Saved from Sacrifice // Chapter 3

The last post about S. Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice focused on chapters 1 & 2 of the book, which discuss some of the difficulties in talking about the atonement in our current, modern society, and specifically how the language of ‘sacrifice’ is virtually unintelligible to us because of the cultural and religious differences that exist.

S. Mark Heim - Saved from Sacrifice

S. Mark Heim – Saved from Sacrifice

Another important piece of the ‘sacrifice’ puzzle comes from being located within the Judeo-Christian tradition. Those of us who grew up in a tradition that focused on penal substitution as the defining mechanism of Jesus’ death and resurrection will have enormous difficulty seeing the Hebrew sacrificial system as anything other than substitutionary in nature. Heim’s suggestion, however, is that looking at the Hebrew sacrificial system this way is to read our own cultural and religious biases into the text. In chapter 3, he takes the wide swath of the entire Hebrew Scripture and (I think successfully) attempts to use Girard’s model of violence and scapegoating to explain the what was happening in the sacrificial system. In doing so, he takes biblical inspiration seriously while creating a path towards a non-violent atonement in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Violence in the Text

In chapter 2, Heim also pointed out that for the sacrificial scapegoating system to really work, the victim (or ‘scapegoat’) must remain ‘invisible.’ The use of myth in most (all?) religions generally helps to do this. They tell a story about why sacrifice is useful or necessary, usually from a cosmic standpoint, thus giving the community an excuse to use myth without fear of consequence. Further, each time the scapegoat is sacrificed for the sake of the community, he/she/it cannot be seen as actually innocent or victimized. Otherwise, the true nature of scapegoating becomes unveiled, causing the mechanism to unhinge. “Texts that hide scapegoating foster it. Texts that show it for what it is undermine it” (64).

The interesting thing about the Judeo-Christian narrative (not that it’s that simple or cohesive) is that its texts actually begin to bring the scapegoating theme to the forefront. Put another way, the Old Testament – in some instances – reveals scapegoating for what it is: the victimization of the innocent for the sake of communal reconciliation.

This is part of the reason why many see the biblical narrative as ultra-violent and wonder why. How could Christians, whose primary leader was radically non-violent, worship such a seemingly barbaric, tribal, violent deity (the one seen often in the Old Testament, particularly the conquest narratives)? Heim’s answer is that the violence shown in the text isn’t coincidental, but necessary, especially if humans are to be shown how scapegoating is ultimately harmful and evil. In answer to the question, what is violence doing in the Bible, Heim responds: “It is showing us the nature of the mimetic conflict that threatens to destroy human community,” and “…certain characterizations of sacrificial violence and God’s relation are a crucial part of the whole narrative… They are a necessary part of our understanding, even while they are not themselves a sufficient model for our behavior” (103). Unlike myth, which can ‘sweep over’ the evils of scapegoating, the Bible offers vivid pictures of violence so that victimization cannot be even implicitly affirmed.

All that said, let’s take a look at some of the places where mimetic rivalry and sacrificial scapegoating (and its critique) are featured in the OT.

Creation / Post-Creation

Interestingly, unlike other creation myths, the Genesis creation account is noticeably non-violent. While other myths might include gods cutting other gods in half to create the world or something similar, “the Bible insists that the true origin is a nonviolent one” (70).

Nonetheless, three chapters later, Adam and Eve’s ‘fall’ handily demonstrates why humans need sacrifice, as their casting out of the garden can be seen as a type of sacrifice in order to restore peace. In the next scene, Cain and Abel also shows mimetic rivalry in explicitly “antimythical terms” (71). While Abel’s blood sacrifice is accepted, God “has no regard” for Cain’s non-animal sacrifice. While some of the implications of this are unclear, what IS clear is the existence of jealousy that leads to murder, showing the beginning of the downward spiral of violence post-fall. From here, we see God promise Cain he will be avenged sevenfold if he is harmed, to Lamech who says he himself will be avenged seventy-sevenfold. Further along, God regrets the creation of the world because of the violence and immorality found in it. Even God participates in the cycle by destroying the world to start over, explicitly affirming using violence to fend off violence. Here, in clear terms, mimetic rivalry and violence show their ability for destruction.

After this, God promises Noah, in Genesis 9, that this would not happen again. “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, / by a human shall that person’s blood be shed.” This is roughly equivalent to the “eye for an eye” phrase most of us are familiar with. God’s command about vengeance in this scenario, however, leads to “a dramatic de-escalation” (73) of the violence in previous stories. This leads us to the territory of sacrifice: “From a world of wholesale violence we have entered the realm of proportioned violence, the realm of sacrifice” (ibid.).

The Practice of Sacrifice

Most people understand, at the very least, that sacrifice plays a prominent role in the Old Testament. This is true, not only in Leviticus (where nearly the entire sacrificial system is laid out), but is then continually referenced in the remainder of the OT canon. What IS interesting is the way in which it is presented, even when it is endorsed.

Heim mentions Leviticus 24:10-14, where a man, the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man “blaphemes” the name of God with a curse during a fight that breaks out. The man is singled out as a blasphemer in front of the people of Israel and is stoned for his offense, and his stoning brings about peace and reconciliation within the community. The text completely endorses this version of scapegoating, but does so in a seemingly unprecedented way:

  1. Heim mentions that the behavior (scapegoating) is the same as in other cultures, but the description of the scapegoating event is not. Normally, this kind of event would be presented in a type of mythical account that overlooks the violence within. Instead, “It is presented in a flat and quite nonmythical setting” (75).
  2. This particular type of scapegoating is only found twice in the Leviticus text. The remainder of the text focuses on animal sacrifices and particular commandments for the Israelites.
  3. This particular instance of sacrificial scapegoating is linked to the commandments given in the text (“blaspheming the Name”). These commandments are meant to stop the escalation of retributive violence, but when this fails (as in Lev. 24), “the community will have to resort to communal unity against a scapegoat to restore peace.

The other major detailed focus on sacrificial scapegoating in Leviticus is found in the discussion about the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). This is actually where we get the term “scapegoat” in the first place. In this ritual, among other things, two goats are chosen to be sacrificed for the sins of the people of Israel. One’s blood is offered in the sanctuary while the other is used for the transference of the people’s guilt. After having the sins of the people symbolically placed upon this scapegoat, it was expelled to the desert (or a rugged cliff), sent away from the people, ridding them of their sins.

Just like in the previous story, the community collectively centers its violence onto a single victim, which is charged with all of the sins of the community itself, thus ridding the community of its guilt. Heim notes, “What is striking about the ritual is not that it differs from [the scapegoating] model, but that it is so extraordinarily explicit in expressing the underlying dynamic” (77). Here we can see a subtle move in the text; although the text explicitly endorses scapegoating as useful and/or necessary, it also begins to make the victim ‘visible,’ thus working towards a move away from the effectiveness of scapegoating.

The Critique of Sacrifice (The Victim Revealed)

Further, in other canonical books, we can see explicit references to the downfalls of sacrifice and scapegoating.

For example, several of the Psalms reveal the psalmist himself as a victim or scapegoat being treated unjustly (though if the situation were presented from the community’s point of view, he/she would not have been revealed as such). Take Psalm 69:4, for example:

More in number than the hairs of my head / are those who hate me without cause; / many are those who would destroy me, / my enemies who accuse me falsely.

Is this not the scapegoating dynamic we see in the earlier texts, but reversed?

So too, in Job, we see the same thing in longer form. Furthermore, we see Job revealed as a scapegoat and refuse to consent to the guilt his friends are telling him to take on. While we cannot do justice to the entire book of Job here, it is important to note that Job can be seen not just as a book on suffering and faith, but as a critique of the sacrificial system as truly effective. Heim also says this:

The book of Job can be read as a kind of struggle for the soul of the biblical God, a trial as to whether this is a divinity of the classic, mythical, sacrificial sort, or something different (87).

The prophets take this further, as many of them criticize the nation of Israel for giving itself to the sacrificial system but ignoring the God who set up those systems in the first place. Amos, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah all deal with this subject in detail, as God (through the prophet/writer) laments the festivals and sacrifices done in God’s name. Instead, God “desire[s] steadfast love and not sacrifice / the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:6).

Finally, Heim spends a significant amount of time on the suffering servant passage in Isaiah 52:13-53-12. It may be helpful to read this passage, specifically with the scapegoating themes in mind that we have discussed. Heim quotes Gil Bailie in reference to the suffering servant passage: “The Suffering Servant Songs combine two insights: first, that the victim was innocent and his persecutors wrong, and second, that his victimization was socially beneficial and that his punishment brought the community peace” (98, emphasis mine). Setting aside the preconceived ideas we have about this particular passage as Christians, it is important to note that neither the author of the text nor God seem to endorse the use of scapegoating in this passage. They call it out for what it is – wrong. However, this does not mean it doesn’t have good results (namely, communal and divine reconciliation). Though God does not endorse the use of sacrifice, God is still able to use sacrifice to benefit the community.

From here, Heim will move towards the crucifixion of Christ and how this is not only a continuation of the scapegoating theme, but virtually a cosmic critique of it.

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