This week’s Torah reading tells the story of Jacob’s sojourn with his uncle Laban, whose flocks he tends and whose two daughters he marries. Laban tricks Jacob, first by substituting one daughter for the other and then by trying to deprive him of his wages—which are to be paid in sheep. Jacob responds with some trickery of his own, getting his due by a feat of biblical genetic engineering. In The Merchant of Venice, the character of Shylock cites Jacob’s example in this passage as justification for usury. Herbert Basser argues that Shakespeare here is engaging in a subtle analysis of the biblical text:
Shylock . . . recognizes that, . . . since a patriarch would never steal, Jacob is taking “interest” for the years of unpaid work. He calls it “indirect” interest as it came from natural increase and not added coin. Shylock also . . . notes that Jacob’s mother, Rebecca, was shrewd in helping him usurp Esau’s birthright. For Shylock this constitutes wisdom. It would seem that Shakespeare means to paint Shylock—and probably Jews in general—as the type of people who muddy the lines between smart business and deceitful practices, as Jacob does. . . .
Antonio . . . denounces Shylock’s biblical interpretation. . . . Shylock, Antonio believes, uses Scripture to justify his malicious practices, since Jacob could not possibly have been involved in usury. Jews, he tells Bassanio, are devils and devils misuse Scripture, looking outwardly pious but harboring nefarious schemes. The charge of Jewish hypocrisy was and is often encountered in Christian teachings. Shakespeare himself allows their positions to speak for themselves. . . .
The very debate Shylock and Antonio are having virtually reflects the dissonance [within] the story of how Jacob became wealthy. . . . [A]s a careful reader of Scripture, Shakespeare picked up on the tension inherent in the account, and chose to express this tension, this inner biblical dialogue, in the form of a debate between the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, and the Christian merchant, Antonio.