This last week, Alastair, Matthew, and I took up a discussion of Moshe Halbertal’s little book On Sacrifice. As always, I felt like I learned a lot and I hope you will as well. If you’d like to read more about the book, I posted on it last week here. Thanks again for listening.
One of the most influential accounts of the nature of religious violence and sacrifice in the 20th Century comes from the (quite sadly) recently deceased giant, Rene Girard. For those unfamiliar with it, he begins with an understanding of humans as essentially mimetic or imitative creatures. We desire what we desire because we see others desiring it. Joey has a toy, so little Johnny wants it. This structure of desire has a number of implications, one of which is a build-up of psychic antagonism fueled by frustrated desire, jealousy, and so forth. This toxicity builds up in societies over time and so it needs a spiritual outlet, so a scapegoat is chosen. The scapegoat must be someone close enough to blame, but not close enough to be too important–the outcast (beggar, leper, racial minority, etc) who is hateable and dispensable. They are taken, “sacrificed”, and violently expulsed so that the society can work out its pent up mimetic rage and allow social equilibrium to be restored.
This scapegoat mechanism is taken to be at the root of the ritualized violence of sacrifice as well as the sacred myths we tell from the Greeks on down until the present day. The unique thing, on Girard’s view, about Christianity is that it tells us the scapegoats we choose are innocent. Specifically the story of Jesus, the innocent victim of the mob, in his life, death, and resurrection exposes the scapegoating mechanism for what it is and allows us to break free from the cycle of mimetic violence.
Now, I’ve written appreciatively and critically about Girard before. He’s got a phenomenal eye for social and anthropological dynamics, but for my tastes, his theory of sacrifice has some missing elements. For one thing, despite his best intentions, it fails to take seriously the inner coherence of some of his subjects’ own self-understanding as to just what they’re doing when engaged in ritual and sacrifice. From another angle, Anabaptist theologian D. Snyder Belousek has argued, it’s too much an a priori theory imposed upon the texts–at least the biblical ones–than one drawn from them (Atonement, Justice, and Peace, pg. 173 ). Certainly on sacrifices of atonement there’s something clearly missing with respect to the expiation of guilt and the notion of sin having a Godward orientation. These are just a couple of the reasons I’ve been skeptical of the uses to which he’s been put in recent theology on atonement and violence.
Halbertal on Sacrifice
This is why I was pleased to encounter Jewish philosopher Moshe Halbertal’s little work On Sacrifice, in which he engages the dynamics of sacrifice and violence, as well as the notion’s expansion into our political life, offering a counter-understanding from that of Girard. In Halbertal’s account, sacrifice takes its roots in the relational cycle of gift-giving which secures relationships of love between persons. Sacrifices are a specialized form of gift we engage in when the relationship is asymmetrical as it is with God or the gods. We don’t engage in the normal gift cycles with him because he is not our equal. Instead, our sacrifices, our gifts to him, are an expression of gratitude in returning a portion of what he has given to us. Before they are anything else, sacrifices have a relational purpose aimed at communion.
From there, later dimensions such as atonement are added on, but the gift/relational dimension is primary and foundational. Sacrifices for atonement include not only the original sense of gift, but the acknowledgement of a breach than needs to be healed, made up for, or “paid” back (though not in crassly commercial terms). The underlying aim is still that of inclusion in the relationship of communion and gift-giving, though.
Halbertal points out there is an uncertainty that naturally enters into the picture. Gifts can be rejected, which is even worse, in many ways, than being left out of the gift cycle. It’s one thing to be forgotten. It’s quite another to be seen, to be acknowledged, but then turned away and purposely excluded as unacceptable, as immoral, as lacking in some fundamental way. To have your “gift” deemed unworthy. Halbertal suggests this is partially why ritual develops around sacrifice. Ritual, in some ways, formulaically secures the proper mode of offering a sacrifice in such a way that it won’t be deemed unworthy, but will be accepted.
Incidentally, this is why it’s a mistake to see ancient rituals as fundamentally magical–at least in the biblical account. A magical understanding of sacrificial ritual is the fetishization and deterioration of the sacrificial process which, at core, is a relational practice aimed at securing the relationship of communion. This is part of the prophetic critique of the prophets against the sacrificial system in later centuries; instead of using it as the LORD had intended, for the sake of strengthening communion and relationship, they had turned it into an ex opere operato affair that “worked” even if the worshippers heart was set on other things.
Sacrifice and the Violence of Cain
Now, all of this is relevant in shedding light on a number of important texts related to sacrifice and violence. I’ll take time only with one that Halbertal works with, namely the story of Cain and Abel. In this story, Halbertal sees a number of the basic features of his account of sacrifice, atonement, and some of the dynamics of violence connected to it.
Cain and Abel both offer gifts to God, but Abel is accepted while Cain is rejected. The text is silent as to the reason and Halbertal takes this silence as the suggestion that it’s a matter as mysterious as “human love and endearment” (9). While I think there’s an element of mystery, it’s also important to note that God himself implies that Cain’s offering was rejected because he found some real fault in it (Gen. 4:6-7). All the same, Halbertal insightfully points out the relational stakes involved in the risk of sacrifice and the pain Cain experienced in the rejection of his gifts:
A proper understanding of Cain’s and Abel’s sacrifices provides an alternative to Girard’s account concerning the nexus of violence and sacrifice. The source of violence is in the rejection from the sacrificial bond, the exclusion from the gift cycle. Because Cain’s gift was refused, he was excluded from the most meaningful bond. He brought forward his gift, thus showing his desire to take part, and was slapped in the face, annihilated…. (19)
As we said earlier, it’s far worse to have your gift rejected than to simply be ignored. It is stronger than being ignored, but rather examined and then put to the side consciously. Halbertal says this rejection is the root of Cain’s violence:
Cain asserted his presence through an act of violence. He destroyed the bond that he was excluded from and then made his weight felt again. The response to rejection from the cycle of bounty, to marginalization from what constitutes being itself, might be the deepest element of violence.
Here we see, I think, where Girard’s insight about the jealousy involved in mimetic violence both rings true and needs to be deepened. Which is precisely what Halbertal does:
The first murder was not only motivated by jealousy; it came from the acute response to banishment and isolation. The exclusion from the possibility of giving is a deeper source of violence than the deprivation that results from not getting. (20)
At the core of being human is a sense of having something to offer and to be received as such. Cain’s violence, then, flows from his exclusion from the cycle of gift-giving and the would to his sense of worth as an actor capable of making an acceptable offering.
Before moving on with Halbertal’s analysis, for myself, if I had to hazard a speculative (though fairly conservative) guess at the difference between Cain and Abel’s sacrifices, it’s that in a post-fall context, Cain’s offering failed to acknowledge the atoning dimension. It’s possible that his gift failed to acknowledge the breach of sin. He tried to offer the sacrifice of one who had a knowledge of his own sin as Abel’s sacrifice of the sheep–foreshadowing the temple sacrifices for sin–clearly did. Cain’s offering, then, was laced with pride and arrogance.
Speculation aside, Halbertal’s analysis of sacrifice also sheds light on the nature of God’s judgment upon Cain:
Cain’s punishment was proper and accurate, a kind of perfect retribution. He was not executed but rather excluded forever. He was cast away, to wander. “Cain left the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (Gen. 4:16). His initial sacrifice from the fruits was meant to ensure the continuation of that bounty; he wished to return the fruits he was given in order to get more of them, thereby fueling that crucial process. Can was punished: “If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on the earth” (Gen. 4:12). The land–Cain’s source of bounty and life–will turn barren. (21)
Halbertal’s comments are suggestive in a number of ways. First, Cain’s judgment is to be cast out from God’s presence as well as the land the and its bounty that he tried to secure from God. It is a fitting retribution that matches the essence of the crime. What’s more, it’s one that is consistent with the heart of judgment throughout the rest of the Old Testament, especially Israel’s exile from the Land and the Presence of the Lord.
Second, beyond my own speculative guess above, Halbertal–despite claiming the text is mysteriously silent on why Cain is rejected–suggests another angle. Cain’s exile from the fields he plants hints at the possibility of idolatry–valuing the Land over God and using his sacrifice as magical means to attain it. In other words, in Cain we already have the instrumentalized distortion of the sacrifice. But again, that’s only a possibility.
To wrap up, though, Halbertal has given us an illuminating and suggestive account of the nature of sacrifice and its relationship to violence. I’d highly commend the work to any interested audiences.
Soli Deo Gloria