The theme common to both myth and Gospel is the mimetic cycle, and it is found only partially in the Old Testament accounts. The mimetic crisis and collective violence are there, but the third phase of the mimetic cycle is absent: the sacred revelation, the resurrection that reveals the divinity of the victim. To repeat, only the first two phases are present in the Hebrew Bible. It is quite evident in these texts that the victims never rise again: God is never victimized, nor is the victim divinized.
Thus between the Hebrew Bible and the myths there is this difference, one extremely significant for the problem that occupies us. In biblical monotheism we cannot suspect God of being the product of the scapegoat processes that quite visibly produce the gods in primitive polytheism.
Now we will compare a great biblical account, the story of Joseph, to the most well-known myth of all, the story of King Oedipus. The results will facilitate our access to the essential problem, the divinity of Jesus Christ in the Christian religion. Let's verify at the outset that the first two phases of the mimetic cycle -- the crisis and the collective violence -- do occur in both our texts.
The myth and the biblical account both commence with the childhood of the two heroes. In both cases, this first part narrates a crisis within the two families, which is resolved by the violent expulsion of the two heroes while they are yet children (Oedipus is still a baby).
In the myth an oracle precipitates the crisis between the parents and their newborn son. The divine voice announces that Oedipus will someday kill his father and marry his mother. Seized with fright, Laius and Jocasta decide to slay their son. Oedipus barely escapes death but is expelled from his own family.
In the biblical story the jealousy of the ten brothers precipitates the crisis. The point of departure is different, but the result is the same. The ten want to kill Joseph, but finally they sell him as a slave to a caravan heading for Egypt. Just like Oedipus, in short, Joseph barely escapes death and is expelled from his own family.
In the parallel beginnings we recognize what we expected to find, a mimetic crisis and a single victim mechanism. In both instances a community gathers unanimously against one of its members and violently expels him. In the course of the two stories there is a second crisis, which is followed by a second expulsion in the case of Oedipus.
Oedipus escapes the claws of the Sphinx by resolving her enigma, and in solving the puzzle he also saves the entire city. The city of Thebes rewards him by making him its king. But the victory is not final. Some years later, unknown to all including the hero, the predictions of the oracle come to pass. Oedipus killed his father and married his mother. To prevent the Thebans from sheltering in their midst a son who is both parricidal and incestuous, Apollo strikes them with a plague that compels them to expel Oedipus a second time.
Let us return to Joseph. To extricate himself from his predicament in Egypt, this hero makes good use of the same kind of talent as Oedipus, the deciphering of riddles. He interprets dreams, those of two royal officials initially, then Pharaoh's himself, the famous dream of the seven fat cows and the seven lean cows. His gift of clairvoyance gets our hero released from prison (imprisonment amounted to an expulsion) and protects Egypt from the consequences of the famine. Pharaoh raises Joseph to the rank of prime minister. His wonderful talent propels him to the top of the social ladder, exactly like Oedipus.
Because of the initial expulsions, Oedipus and Joseph both have to become foreigners and are thus always a little suspect in the principal place where they perform their exploits: Thebes for Oedipus, Egypt for Joseph. The careers of these two heroes follow an alternating course of brilliant achievements and violent expulsions. Consequently, between the myth and the biblical story the numerous and essential similarities confirm our previous finding. We always find the mimetic processes of crises and violent expulsions in mythical as well as in biblical texts.
The myth and the biblical account are much closer to one another and resemble each other much more than most readers suspect. Is this to say they agree on everything essential? Can we view them as more or less equivalent? Completely to the contrary. Locating the common data allows us to take note of an irreducible difference, an impassable gulf between the biblical story and the myth.
The myth and the biblical story are in basic opposition over the decisive question that collective violence poses: Is it warranted? Is it legitimate? In the myth the expulsions of the hero are justified each time. In the biblical account they never are. Collective violence is unjustifiable.
Laius and Jocasta have good reason to rid themselves of a son who, at some point in the future, will kill the one and marry the other. The Thebans also have good reason to rid themselves of their king. Oedipus really committed the infamous acts the oracle prophesied, and to top it all he gave the plague to the whole city! In the myth, the victim is always wrong, and his persecutors are always right.
The reverse is true in the Bible: Joseph is in the right against his brothers as well as the next two times against the Egyptians, who imprison him. He is in the right against the wanton wife who accused him of trying to rape her. Potiphar, Joseph's master, treats his young slave as though he's really his son, and so the accusation raised against Joseph recalls the accusation of incest made against Oedipus. There we see one more element the two accounts have in common, but as in all the other instances the structural similarity is the basis of a radical difference from the standpoint of the narrative's identification with the victim. The mythic perspectives, and the modern theories that prolong them (psychoanalysis, for example), take the mythic accusation for legitimate. In our eyes everyone is more or less guilty of parricide and incest, if only at the level of desire. The biblical story refuses to take this kind of accusation seriously. It recognizes in it the typical obsession of hysterical crowds against those whom they make their victims for the least thing. Not only did Joseph not have sex with the wife of Potiphar, but he did everything he could to resist her advances. She is the guilty one, and behind her the Egyptian crowd, like dumb cattle following the herd in the expulsions of young immigrants who are isolated and without means or political pull.
The relation of the two heroes to the two scourges that strike their adopted countries repeats and recapitulates both the multiple convergences of the two texts and, above all, the single divergence that is absolutely decisive. Oedipus is responsible for the plague and can do nothing to heal it short of his own expulsion. But Joseph is not responsible for the famine. Moreover, he manages the crisis so ably that he protects Egypt from the disaster that could have occurred.
The same question underlies both narratives: does the hero deserve to be expelled? The myth answers at every point "yes," and the Bible answers "no," "no," and "no." The career of Oedipus ends in an expulsion whose finality confirms his guilt. Joseph's career ends in a triumph whose finality confirms his innocence.
The fundamental nature of the contrast between the myth and the biblical
account suggests that the latter is the expression of an antimythological
inspiration. And this inspiration discloses something essential in the
myths that would remain invisible outside of the perspective the biblical
narrative represents. The myths always condemn all victims, who are isolated
and overwhelmed. They are the work of agitated crowds that are incapable
of identifying and criticizing their own tendency to expel and murder those
who cannot defend themselves, scapegoats that they always take for guilty
of the same stereotypical crimes: parricide, incest, bestial fornication,
and other horrible misdeeds whose perpetual and improbable recurrence point
up their absurdity.
In the episode that follows, a moment of reckoning occurs between Joseph and his brothers, one that is peaceful in keeping with Joseph's affirmation of God's providential intentions for Israel and Egypt (Gen. 45:1-15). The story of Joseph continues beyond this episode, but it is the real conclusion of the main plot of Joseph sold by his brothers and expelled by his own family that concerns us here. It confirms in unequivocal fashion, as we shall see, the biblical opposition to mythic collective violence.
The seven years of lean cows have begun, and the ten half-brothers of Joseph suffer because of the famine in Canaan. So they travel to Egypt to beg for food. They don't recognize Joseph as prime minister in his beautiful garments, but Joseph recognizes them. Without making himself known, he inquires discreetly about Benjamin, their younger brother, whom they left at home for fear that some misfortune would happen to him and their old father, Jacob, would die of grief.
Joseph gives wheat to all his half-brothers. He warns them, however, that if they come back because of the famine, they must bring Benjamin, or they will get nothing. The famine continues on, so the ten finally return to Egypt. This time they have Benjamin with them. Joseph allows them to buy wheat, but he also has a servant conceal a precious cup in Benjamin's sack. Complaining then that someone stole this article from him, Joseph has their bags searched. When the cup is found, he announces the arrest of the allegedly guilty brother, Benjamin, and he authorizes the ten older brothers to return home peacefully.
In short, Joseph submits his guilty brothers to a temptation they know well since they have already succumbed to it, that of abandoning with impunity their youngest brother, the weakest and most vulnerable among them. Nine of the brothers fall a second time to this temptation. Only Judah resists it and offers himself in the place of Benjamin. In recompense for Judah's willingness to replace Benjamin, Joseph weeps and pardons all the brothers. In his adopted country he welcomes and receives his entire family, including his old father, Jacob.
This final episode is a meditation on the kind of collective violence with which the biblical story is obsessed just as much as the myths, but the results are just the reverse. The final triumph of Joseph is, not an insignificant "happy ending," but a means of making explicit the problem of violent expulsions. Without ever leaving its narrative framework the biblical account pursues a reflection on violence whose radicalism is revealed at the point where pardon replaces the obligatory vengeance. It is only this pardon, this forgiveness, that is capable of stopping once and for all the spiral of reprisals, which of course are sometimes interrupted by unanimous expulsions, but violently and only temporarily. The biblical account accuses the ten brothers of hating Joseph for no good reason and of envying him because of his intrinsic superiority and their father Jacob's doting on him. The real cause of the expulsion is mimetic rivalry.