We continue on with Part 4 in this series working through the ideas of Rene Girard and S. Mark Heim's recent book Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross.
In the last post, we discussed the Old Testament as an antimyth, a religious story that is decidedly NOT cut from the mold of religious mythology. The Old Testament is filled with bodies and blood. It is clearly not covering up the violence, even God-mandated violence. This honesty allows Israel to reflect consciously on its religious story. And these reflections develop over time. In the end, these reflections set the stage for Christian understandings of the cross.
The overt bloodshed of the Old Testament makes the victims of violence visible. There is no Mythic Cover Up. And as these victims are exposed, Israel begins to notice that many, if not most, of these victims were innocent. Overall, this is the great moral achievement of the Old Testament. As we journey with the Old Testament the innocent victims begin to find their voice. A voice that ultimately gets aligned with Jesus on Calvary.
Let's follow this trajectory--listening with Israel to the whispers of the victims--in a survey of the Old Testament.
Although scapegoating and sacrifice are firmly a part of the Old Testament, the witness regarding both becomes increasingly ambivalent as the story unfolds. For example, consider the stories of Abel, Joseph, and the sacrifice of Isaac (Jews more correctly refer to the Akedah, the "binding" of Isaac. Christians refer to the "sacrifice" of Isaac which, technically, is not correct as Isaac is not really sacrificed.). In each of these stories we see the scapegoated party as innocent. This seems clear to us now. But in the milieu to which the Old Testament spoke, this moral development is extraordinary and its importance cannot be overstated.
Victims also begin to find their voice in the Psalms. There are psalms that have this common theme: The speaker/singer is alone, oppressed and blamed by all, and the crowd is crying for their blood. Well, who are the people in this situation? This is the experience of the scapegoat. The voice of the One against the Many. Thus, these are called "scapegoat psalms." Heim cites Psalm 140 as an example:
Psalm 140In Psalm 140 we begin to hear the whispers of victims, present and past. We get the clear sense that the communal indictment again the "poor" and "needy," the group most often scapegoated, is unjust and wrong. The Psalmist asks that God align himself not with the Crowd, but with the Scapegoat. God's interests here are being disentangled from the interests of the powerful and being associated with the victim. Thus, it is no coincidence that when Jesus cries out the words of psalm 22 on the cross that this is also a scapegoating psalm.
1 Rescue me, O LORD, from evil men;
protect me from men of violence,
2 who devise evil plans in their hearts
and stir up war every day.
3 They make their tongues as sharp as a serpent's;
the poison of vipers is on their lips.
4 Keep me, O LORD, from the hands of the wicked;
protect me from men of violence
who plan to trip my feet.
5 Proud men have hidden a snare for me;
they have spread out the cords of their net
and have set traps for me along my path.
6 O LORD, I say to you, "You are my God."
Hear, O LORD, my cry for mercy.
7 O Sovereign LORD, my strong deliverer,
who shields my head in the day of battle-
8 do not grant the wicked their desires, O LORD;
do not let their plans succeed,
or they will become proud.
9 Let the heads of those who surround me
be covered with the trouble their lips have caused.
10 Let burning coals fall upon them;
may they be thrown into the fire,
into miry pits, never to rise.
11 Let slanderers not be established in the land;
may disaster hunt down men of violence.
12 I know that the LORD secures justice for the poor
and upholds the cause of the needy.
13 Surely the righteous will praise your name
and the upright will live before you.
We also see in the prophets a growing ambivalence with blood sacrifice. God is seen as rejecting the blood sacrifices at the temple as he begins to favor the weak and marginalized:
Amos 5: 21-24Again, what we are seeing here is a growing ambivalence about sacrifice. And this rejection of sacrifice is coupled with God's growing preoccupation and identification with the marginalized:
21 "I hate, I despise your religious feasts;
I cannot stand your assemblies.
22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
23 Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!"
Hosea 6:6Again, to us, this all makes perfect sense. But can you imagine what a radical break-through this was for the world? Think about the pagan world, steeped in blood sacrifice to pagan gods and Yahweh himself, confronting this radical new message.
"For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings."
Further, Heim considers Job to be a pivotal reflection on the innocence of those "afflicted by God." In Job everyone considers his afflictions to be just and righteous. Job, of course, disagrees and maintains his innocence throughout the book. He accuses God of treating him unfairly. And he calls out for a trial, a place where he can argue for his innocence.
In these details, Job is an incredible book. Just to point out some of the details Heim focuses on, note that Job asks for a trial. This request is noteworthy. Scapegoats, those afflicted by God, are simply assumed to be guilty. This is what Job's friends and his wife assume. But the book of Job questions that assumption and undermines the consensus of the group. We, as readers, know Job is innocent. And that is the destabilizing genius of the book: We see behind the veil. It is true, because we can see behind the veil, that we are often disturbed by God's game with Satan. But this would be to miss the point. The point is that 90% of the book is about the unanimous consensus of the group (that Job is rightly afflicted by God) and that Job, as scapegoat, refuses to agree with this assessment. Then, amazingly, in the end God AGREES with Job's assessment. Heim summarizes:
God's speech to Job does not directly address the substance of his complaint. It neither accepts or rejects it. But alongside this poetic speech, God has a very concise and unequivocal comment to Job's friends: 'My wrath is kindled against you...; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has' (42:7 RSV)...One of the most striking of these tensions is that after so much space has been given to the speeches of the friends, who have defended God at every turn and justified the violence against Job as divinely mandated, we find this flat conclusion that they have not spoken the truth. Job, who has called God his persecutor and denounced God's injustice and indifference, has spoken what is right. There is hardly a more amazing line in the Bible...Job's address to God put this in inescapable terms: Are you on their side or mine? In this struggle over the identity of God, God finally sides with Job...
God's speech to Job does not directly address the substance of his complaint. It neither accepts or rejects it. But alongside this poetic speech, God has a very concise and unequivocal comment to Job's friends: 'My wrath is kindled against you...; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has' (42:7 RSV)...One of the most striking of these tensions is that after so much space has been given to the speeches of the friends, who have defended God at every turn and justified the violence against Job as divinely mandated, we find this flat conclusion that they have not spoken the truth. Job, who has called God his persecutor and denounced God's injustice and indifference, has spoken what is right. There is hardly a more amazing line in the Bible...Job's address to God put this in inescapable terms: Are you on their side or mine? In this struggle over the identity of God, God finally sides with Job... (pp. 90-91, 92)Finally, the pinnacle of this re-envisioning of the scapegoat and the crime of sacrifice is found in the Fourth Servant Song of Isaiah. It is a long passage, but it's important to examine. I'll break in with commentary in [brackets]:
Isaiah 52:13-53:12Like in Job, the Servant Song is ambivalent. The victim--Job and Servant--are innocent. Their affliction is unjust. God, in the end, sides with each. But, in both stories, God also seems implicated in the affliction. Heim compares Job and the Servant Song:
13 See, my servant will act wisely;
he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man
and his form marred beyond human likeness—
[This is a classic account of who gets scapegoated: Marginal people.]
15 so will he sprinkle many nations,
and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
and what they have not heard, they will understand.
[Recall, the myth of religious sacrifice is about obfuscating the murder. The people "know not what they do."]
1 Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
4 Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.
[Note that WE considered him stricken by God. Looking ahead to Jesus, we make the same mistake about his cross. We feel that he had to die because GOD demanded it. But that is our mistake, a part of the obfuscation, the sense that the scapegoat is there by divine mandate. This is critical to interpreting the rest of the song.]
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
[Again, sacrifice solved a real social problem. Thus, verse 5 is sacrificial business as usual. The sacrifice of the Servant brings peace.]
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
And who can speak of his descendants?
[It is clear here that the Servant sacrifice was unjust. The RSV reads in verse 7 that the Servant was taken away by a "perversion of justice." Thus, the killing of the scapegoat is wrong.]
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was stricken.
9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the LORD's will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.
11 After the suffering of his soul,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.
[The song ends on an ambivalent note. It is clear that the Servant was wrongly scapegoated. And, in order to demonstrate the travesty of this situation, God will stand beside the scapegoat, vindicating the victim. This alone makes the song an amazing passage and speaks to Job's request for a Vindicator in heaven. The Servant, it appears, will receive just such a vindication from God. But there are also some puzzling moments in this section and the one before it: "the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all" and "Yet it was the LORD's will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering." What is going on here? Is the text confused? Was it wrong or not to sacrifice the scapegoat?]
The servant song tells a story like that of Job, from a different perspective. This time there is no doubt about the scapegoat's innocence, no doubt about the evil of the suffering afflicted, no doubt about whose side God is on. The focus has shifted. Now it rests on the sins of the persecutors. Us. Job poses a question: How can God be justified in face of the arbitrary suffering of a righteous person ganged against by everyone, including God? The servant poses a different question. Assuming that God decides to side with the scapegoat, how can those who do the violence ever be justified? If the first was about how the one can be rescued, the second is about how the many can be saved. (p. 101)In the end, Girard and Heim conclude, the Old Testament does not definitively answer these questions. But the Old Testament has taken us on an amazing moral journey. It begins with a bloody sacrificial God but ends with us being deeply disturbed about sacrifice. We are also very uncomfortable believing the scapegoat is guilty. After both Job and the Servant Song, whenever we see someone unanimously claimed as being "afflicted by God" we now wonder if the Crowd got it right. Maybe God is actually on the side of the victim. By giving the victim a voice, the Old Testament has completely reworked the sacrificial psychology of the ancient world. True, the Old Testament has not completely extricated God from sacrificial violence, but it has taken us a long way toward that goal. The final revelation about scapegoating and sacrifice will be found later in the cross of Jesus.