Excerpt from René Girard's Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World. Research undertaken in collaboration with Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987, pages 149-154.


R. G.: Although it may be concealed in the Cain myth, the collective character of the persecution is fully visible in the story of Joseph.

Let us now look at the passages from the story of Joseph that are important for the purposes of our analysis:

Israel loved Joseph more than all his other sons, for he was the son of his old age, and he had a coat with long sleeves made for him. But his brothers, seeing how his father loved him more than all his other sons, came to hate him so much that they could not say a civil word to him.

Now Joseph had a dream, and he repeated it to his brothers. 'Listen,' he said, 'to this dream I have had. We were binding sheaves in the countryside; and my sheaf, it seemed, rose up and stood upright; then I saw your sheaves gather round and bow to my sheaf.' 'So you want to be king over us,' his brothers retorted, 'or to lord it over us?' And they hated him still more, on account of his dreams and of what he said. He had another dream which he told to his brothers. 'Look, I have had another dream,' he said, 'I thought I saw the sun, the moon and eleven stars, bowing to me.' He told his father and brothers, and his father scolded him. 'A fine dream to have!' he said to him. 'Are all of us then, myself, your mother and your brothers, to come and bow to the ground before you?' His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the thing in mind.

His brothers went to pasture their father's flock at Shechem. Then Israel said to Joseph, 'Are not your brothers with the flock at Shechem? Come, I am going to send you to them.' 'I am ready,' he replied. . .

So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan. They saw him in the distance, and before he reached them they made a plot among themselves to put him to death. 'Here comes the man of dreams,' they said to one another. 'Come on, let us kill him and throw him into some well; we can say that a wild beast devoured him. Then we shall see what becomes of his dreams.'

But Reuben heard, and he saved him from their violence. 'We must not take his life,' he said. 'Shed no blood,' said Reuben to them, 'throw him into this well in the wilderness, but do not lay violent hands on him' -- intending to save him from them and to restore him to his father. So when Joseph reached his brothers, they pulled off his coat, the coat with long sleeves that he was wearing, and catching hold of him they threw him into the well, an empty well with no water in it. Then they sat down to eat.

Looking up they saw a group of Ishmaelites who were coming from Gilead, their camels laden with gum, tragacanth, balsam and resin, which they were taking down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, 'What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let us not do any harm to him. After all, he is our brother, and our own flesh.' His brothers agreed.

Now some Midianite merchants were passing, and they drew Joseph up out of the well. They sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty silver pieces, and these men took Joseph to Egypt. When Reuben went back to the well there was no sign of Joseph. Tearing his clothes, he went back to his brothers. 'The boy has disappeared,' he said. 'What am I going to do?'

They took Joseph's coat and, slaughtering a goat, they dipped the coat in the blood. Then they sent back the coat with long sleeves and had it taken to their father, with the message, 'This is what we have found. Examine it and see whether or not it is your son's coat.' He examined it and exclaimed, 'It is my son's coat! A wild beast has devoured him. Joseph has been the prey of some animal and has been torn to pieces.' Jacob, tearing his clothes and putting on a loin-cloth of sackcloth, mourned his son for a long time. All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. 'No,' he said, 'I will go down in mourning to Sheol, beside my son.' And his father wept for him.

Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh's officials and commander of the guard. . .

It happened some time later that his master's wife looked desirously at him and said, 'Sleep with me'. But he refused, and answered his master's wife, 'Because of me, my master does not concern himself with what happens in the house; he has handed over all his possessions to me. He is no more master in this house than I am. He has withheld nothing from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How could I do anything so wicked, and sin against God?' Although she spoke to Joseph day after day he would not agree to sleep with her and surrender to her.

But one day Joseph in the course of his duties came to the house, and there was not a servant there indoors. The woman caught hold of him by his tunic and said, 'Sleep with me'. But he left the tunic in her hand and ran out of the house. Seeing he had left the tunic in her hand and left the house, she called her servants and said to them, 'Look at this! He has brought us a Hebrew to insult us. He came to me to sleep with me, but I screamed, and when he heard me scream and shout he left his tunic beside me and ran out of the house.'

She put the tunic down by her side until the master came home. Then she told him the same tale, 'The Hebrew slave you bought us came to insult me. But when I screamed and called out he left his garment by my side and made his escape.' When the master heard his wife say, 'this is how your slave treated me', he was furious. Joseph's master had him arrested and committed to the jail where the king's prisoners were kept.

And there in jail he stayed (Genesis 37:3-36; 39:7-20).

Once again, the hypothesis that best illuminates the biblical text is also the most common one. The authors of Genesis have recast a preexistent mythology, adapting it in the spirit of their special concerns. This involves inverting the relationship between the victim and the persecuting community. From the mythological perspective, the eleven brothers would appear first of all as the passive objects of the violence inflicted by a malevolent hero, then as the recipients of the benefits conferred by this same hero after he has been victimized and deified. Joseph would thus be at first a cause of disorder, and a remnant of this can be surmised from the dreams that he recounts, dreams of domination that excite the jealousy of his eleven brothers. The original myths would no doubt have sanctioned the charge of hubris. The kid that provided the blood in which Joseph's tunic was dipped in order to prove to his father that he was really dead would have played a directly sacrificial role in the pre-biblical account.

In the first part of the account, two separate sources have been combined; each one seeks to rehabilitate the victim at the expense of his brothers, even if each is also concerned with partially exempting one of the brothers from blame. The first source, known as 'Elohist', chooses Reuben and the second, known as 'Yahwist', chooses Judah. Hence there are two different stories, juxtaposed with one another, that account for one and the same act of collective violence.

If we take into account that Joseph's Egyptian master behaved toward him as a father, then the accusation of the Egyptian's wife has an almost incestuous character. Instead of corroborating the accusation, as do so many myths (with the story of Oedipus at their head), the story of Joseph declares that it is false!

J.-M. O.: You are quite right. But surely the myth to compare with the story of Joseph is not the Oedipus myth but that of Phaedra and Hippolytus?

R. G.: Of course. But you will observe that in the Greek myth, as opposed to the Racinian version, Hippolytus is treated, if not as a guilty party in the modern sense, at least as being justly punished: his excessive chastity has an element of hubris that offends Venus. By contrast, in the story of Joseph the victim is simply an innocent party who is falsely accused.

Further on in the story, there is a second account of a victim who is falsely accused and in the end gets off free. This time, Joseph himself uses trickery to impugn his brother Benjamin -- the other favorite son of Jacob and the only one younger than Joseph -- with guilt. But on this occasion, one of the ten brothers is not willing to accept the expulsion of the victim. Judah puts himself forward in Benjamin's place, and Joseph is moved by pity to make himself known to his brothers and pardon them.

G. L.: The point that rehabilitating the victim has a desacralizing effect is well demonstrated by the story of Joseph, who ends up having no demoniac or divine aspects but simply being human. . .

J.-M. O.: Mythological culture and the cultural forms that have been grafted upon it, such as philosophy or in our own day ethnology, with a few exceptions tend first to justify the founding murder and then to eliminate the traces of this murder, convincing people that there is no such thing. These cultural forms have succeeded perfectly in convincing us that humanity is innocent of these murders. By contrast, in the Bible there is an inverse movement, an attempt to get back to origins and look once again at constitutive acts of transference so as to discredit and annul them -- so as to contradict and demystify the myths...

R. G.: The proof that we are not entirely unaware of this inspired role played by the Bible lies in the fact that for centuries we have been accusing it of 'laying blame' on humanity, which, of course, as the philosophers assure us, has never harmed a fly in its own right. Clearly the story of Cain lays blame on Cainite culture by showing that this culture is completely based upon the unjust murder of Abel. The story of Romulus and Remus lays blame upon the city of Rome since the murder of Remus is presented to us as being justified. No one asks if the Bible is not right to lay blame as it does, and if the city of man is not in fact founded on concealed victims.

G. L.: But your analysis has up to now been restricted to Genesis. Can you show that it remains valid for other great biblical texts?

J.-M. O.: In Exodus it is the whole of the chosen people which is identified with the scapegoat, vis-à-vis Egyptian society.

R. G.: Yes indeed. When Moses complains that the Egyptians are not willing to let the Hebrews leave, Yahweh replies that soon the Egyptians will not only let them leave but will expel them.

As he himself causes the sacrificial crisis that ravages Egypt (the Ten Plagues), Moses is evidently playing the part of the scapegoat, and the Jewish community around him is associated with this role. So there is something absolutely unique in the foundation of Judaism.

In order to 'function' normally, in the sense of the myths that we have already dealt with here, Exodus would have to be an Egyptian myth; this myth would show us a sacrificial crisis resolved by the expulsion of the trouble-makers, Moses and his companions. Thanks to their expulsion, the order that Moses disturbed would have been re-established in the society of Egypt. We are indeed dealing with this kind of model, but it has been diverted towards the scapegoat, who is not only made human but goes on to form a community of a new type.

G. L.: I can certainly see that in this case there is a tendency once again to unearth the mechanism that is at the foundation of religion and to call it into question. But these great stories from Genesis and Exodus remain nonetheless inscribed within a mythic framework and retain the characteristics of myth. Are you going so far as to say that we are no longer dealing with myth at all?

R. G.: No. I believe we are dealing with mythic forms that have been subverted but still retain, as you rightly say, many of the characteristics of myth. If we had nothing but these particular texts, we would not be able to stress the radical singularity of the Bible vis-d-vis the mythological systems of the entire planet.