In Genesis, recognition is consistently paired with deception in the sense that the former almost always is a cause of the latter. This creates several type scenes that are most notable past the births of Jacob and Esau. In fact, deception appears to be an inherited trait in Jacob’s lineage: throughout his family’s cycles, individuals take advantage of opportunities to exploit others. Characters who orchestrate the deception have very evident and arguably crucial reasons, though often they are acting solely out of self-interest. Even so, the deceivers are punished quite heavily and very ironically, regardless of their intentions. Certain physical objects which are very indicative of a certain character are used as a tool to force recognition upon someone. This moment of recognition can even serve as a punishment per se. These typical scenes, when read in conjunction, are very indicative of a karma in Genesis which exists to profoundly and usually ironically punish those who have deceived their family or others using recognition.
Rebekah’s favoritism for her son Jacob is important because it is the cause of a deception type scene in Genesis. She seizes the opportunity to deceive Isaac when she learns of his intention to bless Esau. Rebekah utilizes Isaac’s failing vision to get him to believe he was blessing Esau while he’s actually blessing Jacob. Rebekah puts Esau’s clothes on Jacob, and covers his arms and neck with hair, which most define Esau’s physical character. These tools of deceit set up a parallel for a later type scene between Joseph and his brothers. Isaac is fooled and the key term “recognize” is used: “But he did not recognize him for his hands were, like Esau’s hands, hairy, and he blessed him (27.23-24).” Jacob has now not only taken Esau’s birthright from him, but his father’s blessing as well, even though typically the firstborn enjoys both of these privileges. Isaac fails to recognize that Jacob is not Esau and thus is tricked and deceived. Soon after Jacob steals the blessing, he is punished very ironically for his deception towards his father. Jacob goes to work for his uncle Laban, and falls in love with Rachel, his youngest daughter. He agrees to work for Laban for seven years in order to marry Rachel. After the seven years are finished, he goes to bed with Leah, thinking that she is Rachel.
Jacob has now wasted seven years of his life and must marry a girl who he later finds out is pregnant because of him, all because he failed to recognize who he was sleeping with. This is karmic in and of itself because it’s the same predicament he forced upon his father, Isaac, who failed to recognize his son for being Jacob instead of Esau. Already this is a fitting punishment for his deception of his father. However, this is taken a step further after Jacob demands an explanation: “And Laban said, “It is not done thus in our place, to give the younger girl before the first born (29.26-27).”” Laban is stating that it is not proper etiquette to give the second born, in this case Rachel, the privilege of being chosen to marry before the firstborn, Leah, even though Jacob wants Rachel. This is a very just punishment for Jacob because he himself is the second born. Regardless of his technically inferior status, he still gained many of the advantages that the firstborn typically enjoys, such as Esau’s birthright and the blessing from Isaac. Now he’s being told that he can’t marry the the second born before the firstborn is married, as that’s a special privilege that only the firstborn can enjoy. The irony is situational because, readers expect to see Jacob get what he desires, regardless of his status as being the second born. It is unexpected and ironic that he is not allowed to marry someone because they are second born, like him. After the previous deception type scene, Jacob is punished very ironically and karmically, presumably for their deception. Jacob is punished even further after he is deceived about the disappearance of his son Joseph, in a later type scene.
Another type scene that is closely paralleled with how Jacob steals Isaac’s blessing is with Joseph and his brothers. Joseph greatly vexes his brothers, who sell him into slavery. Initially they were going to kill him, but one brother, Judah, sees no gain in that and convinces the others: “And Judah said to his brothers, “What gain is there if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites and our hand will not be against him (37.26-27)…” And his brothers agreed.” The main motivation to sell Joseph into slavery is greed, and self-interest. This line also sets up Judah as a prominent figure in Joseph’s disappearance, as opposed to his ten other brothers who for the most part remain nameless. After the brothers sell him into slavery, they need to deceive their father in order for them to avoid being punished for their sin. They show their father the bloody garment Jacob had once given to Joseph, which he had been wearing before they sold him, covered in blood and torn to shreds. He immediately concludes that Joseph has been slain by an animal, because he recognizes the tunic. This is very reminiscent of Jacob and Rebekah’s strategy to deceive Isaac. In both cases some type of physical article, being exclusively iconic to a certain character, was used in cohesion with recognition to achieve deception. The Joseph cycle is interrupted by Chapter 38, which is the equivalent of Jacob’s misfortune with Laban for his deception of his father. Judah fails to give his son Shelah to be married to Tamar, leaving her a widow and socially shamed for an exorbitant period of time. Her plan for retribution involved pretending to be a prostitute and sleeping with him. As a deposit until she is paid, she takes his seal-and-cord and his staff.
Robert Alter, the translator of this edition of Genesis, notes that taking these “is something like taking a person’s driver’s license and credit cards in modern society.” Later she shows him the seal-and-cord and the staff, and Judah’s reaction is a revelation for his actions: “And Judah recognized them and he said, “She is more in the right than I, for have I not failed to give her to Shelah, my son? (38.27)” Judah is forced to accept his failure, due to the now indisputable fact that he has slept with Tamar. After recognizing the seal-and-cord and staff, just like when Jacob recognized Joseph’s tunic, both have a shocking revelation concerning someone they deeply care about. Judah is still punished ironically for his failure to take care of Tamar, in the same way that he previously deceived his father Jacob by showing him Joseph’s garment. A final type-scene that pairs recognition with deception also occurs in the Joseph cycle, when Joseph sees his brothers again for the first time after they have sold him into slavery. Joseph, now a man in his 30s, “recognized his brothers but they did not recognize him (42.8-9).” He uses this to his advantage in order to intimidate and punish them for their former crimes against him, when he was sold into slavery. Joseph uses their failure to recognize him to deceive them by using his power to throw them in jail. Joseph’s reason for doing so is fairly just- after all, he was wronged by them in the past. This can also be considered a further punishment for the brothers who wholly deceived Jacob by making him recognize the bloody tunic which had belonged to Joseph.
Joseph isn’t acting out of self-interest in his intimidation of his brothers, rather out of retribution. Contrary to the other type scenes, Joseph is not punished for his deception of the brothers. This is due to the fact that rather than acting out of greed or self-interest in his deception, he plays the victim seeking retribution. Joseph was the first to be wronged by his brothers, and now karma is allowing him an opportunity for a just revenge. Karma in Genesis is very present. There seem to be two types of characters who are involved in deception through recognition: those who do wrong and act out of self interest, and those who are wronged and only seek retribution. The former constitutes characters such as Jacob and Joseph’s brothers, those who deceive others using the recognition of a particular characteristic physical object (Jacob disguising as Esau with his clothes and hairiness, and Judah and his brothers using the tunic Jacob gave to Joseph to get him to draw a false conclusion). The latter constitutes characters such as Joseph and Tamar, people who have been wronged in some way, shape, or form and desire revenge upon their aggressors when the time is right and most opportune.
The repetition of the term “recognition” in Genesis is a beautiful reminder of the common motifs these scenes share. Together, type scenes reveal an ironic karma in Genesis that exists to punish those whose self-interests drive them to take advantage of recognition, and in doing so vindicate those who have been wronged.