Posted by: mattcolvin | April 2, 2014

Fraud on Law


I have been reading aloud Padraic Colum’s collection of Norse myths, The Children of Odin, to Isaiah. Today we read the story of Brock the Dwarf, who makes a wager with Loki that his brother Sindri could make objects of superior craftsmanship to the dwarves from whom Loki received Skidbladnir the pocket ship, and Gungnir the unerring spear. Like Gawain and the Green Knight, Loki and Brock wager their own heads. Sindri makes the golden boar Gullinbursti, the self-replicating golden ring Draupnir, and Mjollnir the hammer of Thor and wins the bet.

Then it is time for Loki to pay up. Brock exclaims,

“Loki has lost his head to me. Let him kneel down now till I cut it off.”
Loki came forward, smiling with closed lips. “I kneel before you, Dwarf,” he said. “Take off my head. But be careful. Do not touch my neck. I did not bargain that you should touch my neck. If you do, I shall call upon the Dwellers in Asgard to punish you.”

It is a classic dodge, holding the adversary to the letter of the law sophistically interpreted. It is formally identical to the judgment of Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, scene 1:

My deeds upon my head. I crave the law,
The penalty, and forfeit of my bond.

PORTIA: A pound of that same merchant’s flesh is thine.
The court awards it, and the law doth give it.

SHYLOCK: Most rightful judge!

PORTIA: And you must cut this flesh from off his breast.
The law allows it, and the court awards it.

Most learnèd judge, a sentence! Come, prepare.

Tarry a little. There is something else.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood.
The words expressly are “a pound of flesh.”
Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh,
But in the cutting it if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are by the laws of Venice confiscate
Unto the state of Venice.

More examples could be adduced: the Israelites in Judges 21 allow their daughters to be carried off so that they may provide them as wives for the Benjamites without “giving” them and so breaking their oath. Likewise, when subjected to a search of his caravan’s luggage and tents by an irate Laban searching for his teraphim which Rachel had purloined, Jacob swears an oath of innocence carefully phrased to avert evil: “With whomsoever you find your gods, let him not live.” But of course, Laban does not find them with anyone; Rachel, then, is safe from any supernatural harm that might otherwise have resulted from this malediction. The Gibeonites and Joshua trade super-literal fine print in their agreement.

I have posted before about David Daube’s explanation of the plot of the book of Ruth as an instance of the same sort of “fraud on law”: Boaz tells “Mr. So-and-so” that “What day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi and from Ruth the Moabitess, you have bought the wife of the dead to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance.” (4:5) Mr. So-and-so, thinking that “the dead” is Elimelech (very naturally, since it is Elimelech’s land that they are about to redeem), and seeing that Naomi will certainly bear no more children, declines: “Then I cannot redeem it, lest I destroy my own inheritance” — sc. by leaving myself with no children to inherit it from me. Just as Portia extracts from Shylock his formal waiver of payment, and formal confirmation of his choice of the “pound of flesh” penalty instead, even so Boaz waits until Mr. So-and-so has undergone the sandal ceremony formally relinquishing his right to redeem the land. It is only when this disavowal is complete and irrevocable that Boaz springs his trap:

‘Boaz calmly waits till the surrender of title is ratified by a solemnity that puts it above any attack, renders it absolute, “confirms” it. (Jacob’s extraction of an oath after Esau has already informally ceded his birthright is analogous.) It is only then that he triumphantly announces: “You are witnesses that I have bought all that was Elimelech’s and Qilyon’s and Mahlon’s. Moreover – the climax – Ruth the Moabitess, wife of Mahlon, have I bought to be my wife, to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance.” so Ruth the desirable, thirty-year-old, fertile one is “the wife of the dead” whom the nearer kinsman renounced. Boaz, not at all a passive recipient of good luck, has skilfully carried out the operation the women entrusted to him…’ (Collected Works of David Daube vol. II, p. 489-496)

I am a bit late for April Fool’s Day, but consider this a timely seasonal post on tricksters. I will also be preaching this Sunday on 1 Corinthians 2:8: “None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” Trickster stories are satisfying because Jesus is the antitype of Boaz and Jacob. And the story of Brock and Loki is Norse praeparatio evangelica.


  1. Interesting connections. I love trickster stories. It’s interesting how every culture has them, and usually a particular animal who’s the trickster — rabbit, or fox, or coyote, or tanuki.

    But I wonder about Jacob and Rachel. She claimed to be on her period, and later had problems with infertility and died in childbirth. I’d always assumed there was a connection and that she didn’t really escape the curse. What do you think?

    • Yes, that is fascinating, Kelly. I’d want to reread the stories in Genesis, but it sure sounds like you are onto something.

  2. I believe the correct term for this in English is “quibble”. One classic example is Frederick in Pirates of Penzance who is indentured until his twenty first birthday. Since he was born on February 29, his twenty first year leaves him “five and a little bit older”. Thus his sense of duty compels him to remain a pirate and to postpone his romantic engagement “until 1940.”

    Macbeth also features this device in the prophecy of the Birnam wood. I probably would have remained ignorant of both of those had I not had the opportunity to act in them.

    • Thanks for educating me about this, Paul!

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