Last revised: February 23, 2021
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PROPER 8 (June 26-July 2) — YEAR A / Ordinary Time 13
RCL: Jer. 28:5-9 or Gen. 22:1-14; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42
RoCa: 2 Kings 4:8-11, 14-15; Romans 6:3-4, 8-11; Matthew 10:37-42
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
The logic of ancient sacrifice is alive and well. Check out this video clip of the hosts of The View insightfully analyzing comments by former Gov. Chris Christie about reopening the economy during the 2020 pandemic:
Whoopi Goldberg, Sunny Hostin, and Joy Behar confront the old logic of sacrifice for what it is: a willingness for those in power to “sacrifice” those on the margins. In recent weeks, we have also cited Rev. William Barber (Poor People’s Campaign) to highlight this same point: “People in power are too comfortable with other people’s deaths.”
Notice that I qualify the phrase logic of sacrifice with the words “ancient” and “old.” This is because Jesus on the cross began to subvert the old logic of sacrifice into its more dominant meaning today of making a self-sacrifice. The post-cross meaning also gets mixed together with the old sacrifice when we speak about soldiers or police. Our soldiers are even said to make the “ultimate sacrifice.” They have been willing to give up their lives for their nation. This is certainly a significant self-sacrifice. But we also must clear: it is mixed with the old sacrifice of spilling someone else’s blood. The soldier isn’t trained or commissioned to simply lay down their own lives on the battlefield. Their primary mission is to spill the blood of the enemy while hoping they won’t be killed in the process. We must be clear that the true ultimate sacrifice was made by Jesus on the cross, after he came teaching complete nonviolence for God and those who wish to perfect (“ultimate) in love like their heavenly Father (Matt. 5:38-48). He never showed any intention of shedding someone else’s blood. The Letter to the Hebrews captures this difference precisely:
For Christ did not . . . offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. (Heb. 9:24-26 )
Chris Christie tries to use our confused language around sacrifice to promote the idea that “essential workers” are making a noble sacrifice during this pandemic, akin to soldiers in a war. This pandemic, and the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, can help us to become more clear in our language of sacrifice.
If mimetic theory has been most enlightening for doctrines of atonement (see the page on atonement for a cataloging of several of the many who have used mimetic theory for this task), then the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac is among the passages most illumined by its evangelical anthropology. Many Christians through the ages have seen a link between Genesis 22 and substitutionary theories of atonement. Since mimetic theory calls into question the truth of substitutionary atonement, it offers to shed new light on the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice.
A shift from the usual psychologizing of this text is alone of great importance. Modern folks try to put themselves into the psyche of Abraham — “How could a person actually consider sacrificing his son on an altar?” — and this is a huge mistake. Because the cultural anthropologies are worlds apart. It is immensely helpful to begin by alerting ourselves to the anthropological fact that child sacrifice was actually common in Abraham’s cultural milieu. We need to remind ourselves that our horrified shock at thinking about ritually killing a child was no shock at all in Abraham’s world. The difference in cultural anthropologies dictates a like difference in psychological reaction. We simply cannot comprehend the felt demand from our God to ritually kill a child. Abraham, and many people of his day (most likely including Sarah), could. Gil Bailie elegantly argues this case (in an excerpt linked below):
Far more than we moderns generally realize, human sacrifice was a fact of life among the peoples of the ancient Near East in tension with whom Israel first achieved cultural self-definition. Israel’s renunciation of the practice of human sacrifice took place over a long period of time, during which intermittent reversions to it occurred. No biblical story better depicts how the Bible is at cross-purposes with itself on the subject of sacrifice than does the story of Abraham and Isaac. . . . We are told that God bestowed the blessing and promise on Abraham after the “test” on Mount Moriah because Abraham had been willing to do what God had intervened to keep him from doing — sacrificing his son. This understanding may have had a certain coherence in the dark world of human sacrifice to which it hearkens back, and it may have some psychological pertinence, but the true biblical spirit has little nostalgia for the sacrificial past and almost no interest in psychology. What we must try to see in the story of Abraham’s non-sacrifice of Isaac is that Abraham’s faith consisted, not of almost doing what he didn’t do, but of not doing what he almost did, and not doing it in fidelity to the God in whose name his contemporaries thought it should be done. (Violence Unveiled, p. 140)
Having emphasized the cultural differences, we must also proceed, however, to recognize the structural similarities. For we still practice child sacrifice, do we not? But the cultural difference is that it is no longer part of religious ritual. Our modern versions of sacred violence are acts of violence we sanction with causes or transcendent values we hold as godlike. “We must send our sons to fight for the freedoms we hold dear,” we say. “The Constitution of the United States expresses a sacred truth that must be defended, even it is with the blood of our sons and daughters.”
The unveiling of sacred violence means the unveiling of our false gods. I hope that the reader finds the following exegetical, anthropological, and theological reflections to be helpful in that vein. I consider the sermons on this text to be among the most important sermons I’ve preached. There is the 2002 version, “Binding and Releasing,” and the 2005 and 2011 versions, “Passing the Test — Listening to the Voice of the True God.” The latter begins in the same way as the former, by juxtaposing the terrorist act of Sept. 11, 2001, with the child sacrifice of Gen 22, but develops the argument differently — hopefully, with more persuasive clarity. I want to argue that the correct reading of this story, in light of evangelical anthropology, is to see that Abraham passed the test of faith not by listening to the voice of the false gods of sacred violence at the story’s opening, but by listening to the voice of Yahweh, “the LORD,” at the story’s close. Here is the concluding paragraph of the latter sermon:
Nearly four thousand years ago, Abraham passed this test. He heard the voice of the true God telling him to stop, don’t kill. And now almost two thousand years after the voice of our risen Savior forgiving us for our numerous slaughters, all those brought together on his cross, are we ready to pass the test, too? Are we ready to stop the killing? What could happen in our world if two billion people who claim Abraham as their father could finally recognize what this test of faith is really all about?
In 2008 I took a cue from one of Girard‘s last books (Evolution and Conversion; see below) and transitioned to an ending on the Sermon on the Mount as the key to being freed from sacrifice through the grace of discipleship (also Bonhoeffer). I used two scenes from the movie Gandhi: where he is talking to Anglican priest Charlie Andrews about ‘turn the other cheek’; and then shortly after that when Gandhi leads a protest rally against South African apartheid laws. When several people stand voicing violent resistance, stating “For that cause I would be willing to die,” Gandhi replies, “I praise such courage. I need such courage, because in this cause I, too, am prepared to die. But, my friend, there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill. . . .” In anticipation of this ending I set it up with somewhat new phraseology for me, speaking about the sacrificial logic as “killing for peace.” I did not preach from a manuscript but from the following notes distributed to the congregation, “Killing for Peace — Our Human Way, Never God’s Way.”
Very important to a Girardian reading of this crucial passage is the idea that the God at the beginning of the passage who demands the sacrifice from Abraham is a different God from the one at the end who stops it. This possible reading actually has warrant in the text! Elohim is the name used for God in vs. 1, 3, 8, 9, and 12. In crucial vs. 11 and 14, however, the name for God is Yahweh only (not even the common combined form of Yahweh Elohim, “LORD God”). Here is the JPS Tanakh translation of Gen. 22:11-14:
Then an angel of the LORD [Yahweh] called to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.” 12And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God [Elohim], since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.” 13When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. 14And Abraham named that site Adonai [Yahweh]-yireh, whence the present saying, “On the mount of the LORD [Yahweh] there is vision.”
Is this story trying to sort out the gods? Abraham begins hearing the common tribal gods of ancient polytheism who demand human sacrifices. On the mount of Yahweh-yireh, however, he begins to hear and envision the one true God who wants us to stop that nonsense.
2. René Girard, Things Hidden, pp. 143; in a section entitled (pp. 141-144), “Similarities between Biblical Myths and World Mythology.” Endnote 66 on p. 231 (with the note itself on p. 452) has a great quote of Gregory Nazianzus:
Why would the blood of his only Son be agreeable to the Father who did not wish to accept Isaac offered as a burnt offering by Abraham, but replaced that human sacrifice by that of a ram? Is it not obvious that the Father accepts the sacrifice not because he insists upon it or has some need of it, but to carry out his plan: it was necessary for man to be sanctified by the humanity of God, it was necessary for he himself to free us by triumphing over the tyrant through his force, and for him to call us back to him through his Son. . . . Let us pass over the rest in reverent silence. (Quoted by Olivier Clement, ‘Dionysus et le ressuscite’, Evangile et revolution, p. 93. Original text in Patrologiae Graecae XXXVI, Oratio XLV, 22, 654.)
3. René Girard, Evolution and Conversion, pp. 203-04:
Before announcing the end of sacrifice, with Christ, the Bible shows his gradually moving away from it in the story of Isaac. When Isaac asks his father: “The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham’s answer is extraordinary, and one of the most significant points in the whole of the Bible: “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering” (Genesis 22.1-8). This sentence announces the finding of the ram that will replace Isaac, but Christians have always seen a prophetic allusion to Christ as well. God, in this sense, will give the one who will sacrifice himself in order to do away with all sacrificial violence. It is not ridiculous, it is marvelous. The great scene of Abraham’s sacrifice is the renunciation of the sacrifice of infants (which is latent in the biblical beginning) and its replacement with animal sacrifice. However, in the prophetic texts, we are a step further: it is the moment in which animal sacrifices will not work any more, as expressed, for instance, in Psalm 40: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but my ears you have pierced; burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.” In other words, the Bible provides not merely a replacement of the object to be sacrificed, but the end of the sacrificial order in its entirety, thanks to the consenting victim who is Jesus Christ.
In order to free oneself from sacrifice, someone has to set the example, and renounce all mimetic retaliations: “turn the other cheek,” as Jesus says. To learn about the role of mimetism in human violence helps us to understand why Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon of the Mount are what they are. They are not masochistic; they are not excessive. They are simply realistic, taking into account our almost irresistible tendency to retaliate. The Bible conceives the history of the elected people as constant relapsing into mimetic violence and its sacrificial consequences.
4. René Girard, with David Cayley, “The Scapegoat: René Girard’s Anthropology of Violence and Religion,” a CBC radio show, in the “Ideas” series, originally aired March 5-9, 2001. It is worthwhile excerpting the close of Part 2, where Girard and Cayley comment on Genesis 22 in sketching out the devolvement of sacrifice in the Hebrew Scriptures:
In this sense, Girard says, what is going on in the Book of Job is what is going on through the whole length of the Hebrew Bible: the very idea which humanity has of God is changing. The change is also visible in the way sacrifice is understood. In Genesis, seemingly, child sacrifice is still being practiced. By the time of the prophets, all sacrifice is being denounced as displeasing to God. The first turning point comes, Girard says, when God demands of Abraham the sacrifice of his only son, Isaac, and then at the last moment supplies a ram in his place.
My interpretation of Isaac’s sacrifice is that it is the end of child sacrifice. God asks Abraham to kill his son. Which God is that? It’s the old God. It’s the traditional God. But the text is very powerful and very deep. What the text tells you ultimately is that, in order to transcend the old gods, you must obey them. If you do away with human sacrifice, you must have that stage of animal sacrifice. You’re going to get beyond child sacrifice, not by rebelling against religion but by staying within your tradition which will come to include the transcendence of child sacrifice. I think that’s what the text ultimately says: God will provide. Isaac asks, who is going to provide the victim? When he is going up the mountain with his father, he says, I see the fuel for the fire, I see the knife, but who is the victim? And Abraham has that gigantic reply, “God will provide.” Which the Christians interpret, of course, as meaning God will provide His son, ultimately. In the same way, for the Christians, Judah in the Joseph story is the figure of Christ par excellence. No one wants to sacrifice himself to save his brother. Judah does it, just as Christ will. But he sacrifices himself against sacrifice, in order not to have Benjamin sacrificed, in order not to have Isaac sacrificed.
The overcoming of human sacrifice is a difficult achievement for contemporary people to imagine, since we can hardly believe that it ever occurred in the first place. But child sacrifice was practiced throughout the Middle East, Girard says, and seems to have sometimes recurred among the Israelites even after God stayed Abraham’s hand from his son.
If you look at the Bible, the whole background there is child sacrifice. And in my view, the first books of Genesis are about how it is to be surmounted. One way is circumcision. There is a scene which is called the circumcision of the son of Moses, where the mother intervenes and saves the child from his father. And she circumcises her husband. She says, you will be for me a husband of blood. And there you can see very well, if you read the story in the context of child sacrifice, that circumcision is another one of these ways in which you avoid the killing of the child by instituting a substitute form of sacrifice. So you can say you have a history of sacrifice moving toward less and less sacrifice.
This history, in the Hebrew Bible, culminates in the writings of the prophets who denounce sacrifice altogether. They speak at a time of crisis and conquest, when the people have grown desperate and some, according to the prophet Jeremiah, have even returned to human sacrifices. But what the prophets tell people, Girard says, is that sacrifice will no longer work.
The prophets operate in a world where violence is getting worse and worse. And people think they are going to be saved by sacrifices. But the prophets all say, sacrifices are no use anymore. You can pile up a lot of meat on a lot of meat, and it’s not going to help you. The institution of sacrifice is dead. And the only way to replace sacrifice is to be good to your neighbor.
“What are your endless sacrifices to me?” God says through the prophet Isaiah. “Let me have no more of the din of your chanting,” He says through Amos, “but let justice flow like water and integrity like an unfailing stream.” Like the Greek society portrayed by the tragic poets, the Israel of the prophets has plunged into what Girard calls a sacrificial crisis — the vicious circle that begins when sacrifice loses its effectiveness and the good violence can no longer be distinguished from the bad violence. To try to go back, the prophets say, will only intensify the crisis. The only way out now is to face the violence rather than trying to conjure it away through sacrifice. “Your hands are covered with blood,” Isaiah says, “wash, make yourselves clean.”
The many denunciations of sacrifice, in the writings of the prophets, are the culmination of what Girard earlier called the deconstruction of mythology in the Hebrew Bible. Violence and victimization have been disentangled from the divine and made visible as a human predicament — in Girard’s view, a huge step forward in human self-understanding. The story will go on in the Christian New Testament and it is to Girard’s understanding of that book and of the significance of the life and death of Jesus that I will turn in the next program of this series.
5. René Girard, with Steven Berry, Reading the Bible with René Girard, pp. 87-88:
SB: Let’s come back to the story of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah.
RG: This is already enormously important. Why is that story there? The Bible is essentially historical. It shows us the history of the relationship between God and man, the progressive revelation of more and more truth. So, at the beginning, not only was there sacrifice, there was the sacrifice of the firstborn. The first books of the Bible are really immersed in this theme of the sacrifice of the firstborn, which was real. The sacrifice, or I should say the non-sacrifice, of Isaac is the shift from sacrifice of the firstborn to sacrifice of an animal. That’s what it’s about. The command that comes from god (El) is the old religion. The old religion was true in the sense that human beings could not do otherwise than to sacrifice their firstborn. We know that sacrifice of the firstborn happened all over the world. We know there were Indian tribes that had the sacrifice of the firstborn offered to their deity. The Carthaginians, the Phoenicians, all these people practiced child sacrifice.
SB: It would seem sacrifice is endemic to all human culture.
RG: Yes, it is. For a while, about ten or twenty years ago during the greatest madness of postmodernism, many wanted to do away with the concept of human sacrifice. They said that human sacrifice, especially in places like Phoenicia, was an invention of Western imperialism trying to make itself superior to archaic culture. I heard that so many times. Fortunately, there is the discipline of archeology. In Carthage, the great capital of the greatest colony of Phoenicia, which was great enough to threaten military Rome, they’ve been discovering, in recent years, entire cemeteries in which there are bodies, buried bodies of animals and children mixed together, confirming the reality of child sacrifice in that society. Here again, the novels of the nineteenth century are better. Flaubert wrote a Carthaginian book, which is like a historical movie about a Carthaginian princess who is in love and so on, but he has a whole chapter about children sacrificed to the god Molech. The scholars of the time did not believe in the sacrifice of children. That’s nonsense; that’s Western illusion. “Not true,” they said. But it’s perfectly real. Flaubert was right. Child sacrifice happened all over the place. The Bible is the text that tells us about the disappearance of child sacrifice. Why does it say that? That’s the greatness of the text; it doesn’t hide anything. It tells us that Abraham obeys God. He obeys the old common ways; he’s a traditionalist. He follows the rules. It’s tradition itself that changes here. The greatness of this text is not an isolated case, as Kierkegaard will tell us, some kind of mystical experience. The command to Abraham to sacrifice his child is not an order to a single special man; it’s about a cultural change. It’s a former culture that changes at the time of Abraham, with Abraham. Abraham is the symbol of that enormous change, which is from the sacrifice of humans and even children to the sacrifice of animals. It’s a sign of tremendous progress in civilization.
6. René Girard, with Michel Treguer, When These Things Begin, pp. 46-48, commenting on if, how, and when truly new innovation might happen:
MT: But the new, the absolutely new? The world is being transformed, science comes up with new inventions every day, and it’s also true that Kandinsky’s “First Abstract Watercolor” was indeed the first; nobody had painted like that before, it really was new. Even if one thinks, as you do, that “the new can only emerge within a tradition,” for innovation to appear mustn’t one stop imitating at some point?
RG: If the absolutely new exists, it cannot be codified. Often that which is relatively new is born of the unexpected encounter between two objects or two levels of reality that seemed unlikely to come together. And, once more, it’s ritual that brings the encounter about, because, as you recall, it stages crisis. It is therefore perfectly capable of generating incongruous mixtures, but in a regulated and methodical way, and not in the vertiginous spirit that accompanies real mimetic crisis. Ritual is a creative crisis because it is partially simulated and always a little bit under control. Thus it isn’t contradictory to celebrate both tradition and innovation.
I think that’s the meaning of the sacrifice of Isaac, which marks the abandonment of human sacrifice, the shift to animal sacrifice. What’s extraordinary about this Biblical text is that it first shows us an Abraham who is still obedient to the system of human sacrifice. It shows the obedience first: it shows that it’s out of that obedience that true change becomes possible.
I think the destruction of forms has a history. It’s an aesthetic, and it lasts for a hundred or so years at most. But the construction of forms is not just something aesthetic, and it is much more important than their destruction. Even in the aesthetic domain, it’s clear that our civilization is unlike any other. It was only the Christian West that discovered perspective and the photographic realism that we’re always badmouthing: it was also the Christian West that invented cameras. No other culture ever invented them. A researcher who works in this field once remarked to me that, in Western trompe l’oeil, every object is deformed according to the same principles with respect to light and space: it’s the pictorial equivalent of God letting the sun shine and the rain fall on the just and the unjust. No longer are the socially important people portrayed as big and the others as little. There is an absolute equality of perception. The current aesthetic keeps trying to hide from itself the importance of our uniqueness, but the attempt won’t last forever. It’s in the process of collapsing.
MT: That’s Régis Debray’s thesis: the incarnation of Christ and the defeat of the iconoclasts gave the West mastery of images and thus of innovation. Here’s a question that may be absurd: does a phrase like “if someone hits you on one cheek, turn the other” have anything to do with imitation?
RG: Of course it does, since it’s directed against “adversarial” imitation, and is one and the same thing as the imitation of Christ. In the Gospels, everything is imitation, since Christ himself seeks to imitate and be imitated. Unlike the modern gurus who claim to be imitating nobody, but who want to be imitated on that basis, Christ says: “Imitate me as I imitate the Father.”
The rules of the Kingdom of God are not at all utopian: if you want to put an end to mimetic rivalry, give way completely to your rival. You nip rivalry in the bud. We’re not talking about a political program, this is a lot simpler and more fundamental. If someone is making excessive demands on you, he’s already involved in mimetic rivalry, he expects you to participate in the escalation. So, to put a stop to it, the only means is to do the opposite of what escalation calls for: meet the excessive demand twice over. If you’ve been told to walk a mile, walk two; if you’ve been hit on the left cheek, offer up the right. The Kingdom of God is nothing but this, but that doesn’t mean it’s easily accessible.
There is also a pretty strong unwritten tradition that states that “Satan is the ape of God.” Satan is extremely paradoxical in the Gospels. First he is mimetic disorder, but he is also order because he is the prince of this world. When the Pharisees accuse him of freeing the possessed from their demons by the power of “Beelzebub: Jesus replies: “Now if Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself; so how can his kingdom last? [ . . . ] But if it is through the Spirit of God that I drive out devils, then be sure that the kingdom of God has caught you unawares.” This means that Satan’s order is the order of the scapegoat. Satan is the whole mimetic system in the Gospels. That Satan is temptation, that Satan is rivalry that turns against itself — all the traditions see this; succumbing to temptation always means tempting others. What the Gospel adds, and what is unique to it, I think, is that Satan is order. The order of this world is not divine, it’s sacrificial, it’s satanic in a certain sense. That doesn’t mean that religions are satanic, it means that the mimetic system, in its eternal return, enslaves humanity. Satan’s transcendence is precisely that violence temporarily masters itself in the scapegoat phenomenon: Satan never expels himself once and for all — only the Spirit of God can do that — but he more or less “chains himself” by means of the sacrificial order. All medieval legends tell you: the devil asks for but one victim, but as for that victim, he can’t do without it. If you don’t obey the rules of the Kingdom of God, you are necessarily dependent on Satan.
Satan means “the Accuser.” And the Spirit of God is called Paraclete, that is to say “the Defender of Victims,” it’s all there. The defender of victims reveals the inanity of Satan by showing that his accusations are untruthful.
In Violence and the Sacred, I borrowed the idea from the Koran that the ram that saved Isaac from being sacrificed was the same one that was sent to Abel so that he would not have to kill his brother: proof that in the Koran sacrifice is also interpreted as a means of combating violence. From this, we can draw the conclusion that the Koran contains understanding of things that secular mentality cannot fathom, namely that sacrifice prevents vengeance. Yet this topic has disappeared from Islam, just as it has disappeared in Western thought. The paradox that we thus have to deal with is that Islam is closer to us today than the world of Homer. Clausewitz allowed us to glimpse this, through what we have called his warlike religion, in which we have seen the emergence of something both very new and very primitive. Islamism, likewise, is a kind of event internal to the development of technology. We have to be able to think about both Islamism and the escalation to extremes at the same time; we need to understand the complex relations between these two realities.
8. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice; “Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac” is referenced and/or discussed on pp. 15, 67, 71, 79-80 (including footnotes 17 &18), 86, n. 25 on 92, 150, n. 12 on 152, and n. 12 on 175. The numerous references are best taken together as a whole. But the one which best summarizes them is on p. 150. In the context of discussing Mark’s “parable” of Satan Casting out Satan, Heim refers to John 8 and the Abraham and Isaac story:
Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are indeed doing what your father does.” . . . “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.” (John 8:39-41a, 44)
Satan is a murderer, “from the beginning.” Those who yield to instigation and imitate Satan’s desires become murderers themselves, instead of true children of Abraham, who was the one God turned away from the sacrifice of Isaac. The path toward the collective execution of Jesus is following this age-old pattern. This is an interesting passage, because the Christian church virtually from the beginning used the story of Abraham and Isaac to interpret the cross. Here Jesus himself is doing so, and drawing the conclusion that the point of that story is that his death is the work of the devil, not a desire of God.
At the “Theology and Peace” Conference, May 2008, Heim shared a hymn he has written around a Girardian thematic, titled “No More of This!” (a quote of Jesus’ reaction to his disciples using the sword in the Garden of Gethsemane). To give a flavor of this fine hymn, here is the verse referencing Abraham and Isaac:
Like Isaac, saved from sacrifice,
The Lord is risen from the dead with words of life.
The cross that should not be
Reversed by God’s decree:
No more of this, no more of this. Remember me.
(Used with permission; tune: DIVERNON)
9. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, ch. 7, “It’s Not Too Late,” uses this passage as a primary text. The title of the chapter indicates that it’s never too late to have our experience of God transformed. In fact, we are well-off to see that transformation as an ever-ongoing process. McLaren, whose reading of Girard has become an important source informing his work, captures many main themes of Mimetic Theory in this book, and this is one of them. MT understands our species to have developed an experience of the gods under the influence of the Scapegoating Mechanism over many millennia. To receive to a more true experience of God, through the work of the Spirit, is a process that has been happening for several millennia now, and is still very much underway. Here’s a sampling from this chapter:
Put yourself in [Abraham’s and Sarah’s] sandals. Imagine that you and everyone you know believes that God is a severe and demanding deity who can bestow forgiveness and other blessings only after human blood has been shed. Imagine how that belief in human sacrifice will affect the way you live, the way you worship, and the way you treat others. Now imagine how hard it would be to be the first person in your society to question such a belief. Imagine how much courage it would take, especially because your blood might be the next to be sacrificed!
Questioning widely held assumptions about God can be a dangerous venture indeed. But if our assumptions aren’t sometimes questioned, belief in God becomes less and less plausible. (p. 29)
After recounting the basics of the story in Genesis 22, he eloquently makes these Girardian points:
It was commonplace in the ancient world for a man to lead his son up a mountain to be sacrificed to his deity. It was extraordinary for a man to come down the mountain with his son still alive. Through that ancient story, Abraham’s descendants explained why they had changed their theory or model of God, and why they dared to be different from their neighbors who still practiced human sacrifice. It wasn’t too late to challenge widely held assumptions and change their theory of God!
But they still weren’t finished. Many generations after human sacrifice was left behind forever, prophets and poets arose among Abraham’s descendants who made the shocking claim that God doesn’t need animal sacrifices, either. They realized that God could never need anything from us, since God provides everything for us. Not only that, but they realized God isn’t the one who is angry and hostile and needs appeasement. We humans are the angry ones! Our hostile, bloodthirsty hearts are the ones that need to be changed! (p. 30)
And the conclusion:
That’s true for us today as we follow in the footsteps of Abram and Sara, walking this road together. We’re still learning, rethinking, growing, discovering. In spite of long delays and many disappointments, will we dare to keep dreaming impossible dreams? In spite of the assumptions that everyone around us holds to be true, will we dare to ask new questions and make new discoveries — including lessons about God and what God really desires? It may seem as if it’s too late to keep hoping, to keep trying, to keep learning, to keep growing. But to be alive in the story of creation means daring to believe it’s not too late. (p. 31)
10. Brian Zahnd, A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace, ch. 5, “Freedom’s Just Another Word for . . .”, pp. 119-21. In this chapter of a book that makes generous use of Mimetic Theory (Girard is also the most often quoted source besides Scripture), the main text is John 8, but Genesis 22 plays a prominent role. Zahnd contrasts typical human freedom with the freedom that comes through God’s kingdom based on love. For us freedom comes from being able to kill or overpower those who threaten our being able to choose — the power to subject others to our will. For Jesus freedom is a power of love which brings us to serve others, not overpower them.
This freedom is at stake in John 8. The context is a conversation/debate sandwiched between two attempted stonings. And Jesus keeps bringing their awareness back to their desire to kill him. When his dialog partners claim Abraham as their ancestor, Jesus challenges them, contrasting their trying to kill him with what Abraham did (John 8:39-40).
12. James Warren, Compassion or Apocalypse?, pp. 163-66. Warren offers an added angle in reading this story — elements in the text that there may have been an earlier version of the story where Abraham carries through with the sacrifice. (See Loader’s parabolic version below.)
13. Andrew McKenna, “‘Uncanny Christianity’ [In Divine Aporia: Postmodern Conversations about the Other (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2000), edited by John C. Hawley, pages 84-96],” p. 89: “The divine rescue of Isaac beneath his father’s knife promulgates an end to human sacrifice, whose survival among the Hebrews is regularly denounced by the prophets.”
14. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred, p. 64. In the context of chapter 2 on “Enemy Brothers,” Williams adds insight into this text by pairing it with what comes before it, the expulsion of Ishmael in Genesis 21. Williams writes:
It is important also to emphasize that the favored brother is not exempt from the sacrificial structures that the world imposes. The younger son must also go through this scapegoating ordeal. Isaac is placed on the altar; Jacob is beset by the divine adversary; Joseph is expelled and enslaved; Moses is attacked by the Lord; David faces Goliath: these are endangerments that the chosen one must undergo. As I have intimated in the comment on the Joseph story in this section of the chapter, one way to construe the endangerment of the chosen younger brother is to see it as a necessary aspect of the mimetic process in which he himself participates and for which he must pay a certain price of redemption. It is no narrative accident that Abraham is commanded to sacrifice Isaac (Gen 22) after the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael (Gen 21:8-21) or that Jacob wrestles with the divine adversary before he meets Esau and reenters the land of Canaan. After Jacob’s gift of the long-sleeved robe and Joseph’s dreams, Joseph must undergo a threefold “descent”: into a pit, into Egypt, and into prison.
In other words, if the older brother is displaced or eliminated from the genealogical line in which the promises are transmitted, still the younger brother must undergo a sacrificial ordeal. The similarities between the ordeals of the younger brothers and ritual sacrifice have been pointed out in the stories of Jacob and Joseph. The connection is also quite evident in the binding of Isaac (Gen 22) and the divine attack on Moses (Exod 4:24-26). In the former, Abraham is stopped from sacrificing his son at the last moment, and a ram caught in a nearby thicket is offered in Isaac’s stead. (p. 64)
15. James Alison, Raising Abel, pp. 45ff. In the context of discussing the revelation of God as Love, using John 3:16 as a prime example, Alison poses the story of Genesis 22 as a story that can be demythologized by John 3:16:
Now, this “giving his only Son” is not an idea pulled out of a hat. It is, itself, the demythologization of a story from the Old Testament: the story of Abraham who was prepared to give up his only (legitimate) son to God, by sacrificing him. But look at what has happened meanwhile: in the first story God is a god who demands sacrifices from humans, including the one sacrifice which really mattered, even though, in the story as we have it in Genesis 22, God himself organizes a substitute for the sacrifice. In any case, we still have a capricious deity. What we see in the New Testament, completely in line with the change in the perception of God that I’ve been setting out, is that it is not humans who offer a sacrifice to God (by, for instance, killing a blasphemous transgressor), but God who offers a sacrifice to humans. The whole self-giving of Jesus becomes possible because Jesus is obedient to God, giving himself in the midst of violent humans who demand blood, so as finally to unmask and annul the system of murderous mendacity which the world is.
Once more, if you think I’m making this up, everything which I have been saying is beautifully and exactly resumed in the first epistle of John. There we see what the message is, the nucleus of the Gospel:
This then is the message which we have heard of him [i.e., Jesus], and declare unto you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5)
That is: what Jesus came to announce was a message about God, and God’s being entirely without violence, darkness, duplicity, ambivalence or ambiguity. This message is then unpacked by the author in the following verses, and then he gives us the famous summing up of where this process of the changing perception of God has led to:
. . .for God is love. In this was manifested the love of God toward us, that God sent his only begotten Son into the world that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:8-10)
Here we have the element of the discovery of the absolutely vivacious and effervescent nature of God leading to the realization that behind the death of Jesus there was no violent God, but a loving God who was planning a way to get us out of our violent and sinful life. Not a human sacrifice to God, but God’s sacrifice to humans. (pp. 45-46)
16. Wolfgang Palaver, René Girard’s Mimetic Theory, three citations in chapter 5, “Biblical Revelation and Christianity.” The first instance is in the opening quote from Thomas Mann’s Deutschland (p. 195); second, in its own section on “The Binding of Isaac,” p. 204:
We could continue with further examples of mythical texts and textual elements in the Old Testament. However, exclusive focus on these elements makes only one side of the Old Testament visible, for there are also texts that clearly differentiate from myth and portray the perspective of the persecuted victim. This second side of the biblical text developed as part of a very slow and gradual process, however. It shows with increasing clarity a religion that detaches itself from the archaic practices that find their roots in the scapegoat mechanism. A fundamental moment in this process of detachment is the Genesis account of the “Sacrifice of Abraham,” more appropriately referred to as the “Binding of Isaac.” The archaic tradition demanded human sacrifice, and Abraham was consequently forced to offer his son as a sacrifice to God. But this tradition is replaced with a religion in which, instead of humans, only animals are allowed as sacrificial victims: “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him!” (Genesis 22:12). God prohibits the sacrifice of Isaac, and Abraham decides instead to sacrifice a ram discovered in bushes nearby. This renunciation of human sacrifices — observed so perceptively by Thomas Mann in the passage heading this chapter — signifies a development that led to the creation of a religion that differentiates fundamentally from archaic myth.
And the third citation closes the chapter (2nd to last paragraph), p. 273:
Auerbach’s demonstration of figural interpretation is made plausible in the light of Girard’s mimetic theory; the “God of victims” (Girard, Job, 154) identifies eternally with the scapegoats of this world because divine truth is constituted by love and nonviolence. This divine truth is the transcendent light in which all factual events experience their ultimate interpretation. In the case of Isaac, it is the voice of God that prevents his sacrifice; in the case of Jesus, God himself becomes a victim, in order to make his eternal meaning visible to the world.
17. Michael Hardin, The Jesus Driven Life, p. 102. In a crucial section on “The Nonviolent Atonement” (pp. 100-06), Hardin is tracing how the logic of sacrifice made its way back into Christian theology, beginning with Anselm and then hitting its climax with Calvin and his concept of ‘the dark side of the deity.’ Such a concept brings a sacrificial reading of this passage:
The entire purpose of Jesus’ death is attached solely to the ‘dark side of deity.’ The problem? Jesus’ atoning work on the Cross is no longer seen as an act of grace by a generous and merciful God; it is morphed into the most violent image, that of child sacrifice. Yes, in this image, God sacrifices God’s Son, like Abraham would have sacrificed Isaac. But unlike Abraham, God went through with it. Jesus’ satisfactory death becomes fully penal (Jesus is punished on our behalf) for the wrathful side of God must be placated. (102)
Before presenting a nonviolent reading of atonement theology, Hardin summarizes the backslide:
With this final shift, authentic Christian thinking about Jesus’ death went straight out the window. This logic is foreign to the apostolic writers; it contradicts their emphases and language. It is this sacrificial logic that has been under attack in the debates around atonement for the past thirty years. The proponents of this logic are never completely wrong for they do manage to capture Jesus’ death as a benefit, a positive thing. It is the way they capture it that is the problem. They understand Jesus’ death in the framework of an economy of exchange and the sacrificial principle. (102)
18. Grant Kaplan, René Girard, Unlikely Apologist, p. 120. The near sacrifice of Isaac is cited as a crucial example in tracing the anthropological development away from sacrifice for which Christianity becomes the fulfillment:
Although Girard has maintained that Christianity demystifies archaic religion, he still upheld a structural similarity between the two. The similarity lay in the role of the victim: “This is where the unity of religion lies . . . The God of Christianity isn’t the violent God of archaic religion, but the non-violent God who willingly becomes a victim in order to free us from our violence” (Evolution and Conversion, 211). Sacrifice is the point at which the archaic and the Christian come into a consonance that seems to highlight their difference. Girard continues, “A similarity is also at stake here. . . . We have then to use the word ‘sacrifice’ as self-sacrifice, in the sense of Christ. Then it becomes viable to say that the primitive, the archaic, is prophetic of Christ in its own imperfect way” (Ibid., 215). It is not the case that Christianity merely unveils the true nature of archaic religion. The archaic, in leading humanity to solid footing, prepares the way for its own undoing. Girard explains, “One can regard archaic religion as a prior moment in a progressive revelation that culminates in Christ” (Ibid., 216-17). This same logic is at work in the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar, when the Second Sunday of Lent juxtaposes the binding of Isaac (Gen. 22) with Romans 8:31-34. In the first story, it is God who demands a sacrifice, only to withdraw this demand, whereas in the reading from Romans, Paul reminds his audience that God “did not spare his own son but handed him over for us all.” The aborted sacrifice of Isaac prepares hearers to receive the self-sacrificial love of Jesus.
Christianity, for Girard, does not consist in a pure idea unhooked from its historical existence. Although clear-eyed about the failures of historical Christianity, he still connects this history with what Christianity sought to overturn: “Christianity fought against the archaic religions, and it still struggles against more or less explicit forms of the sacred. Historical Christianity has maintained elements of archaic religion” (Christianity, Truth, and Weakening Faith, 29). The growth and expansion of Christianity has occurred amidst archaic forces. Indeed, the scapegoat mechanism has been able to operate with particular efficiency during many periods of Christianity. The ambiguity about how the sacrifice “works” in much of atonement theology demonstrates this confusion. Girard at one point even uses the phrase “archaic Christianity” to express this violent surd in Christian history (Battling to the End, 173).
Only in concert with this similarity between archaic and Christian sacrifice does Girard think that one can properly articulate the difference between Christianity and religion in general. Even calling Christianity a religion comes with severe qualifications. Undergoing the demystification process makes people less religious. After millennia of archaic religion, Christianity initiated a break that forever altered the religious landscape. Girard explains, “I link secularization and Christianity essentially because Christianity caused a break in the cultural history of mankind, in particular the history of mankind’s religions, which for tens of thousands of years had allowed primitive communities to avoid self-destructing” (Christianity, Truth, and Weakening Faith, 23-24). Despite an obvious similarity, Christianity initiates a dissimilarity that fundamentally alters humanity’s relationship to religion. In large part, postarchaic religion deprives its adherents of the scapegoating mechanism they had hitherto clung to so fiercely. To be religious had meant believing in the healing power of violence. This changed with the gospel. Girard explains, “Christ took away humanity’s sacrificial crutches and left us before a terrible choice: either believe in violence or not; Christianity is non-belief” (Battling to the End, 21). The revolutionary nature of this truth depended on, yet overturned, humanity’s need to believe in the redemptive power of violence. Christianity’s magnificent revolution ultimately destroys the old order: “Christianity is destructive of the type of religion that brings people together, joining them into a coalition against some arbitrary victim, as all the natural religions have always done, except for the biblical ones” (Christianity, Truth, and Weakening Faith, 25). This makes for a dissimilarity that manifests itself only in the context of sacrificial similarity. (pp. 120-21)
19. Shlomo Yitzhaki, more commonly known as Rashi (11th Century French rabbi), has an important midrash on the akedah in Talmud Sanhedrin 89b. See, for example, “Rashi’s Reading of the Akedah,” by Michael Signer.
20. André Rabe, Desire Found Me, pp. 160-61.
20. William R.G. Loader, Murdoch University, Australia; an Internet essay entitled “Isaac: A Reflection on Genesis 22.” More than a “reflection,” really, it is a parabolic telling of the story in which Isaac is sacrificed:
Abraham raised his arm. In a moment when he saw nothing and heard nothing and saw everything and heard everything his hand fell, plunging the sharp knife into the flesh of his son. Isaac screamed. Abraham, overwhelmed by a sane madness plunged again and again and again, in frenzied obedience, in blind faith, in passion borne of distraction.
Then, sitting in grief in a storm, a Christlike figure comes out of the mist, and:
Abraham told the man his story, about what he had believed, how it led him to violence and murder, how Bildad pained him, how his grief was changing him, how he knew the heavens wept and the earth encompassed him, how he had been blind and deaf, his faith was now unfaith, his faith become new faith, how his vision of God was not that of Bildad, how he felt that in truth he had lunged the knife into God, how God called not for blind obedience, but compassion, how he should have seen that it was a terrible joke, a divine spoof meant to turn him forever away from the ways of religion, how he had confused the words of Yahweh with the will of Baal.
When Abraham asks the man his name, “The man said: Isaac and showed them his hands and his side.” I have used this reading during the Easter Vigil as a ‘Response’ to the reading of Genesis 22:1-14.
21. Dan Clendenin, Journey with Jesus Foundation essay for June 29, 2008, “A Father Sacrifices His Son, A God Tests His Disciple.” Clendenin does a good job of summarizing Kierkegaard’s four versions of Genesis 22 in Fear and Trembling. Both Clendenin and Kierkegaard might have benefitted from Mimetic Theory since Kierkegaard succumbs to the modern temptation of reading this ancient story through the psychology of modern experience — which has long ago been sensitized by the Gospel to the horror of child sacrifice. What we need to remember is that in Abraham’s time a person wouldn’t likely to anguish in the same way as today because child sacrifice was an accepted practice. What we need from our perspective today is the anthropology which shows sacrifice as a human invention, not a divine command from the true God. Then, we can more properly see the amazing and historic event of Abraham hearing the voice of the true God at the end of the story who tells him to stop.
22. William Willimon, On a Wild and Windy Mountain, pp. 80-83. There is also an edited online version at Religion-Online. In the title sermon, Willimon ends up with basically a sacrificial reading of this text. But he tells some interesting stories along the way. One is of a time he showed a movie of the Abraham-Isaac story in class and asked the children if they knew what sacrifice meant. They immediately started talking about how busy their parents were taking care of other people (as doctors, etc.). Willimon thought they were talking about the self-sacrifice of the parents helping others. But as they continued to talk, it was evident they were talking about being neglected because their parents were never with them. They related to the experience of child sacrifice in one of its modern forms!
Reflections and Questions
1. The Revised Common Lectionary has an option for a serial reading through the Old Testament during ordinary time. Year A begins in Genesis, and this week is the crucial passage on Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac. I wanted to highlight that fact for anyone who might want to make that substitution for the Lutheran/Episcopal/Catholic options. Gil Bailie uses this as one of the crucial passages of scripture, showing our heritage as children of Abraham in moving away from the sacrificial cult. At the same time, God did not ask Abraham to move away all at once but simply began a long process by substituting a ram for a human being. By the time of the great Hebrew prophets, Yahweh’s voice will be heard to say, as we heard several weeks ago (Proper 5A): “I want mercy not sacrifice.”
2. This passage has crucial implications for atonement theory, since it is almost always used (including by such notable theologians as Martin Luther and Soren Kierkegaard) as a passage previewing God’s willingness to use the Son as sacrifice for all humankind — not the kind of move that a Girardian typically wants to make. William Loader‘s rendering above is extremely rare in the history of interpreting this passage. And I might dare to say that there is no more crucial passage to correctly interpret when it comes to burying the popularized form of atonement theory. Below is a very brief essay I wrote that addresses these issues.
The author of Genesis 22 clearly views Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac as a response to divine command:
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” (Genesis 22:1-2)
In other words, the reader is led to experience Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice even his only son, the heir to God’s promise of countless descendants, as a faithful response to a perceived theological necessity.
I would like to suggest that the evangelical anthropology of René Girard would have us severely question such a notion of theological necessity. It would have us ask: Is that really the voice of the true God who commands the sacrifice of Isaac? Or any sacrifice, for that matter? Isn’t the trajectory of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures to learn what this means, “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Matt. 9:13; Jesus quoting Hos. 6:6)?
Girard’s anthropology helps to reveal clearly that all sacrifice is actually of anthropological necessity rather than theological necessity. It postulates that ritual blood sacrifice was a human invention to veil the horror of human violence behind an aura of the Sacred, i.e., precisely behind a false obedience to a supposed theological necessity. Evangelical anthropology invites us to hear the voice of ‘God’ in Genesis 22:1-2 as the voice of one of those false gods of our own creation, a voice for which Abraham begins us on the long journey to unlearn to hear, so that we might hear the voice of the true God.
There is an admitted risk to such moves of interpretation with Holy Scripture — namely, the risk that Scripture might be perceived to lose its holiness. “If Scripture was mistaken here,” we might say, “then what about elsewhere?” This has not been an overall move made by Girard himself, however. In fact, quite the opposite, he has maintained that the Judeo-Scriptures stand above all other human documents in revealing to us this evangelical anthropology.
This is not always a perfect and complete revelation, of course, but one that decisively begins with the Hebrew Scriptures and comes to its fullness in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In the Genesis 22 text, for example, we have the mistakenly placed theological necessity at the beginning of the story. But the miracle of this text is in its ending, when Abraham hears the voice of the true God which halts the sacrifice of his son and sets him on a path away from human bloodshed, offering the substitute of a ram. False gods demand sacrifice. The true God is working to save us from them, by continually offering substitutes to us that gradually leads us out from under the sacrificial demand.
The ultimate substitute is Jesus, the Lamb of God. But we need to be clear about this! The theological necessity in the opening verses of Genesis 22 have often been read into the Christ event. Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross is interpreted as theological necessity. An evangelically anthropological interpretation of both Genesis 22 and the Christ event, however, might identify Jesus, the Lamb of God, more closely with the ram at the story’s end rather than with Isaac at its outset. The true God is one who offers us a substitute that will eventually lead us away from the entire business of sacrifice. At the time of Abraham, the movement was simply away from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice. God offers the substitute of a ram. But, at the time of Jesus, the time was right for a full revelation of sacrifice as our business, not God’s. And to do this, the irony was to not only substitute a human being back for an animal, but to have that person be the innocent Son of God, no less.
The significance of the Son of God appearing as the Lamb of God, then, lies not in the theological necessity to be associated with the Cross. No, as with all sacrifice, we are to see that this sacrifice, too, was by anthropological necessity. The cross arose out of our need, as it has for every lamb slain since the foundation of the world. Rather, the theological necessity involved with the Christ event lies first and foremost with the Resurrection. It was necessary for God to raise Jesus from the dead in order for the true anthropological nature of sacrifice to be revealed.
Early kerygma testifies to this in the primary theme of Peter’s sermons recorded in Acts:
“You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know– this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” (Acts 2:22-24)
While the cross happens “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God,” the sacrifice itself is clearly portrayed as a human action, which is then overturned by God’s action of raising Jesus from the dead. This basic formula of “Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead” is repeated twice more by Peter (Acts 3:13-15; 4:10-11). We are the ones who crucify, who sacrifice. God is the one who raises to new life, who shows mercy.
I have striven to distinguish clearly between theological and anthropological necessity when it comes to the Cross because I think the error of the author of Genesis 22:1-2 still plagues us in the church. Haven’t many in the church continued to view the cross as a theologically necessary sacrifice akin to that of Genesis 22:1-2? Hasn’t a theory of atonement persisted that allows for a God who actually would demand our deaths, save for the Lamb of God who stepped in as a substitute for us? Or can we finally get away, once and for all, from a God who demands a death of any way, shape, or form? Aren’t we, in fact, the ones who always demand death? If we can finally come to see clearly our demand for the sacrifice of the Lamb slain since the foundation of the world, perhaps we can also come to finally claim the new life that the true God has offered us in raising that Lamb from the dead that we might be granted forgiveness.
Thus reason is forced to create idols; it cannot do otherwise. For it knows well how to speak of God’s honor, but constantly goes ahead and renders such honor to whatever it imagines to be God; this “whatever” then assuredly is not God, but its own self-conceit and error, lamented in the prophets in many places. It does no good, either, for somebody to say, as do the Israelites: Yes, I mean the God who has created heaven and earth, then I can never make a mistake and I am bound to hit it right. God himself answers through Isaiah 48[:1]: “You swear by the name of God and appeal to the God of Israel, but not in truth or in righteousness,” and in Jeremiah 5[:2]: “Even if they say ‘by the living God,’ yet they swear falsely.” How does this happen? It happens in this way: whoever does not accept God in one aspect, especially in the one which he causes to be emphasized, cannot be helped when he wants to accept him in those aspects which he himself chooses. What would it have availed Abraham if he had wanted to say when he was ordered to sacrifice his son Isaac, that it was not God or God’s work, and if he had gone along with his reason and said he did not wish to sacrifice his son but in other respects he would serve God, the maker of heaven and earth? He would have lied; for, he would have rejected the God who made heaven and earth; he would have fashioned a different god under the name of the God who created heaven and earth. He would have treated with contempt the true God who had given him the order. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed., Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, c1974, pages 84-85)
Remarks: Luther clearly states here the type of argument which a Girardian reading of this passage is bound to encounter: “What would it have availed Abraham if he had wanted to say when he was ordered to sacrifice his son Isaac, that it was not God or God’s work, and if he had gone along with his reason and said he did not wish to sacrifice his son but in other respects he would serve God, the maker of heaven and earth?” He counsels against trusting human reason above the biblical text because a seemingly arbitrary imagination lies behind reason’s yielding a “whatever” in imagining God.
My response is to take Luther’s concern and ask him, “Is there no taint of human reason in the Scripture whatsoever? And is there never a positive role for reason in discerning the biblical witness?” The Akedah is for me a primary example of why an evangelical anthropology is so sorely needed for a Christo-centric biblical hermeneutics: “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:27).
Luther seems to take the idolatrous imaginings of human reason to be arbitrary, a “whatever.” But what if the cross is an anthropological revelation, as well as theological, which can show us more precisely the ways in which our human reason is ordinarily enthralled to not arbitrarily imagine its gods, but to be influenced in definitive directions in imagining gods that command, and thus justify, sacred violence? If the Resurrection begins the process of redemption for us, then what are the ways in which human reason begins to undergo redemption, too? Such questions reflect standard procedure for someone like James Alison who uses the evangelical anthropology of mimetic theory to show the ways in which human reason begins to perceive how it had been formerly enslaved to false gods. Understanding the ways of our idolatry goes hand-in-hand with understanding the true nature of God in Jesus Christ. In short, the processes of anthropological and theological revelation are intertwined with one another. It is more difficult to come to know the true God without also learning about our habits of creating false gods — which is not something arbitrary but something dictated by the victimage mechanism’s need to veil itself in idolatry.
Thus, the Akedah becomes a passage of urgent importance to get right. Was it one of those commented upon by our Lord on the way to Emmaus? In light of the evangelical anthropology of mimetic theory, the Christological revelation of anthropology comes into sharper relief for us, too — those of us who were not so fortunate to be on that road to Emmaus, but who nevertheless benefit greatly from the apostolic witness to this revelation in Christ. We learn to ask, against Luther’s counsel, if the God whom Abraham heard at the beginning is a different God from the one at the end. We learn to begin to humbly and tentatively trust our reason as we better understand, by reason, how the Christian revelation is also beginning to redeem our reason such that it can perceive its idolatrous ways. We learn to see that the god who asks Abraham to sacrifice his firstborn son looks exactly like the false gods who command sacred violence, while Yahweh the Lord at the end of the story is more clearly perceived as the true God who is calling us away from all that. Abraham passes the test by learning to hear the voice of the true God calling him away from the sacred violence of human sacrifice.
In short, I think Luther’s critique of human reason is muddled. It begins by positing a “force” under which reason is always compelled to create idols, and then it paints that compulsion as an arbitrary “whatever.” Which is it? If the cross is a revelation of our idolatry, then can we not begin to see the shape of the “force” which we are under? If the cross begins a process of redemption in us, then is not our reason a part of this, too? Can we not begin to tentatively understand, through our reason being redeemed by the Christian revelation, the more precise ways in which we are “forced” into idolatrous imaginings of God? Can we not begin to see, for the sake of all three of the great monotheistic religions, that the false god of sacred violence testing Abraham at the outset of the Akedah is itself a test for us to begin to more clearly perceive the true God at its end who calls us away from all that?
4. Link to a page entitled “The Hebrew Akedah in Christian and Islamic Tradition,” which excerpts some relevant Christian commentary and passages from the Qu’ran relating to the Akedah. If monotheistic religion is meant to bring about peace, rather than to work against it, then I firmly believe that the Akedah is a crucial passage held in common by the great monotheistic religions which may bring fertile ground for talking peace. (Interesting note: Rembrandt‘s depiction of the Akedah was the image used for the 2002 COV&R Conference at Purdue, “Judaism, Christianity, and the Ancient World: Mimesis, Sacrifice, and Scripture.”)
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (NRSV John 20:21-23)
I heard this in the alternative language of releasing and binding: “If you release the sins of any, they are released; if you bind the sins of any, they are bound.” “Binding” Isaac is what gives the title to Genesis 22 as the Akedah, “binding.” Releasing the knife as it hovers above Isaac is the story of God’s redemptive provisions for something new, a move in the right direction away from such binding. The irony in Jesus’ words is that binding sins is the usual work of atonement according to religion of sacred violence. Binding sins is the standard work of the Leviticus 16 scapegoat ritual: one binds them to the scapegoat and expels them. Could the second part of Jesus’ commission here be in the category of self-binding? We remain bound in sin when we continue to operate according to religion of sacred violence which binds sin sacrificially to scapegoats. Jesus comes to his disciples with a commission whose primary task is to release us from that sin — unless, secondarily, we insist upon binding, and thus remaining bound in, sin.
6. Link to a sermon that weaves together many of the above concerns and themes under the title “Binding and Releasing.”
1. Gil Bailie, “Paul’s Letter to the Romans” audio tape series, tape #4.
2. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong; for an excellent reading of Paul on the nature of our slavery to fallen desire, the closing section of ch. 5, “The Pauline Understanding of Desire.”
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 89ff., in a section of ch. 4, “Sacred Violence and Original Sin.”
4. Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, pp. 143-157. McLaren suggests a theme for making a unified reading of Romans that I think works well — namely, Jews and Gentiles being able to live together in Christ, who is “the firstborn within a large family” (Rom. 8:29). This theme coincides with my own choice for the clearest statement of the Gospel in Ephesians 2: grace manifests itself chiefly as God creating one new humanity in place of the two. This is the context for McLaren as well, since this chapter comes as his response to one the “Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.” Question #5 is, “What is the Gospel?” (chap. 14). For more on this centrality of this question and its answer, see my Opening Comments for Proper 6A.
Chap. 15 is McLaren’s reading of Romans in light of the Gospel as Jesus’ Kingdom of God manifesting itself as Paul’s bringing together of Jews and Gentiles. See the citation on this book in Proper 4A for a more complete description of the theme and McLaren’s Seven Move outline for Romans.
This passage comes within his Third Move: Unite all in a common story, with four illustrations: Adam, baptism, slavery, and remarriage (Rom. 5:1-7:6), of which he writes:
In baptism, Paul says, we die to the old life of slavery to sin and rebellion against God, and we rise to live free as agents of God’s reign, as agents of God’s restorative justice.
Paul’s third and fourth illustrations make the same point, employing slavery and marriage metaphors. We all — again, Jew and Gentile are implied even when not explicitly stated — have been enslaved by a cruel taskmaster, married to a stern (and impotent) husband. Through the death and resurrection of Christ, we die to those old relationships, and we rise to a new kind of slavery and a new love affair. Like redeemed slaves, we are bound to our new master in service and fruitfulness; like a former widow newly wed, we are impregnated with our divine lover’s goodness, bearing more and more good into the world. (p. 150)
5. Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul. Nothing will ever be quite same in Pauline scholarship for those who take seriously Campbell’s dismantling of justification, and his arguing that Paul’s language of justification was a secondary way of speaking for Paul when in debate with a version of Christianity that is conditional in its grace. And because we misread Romans 1-4, according to Campbell, Protestantism has often lapsed into the conditional grace that Paul is trying to undo. Paul’s primary language of unconditional grace is a language of deliverance elaborated in Romans 5-8. This is now the definitive book, in my opinion, that must be contended with regarding any crucial interpretations of Romans. See my “Customer Review” on the Amazon.com page. The most controversial thesis involves his contention that Paul used the Roman rhetorical convention of Diatribe, meaning that it contains Paul voicing his opponent’s views within the text of Romans which we thus need to sort from Paul’s own views. In short, for twenty centuries after Paul delivered this letter to the Roman church, training the carrier to read it properly in two voices, subsequent generations have read two opposing views in the text all as Paul’s view only. I find this thesis compelling and vitally important; here is my own explanation and plotting of the opposing views in a translation of Romans 1:1-4:3.
6. N. T. Wright is another important resource to consult for Romans. See, first of all, his commentaries: The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10; and his Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part 1 (Romans 1-8) and Part 2 (Romans 9-16). See also The Resurrection of the Son of God, ch. 5, Resurrection in Paul (Outside the Corinthian Correspondence),” sec. 7 on Romans; and Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision. His ‘big book’ on Paul in his Fortress Press series “Christian Origins and the Question of God,” was published in 2013, Paul and the Faithfulness of God; the most sustained section on Romans 5-8 are pages 1007-1026. Wright’s more recent book on theology of the cross, The Day the Revolution Began, devotes more space to Romans than any other book of the New Testament, chapters 12-13; see also my review of this book, “The Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector, N.T. Wright’s Latest Book, and the Idolatry of Anti-Idolatry.”
Reflections and Questions
1. What is all this slavery talk? The modern person grimaces at talk of slavery, and even of obedience. Our ideal is that of the autonomous individual who is slave to no one — not obedient to anyone else but one’s own conscience.
Mimetic theory helps to make sense of this, I think. There is at least a sense in which we are slaves, we are obedient, to the nature of our desire, which must be derived from the desires of the Other. Our desires can never be wholly independent of the Other’s desire. St. Paul speaks of our “natural limitations” (v. 19).
We may delude ourselves into thinking that we can be independent, that there exists this autonomous Self whose desires we can wholly possess and control. But the results of this delusion end up being attempts to possess the Other, which in turn results in the Other possessing us because our lives become so wrapped up with our attempts to possess a Self by possessing the Other. This is what I think St. Paul considers the deadly slavery to sin.
Because the natural limitations of our desire, i.e., its inextricably being bound to the desires of others, we must always be “slave” to someone. When we are slaves to Christ, however, we paradoxically begin to find true freedom and a true Self. For Christ lived the slavery of righteousness, which is a process of living in self-giving and self-receiving from the Holy Other, God, rather than a deluded attempt at self-possession with other creatures.
Through the Holy Spirit we are brought into this life of self-giving and self-receiving of the Trinity. We are adopted as true children of God. In Romans 8, Paul’s language will change from the obedience of slaves to that of the obedience of children, true heirs of life in the Spirit.
1. v. 42: hena ton mikron touton, “one of these little ones”; this exact phrasing is only found elsewhere in the New Testament in Mark 9:42 and in Matthew’s parallel of it:
“If any of you put a stumbling block [skandalon] before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matt 18:6)
It must have been an important phrase to Matthew since he upped the ante in his climactic parable of the sheep and goats, using the superlative of mikron (elachistos) in 25:40, 45: “Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these (hena touton ton elachiston), you did not do it to me.'” (Matt 25:45)
2. v. 42: poterion psychrou, “a cup of cold water” gives another link to Matt 25, in giving the thirsty to drink (potizo; Matt 25:35, 37, 42).
Who are these little ones according to Matthew in chapter 25? They are all those within the community of saints who find themselves in need. The community is called to meet those needs, no matter how small or humble. The emphasis in today’s text is not on the greatness of a prophet’s reward but the certainty that comes from knowing that caring for the “least of these my brothers and sisters” is the believer’s central purpose. There is a logic to the Matthean attitude toward “little ones” in the church. We begin with the scandal narrative. How can the “little ones” be scandalized? If they belong to a community of followers of Jesus and are not cared for they may wonder if Jesus is real since he does not appear to be modeled in the lives of those who claim to follow him. Did Jesus not meet needs, bring healing, show compassion, is that not the story they tell about him? Then why do these followers of Jesus behave differently? We have often interpreted the scandal text to mean that we should not behave in such a way as to cause people to lose their faith, and primarily what is preached is a morality code of do’s and don’ts so we don’t cause offense: don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t dance, don’t be this, don’t be that because if you do people will be offended.
This text has nothing to do with giving social offense. The gospel is socially offensive; it is actively deconstructing our contemporary human culture. Matthew would turn our heads toward the fruitful display of positive mimesis, to discriminate no longer between the greatest and the least. In so doing we shall find that the least are the greatest and as we care for them we shall demonstrate that indeed we have “received” Jesus and in so doing have “received the One who sent him.” In this we shall fulfill what Matthew understands about being a disciple (mathetes), a follower of Jesus. (from the “Anthropological Reading”)
This speaks volumes, of course, about the Gospel’s values which seek to invert the usual human values which marginalize the least. Hardin and Krantz conclude:
Sadly, the “little ones” are frequently our cultural and ecclesial scapegoats. The little ones; the powerless, the weak, the hurting, the abused and the abandoned make the easiest targets for our wrath. Even so, Christianity has, through its long and storied history, scandalized the world by not taking care of its own little ones. We may say what we like about the greatness of the Bible or God, but our care for the “little ones” in our neighborhoods and in the world speaks a better word about the place of Jesus in our lives. The way we choose to include the marginalized in our societies, with those unjustly accused, these actions constitute our “positive mimesis,” our imitation of the Prince of Peace.
2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (vol. 4 of Bonhoeffer’s Works). Bonhoeffer elaborates discipleship primarily through an exposition of the first two addresses of Jesus in Matthew — Matthew 5-7 and 10. The chapter (Ch. 7) on Matthew 10 is titled “The Messengers,” pages 183-98. This portion of Matthew 10 is covered primarily in the section called “The Fruit,” pages 197-98.
3. James Alison, a video homily for Proper 8A (Ordinary 13); in 2020 Alison began a new website during the pandemic, “Praying Eucharistically,” which included weekly homilies. (He’s finally back home in Madrid after being stuck in Mexico City for many weeks.) The Roman Catholic lectionary portions Matthew 10 differently, beginning this portion with v. 37. So the main theme is around who is “worthy” and who isn’t. Alison works to offer a non-binary reading of this passage which emphasizes being worthy in God’s eyes.
4. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” made these reflections on this passage in 2020, “On Sacrificing a Cup of Water.”
5. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2017, “A Warm Smile“; John Davies, a sermon in 2017, “Bringing Water to The Little Ones: Consolatory Empathy under Grenfell Tower“; Suella Gerber, a sermon in 2017, “Mission as Receiving and Giving Hospitality.”
Reflections and Questions
1. Another connection in this passage is that of “prophets” in v. 41 to the little ones in v. 42. Mimetic theory understands how Jesus re-defines prophets as those who suffer violence at the hands of the crowd. The Gospel truth is to see the world from the perspective of the victims of sacred violence; so the Gospel prophets are the least who know that position in a society, a position that Andrew McKenna refers to as the “victim’s epistemological privilege.” For more on the prophet in light of mimetic theory, see the Pentecost story.