Williams on Sacrificial Crisis in the Wilderness

Excerpt from James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred: Liberation from the Myth of Sacred Violence, San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991, pp. 81-84.

3. Sacrificial Crisis in the Wilderness

Prior to the covenant at Sinai there are four other instances of conflict between Moses and the people lie leads: Exodus 14:10-18, the people’s fear as the Egyptians pursue them; 15:22-27, complaint about the bitter water of Marah; 16:1-30, cry for bread and meat in the wilderness; 17:1-7, outcry for water. The latter three belong to the wilderness narratives, and that alone would suggest a close relationship among them. (1) There are, however, certain patterns that join all four and that represent the deeper narrative level that operates both with and against the victimization mechanism.

a. Mimesis. The problem is the Egypt that still dominates the Israelites’ hearts and minds. Three of the four narratives refer to this. The pursuing Egyptians have the power of life and death over the Israelites (14:10-12); they ate bread and meat in Egypt (16:3); they had plenty to drink there (by implication in 17:3). If the God of Israel could have become “Egypt,” so to say, and if Moses could have become his king-mediator providing the necessities of life, they would have been glad to exchange — one slavery for another!

b. The Mob. The three wilderness episodes are quite explicit about the shifting of the “people” into a “mob.” Although a Hebrew word for mob is not used, the word murmur is the key to a mimetic contagion that suggests unruliness and potentially dangerous action. (2) In two of these passages Moses “cries” to the LORD in reaction to the murmuring (15:25, 17:4). The latter verse pictures a desperate Moses: “they are almost ready to stone me.”

c. Differentiation. The wilderness journey is a figure of the spiritual process of the people emerging as an exception among the nations where sacred violence prevails. A process of winnowing, sorting, defining occurs that will continue even beyond the destination of the journey, the promised land. New boundaries are established as the people-mob is led to become the people Israel. This differentiation process is expressed twice by Moses’ use of his staff and twice by the giving of a statute. In 14:16 God commands Moses to “lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go into the sea on dry ground.” This division is an act of creation (see Gen 1) that will be Israel’s salvation and Egypt’s downfall. The sea as destructive force, as chaos, will roll back over the Egyptians, and it is a fitting symbol of the mimetic crisis that has occurred. But the work of the God of Israel brings an order, a differentiation in the chaos — and Israel, the innocent victim, is the primary sign of this new order. In 15:26 the LORD makes a pronouncement that is called “a statute and an ordinance” but is actually a conditional promise: if Israel obeys its God, he will not afflict the people with the diseases that came upon the Egyptians. Lying in the background of this conditional promise is a prohibition against turning to other gods, an act of rebellion that by implication would bring the plagues that befell Egypt. Plague as a figure of radical disruption and disorder is staved by prohibition. The manna and meat episode in chapter 16 reads as though it is centered in the instruction concerning the Sabbath (16:22-30; see 16:4-5). The question of whether the people “walk in my law or not” (16:4) has to do primarily with whether they will obey the command to gather twice as much bread from heaven on the sixth day in order to remain at rest on the seventh day. In other words, the Sabbath is the institution that provides the central point of differentiation. From the Priestly standpoint, observing it faithfully is what distinguishes Israel from other peoples; to celebrate it is to obey the God of Israel who is the Creator God (see Exod 20:8-11 and Gen. 2:2-3). In Exodus 17:5-6 Moses is to strike the rock with the staff with which he struck the Nile. The reference to the Nile means there is a quite deliberate contrast between the water that comes forth from the rock and the water of the Nile turned into blood. The differentiating function of Moses’ act is basically the same as that of dividing the waters at the Sea of Reeds. Water has many attributes in patterns of symbolic language: undifferentiated, life-giving, dangerous and dark if it is deep. Egypt’s water is death — is violence as murder and violence as the offering of sacrifice. Israel’s water, as given by God, is life, is the overcoming of violence. The place is named Testing and Dispute, in English transcription Massah and Meribah (17:7), names that serve to condemn the attitude of the people who put the LORD to the test and are ready to lynch Moses. The implication is that they are still not sure about what distinguishes them from Egypt and their former life in Egypt.

d. Sacrifice. In the journey out of Egypt and into the wilderness, Moses does not offer sacrifice (in the sense of offering a victim at an altar) prior to the arrival at Mount Sinai. The altar Moses builds (Ex 17:8-16) and the sacrifice offered by Jethro (Ex 18:12) are exceptions, but in neither instance is Moses (or Aaron) described as a sacrificer. That Moses does not offer sacrifice in the more formal sense is probably deliberate on the part of the narrators, for sacrifice as such was to be instituted at Sinai. Nevertheless, sacrifice in the sense of the operation of the victimization mechanism in sacrificial substitutions is quite evident. First of all, the destruction of the Egyptian army in chapters 14-15 highlights the depth of tile mimetic conflict between Israel and Egypt. No event of sacrificial substitution has sufficed to join the rivals or at least bring hostilities to a halt. In a final violent outburst the Egyptians pursue the escaping Israelites. The pursuit and imminent attack of the Egyptians is analogous to the all-against-one of collective violence. An army in the time of battle is an organized mob, and if the group attacked is small in number or has no military defense, the structure of the situation is comparable to that of a lynch mob turning on a victim. The annihilation of the Egyptian army thus comes across as the tragically fatal outcome of the desire for power.

But Israel has its own internal problems, which now become the focus of the narratives. Having seen themselves in terms defined by their oppressors, the Israelites are now torn among three alternatives: (1) to continue viewing themselves as their Egyptian overlords had done, (2) to view themselves in terms of their opinions of one another, or (3) to view themselves as the people of the God of Israel under the leadership of Moses. If the first alternative were to prevail, they would return to Egypt. But they are in a state of transition from the first to the third alternative, so the second alternative, the intensification of group rivalry, continually comes to the fore in the narratives. The result is that the people turn into a mob. And a mob needs a sacrifice in order to avoid a “plague,” that is, self-destruction. As the dissatisfaction with their lot reaches a head, they turn on Moses. In the episode of the bitter water, 15:22-27, the bitter water (whatever the historical reality lying behind the story) functions to reflect the people’s bitterness, their fear of disease, of poison. The LORD shows Moses a tree, which he throws into the water. The water then becomes sweet. The commentators generally connect the miracle to the magical properties believed to inhere in trees or their leaves, bark, or fruit. (3) Childs comes close to what I view as the correct way of construing the passage in relating it to the plague tradition, but he finally resorts to the common exegesis: “the help was mediated to Moses in the form of a divine disclosure of the special properties of a tree.” (4) That trees in part or whole were thought to have magical, healing properties, I have no doubt; however, as Derrida shows so strikingly, the very concept of medicine or remedy (pharmakon) is rooted in a primary notion of substitution for or supplementation of an original reality. (5) Since the Greek pharmakon meant “poison” as well as “remedy,” pharmakon as medicine could be construed as antidote or antibody, which is actually the disease or poison copied and used for the patient and against the original condition. One can thus easily see the logic of the pharmakos or scapegoat, which Derrida treats only very briefly. (6) Crucial to Girard’s project, besides explaining the function of mimetic desire, has been to show the centrality of substitution, the victim (pharmakos) executed as remedy for the dissolution of the community, which is at the heart of human culture. (7) The pharmakos is the provider of the pharmakon. So the tree Moses casts into the water is a substitute. A substitute for what? Undoubtedly for Moses. “The people murmured against Moses” (15:24, RSV). He is the most available pharmakos.

The episode of the bitter water is quite typical of scapegoat stories around the world. There is a general crisis that evolves into an all-against-one situation. The poisoning of water is common, certainly in European medieval scapegoat stories, although the Exodus tale does not ascribe the poisoning of the water to the scapegoat, as is usual. This is probably because its point of view will not allow `loses to be at fault, and in any case it is part of a narrative struggling to pull away from victimization and sacrificial thinking. But Moses does have the power to bring the mob out of its crisis. However, instead of bestowing benefits through being lynched, he is able to displace the energy and attention of the people to the tree. What I have said here about Moses as pharmakos offering a pharmakon or remedy as substitute for himself is simply a variation on what Girard says: “The universal execration of the person who causes the sickness is replaced by universal veneration for the person who cures the same sickness.” (8)

It may seem strange that the leader is the potential scapegoat, but see my discussion of the king as sacrificial victim in chapter 1. Girard points out certain “stereotypes of persecution.” One is an accusation that violent crimes have been committed against authority figures who represent the social order and its prohibitions. Another is a community in a state of undifferentiation, which can easily turn into a mob. A third is the choice of victims who are marginal either as outsiders or insiders in a group or social system. Marginal outsiders are the foreigner, the poor, the physically handicapped. Marginal insiders include not only the extremely poor, children, and prostitutes but also the rich and powerful whose position is enviable, and as objects of envy they may, if the conditions are right, become subject to scapegoating. (9) The fourth and final stereotype is that of the ultimate measure, murder, justified as an execution necessary because of the evil nature of the victim.

So Moses as the leader is the potential scapegoat. From the standpoint of his motley group, he is not simply the mediator of power but the source of power. Whether he is the medicine or provides it is a distinction they are not prepared to make. The threat of a lynch mob becomes even stronger in the Massah and Meribah incident, 17:1-7. The medicine or remedy is water, which Moses is supposed to provide. In the plight of extreme thirst, the power of mimetic desire and rivalry rivets on Moses and Egypt as the two great sources of power, of life. It was Moses who brought them out of Egypt, as though it was not really their idea, and it is in Egypt that their needs could be met (17:3). “So Moses cried to the LORD, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me'” (17:4). There is a sense in which the water from the rock is a surrogate for Moses. Rather than shedding his blood, which would be a reversion to the violence of Egypt (see above on blood in the Nile), the people drink the life-giving water.

In the struggle to overcome the victimization mechanism through revelation of good mimesis, the question remains, “Is the LORD among us or not?” (17:7). The covenant tradition underwrites a conditional yes to this question (see chapter 4 on the covenant).


1. See George Coats, Rebellion in the Wilderness (Nashville: Abingdon, 1968).

2. The Hebrew word is lun, which is found only in Exodus 15-17, Num 14, 16, and 17, and Josh 9:18. The standard work of reference on the murmuring traditions in contemporary biblical scholarship is Coats, Rebellion in the Wilderness.

3. So Bernhard Anderson: “It was believed that the leaves or bark of certain trees had magical properties for sweetening or ‘healing’ water,” The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, ed. Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger (New York: Oxford, 1973), 87. Theodor H. Gaster implies that his understanding is the same in Myth, Legend and Custom in the Old Testament (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 241-242.

4. Brevard Childs, The Book of Exodus (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974), 269.

5. Jacques Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy” in Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 61-171.

6. Ibid., 130-133.

7. For Girard’s appreciation of Derrida’s analysis of pharmakon, see Violence and the Sacred, 296-297.

8. Girard, The Scapegoat. I owe this paragraph primarily to Hans Jensen’s helpful comments on the passage in a letter of July 22, 1990.

9. Girard, The Scapegoat, chap. 2. I cannot resist quoting a sports columnist who wrote about Pete Rose, the baseball “star” who was accused of gambling on baseball games and betting on his own team, “If there’s one thing the American public likes better than an idol, it’s a fallen idol.” Unfortunately, I no longer have the source for this quote.

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