Excerpt from Robert Hamerton-Kelly's Sacred Violence: Paul's Hermeneutic of the Cross, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1992, pp. 88-97.


Sacred Violence
and Original Sin
Adam's Transgression as the
Deformation of Desire

Let us now consider Adam and also remember that every subsequent individual begins in the very same way, but within the quantitative difference that is the consequence of the relationship of generation and the historical relationship. -- Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety, 90
Sin is a theological category posited, in Kierkegaard's terms, along with faith. Like faith it is a form of desire, a configuration of the mimetic triangle, something desire does to deform itself to rivalry. Adam symbolizes this deformation. He was the first to turn desire to acquisitive and conflictual mimesis, and commit the double transference, and everyone repeats his crime mimetically. The deformation and the double transference produce the primitive Sacred, and all religion is more or less a structure of sacred violence. Anxiety is the subjective state that corresponds to the structure of the Sacred. It is the subliminal awareness of our vulnerability to violence and of the sacrificial delusion. The way out of anxiety begins with the understanding of sin as sacred violence.

Sin is an activity, an attitude, and a state of affairs. As an activity it is mimetic rivalry with God (phthonos), (1) as an attitude it is concupiscence (epithymia), and as a state of affairs it is the system of sacred violence (hamartia). Sin begins in the mystery of free human desire, and takes shape in the deformation of that desire. From Paul's pen desire is usually wrongful desire, in the sense of desire deformed to rivalry, and especially to rivalry with God.

Bultmann expresses this understanding as follows, "the ultimate sin reveals itself to be the false assumption of receiving life not as a gift of the Creator but procuring it by one's own power, of living from one's self rather than from God." (2) To sin is to deform desire to acquisitive and conflictual mimesis, to "procure" being through rivalry with God rather than to receive it as a gift from God, and thus to set desire on its way through the double transference to sacred violence.

Sin and Desire

It is not unusual among religious thinkers to locate the human problem in the field of desire. The Buddha is only the best known and most radical of many teachers who located it there. Rabbinic Judaism regarded the moral struggle to be between the evil impulse and the good. Although the former had the advantage of being active from birth, the latter, which came alive at the age of discretion, rapidly made up any lost influence and could control the evil impulse if nourished daily from the Torah. (3) Philo provides a good example of the importance of the problem of desire in the milieu of the Hellenistic religio-philosophic situation in which it took the form of the problem of the conflict between the mind and the passions. For Philo the Scriptures were an allegory of the struggle of the rational/spiritual mind to gain control over the irrational/material body and eventually to escape from it altogether in an ascent to the divine, which could be anticipated here and now by mystical experience. The moral life was a struggle for mastery and against enslavement by wrong desire. Particularly, therefore, in the use of the master/slave metaphor (Rom 6) Paul stands in the mainstream of Hellenistic moral thinking. (4)

Paul is somewhat more idiosyncratic, however, in his claim that the prohibitions intended to curb desire actually provoke it (Rom 7:7), (5) but not entirely so. It could be argued that this was the basic insight of the Buddha as well; the struggle with desire only enhances its power, therefore one must drop back a stage and attack the roots by withdrawing cooperation from all desire, whether good or bad. Paul is, however, quite idiosyncratic vis-a-vis his ancestral Judaism, which had a remarkably robust confidence in the power of the rational will reinforced by divine grace to guide desire to the proper goal. Protestant theology on the whole sees Paul as condemning this confidence as itself the essence of wrong desire -- to be God to oneself -- because it flows from an unwarranted independence of the creature over against the creator.

The keynote of Paul's doctrine of sin is struck in Romans 7:7: "What therefore shall we say? That the Law is sin? Not at all! But I would not have known sin excepting through the Law, I would not have known [wrong] desire (epithymia) had the Law not said, 'Thou shalt not desire (ouk epithymeseis).'" (6) Thus sin is identified as a problem of desire, and the prohibition is identified as an intrinsic part of this problem. Sin is the general term for the whole dynamic by which desire uses the Law to provoke and exacerbate concupiscence. This insight comes from an extended meditation on the account of the fall in Genesis 2-3; Adam is the éminence grise behind sin, and Paul shapes his whole theology of sin and redemption around the figures of Adam and Christ (1 Cor 15:22). His reading of the Adam story, like the interpretation of the Abraham figure in Galatians 3, is another example of the interpretation of the Torah in the light of the Cross.

Adam and the Deformation of Desire

Romans 5:12, that sin and death entered the world through Adam's transgression, is the general rubric over our discussion, and Romans 1:18-3:20, 5:12-21, 7:7-13, and 8:18-25 are the lenses through which we shall read Paul's interpretation of the Adam story. (7) The first and last passages are point and counterpoint, expounding the problem and the solution respectively, while 5:12-21, at the center of the argument, reveals its balanced structure, and 7:725 begins the presentation of the solution that culminates in 8. I shall discuss each passage in turn.

Paul's explanation takes the form of a meditation on the story of the first sin in Genesis 2:15-17 and 3:1-24. Adam is the symbol for both the individual and the race, and for the fact that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." By means of this figure Paul is able to communicate the nature of sin as something that is both an act of individual irresponsibility and an imprisonment within a system of racial irresponsibility, both the individuality and the universality of sin.

From his reading of this story, as we are able to reconstruct it primarily out of the text of Romans, we get a clear indication of the role of mimesis in his thought. (8) To be sure, there is no direct reference to imitation in the Genesis story, but the congeries of desire, rivalry, and scapegoating testifies to the presence of sacred violence. The serpent is the symbol of the possibility that desire might degenerate into mimetic rivalry, and the prohibition is the symbol of the divine resistance to that degeneration. Desire, temptation, and the Law are, therefore, the three elements of Paul's understanding of sin.

The contemporaneous Jewish tradition saw deformed desire as sensuality. Taking its cue from the shame that Adam and Eve felt after their transgression (Gen 3:7), it emphasized the erotic rather than the mimetic aspect of desire. (9) According to the Genesis text, however, sexual shame and concupiscence were the results of transgression, not the transgression itself. This misplacing of the emphasis is probably due to the influence of the account of the fall of the "watchers" (Gen 6) who fell primarily because of lust. Their very name suggests voyeurism. According to the sources, however, the watchers seem to have been corrupted before they fell to lusting, suggesting that for these sources too concupiscence is the result of sin, not the act of sin itself. (10) The fact that in this version of the fall too the link between sin and violence is close, because lust leads directly to violence and the giants produced by these illicit unions teach humanity how to eat flesh and how to make weapons and wage war, (11) suggests that it also intuits the priority of mimetic rivalry to concupiscence in the order of sin.

Adam, seen from the point of view of faith in the death of Christ, is, for Paul, the symbol of the human condition. He reads the Adamic tradition in the light of the Cross, and in this reading the violence of the Cross guides him to the signs of violence in the Adam story. The signs of violence disclosed by the Cross are the signs manifested in Paul's own experience of persecution of the Christians, and in the Judaizers scapegoating of the gentiles. They are the marks of mimetic rivalry and sacred violence in Paul's experience of Judaism. He reads the Adam story with this understanding of violence in mind.

In this light sin appears as mimetic rivalry with God. The usual reading of Paul's reading, of which C. K. Barrett's is a good example, comes very close to seeing this, but does not quite. Adam is said to wish to supplant God, to "be as God," in the sense of ruling over his own life, "marked by a will-to-power, an impatience with a position suggesting any kind of inferiority." (12) However, in the light of Paul's experience of co-crucifixion, "being like God" has a mimetic ring, and the will to power sounds like mimetic rivalry with the divine. Thus the mimetic violence of the Cross highlights not only the disobedience of Adam but also the violent results of that disobedience. It must have been an act of the kind that caused structures of violence like the one that murdered Christ to come into being. The deformation of desire to acquisitive and conflictual mimesis, which sets in motion the mechanism of sacred violence, is, therefore, a plausible preliminary description of Adam's sin on the basis of its perceived results in the death of Christ. We must now test this preliminary description against the text.

Genesis 2:16-17; 3:1-24

We shall first present a Girardian reading of these passages in Genesis, as an example of the way Paul might possibly have understood them. We shall then show how such a reading makes good sense of the passages in Romans that are based on them.

The characters in the story are desire played by Adam and Eve, desire's propensity for acquisitive mimesis, played by the serpent, and the divine warning against acquisitiveness represented by the primal prohibition. The original state was one in which desire accepted the primal prohibition as a proper limit to its acquisitiveness. By prohibiting the one tree, God warned against the principle of acquisitiveness. The Adam story tells how desire, nevertheless, freely corrupted itself by choosing the possibility represented by the serpent to desire acquisitively the prohibited object and thus enter into a relationship of mimetic rivalry with God. This transgression is rivalry because, to corrupted desire, the prohibition represents the desire of God for the prohibited object, and human desire mimes this misperceived divine desire.

The story is a subtle presentation of the progress of this self-corruption of desire. The note of mimetic rivalry sounds right at the beginning when the serpent exaggerates the prohibition by extending it to all the trees (Gen 3:1, cf. 2:16-17). By exaggerating the prohibition, desire intensifies its own mimetic response to the divine desire, because the stronger the prohibition, which is an expression of God's desire for the prohibited objects, the stronger the human desire that mimes God's desire. Thus the serpent's exaggeration of the prohibition symbolizes how desire whips itself up into mimetic rivalry with God. This is the manipulation of the commandment to deceive and kill that Paul refers to in Romans 7:11. Once mimetic rivalry has been joined, all the violence of the Sacred will follow.

We know that Eve has been affected when she, in turn, exaggerates the prohibition even as she corrects the serpent's exaggeration, adding her own prohibition on touching the tree to God's prohibition on eating from it (Gen 3:3). Thus she indicates the aggravation of her feeling of exclusion and her temptation to mimesis. Now she has lodged in her mind the idea generated by her own desire that she is being excluded by the divine desire from something valuable. The prohibition now signifies that God desires the prohibited object and Eve mimes that desire. The woman "saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that it was to be desired to make one wise" (3:6 -- RSV). (13) Only after the serpent had persuaded her by this deception to imitate God's acquisitive desire for the fruit did it become desirable to her; she learned rivalry from mimesis's misrepresentation of the divine desire as envious. The moment of mimetic acquisitiveness has been reached and the train of events leading to the Sacred set in motion. Thus desire transforms God from creator, to whom one should be related in gratitude, into rival, to whom one is related by envy, and it does so by manipulating the prohibition (Rom 7:11). This is the act of sin as envy (phthonos).

Desire corrupts itself to envy by persuading itself that God is envious first. (14) Envy is defined not by the desire to have something oneself, but by the desire to deprive the other of that thing. Envy thinks that it will walk better if its neighbor breaks a leg. It is the essence of rivalry in its most metaphysical form, where the object has become relatively unimportant by comparison with the rival. Thus desire made God the ultimate model and obstacle, and the prohibition became an instrument of rivalry, the divine obstacle to human fulfillment rather than the divine warning against acquisitive mimesis that defines human identity as distinct from God and points the way to the tree of life (Gen 3:22).

The misrepresentation (= myth-representation) of the divine prohibition causes the original sense of lack. The serpent persuaded Eve that she lacked something, and that God had what she lacked, because God prohibited her from it. The ontological fact upon which this conjured sense of lack is based is the contingency of the creature upon the creator. Desire distorts this into an envious ploy on the part of the divine to best us in the game of acquisitive desire. Out of envy God withholds from us the secret of being, and once we realize this we reach out beyond the prohibition to acquire it.

In fact, there is no envy in the divine, and the prohibition is not an expression of the divine desire for the object but of the divine desire to prevent humanity from acquisitive mimesis and the ensuing course of violence. The prohibition does not symbolize human lack but human completeness and sufficiency in trusting dependence on the divine solicitude. Had human desire remained in the proper relation of dependency on the creator, the cycle of mimetic rivalry arising out of the false sense of lack would never have started and desire would have been free to desire the other in and for itself, and not as a means to make good its lack.

Desire, however, made the creator into the obstacle that prevents desire from fulfillment, and this had its effect on the relation between human beings. The misrepresentation of the divine desire is the paradigm of the misrepresentation of all desire. Once the principle of lack has been installed in the heart of desire, acquisitive and conflictual mimesis follow. Everyone now becomes model and obstacle, and the game of mimetic rivalry among humans is underway. Human being is unwilling to accept its ontological contingency and turns it into a lack of being that can in principle be supplied. It does this predictably by means of the strategies of desire. It whips up mimetic rivalry by pretending that the desire of the power behind the universe and of every human other is envious, and maliciously withholds the being we crave. It turns God and the human other into the model/obstacle and then into the scapegoat.

This rivalry for the fulfillment of lack is most vividly evident in the relation between the sexes. Agape, the generous love that comes from the divine fullness, was deformed to eros, the desire that lives in the power of lack, and sex became shameful (Gen 3:7). Male and female experienced sexual difference as a prohibition that masked envy and a lack that had to be overcome. The original unity of the sexes that Diotima tells of in the symbol of the primal hermaphrodite (Symp 203) dissolves and each experiences eros, "the bastard child of Wealth and Poverty." Concupiscence in its usual meaning of sexual lust, is, therefore, one of the first evidences of the deformation of desire, and plays an integral part in the subsequent development of mimetic desire in terms of misrepresentation of the prohibition. Sin as the attitude of concupiscence (epithymia) has arrived on the scene.

Concupiscence transforms the prohibition into the principle of lack at the heart of eros and thus makes itself ultimately the love of death. The prohibition whose misrepresentation creates the sense of lack is essential to eroticism because it makes violation possible, and every erotic act is an act of violation. (15) Eros violates the self-possession of the other. There is no mutual giving in eros, only mutual taking, the "hungry mouth clamped on the other's breast." The deformation of desire into acquisitive and conflictual mimesis includes the corruption of sexuality into eroticism, which turns it from the service of life to the service of death.

We now expect the third stage of sin, as a state of affairs (hamartia) to appear, and we are not disappointed, as Adam and Eve fall to scapegoating God, one another, and the serpent (Gen 3:8-19), and thus the stage of the Sacred is reached. The most important scapegoat is God whom Adam blames when he says, "The woman whom thou gayest to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree and I ate" (Gen 3:12 -- RSV). In scapegoating God, Adam prefigures the crucifixion, as the driving out of the divine to preserve the myth of human beneficence. Adam's scapegoating of God turns God into the victim and thus, by the double transference, God becomes the primitive Sacred who threatens the curse and drives them out of paradise.

The text, however, reveals this process of sacralization. It is very precise in attributing the cause of the subsequent human misfortune. Each announcement of the curse is preceded by the emphatic, "because you have done this," and followed by the impersonal, "cursed are you / cursed is the ground" (Gen 3:14, 17). The culprits are actually guilty and the curse is the automatic result of the free acts of disobedience. The creatures bring it on themselves.

The divine causation is indirect and impersonal. Nevertheless, Adam blames God directly for his misfortune, and thus we have the first example of myth, the myth of the divine envy that scapegoats humanity, and the original sin of the idolization of God. The Bible, however, is not taken in; rather it enables us to trace the process of mythification and see its deceitfulness.

The serpent is the mythic representation of the divine envy, through which the scapegoating of God goes forward. It symbolizes and then conceals the source of the temptation in desire itself rather than in God. It is the classic symbol of the refusal of personal responsibility, which is the heart of the scapegoating phenomenon. The act of turning from the creator to the self is freely generated from within the self, but the mythic serpent presents the motive as coming from without, and ultimately from God, who gave the prohibition and the serpent to incite mimetic acquisitiveness.

The actual inner motive for sin is distrust of the constituting call of the divine prohibition on acquisitiveness -- that is, lack of faith in God. The voice of desire insinuates the untrustworthiness of God and the self takes measures to secure itself by becoming God's mimetic rival. The result is that it becomes "as God" in the form of its own misbegotten image of the divine. The self becomes the monstrous double of its own misrepresentation of God. It becomes its own mimetic other, and seeks to possess itself as it is in the misprized divine other, either by becoming the other or absorbing the other into the self. By entering into the rivalry of metaphysical desire with "God," the self in fact mimes its own misunderstanding and thus turns God into an idol created by its own mimetic acquisitiveness. The myth of the serpent as scapegoat was invented to obscure this process from consciousness. In the serpent the self's own slander of God speaks.

The myth of the serpent, therefore, is also a scapegoating of the responsible self in the sense of the expulsion of responsibility onto an external fiction, and this scapegoating of the self is perhaps the most ironic moment in the story of the birth of consciousness. By refusing to acknowledge that the impulse to mimetic rivalry comes freely from within desire itself, we are unable to take responsibility for it. By driving it out into myth, we expel ourselves from ourselves and constitute ourselves as a myth to ourselves. The account of the passing of responsibility from Adam, to Eve, to the serpent, to God, is almost comic in its exaggeration (Gen 3:8-19), but it marks the serious moment of self-alienation by self-exoneration and scapegoating. It marks the moment of the idolization of God by the accusation that God is the ultimate source of the temptation to envy. God the idol is the model/obstacle who incited acquisitive desire, and the scapegoat who bears the blame for the violence that ensued.

The blaming of the serpent is the origin of mythology, and the Bible's way of signaling the advent of the whole apparatus of the Sacred. It is the first attempt to exonerate the perpetrators of the primal crime by blaming the victim (God). The cultural result is the deliberate self-deception and self-alienation of the double transference from which prohibition, ritual, and myth grow. The Bible, however, refuses to accept the ruse and assigns responsibility equally. Thus we have the first exposure of the surrogate victim mechanism and the first demythologization. All are guilty, "for God has shut up all in disobedience so that he might have mercy on all" (Rom 11:32; cf. 1 Cor 15:22).

Thus too begins the story of the dialectic between human self-righteousness and the divine judgment, seen most clearly in the very next story, of Cain and Abel (Gen 4:1-17). Cain denies responsibility for his brother's murder, but God marks him so that he may serve as a sign of responsibility for all. His progeny build the first city on the cursed ground of the brother's murder, but always there is the mark of Cain to remind them that the city is a system of sacred violence and to point them to the possibility of responsibility, repentance, and reconciliation with God.

The account of the expulsion from paradise might be perplexing in the context of the story, because here God seems to be scapegoating Adam and Eve (Gen 3:20-24). However, it is not a scapegoating because the victims really are guilty (Gen 3:17), and furthermore refuse to acknowledge their guilt. Because they do not take responsibility or repent, Adam and Eve must be expelled from paradise so that they cannot eat of the tree of life and so become immortal. We learn rather suddenly at the end of the story that there are in fact two trees in the garden (Gen 3:22-24). Only the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was forbidden (Gen 2:17), therefore we may presume that Adam and Eve would have had access to the tree of life had they obeyed the prohibition. Genesis 2:20-24, therefore, interprets the threat in Genesis 2:17, that if they eat they shall die, to mean that they shall be denied access to the tree of life. By their transgression Adam and Eve incurred death.

This is the background of Paul's statement that sin used the Law to deceive and kill Adam (Rom 7:11). According to the story they gained the knowledge of good and evil. According to our theory this "knowledge of good and evil" is acquisitive and conflictual mimesis with the divine. Before the transgression they knew only good -- namely, that the creator is beneficent and generous, and free of envy. After the transgression they had imputed both evil and good to the creator in making God a rival. Thus faith as trust in the divine goodwill was at an end. Now the Law produced not faith but anxiety and rivalry with God and one another.

The sin of Adam and Eve was, therefore, the corruption of human desire to mimetic rivalry by using the prohibition to misprize the divine proscription on acquisitiveness as an expression of divine envy. This had the effect of turning God into an idol of sacred violence. The corruption of the relationship between the divine and the human corrupted the relationships between human beings. Mimetic desire broke out in the forms of envy, concupiscence, and sacred violence. This is the argument of the first three chapters of Romans.


1. Cf. T. Sim 3:2 "Envy rules over the whole human disposition." Cf. Wisd 2:24 "Through the envy of the devil death came into the world, and they that belong to his realm experience it."

2. R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament 1, 232.

3. W. D.Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, 30. Davies interprets Rom 1:18ff. by means of the rabbinic categories of the yetzer ha-ra and the yetzer ha-tob, which is quite appropriate if one understands "yetzer" to signify desire as such. R. Yannai (C.E. 200) said: "He who hearkened to his evil impulse is as if he practised idolatry: for it is said, 'There shall no strange God be within thee: Thou salt not worship any God" (J. Ned. 9.41.b). Here idolatry is identified with every obedience to the yetzer ha-ra. The yetzer is, therefore, desire as such seen from two possible points of view; when it deviates to mimesis it is the yetzer ha-ra and when it maintains its proper orientation to God it is the yetzer ha-tob.

4. G. Rohser, Metaphorik and Personifikation der Sünde, 106-7.

5. Cf. G. Bataille, Erotism.

6. J. C. Beker, The Apostle Paul, 217-18. For the absolute use of "desire," see 4 Macc 2:6; Vita Adae 19; Philo, Dec 10, 42, 150, 173.

7. For Rom 1, see M. D. Hooker, "Adam in Romans 1"; idem, "A Further Note on Romans 1." C. K. Barrett, From First Adam to Last. For Rom 7, see S. Lyonnet, "'Tu ne convoiteras pas' (Rom vii 7)," and G. Theissen, Psychological Aspects, 202-10; P. Perkins, "Pauline Anthropology"; H. Raisanen, "Zum Gebrauch von epithymia und epithymein bei Paulus."

8. R. Hamerton-Kelly, "Sacred Violence and Sinful Desire."

9. Apoc Mos 19,25; Apoc Abr 23:6-8; 4 Macc 18:8. G. Theissen, Psychological Aspects, 204-5.

10. The watchers must have transgressed already to be watching women in such a way. They had been distracted prior to the outbreak of sexual desire (Jub 5:2, 9; 7:21; 1 Enoch 6:1-2; 7:1-6; 10:9; 15:8,11; 16:1).

11. 1 Enoch 7:4-8:1; 1 Bar 3:26.

12. C. K. Barrett, From First Adam to Last, 16.

13. The LXX adjectives kalos, arestos, and horaios are more aesthetic than their Hebrew equivalents, emphasizing the surface appearance of the fruit. In any case, although the word epithymia is not used, the idea of desire is powerfully present, and the RSV translation fairly reproduces the thrust of both the Hebrew and the Greek.

14. Cf. Wisd 14:30, "They think evil of God in turning to idols." Cf. 2:24, "By the envy of the devil death entered the world." On the general theme of envy in the divine, see Plato, Tim 29e, Phaedr 247a, quoted by Philo in Quod Lib 13; cf. Spec Leg 2.249, Leg All 1.61, 3.7, Abr 203-4. That the gods need nothing is a commonplace of Greek philosophy; see the evidence cited by H. Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles, 142, in commenting on Acts 17:25. The generosity of the divine was, therefore, a commonplace of Hellenistic philosophic and religious thought.

15. Cf. G. Bataille, Erotism.