The Voice of the Scapegoat: Part 4, The Whispers of Victims

In the last post we discussed René Girard's argument that the Old Testament functions 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 as these reflections developed over time they set the stage for understandings about what happened on 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. 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 was extraordinary.

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. This is the perspective of the scapegoat, the victimized. The voice of the One hounded by the Many. Consquently, these are called "scapegoat psalms." Heim cites Psalm 140 as an example:
Psalm 140
Rescue me, O LORD, from evil men;
protect me from men of violence,
who devise evil plans in their hearts
and stir up war every day.
They make their tongues as sharp as a serpent's;
the poison of vipers is on their lips.
Keep me, O LORD, from the hands of the wicked;
protect me from men of violence
who plan to trip my feet.
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.
O LORD, I say to you, "You are my God."
Hear, O LORD, my cry for mercy.
O Sovereign LORD, my strong deliverer,
who shields my head in the day of battle-
do not grant the wicked their desires, O LORD;
do not let their plans succeed,
or they will become proud.
Let the heads of those who surround me
be covered with the trouble their lips have caused.
Let burning coals fall upon them;
may they be thrown into the fire,
into miry pits, never to rise.
Let slanderers not be established in the land;
may disaster hunt down men of violence.
I know that the LORD secures justice for the poor
and upholds the cause of the needy.
Surely the righteous will praise your name
and the upright will live before you.
In 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 with the Scapegoat over against the Crowd. 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 from the cross he uses the words of Psalm 22. Psalm 22 is a scapegoating psalm.

We also see in the prophets a growing ambivalence with blood sacrifice. God rejects the blood sacrifices at the temple in favor of justice for the weak and marginalized:
Amos 5: 21-24
"I hate, I despise your religious feasts;
I cannot stand your assemblies.
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.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!"
Again, 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:
Hosea 6:6
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
Again, to us, this all makes perfect sense. But it was a radical break-through for a world steeped in blood sacrifice to the gods, and Yahweh himself

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. Now it is true, because we can see behind the veil, that we are 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... (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 (Isaiah 52:13-53:12). Here we see a human being standing in as the Day of Atonement scapegoat and the key reframing, consistent with the Levitical ritual, is how the suffering servant is bearing the sins of the community. The community rather than the scapegoat is guilty. That reverses the sacrificial logic where before the victim was deemed to be wicked and evil and deserving of death. In the Fourth Servant Song an innocent one dies for the sins of the guilty.

And yet, like in Job, the Servant Song is ambivalent. In both accounts the victim--Job and the Servant--are innocent. Their affliction is unjust. And God, in the end, sides and stands with each. But in both stories God also seems implicated in the affliction. Heim compares Job and the Servant Song:
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 that 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 acclaimed 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 with the cross of Jesus.

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