The Bible and Sacrifice:
A “Text in Travail” Illustrated by the Bible’s Confrontation with Sacrifice
by Paul Nuechterlein
In the Hebrew Bible, there is clearly a dynamic that moves in the direction of the rehabilitation of the victims, but it is not a cut-and-dried thing. Rather, it is a process under way, a text in travail; it is not a chronologically progressive process, but a struggle that advances and retreats. I see the Gospels as the climactic achievement of that trend, and therefore as the essential text in the cultural upheaval of the modern world. (René Girard, 1923-2015, Violent Origins, 141, my emphasis)
René Girard makes a number of claims with his Mimetic Theory which have great import for a Christian reading of Scripture. One of his basic claims is that the Judeo-Christian scriptures are pre-eminent in their revealing the sacrificial, scapegoating structure that lies behind all religions and cultures.
The most common response to this claim, which has been a point of deep frustration to Girard and his followers, begins with the true observation that most other scriptures and religious writings speak far less about sacrificial violence, if at all, than do the Judeo-Christian scriptures. The conclusion most often drawn from this, however, is that, far from being revelatory, the Judeo-Christian scriptures seem much more steeped in that violence. Especially when compared to the writings of surviving modern religions like Buddhism — where talk of sacrifice is virtually absent and the positive emphasis on peace thus seems so much more prominent — a claim for the superiority of the Bible strike many as strange. The counter-question is: How can Girard possibly claim a superior revelatory power for the Judeo-Christian scriptures when they are so full of violence?
Girard’s basic answer? For a text to be revelatory of something like violence, it has to talk about it! The goal of this essay, with its collage of biblical texts, will be to try to show how the Bible does squarely confront us with our sacrificial violence. The primary illustration of the notion of a “text in travail” will be a reading of sacrifice through the Bible as a progressive revelation — “but a struggle that advances and retreats.”
First, we also need to understand further the impediments to this revelation. The title Girard chose for his major work (Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, a quote from Jesus in Matthew 13:35) strongly strikes this chord. He cites Jesus as aligning himself with the message of the major prophets, which forthrightly recognizes that what God is persistently trying to reveal to us are “things hidden since the foundation of the world.” Here “world” basically means “human culture” since, before science, that was really the only kind of world we knew, a human-centered world that was completely read through the lenses of our cultures.
I have long argued that Mark’s entire presentation of the Gospel is shaped around Jesus’ first sermon in Mark 4 (based on a similar thesis in Mary Ann Tolbert’s Sowing the Gospel), where he quotes the call scene in Isaiah 6 about ‘these people having ears but not hearing, eyes but not seeing.’ Jesus heals physically deaf and blind people sandwiched around stories of his own disciples not being able to hear his message or to truly see what he was about. Mark’s Gospel ends with the disciples never having heard or seen. It is perhaps left as a challenge to the reader / listener whether s/he will be able to truly see or hear. In his editing of Mark’s material, Matthew even amplifies Mark’s use of Isaiah 6 by having Jesus quote the psalmist several verses later: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 13:35). The bottom-line here is the difficulty of being able to hear or see what the true God is trying to show and tell us, both about the true Godself and about us. Girard does not shy away from this theme in Scripture in making his positive claims about its revelatory power.
Girard’s corollary claim might seem just as scandalous: that it is mythology, the writings of human religion, which is primarily responsible for keeping things hidden, i.e., for covering our ears and our eyes from seeing the truth about our own human responsibility for the violence that lies at the foundation of who we are. The most basic, ancient strategy of mythology is to deflect our responsibility for violence onto the gods: the gods have visited us, bringing both the chaos and then also the ensuing peace; if we want to maintain that peace, we must do what they demand of us: blood sacrifice. In other words, a small dose of blood is required in order to ward off a much greater bloodshed. (For more on Girard’s specialized use of the term “myth,” see the page “Heim on Joseph Campbell’s View of Myth.”)
As religions have developed over the millennia, even that sacrificial violence goes deeper and deeper underground. Subsequent generations are scandalized by the stories of violence from their ancestors. As Jesus tried to tell the leaders of his own generation:
“Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. 48So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. 49Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ 50so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, 51from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation.” (Luke 11:47-51)
In other words, they are trying to wash themselves clean of their ancestors blood, building tombs for those that their ancestors killed, but then unwittingly falling into the same thing. The layers of mythology over the ages tends to have this same sort of effect: we build nice creative edifices over the remains of previous generations’ violence and so applaud ourselves for having grown up and become such creative, rather than destructive, people. One of the ways we have done so is to build layers of increasingly peaceful and creative mythologies over the earlier stories. The problem is that, even if the violence disappears in our myths, the real-life violence among us never goes away. Each generation ends up finding their own means of bloodletting and destruction, which remain relatively hidden to them, a mess for subsequent generations to tidy up without taking any responsibility for, by blaming ancestors.
Is there any way out? Yes: for God to show us the true nature about ourselves, even at the same time that we are forgiven for it. In fact, the unique perspective of the Judeo-Christian Scripture is precisely that an up-front, purely gratuitous forgiveness will be required for us to even to have our eyes and ears opened. We would never allow ourselves to accept responsibility for such foundational violence unless we were already forgiven for it. That’s perhaps why Mark’s Gospel has to end before there’s any chance for someone to truly hear and see. It’s the forgiveness implied in Jesus’ resurrection and his going ahead to meet them that will begin to open their eyes and ears to the Good News. After encountering that ending of gracious forgiveness, one can start at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel again to see if it can be heard better the second time around . . . and third . . . and fourth . . . and on and on.
Which is to also admit that after the millionth time around, two thousand years later, we who call ourselves Christians still have a hard time seeing and hearing. We have tragically fallen into the same sacrificial bloodshed. And the consequences of not hearing and seeing have repeated themselves throughout the history of Christendom. To continue the call to Isaiah:
Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the LORD sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump. (Isaiah 6:11-13)
Does the apostasy of Christendom invalidate the message? No. It makes it all that more real and tragic what both the prophets and the Gospel writers like Mark tried to warn us about: we have ears without hearing and eyes without seeing. The Good News of a new way of being human will continue to be a small seed of a faithful remnant — with the promise in Jesus’ parables that someday it will magnificently bear fruit.
The greater potential tragedy is that our bloodstained Christian history seemingly prompts many modern folks to flee to what they perceive as more peaceful, positive religions and their scriptures. My primary contention here is that being drawn to seemingly more peaceful, positive scriptures can end up being another way for us to avoid our full responsibility for the violence of this world. Responsibility is avoided by disclaiming the misuse of the Christian Scriptures.
Girard’s evangelical anthropology is trying to help make more clear to us than ever before that the nature of our foundational violence is such that it won’t ever go away with an approach which amounts to the power of positive thinking — something in the fashion of, ‘Gee, now that we see what our ancestors did, we can know and will ourselves into building more peaceful societies.’ No, what our eyes and ears need to be opened to is how anthropologically foundational violence is to who we are as human beings. The only kind of Scripture that can ever begin to reveal this to us is one that throws it in our faces — but even more especially, one that forgives us for it even as it throws it in our faces.
From the perspective of Girard (and the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John!), this is quintessentially why it took the Cross. The Cross is exactly what we need to see and hear. The only thing that could possibly open our eyes and ears is to reveal to us the Lamb slain since the foundation of our worlds, even as we are receiving a gracious word of forgiveness for it. It also emphasizes the crucial graciousness of the incarnation as a new way for us to be human which is not founded on sacred violence.
I would like to illustrate and highlight in what follows a reading strategy for Scripture that sees it as a journey of God leading us, with many fits and starts, into a new way of being human which does not rely on sacred violence — sacrifice — as the solution to our overall human problem of violence. The Judeo-Christian Scripture is revelatory of our responsibility for violence precisely because it doesn’t shy away from it. It throws it in our faces . . . and forgives us for it. There are no other scriptures that, over millennia of generations, has so squarely faced itself with the reality of sacrifice. One might say that the Bible, from beginning to end, is obsessed with it. Our point here is that this obsession is for good reason: it’s our only true hope of ever being led out from under it, by mimetically following the One who willingly gave himself over to sacrifice — transforming it into a self-sacrifice — for our salvation. So without further adieu let us begin our whirlwind journey.
The Bible’s Opening ‘Myths’
I use the term “myth” for these first chapters of Genesis more hesitatingly than the average modern biblical scholar. In the comments to follow, I’ll recognize mythological elements to these stories. But the crucial Girardian insight is to see how these stories give us a huge start on demythologizing the most typical mythological viewpoints. First, the most crucial portions of the stories themselves:
But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. — Genesis 3:4-6
In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” 8Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. — Genesis 4:3-8
Our first observation is to see how the story of original sin begins with what Girard’s Mimetic Theory calls “mimetic desire.” Eve doesn’t simply desire the forbidden fruit on her own; she catches it from the serpent. Likewise, Adam catches it from Eve. The consequence is rivalry and the breakdown of community. The creatures all blame each other, with Adam’s accusation being the most telling: he actually blames God for giving the woman to him. The most tragic consequence is thus rivalry, and a break in communion, with God.
But this alone, contrary to most commentaries, does not constitute the original sin. No, sin is not mentioned in the text until 4:7 when God warns Cain immediately before he goes out to commit the foundational murder. The “original sin” is more properly the sin that lies at our human origins, namely, the murder of the innocent victim.
The collective aspect of the foundational murder is not evident until, suddenly (and rather mysteriously, really, since there is no previous mention of anyone but the first four people), there is a whole community of people who potentially seek revenge on Cain. And, at the same time, the implication is still there that, since Cain and Abel are the first two children, the “founding father” of human culture is Cain. Abel is no longer alive to found anything. It is the murdering brother, and those who might seek vengeance on him, who stand at the head of the first generation of things.
What is crucial to note is this story’s distinct difference from similar founding myths in other cultures. Contrast Cain and Abel, for example, with the founding myth of Roman culture: the story of Romulus killing his brother Remus. The two stories share in common a murdering brother who is the father of all who follow in that culture. The crucial difference is that the biblical story does not justify the violence! God hears Abel’s innocent blood crying out from the ground. The Roman myth justifies Romulus’ murder as the sacred story that lies behind Rome’s sacred violence which it maintains in order to carry out its various forms of justice. (And notice the telling relationship in the words themselves: conventional “justice” derives from such mythological, foundational “justifications.”)
We cannot leave these stories behind without noting the stated theme of this exercise: sacrifice. By the story’s own parameters, we have an original father and mother, their first two children, and suddenly right in the middle of it: sacrifice. No groundwork. No stories of origins for sacrifice. It’s just somehow there from the beginning. In fact, from a Girardian viewpoint, this might be considered the mythological element in the story. Not that sacrifice is simply there, but that it gets linked with what God desires: beyond simply desiring burnt sacrifices, it is supposed that we know God to favor a certain brand of it. God, according to the story, favors Abel’s animal sacrifice to Cain’s grain offering. Is there even the implication that that’s what prompted Cain to get jealous and murder his brother? If God wouldn’t have shown favoritism this murder wouldn’t have happened?
Girard also has an apt phrase for the Judeo-Christian scripture when he calls it a “text in travail” (see the quote from Violent Origins that leads this essay). It is a text fighting with itself to reveal what the true God needs for us to see in order for us to ultimately find salvation in following Christ. Yes, the true God stands behind the moments of revelation, but they are being received by human beings who still have ears without hearing and eyes without seeing. So the story of the revelation is a fitful one which only has full revelatory power in the advent of the Word made flesh. Before moving on, then, let me point you to a brilliant example of Christ helping to complete the demythologizing process that is significantly begun but not yet completed in the Bible’s opening ‘myths’: James Alison’s “Reimagining the Symbol of Original Sin,” chapter 9 of The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes (New York: Crossroads, 1998), especially pages 245-253.
Our Founding Ancestor in the Way of Faith
Following the opening myths, the Bible’s real story of salvation, the journey of faith, begins with Abraham and Sarah. And central to this foundational story is this episode:
When [Abraham and Isaac] came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 11But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. — Genesis 22:9-13
This story is most often labeled as “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” but shouldn’t we instead be emphasizing the story’s ending, which quite clearly and wonderfully shows us the usual label’s opposite, namely, that Isaac is not sacrificed? At the very least, shouldn’t we call it “The Near-Sacrifice of Isaac”? Rather than being horrified at what Abraham almost did, might we instead be impressed with what he did not do? At the founding of the Hebrew faith, Abraham made a decisive move away from human sacrifice. This despite the context all around him of the prevalence of human sacrifice. Most other cultures performed ritual human sacrifice centuries and even millennia after Abraham stopped doing so as a precedence for his descendants. Quite distinctive for Israel’s faith is that, in the midst of a time and milieu that featured ritual human sacrifice, a crucial part of their identity as a people was intentional abstention from such practices.
But what about the God who asks Abraham to do the sacrifice in the first place? This is another example of what I think is meant by “text in travail.” Talk about struggling with itself! This story presents us with a God who initially asks for a child sacrifice and then, at the climax, saves them from it. For centuries, our only recourse to interpreting this story has been to paint the picture of a God who goes to such dramatic lengths in order to test the faith of his people. But doesn’t Girard’s evangelical anthropology give us another answer by helping us to get past the false gods of our own making to see and hear the voice of the true God? The god who demands the sacrifice at the beginning of the story is the typical false god of our making. We can see this more clearly as an anthropological datum. The God at the end, then, can be more clearly recognized as the One who saves us from our false gods. (Note: this difference between gods is actually in the text. It is Elohim who commands the sacrifice, and the angel of Yahweh who stops it. For more on this passage, see the lectionary page for Proper 8A.)
One final observation about the patriarchal sagas. Notice how they are stories about mimetic rivalry which end in forgiveness. Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, become estranged through their envy, but the end of the story is forgiveness and reconciliation. For more on these wonderful stories, see chapter 2 of James G. Williams’ The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred: Liberation from the Myth of Sanctioned Violence.
Not quite ready for Covenant: the need to continue in ritual blood sacrifice
The most pivotal event of the Hebrew scriptures, the Exodus out of Egypt, might also be considered as pivotal to our idea of a “text in travail.” Yahweh delivers the people of Israel from the most hideous form of nonritualized, institutional human sacrifice: namely, slavery. Then, Yahweh leads them out into the wilderness, literally the place of the expelled scapegoat, in order to constitute their community around a completely new basis: that of theological covenant, a foundation which begins with the victims of sacrifice. But, from the very beginning, we — and I say “we” here out of the sense that the Hebrew people are representative of all of us children of God — we are not ready for this new thing God is doing. We continually lapse back into our own ways of doing things which revolve around sacrifice. God makes the offer to us to live in another way, and we keep listening to the gods of our own making, our idols — so much so that we usually can’t tell the difference. We continually mistake our idols for God.
What is amazing about the Hebrew scriptures is that the voice of the true God does come through so often. But it remains a text in travail because that voice of the true God is so often confused with that of our false gods, right in the same texts. God calls them out into the wilderness to do a new thing, but they complain and end up doing what their neighbors do, blood sacrifice. The entire Hebrew scripture revolves around this tension between the true God calling God’s people to do a new thing, and God relenting, letting them do the same old thing: namely, a highly developed cult of blood sacrifice, kingship, “holy war,” etc. The notion of God “relenting” is still an improvement on God “demanding.” As a text in travail, the latter is there, too, in tension with the God who reluctantly relents, and even more so with the God who calls human beings to something else. The narrative descends even more fully into the sacred violence of our human origins by depicting God as slaughtering thousands of Israelites, with Moses appearing as the more merciful one, pleading on their behalf. (The slaughter was obviously carried out by human beings, but once again we see our tendency to blame it on the gods.)
The reader might be uncomfortable, wanting to know: How can we confidently sort out all these gods struggling against one another under the name of the same God? We can never do so, of course, with complete confidence. But as Christians we do make some bold claims about Christ being the light of the world who helps us to see more clearly.
Another bold claim is that we often talk about a New Covenant, seemingly in replacement of the Old Covenant. Perhaps this is even too bold and it would be better to characterize what happened with Abraham and Moses as the beginning of the covenant and what happened with Christ as its fulfillment. Christians most typically mark the beginning of the “New Covenant” at the last supper, which has a significance largely lost on moderns: the complete cessation of ritual blood sacrifice as the center of religious practice, replacing it with a simple meal of bread and wine. However we characterize it, Christians believe that Jesus Christ somehow sharpens the nature of this covenant for us. And we believe that the incarnation of this covenant was necessary through him. As such, we make the paradoxical claim that he is both fully human and fully divine. Why?
Let me suggest an answer that has to do with this very issue of how we can begin to sort out the true God from the false gods. The Christian theological tradition has spoken a great deal about how Christ shows us who God truly is and why that’s important. But is this task ever really complete without its incarnational partner? When we believe in the incarnation and the dual nature of Christ, can our evangelical theology ever be adequate without a corresponding evangelical anthropology? Precisely with this issue of coming to know the true God in Jesus Christ, for instance, can we know the true God without knowing more fully about the false gods which we have been mimetically (subconsciously) compelled to create since the foundation of the world? Here’s the rub: René Girard has given us a modern anthropology which can stand within our scientific context and also happens to be thoroughly evangelical. It helps us sharpen our hearing of the Gospel so that we can learn more clearly about those gods we tend to create whose voices block our ears from hearing the true God. When we let the Gospel more completely teach us about ourselves, we improve our ability to sort out the true God from the false ones which are in our human evolutionary nature to create. It’s not that we are inclined to do discover these things about ourselves on our own, of course, but the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit of truth, will never let us off the hook since Christ let it loose on the world. (See the page “Girard on the Paraclete.”)
But why so much violence? An analogy
There are many portions of the Bible that almost seem gratuitous in their depiction of violence. Is that really necessary? Don’t underestimate our blindness under the influence of myth. Let me suggest an analogy. What is the difference between war movies made before Viet Nam and those made after Viet Nam? What is the difference, say, between a 1950’s John Wayne WWII movie and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan? One of the most marked differences is the amount of graphic violence. Less noticeable, as an element of interpretation, would be the difference in mythologizing war as a necessary (sacred?) task. Are these two differences related? Isn’t it more difficult to mythologize war when you come face to face with so much senseless carnage?
I want to suggest that the Bible is somewhat like that in its difference from much mythology. Its sometimes graphic violence is offensive because that’s what is seemingly required for us to finally be able to see it for what it is.
Mercy not Sacrifice
Let’s begin to turn this around, though, from noticing the troubling violence and sacrifice in the Bible, to noticing the relentless criticism of, and movement away from, sacrifice — which is my main goal in writing this essay around biblical quotes. Abraham, with Yahweh God’s help, was ahead of his time in moving away from human sacrifice. The Hebrew prophets were ahead of their time in criticizing sacrifice. Here, it is most effective to let them talk, to let their consistent stance have its cumulative effect, beginning first with one of the prophetic psalmists (whose criticism of sacrifice perhaps comes out of his own voiced experience as a scapegoat?):
Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required…. Do not, O LORD, withhold your mercy from me; let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever. For evils have encompassed me without number; my iniquities have overtaken me, until I cannot see; they are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart fails me. Be pleased, O LORD, to deliver me; O LORD, make haste to help me. — Psalms 40:6, 11-13
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and calling of convocation — I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. — Isaiah 1:11-17
For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them, “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you.” — Jer. 7:22-23
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. — Hosea 6:6
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. — Amos 5:21-24
Hear what the LORD says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the LORD, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the LORD has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? — Micah 6:1-4, 6-8
Jesus of Nazareth clearly saw himself in this tradition of prophetic criticism against sacrifice. Twice in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus quotes Hoses 6:6:
Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” — Matthew 9:13
But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. — Matthew 12:7
In all four gospels, Jesus takes his prophetic stance right into the heart of the sacrificial system in the “cleansing of the Temple” scene. I find Mark’s presentation to be the most organized presentation of Jesus’ opposition to the Temple. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, in his commentary on Mark, The Gospel and the Sacred, begins his commentary in chapter 11 with this opposition (and, for reasons similar to what I mention above, argues that the ending of Mark’s Gospel compels the reader to go back to the beginning and start again). Here is Mark’s version:
Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” 18And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. 19And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city. 20In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. — Mark 11:15-23
I extended the quote to get to another revealing point: Why does Jesus use the demonstrative pronoun to refer to “this mountain”? Which mountain? Is he pointing at Mt. Zion? In the context of this carefully crafted section about Jesus’ opposition to the Temple, Mt. Zion is what makes sense. In other words, Jesus defines faith as believing we can actually live without the sacred violence of institutionalized sacrifice — including institutions like capital punishment and war. In terms we have talked about here, faith is to finally live by the covenant that God has extended to us since the days of Moses. God has been trying to offer us that new way to live in covenant, and we have not had faith enough to do so. In Jesus Christ, by his faith(fullness), that covenant can finally come to fulfillment. Jesus was the Son of God who finally had enough faith to dare living without the human institutions of sacrifice. He was the first to fully live by that covenant offered to all of God’s children through Abraham and Moses.
Trying to understand the nature of this fulfillment is the main objective, I think, in the letter to the Hebrews. We could quote all of chapters 9-10. Let these relatively few verses suffice:
Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly sanctuary. 2For a tent was constructed, the first one, in which were the lampstand, the table, and the bread of the Presence; this is called the Holy Place…. 11But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), 12he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption…. 10:5Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; 6in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. 7Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me).” 8When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), 9then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. 10And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. 11And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. 12But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” 13and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.” 14For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. 15And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, 16“This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,” 17he also adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” 18Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. — Hebrews 9:1-2, 11-12; 10:5-18
The author of Hebrews chooses to emphasize the discontinuity and to speak in terms of two covenants, but his seeing the matter around the issue of sacrifice is incisive.
I would argue that St. Paul is even more perceptive on this score. Here is the crucial passage from Romans:
But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. — Romans 3:21-26
The sentence structure and grammar of this passage is even more complicated in the Greek. I have long felt that there is a mistranslation of the Greek words “faith in Jesus” in both verse 22 and 26. The Greek is a genitive construction that can be translated either subjectively, “the faith of Jesus,” i.e., with Jesus as the subject who possesses faith; or objectively, “faith in Jesus,” i.e., with Jesus as the object of someone else’s faith. Even though it is much more common to translate a genitive construction subjectively, most modern translations, in this instance, have chosen the objective form. Why? Is it because of the Protestant emphasis on an individual’s faith? (For more on the translation issue, see this blog on it.)
I would propose that Paul’s emphasis is on Christ’s faith: God’s righteousness and our salvation is made possible by Jesus’ faith, not ours. Jesus is the one who finally lived a faith in the righteousness of God, the covenant God put forward of old, to live in a new way without the sacrificial devices of human institutions. We can only see this when we see that everyone else, following mimetically in the footsteps of the First Adam, has fallen short. No one has embraced that covenant until Christ Jesus did. And we can only begin to see that we all have fallen short when, in the sacrifice of atonement that was the cross of Jesus Christ, we begin to realize that God has passed over all those former sins. Everyone from Moses to Christ had failed to live in that covenant, but the gracious God we come to know in Jesus is willing to overlook it!
The subjective reading does not exclude the objective one, but precedes it. In other words, we are only able to have faith in Christ because of the faith of Christ. It is his faith which establishes the possibility of others who might mimetically follow him, the Second Adam, through life in the Holy Spirit. To the extent that any of us have real faith at all, it is the faith of Christ mimetically communicated to us through the Spirit. Our faith in anything or anyone has never really counted for much. Only by Christ’s faith to say to Mt. Zion (i.e., the human institutions of sacrifice), “Be thrown into the sea,” can we finally begin to live without those institutions, too, to instead live under the covenant with God that has been there for us always. Only because he lived that faith can others begin to do so, too. (For more on Romans, including an alternate translation of crucial passages, see the lectionary page for Reformation Day.)
Prophecies of Sacrificial Scapegoating
Is the reader yet convinced of the crucial nature of the Bible’s confrontation with sacrifice? It is time to let my words recede and to finish with a flourish of crucial passages. First, several that Girard himself lifted up for us:
But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” [The sacrificial formula in a nutshell!] He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death. — John 11:49-53
“Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation.” — Luke 11:49-51 (parallel — Matthew 23:34-36)
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word. You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.” — John 8:42-45
Jesus Lamb of God
And the clearly sacrificial imagery of the Lamb which Gil Bailie has especially helped make even more clear (particularly in his lecture series on John):
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! — John 1:29
Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” 6Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. — Revelation 5:5-6
And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship [the beast], whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. — Revelation 13:8 (KJV)
The Last Word a Sacramental One
Finally, I would like the reader to consider how the Church has kept this sacrifice before us in its two central sacraments:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. — Romans 6:3-4
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. — 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
It is perhaps this most blessed of sacraments that can help us to see that our gracious God doesn’t just abolish sacrifice to give us something new. For abolishing sacrifice would be to sacrifice sacrifice, wouldn’t it? God in Jesus Christ is transforming the old sacrifice into a new sacrifice, the self-sacrificial life of serving God’s creation in love.