Thou shalt not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan.
2: Arise, go to Padan-aram, to the house of Bethuel thy mother's father; and take thee a wife from thence of the daughters of Laban thy mother's brother.
3: And God Almighty bless thee, and make thee fruitful, and multiply thee, that thou mayest be a multitude of people;
4: And give thee the blessing of Abraham, to thee, and to thy seed with thee; that thou mayest inherit the land wherein thou art a stranger, which God gave unto Abraham.
5: And Isaac sent away Jacob: and he went to Padan-aram unto Laban, son of Bethuel the Syrian, the brother of Rebekah, Jacob's and Esau's mother.
6: When Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob, and sent him away to Padan-aram, to take him a wife from thence; and that as he blessed him he gave him a charge, saying, Thou shalt not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan;
7: And that Jacob obeyed his father and his mother, and was gone to Padan-aram;
8: And Esau seeing that the daughters of Canaan pleased not Isaac his father;
9: Then went Esau unto Ishmael, and took unto the wives which he had Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael Abraham's son, the sister of Nebajoth, to be his wife.
10: And Jacob went out from Beer-sheba, and went toward Haran.
11: And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.
12: And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.
13: And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed;
14: And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
15: And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.
16: And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not.
17: And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.
18: And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it.
19: And he called the name of that place Bethel: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first.
20: And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on,
21: So that I come again to my father's house in peace; then shall the LORD be my God:
22: And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God's house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.

Out of these spare phrases, and incidents like Esau literally trading his birthright for beans, Buechner constructs an accessible, engaging, and witty story of family feuds, tribal enmities, sibling rivalry and most of all of Man's uneasy relationship to God (or the Fear as the characters here refer to Him).  I don't know that the book is suitable for all tastes--it's easy to imagine folks taking offense at some of the ribaldry--but then, when you read the Biblical version, it's just as disturbing.

I'm still not sure absolutely sure what message this series of incidents is supposed to convey to us,  but Buechner's telling gives them an immediacy that makes the tale, if nothing else, enjoyable and memorable in a way that, truth be told, the original simply isn't..

Dorothy C. Judd's Review:
Stripped of the "begats" of the Bible and fleshed out with details of daily life that make the story come alive on the page, this book is a "new and improved" chunk of Genesis.  It is the age-old story of family: love, jealousy, competition, treachery, sorrow, and tragedy.   The basic  characters and stories were all familiar to me, but I still referred to my 1904 edition of Hurlburtís Stories of the Bible to see how closely Buechner followed Genesis.   In most cases Buechnerís  was  an enriched, colorized version of the original!

Having just read Anita Diamantís The Red Tent (billed as the Old Testament as it would have been written by the daughters of God and not the sons of God), what intrigued me was the similarity of the two books. Each has a richness of detail: food, birthing customs, clothing, housing.  My biggest question was how did each of these authors decide on the new spin for the story of Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob and Leah? Is there something in the translation of the original text?

I found Buechner extremely readable, my only criticism being some confusion as he shifted points of view.  I was reminded, anew, of how these stories have survived the ages!

GRADE: B+
 

Aaron Kishbaugh's Review:

Frederick Buechner's Son of Laughter presents us with the much expanded fictionalization of the story of Jacob.  The title is a play on the Hebrew name Isaac, meaning Laughter. Jacob is the son of Isaac, hence the Son of Laughter.  Isaac is portrayed as anything but a joyful person, his main malady being that his father, good old Abraham, had been ordered to sacrifice him years before and were it not for the original scape-goat would have succeeded.  There are certainly times when you wish that ram had not presented itself in the bushes, or that old Abraham had not wasted so much time puttering about on the mountain and had just nixed the boy when he was told to.  But, alas it was not so and we have to deal with this mostly unlikable character for the remainder of the book.

There is certainly a good deal of treachery associated with this story, as anyone who has studied those fateful chapters of Genesis could well attest.  There are acts of extreme violence (retribution for Dinah's rape), trickery of both old blind men (Jacob stealing the blessing) and young lovesick nephews (Laban fooling Jacob into 14 years of servitude), unhealthy marital relationships (Jacob, Leah, and several servant girls, and Isaac and Rebecca), multiple references to sexual relations with sheep, sibling rivalry (Jacob, Esau and Joseph and all of his brothers), and enough circumcisions to make you talk like Mickey Mouse for a month.

I think that perhaps Mr. Buechner has made the mistake of downplaying the role of Dinah's rape.  The book refers to the episode as a mutual relationship between the young boy of Shechem and Dinah, and not as the rape that is told of in Genesis.  This robs the story of the biting feelings of real revenge and the love between the brothers and Dinah, and replaces those feelings with religious fervor and hatred.  The hatred is very consistent with the rest of the book, but the zeal for "The Fear", as God is referred to, is completely antithetical to all other actions these boys take * at least in the book.  The slaughter of Shechem is certainly a rash action taken by two young boys in either book, but the lack of respect that is paid to Dinah is a shame.  This is one of the few passages in the pre-Christ Jewish writings that portray women as valuable, intelligent and trustworthy beings, and not as property. The strikingly few traditional female role models and women shown with respect, such as Ruth, and Naomi, Ester, Deborah, and Abigail are important to the tradition, and as such should these stories should be accurately preserved.  The bending of the story here seems at the least insensitive, and at the most perhaps a bit sexist.

I did enjoy the reference to God as "The Fear."  It certainly put a new perspective on how these nomads being spoken to by a divine being would have reacted.  Buechner also presents us with the fictive beginnings of the tradition of not being allowed to pronounce the name of God.  The name of YHW, the Fear, is revered far more by the women in this story than by the men.  Yet on the contrary these same women are also described as being somewhat polytheistic in their true belief, which strikes me as being somewhat odd, and inconsistent.  It is as if Buechner was trying to create strong women characters, but he was not able to create them fully enough so that they did not have one spiritually fatal flaw.  This somewhat Freudian interpretation would also explain his treatment of Dinah.

Overall this style is not new, people have been retelling religious stories in allegorical, or non-allegorical slightly fictionalized adaptations for centuries. I would recommend that the mindful reader of this story also brush up on the story as found in Genesis, as it will help with gaining the proper perspective.  In scope, this book is nothing outstanding or original, in style it can be halting and immature, but in it's characters there is life and some depth.  All in all, it is a very enjoyable story and a short read, but as John Updike said of Tom Wolfe's Man in Full, "a good story, but it is not literature."

GRADE: B

[EDITOR'S NOTES:  Those interested in a further development of Aaron's point about Dinah might wish to try The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, a feminist reinterpretation of her story.  As to the quote from Updike about Tom Wolfe's Man in Full, though clever it is quite wrong.  See Orrin's review A Man In Full (1998)(Tom Wolfe 1931-) (Grade: A-)]

[see also, Orrin's review of Son of Laughter]

AARON'S SUGGESTED READING:
Readers who enjoy this book will also most likely enjoy the following:
    -The Source (James Michner)
    -The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (J.R.R. Tolkien)
    -The Narnia Stories (C.S. Lewis)
    -The Singer Trilogy (Calvin Miller)
    -Paradise Lost (John Milton)

And to a lesser degree:
    -The Merlin and Feirra Trilogies * Stephan Lawhead

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B)

  

Websites:

See also:

Frederick Buechner (2 books reviewed)
Religion
Book-related and General Links:
    -Frederick Buechner Page
    -The church of holy love, inc.com: an unofficial site, dedicated to exploring the literature of Frederick Buechner
    -BIO: (Collections concerning Religious and Social Issues currently available in the Wheaton College Special Collections)
    -PROFILE: The Reverend of Oz (Part 1)  At 70, Frederick Buechner looks back on his ministry in letters  (Philip Yancey, Books and Culture)
    -ESSAY: Jesus Who Was and Who Is (Frederick Buechner, Living Pulpit)
    -ESSAY: Preaching on Hope (Frederick Buechner, Living Pulpit)
    -ESSAY: Listening to Your Life: Five days of meditations (Frederick Buechner, Spirituality & Health)
    -ARTICLE: A Faith to Life and Die With: The stories and words of Frederick Buechner (W. Dale Brown, Sojourners Magazine)
    -REVIEW: THE STORM By Frederick Buechner (Ruth Coughlin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Books: Bigtime Christian fiction (World Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of ON THE ROAD WITH THE ARCHANGEL By Frederick Buechner (Alfred Corn, NY Times Book Review)
     -REVIEW: of THE SON OF LAUGHTER By Frederick Buechner (Lore Dickstein, NY Times Book Review)
     -REVIEW: of BRENDAN By Frederick Buechner (Julia O'Faolain, NY Times Book Review)
     -REVIEW: of THE SACRED JOURNEY By Frederick Buechner (Reynolds Price, NY Times Book Review)
     -REVIEW: Thomas R. Edwards: People in Trouble
                         The Terminal Man by Michael Crichton
                         Open Heart by Frederick Buechner
                         Enemies, A Love Story by Isaac Bashevis Singer

JACOB:
    -ETEXT: King James Bible (The Electronic Text Center,  University of Virginia)
    -Jacob and Esau (Bible Answers)
    -Jacob and Esau   (Lecture #21)
    -Legends of the Jews: Jacob
    -Jacob versus Esau: Stealing the Blessing (Reading the Old Testament)
    -"Blessed Deception?"   Jacob and Esau: Part I (Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies)
    -Ancient Biblical Interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures:   Jacob and Esau
    -Trickery in Genesis: Treachery and Deception
    -Genesis as Literature on the Internet

GENERAL:
    -Wabash Center Internet Guide: Religion and Literature

Comments: