The wrong paradox


Permit me one final quote from Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice. I heartily recommend this book to you. Coupled with other Girard resources I’ve been looking at, this Lent/Easter season is turning into a kind of second conversion to Christianity for me. I quite serious, but more on that later. I’d like to close out looking at Mark Heim’s book with a quote from chapter ten in which he summarizes the various arguments he’s been making. In this passage he brings a non-sacrificial (Girardian) reading of the Cross into conversation with the standard sacrificial reading among Christians.

At a later time when I get around to reviewing Greg Boyd’s new work Crucifixion of the Warrior God (2 vols), Girard will figure significantly into my assessment. In the end, in spite of Greg’s desire to establish a non-violent (non-sacrifical|non penal-substitionary) reading of the Cross, all goes well until he insists that the Father himself must abandon his Son who has become sin and that Jesus must suffer the punishment we deserve (Godforsakenness). This is essentially a sacrificial reading of the Cross. As Heim describes Anselm’s view, the parallels to Greg are clear. One need only adjust a few terms (Heim’s “blow” which the Father “strikes” Jesus with to Greg’s “withdrawal”) to accommodate Heim’s critique of Anselm to Boyd’s theory of the Father’s visiting upon the Son the Godforsakenness we deserve. The logic between the two is the same.

Often opponents of the penal substitutionary view of the atonement summarize what they dislike about this view in terms of its making God “bloodthirsty,” picturing the Father wanting his “pound of flesh” or needing “more blood,” of of Jesus “saving us from the Father,” or the Father’s feeling for Jesus the hatred he has for sin. But as Heim’s passage here shows, these extreme claims can be rejected while leaving one essentially within the grip of their sacrificial-scapegoating logic. Heim writes:

22879What I have tried to say in this book is that there is a concrete rescue in the cross. There is the rescue and vindication of a victim of scapegoating sacrifice, and more broadly, there is a rescue of all of us from the thoughtless bondage to that violent way of maintaining peace and unity. This is a saving transaction, in which God is willing to be subjected to our persecution in order to deprive it of future victims and end its power. That is the simple rescue, on which the other meanings of the cross are built.

Critics of atonement theology see in the account of Jesus’ death no literal redemptive example. And in a sense they are exactly right, for the Gospels themselves make this point. They dramatically emphasize that the crucifixion is wrong. The Gospel presentations stress that it is an evil act, and make no effort to soften that fact. As critics see it, the theology of the cross seems to suppose that the heavenly value of Jesus’ death increases in direct proportions to tis failure to do any earthly good. The cross does not present us with a parable of behavior that is admirable in some general sense. Rather than the concrete demonstration of a rescue, the passion narratives give us Jesus’ predictions of his death, an assurance that it will be offered for us. Critics do not find here any meaningful explanation of why that death would help. It is an “empty” death, and seems to invite or require the postulation of some hidden divine transaction to give it the meaning it lacks on the face of things

The Wrong Paradox
The classic penal substitutionary theology of atonement (we will take Anselm as its representative) constructs the terms of just such a hidden transaction. It posits a cosmic bargain that takes place on a plane quite distinct from the historical reality of the crucifixion. This mistaken move has decisive consequences. But before we explore those results in detail, we need to register the many authentic elements of the passion that Anselm incorporates in his vision. These are factors that account for the many positive effects that the teaching has had, despite its deep flaws. If the result is faulty, it is because the elements are misaligned, not because he starts with the wrong material.

In developing his theology Anselm fixes on a few details as crucial cues. Nearly all of them figure significantly also in the reading of the cross that I have been advocating. His doctrine of atonement builds around many of the key antimythical elements of the Gospels. He assumes, as scripture does, the injustice of the crucifixion, the falseness of the accusations, the innocence of the victim, and the uniqueness of the divine act that takes place in this event, separate from the intentions (explicit and implicit) of its human actors. On all these points Anselm is in line with the fundamental critique of historical sacrifice present in the Gospels. He stresses that it is not humans’ offering of someone else’s blood that is saving. That ancient human path is identified and condemned in the passion accounts. It is not the crowd’s thirst for Jesus’ blood, for a third party’s death, that saves us. It is God’s willingness to suffer in our place that is the unique and only transformative meaning for “sacrifice.” Anselm rejects any repetitive practice that exchanges some people’s suffering for others’ benefit…

Anselm clearly breaks with the foundational mythic scenario that assumes victims must be regularly offered to assure peace and harmony. He condemns that idea, because in his view this task can belong to only one person, the incarnate Word. All of Anselm’s arguments that are aimed to point up the human need for just such an extraordinary savior serve to make this point well. On the only point that matters, atonement for sin, human sacrifices are of no avail. They cannot redeem us. Our offering of others in sinful and in vain. Even our offering of ourselves, any self-immolation, would be equally futile. Like the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, Anselm firmly grasps this point. Without Christ, no amount of self-sacrifice, no amount of innocent suffering offering in any way could save us. With Christ, not even the smallest increment from any others is needed.

imagesIn the wake of Christ, no innocent suffering can be propounded as required by God. Suffering may come. It may even be occasioned by obedience and faithfulness to God. But it has no role to play in “satisfying” God. That was done once for all. Insisting on the necessity of divine initiative and divine action for reconciliation, Anselm rejects the assumption that human action alone may be sufficient. One good reason to deny this assumption is that whenever it is granted it tends to lend support to the common human procedure for effective atonement – sacrifice and scapegoating. In these fundamental ways Anselm recognizes and affirms the antisacrificial trajectory of the passion narratives. It is the presence of all these elements in his theology that accounts for its many liberating as well as destructive effects. So, for instance, even a very sacrificial reading of the cross that treats Jesus as a divine scapegoat, often still powerfully deflects our tendency to cast our own guilt onto a human scapegoat, allowing it to be discharged instead by Christ. Those who have opposed sacred violence from within the Anselmian perspective have done so on the basis of these resources.

But the Anselmian view of the cross is defined by two major additional steps. The first is the decision to privilege legal images to represent the basic dynamic of “death for us.” Anselm senses the magnitude of God’s action in the cross. It is something unexpected, gracious, and of universal vicarious effect. It has the immense dimensions that earlier Christian writers often describe in the terms of a unique and final sacrifice. Anselm sought to define the scope of grace through a legal quantification of our moral debt and Christ’s merit.

The second step is to conflate this legal framework with a vision of divine justice that dictates God’s purposes in suffering death. If Christ steps in to intercept a blow meant for us, where does that blow itself come from? It is occasions by our sin (so far, a view fully in accord with the general traditions). Anselm’s departure is to insist with new systematic rigor that it is actually coming from God. What we need to be rescued from is the deserved wrath and punishment of God. God wishes to be merciful and so God becomes the one to be punished on behalf of us all. God strikes the same blow that God protects us from.

In response to the criticisms of atonement in his day, which complained that only a weak or incompetent God would be compelled to go to the unseemly lengths of incarnation, and especially death by crucifixion, to redeem a wayward creation, Anselm explained the necessity of incarnation by focusing on the magnitude of the human offense, something only the infinite merit of God’s undeserved suffering could overbalance. The paradoxes of Anselm’s satisfaction theory attempt to reflect the paradox in the Gospels. The scriptural presentation of the crucifixion as both a bad thing and a good thing is translated to mean that the bad (undeserved) suffering of an innocent victim is finally a good thing, which it provides the merit to allow God to remit the punishment rightly due humanity. The debt to God can be paid only with what is not already owed. Jesus’ death can cover the bill because God’s justice cannot demand it, because it is so purely undeserved. The cross is necessary because it is not required. It works only because it is wrong. The wrongness is part of the solution.

This vision draws its power from points of genuine contact with the Gospel narratives of the cross. But it has gone badly astray, at a point where even a small difference can do great harm. The wrongful suffering Jesus is subjected to, the evil the passion is meant to end, becomes the essential good to be celebrated in it. The key error is to refer both the meaning and need of Jesus’ death to its character as an offering to God. What Anselm rejects at the level of human community, he re-creates at the level of community between God and humanity, a community whose reconciliation depends on the offering of an innocent victim. Most important, Anselm presents God as the one who requires this sacrifice and also as the one to whom it is offered.

Scapegoating is a human practice, and Anselm is clear that such a practice cannot solve our estrangement from God. But in his view God has taken over a human scapegoating sacrifice (the execution of Jesus) and turned it into a unique scapegoating sacrifice of unimaginable magnitude. God is doing what human sacrifice does, but on a much larger scale, and one time only. God has not stepped into the process to oppose it, but to perfect it. Sacrifice to end sacrifice is an accurate and biblical way to describe Jesus’ death, but it is an ambiguous and delicately poised idea. Anselm has taken it to mean that God does the same thing that human scapegoaters do, taking it to an ultimate extreme. Instead of God throwing a wrench into the gears of human sacrifice, Anselm’s God has endorsed that machinery, borrowing it to perform the biggest and most effective sacrifice of all. Jesus has become our all-purpose scapegoat, whose suffering generates an infinite reservoir of merit that, like his shed blood, can be dispensed through the sacraments.

These are fatal steps. Once these points become fixed, the dramatically deform the theology of the cross. To return to our simple image about Jesus stepping in between us and an evil bearing down on us, we can say that Anselm unequivocally states that what is bearing down on us is God and God’s wrath. This radically bifurcates the God of justice and the God of forgiveness, and it appears to require a plan of salvation that sets Christ and God against each other. In contrast, I have argued that the actual transaction at the cross is one in which God is handed over to our redemptive violence in order to liberate us from it, not the transaction between God’s left hand and right hand that Anselm pictures…

images (1)Anselm’s mistake is to make primary what is derivative. God did not become human only to die. And Christ did not die as he did to cancel an infinite of deserved punishment for humanity with the infinitely undeserved suffering of innocent divinity. The legal apparatus around the crucifixion is not there because God has a satisfaction case to prosecute and a punishment to enforce on humanity, but because the machinery of false accusation and political and religious legitimacy are part of the way sacred violence works. The death of Jesus follows the script of human persecution because that is the ongoing evil into whose path Jesus steps, to rescue us from sacrifice, to open the way to new community.

Anselm’s doctrine preserves paradox, but the wrong one. He has made the cross a celebration of the sacrifice it meant to overcome. We have seen in earlier chapters how two things are stereotypically overlaid in the passion narrative: a bare description of scapegoating sacrifice along with the rationale of its practitioners, and then a counterscript of criticism, rejection, and reversal of that practice. The second is the distinctive meaning of the cross. At a crucial point Anselm has crossed these wires and taken over part of the sacrificial rationale that was being rejected. In his vision there is a crisis of conflict that threatens to tear creation permanently apart. It is the conflict between humanity and God. Sin has put them at irreconcilable odds. The only way peace can be restored is for God and humanity to unite together in sacrificing an innocent victim. God, Judas, Herod, Pilate, Caiaphas, Peter – all join in one unanimous crowd. This is straightforward sacrificial logic, borrowed from the script followed in the Gospels by those who kill Jesus. And Anselm has enlisted God on its side. But it is a logic the passion narratives subvert and the resurrection denies.

The obvious change Anselm must make when this sacrificial scenario migrates into his thought from the realm of mythical sacrifice is an inescapably Christian one. Given his commitment to scripture, the true nature of the sacrificial logic cannot remain invisible. It must be directly faced. In classical sacrifice the guilt of the scapegoat and the validity of the charges against him or her are assumed. The crowd celebrates the killing because they do not recognize any victim. Innocent suffering works to bring peace because it is invisible as such. For Anselm, since the Gospels have made the victim unavoidably visible, it is the acknowledged innocent suffering of the victim that becomes the hinge of the whole process. The effectiveness of Jesus’ death in reconciling us with God depends on our knowing full well that it is unjustified persecution. The Gospels pulled back the veil of unanimous accusation to show the hidden truth of sacrifice, the undeserved suffering of the innocent victim. What was revealed was what was wrong, and what must be changed. But Anselm insists that what we see behind the veil is right. God has become the proprietor of redemptive violence, and by that very act made it a good thing. This injustice becomes the whole purpose of the incarnation, and not one of the prime evils Christ came to defeat. Thus, at the last minute, things are turned backward. Rather than a strategic act of resistance to overthrow sacred violence, the cross becomes a divine endorsement of it. This is the missed connection, so close to the truth and yet so fatally far, that has tangled our thinking about substitutionary atonement.

Suffering servant

downloadOne more passage from Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice. There are a dozen passages I’d like here to reproduce from this insightful book, but I’ll try to make this the final post and encourage you to acquire and read the book for yourself. In this section (from chapter three) Heim continues to trace the development of the theme of scapegoating in the Old Testament and how the Scriptures, though they are “thick with bodies [and] the voices of victims,” expose this economy of violence as bankrupt, even as that economy is adopted within and by Israel’s worship of God (also to be judged in light of the Cross). At times scapegoating is depicted from the perspective of the persecutors, those who employ scapegoating as a means of achieving and maintaining peace, while at other times that same process is described from the point of view of the scapegoat/victim. Heim’s section on Job is one example of scapegoating presented from the perspective of the victim who in Job’s case, argues Heim, is a failed sacrificial event. Here, however, I’d like to reproduce Heim’s treatment of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, which as we know was a source of understanding for the early Church’s understanding of the Cross.

For later Christians the revelation of persecuting sacrifice that is so deep in the Old Testament reaches a special climax in the “songs of the servant” in the book of Isaiah. Here in the figure of the suffering servant we find perhaps the single most prominent scriptural text for early Christian interpretation of the cross… [Heim’s here reproduces the fourth song, Isa. 52.13—53.12, which I’m omitting.]

These words are so familiar, and so freighted with tradition, that it is hard to hear them say anything new. But compare them with the description of the sacrificial scapegoat presented in our last chapter. This passage says concisely in a few sentences all that was contained there. Consider it first not as a mystical job description for a unique messiah, but as an anthropological account of a repeated reality. As Gil Bailie, says, “The Suffering Servant Songs combine two insights: first, that the victim was innocent and his persecutors wrong, and second, that his victimization was socially beneficial and that his punishment brought the community peace.”

This is presented in great detail. “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him.” The persecuted one is likely chosen from the marginal or those whose appearance is marred, and so is more easily rejected. “He was despised.” The person chosen is without supporters, isolated and abandoned. “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.” The victim has been chosen and will suffer because of our problem, our collective disease of rivalry and conflict. The impetus comes not from some offense in the victim but from a need in us. “Yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God.” We thought this, but we were wrong. Though the problem is ours, we believed it was this one who was the cause, this one who was hated by God, this one who deserved the Job and the Joseph and the Abel treatment.

“But he was wounded for our transgressions.” In fact, it is because we could not maintain peaceful relations that we require a sacrifice. We wound because of our iniquities. And wounding is another iniquity. “Upon him was the punishment that made us whole.” We are actually reconciled and freed by this violence, even though the victim is wrongly charged and we are the actual guilty ones. Hating together unites us, strops our divisions. What hurts him helps us. “All we like sheep have gone astray.” We are all involved. We do this together; we have all turned to scapegoating. “By a perversion of justice he was taken away.” The entire procedure by which we carry out this killing may claim to have some moral basis, but there is no justice in it.

This is about as clear as it can be about religious scapegoating violence. It is an unequivocally bad thing, with undeniably good results. To perceive this sacrificial mechanism in others is unusual, a breakthrough. To face it explicitly in our own behavior may be, literally, miraculous.

Of course, there is another element in the text, expressed most powerfully in two lines: “And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” and “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.” Otherwise the passage is giving an uncannily clear description of violent sacrifice as the unjust if fruitful persecution of an innocent victim, wrongly attributed to God rather than to our own evil. But these lines appear to turn around and say it is all God’s idea after all.

The different biblical voices we have been examining in various ways exposed and criticized this foundational religious dynamic, and set God against it. The trail of attention to scapegoats in the Bible leads to this moment of blinding clarity about what is going on. And at this point, it seems, the writer blinks, and in a few words draws the whole thing back under divine authorization. That long struggle to hear the voice of victims backslides into a passive acceptance, the surrender of a crushed Job who mumbles that it must be right after all.

Is that what’s going on? No. But let’s suppose for a moment that it were. If we stop there, we still have something completely new. In the past the participants in persecuting sacrifice, including the divine participants, endorsed it as something other than what it actually was. They accepted a mythical account, the validity of the accusations, the guilt of the victim. They did it because they thought it was right. What is proposed in this text would be a knowing acceptance of sacrifice for what it actually is. God knows and we know that it is the evil killing of an innocent, for our own benefit. This is the way the world works. We go ahead anyway. It’s wrong, but useful. This is a God who has read Nietzsche, and agrees.

But this isn’t what the text is saying. The writer is not talking about divine approval for sacrificial business as usual, and the sign is in the way God’s will is distinguished from the will of the persecutors. Isaiah says that we, the sacrificers, esteemed the victim stricken by God. But the whole tenor of the text is that it was wrong to think that. We are the ones who wounded and crushed the scapegoat with our iniquities. If what is being done is so clearly wrong, why would God support it? If it was wrong to think that God inflicted the punishment, what does it mean to turn around and say that God laid on him the iniquities of us all? It can mean only that there are two different things going on. When we inflict our iniquities on the victim, it is not the same event as when God lays those same iniquities on him. The writer of the servant song brings these two together with the suggestion that “the victim was allowed to be struck down by a God who counted his sufferings as an atonement for the faults of the very mob that inflicted them on him.”

imagesGod is doing something different from what the persecutors are doing. The Isaiah text gives us many plain indications of this shift. It ends with exaltation of the servant. And it begins with verses that already presume the vindication of the sacrificed one. “See, my servant shall prosper; / he shall be exalted and lifted up….” The victim’s cause will be upheld, in a way that will startle the nations, “for that which had not been told them they shall see, / and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.” Though what is happening is old and common (even if the blunt description of it is new), this instance of it is going to be dramatically different. It has a purpose counter to, but superimposed on, the standard purpose of sacrifice. This is powerfully reflected in the lines “By a perversion of justice he was taken away. / Who could have imagined his future?” Clearly, those doing the sacrifice do not imagine it, a sign that God is not playing the same game they are.

The text says, “When you make his life an offering for sin, / he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days, / through him the will of the Lord shall proper.” In other words, when you sacrifice him as a sin offering, it won’t work. Instead of falling into death and oblivion, the servant will live long and see descendants. Through him the will of the Lord – and not the will of his killers – will prosper. The servant will be blessed (“Out of his anguish he shall see light”) and will bless many others (“the righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous”). Traditional sacrifice may accomplish something very real. It may still our strife for a time. One thing it cannot do is make its practitioners righteous, since they must sin to carry it out. Somehow the servant’s death is to save them from what led to the killing.

We can understand this better by comparing the servant in this passage with Job. Job is a full-scale resister to his scapegoating, but the servant is patient, like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb. Job protests his personal innocence while the friends enlist God to argue his guilt, and the outcome is up in the air. The servant songs are crystal clear that the servant is suffering unjustly for other people’s sins, and it is a mistake to think the servant guilty. Job demands some kind of vindication from God. He does have his earthly prosperity restored, but gets no unequivocal verdict in his favor, no reply to his plea for an accounting from God. The entire episode of his suffering is still posed as a test proposed to God by Satan, an episode that turns out to be a test of God too. By contrast the servant song is framed by an affirmation of the victory of the victim. The servant does not protest, because the protest has been heard and validated by God. The song directly proclaims the innocence of the servant and the injustice of the persecution. The servant is in league with God to change this dynamic. This sacrifice is not meant to be one in a long line. The servant is a singular figure, and the effect of his life will be something new: “for that which had not been told them they shall see.” For a beginning, in this picture of the servant, the nations see what they had not been told about their own scapegoating practice.

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 inflicted, no doubt 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 fact 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 man can be saved.

A good pollution

scapegoatI’ve been reading Catholic/Orthodox theologians for a while, but I’ve been reading them exclusively for a couple of years now. I may have tapped into a very few Protestants here are there during this time (Dallas Willard, James Loder, N. T. Wright, Robert Jenson) but not at any length, and the ones I just named are exceptions to what I typically find in Protestants of the standard, American Evangelical genre. If that seems unfair, it’s not because I’m being dishonest. That’s just been my experience. Last month I picked up a book by an American Evangelical (PhD, theologian, never mind who). He was writing on the Trinity. I fell asleep. I kid you not. It was in the middle of the day and I was not deprived of sleep the night before, and he was writing about the Trinity of all things. What’s not to like? I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

I’ve given up on Evangelical theologians by and large. But I’m happy to say that Evangelical Mark Heim’s book Saved from Sacrifice (outlined in the previous post) is a wonderful exception. When I picked it up I thought I’d race through the preface and conclusion, get the basic thrust of his (Girardian) thesis (which I already share as far as I’ve explored it), and launch into something else. Not this time. This is a slow and careful read from beginning to end. I already shared a portion from the preface that outlines the book. Here is another thoughtful and provocative section (under the subtitle of “Creation and Murder”) from chapter three:

The Genesis creation accounts are a striking exception to the prevalence of violence in the Bible. In comparison with the founding and creation myths of most traditions, no acts of expulsion, battle, or bloodshed are essential for creating the world. The text reflects clear awareness of myths of this type – Marduk’s slaying of the great water goddess Tiamat in the Babylonian creation story, for instance. But instead God moves over the face of the watery chaos and speaks through it to bring the universe into being. The world is not founded on violence or the expulsion of a cosmic scapegoat. Girard suggested that our social world is historically founded on human forms of sacrifice, and that myths of origin often misrepresent that fact by veiling it in symbols or transposing it into mythic space. At this crucial point the Bible insists that the true origin is a nonviolent one. And ontology of peace is more fundamental than the reality of conflict.

In almost the next breath, however, Adam and Eve fall away from the preconditions of peace and Genesis presents another story, the story of Cain and Abel. Here we do have a story of violent origins. But it is plainly a secondary story. The ultimate, divine origin was a peaceful one. In Cain and Abel we meet not the original sin, but the first murder: the original social sin. This is a story of the human origins of violence, and one told in concrete antimythical terms. One man kills another, in a field, for motives of rivalry and jealousy that are in some obscure way connected to their sacrificial practices (God “had regard” for Abel’s offering from his flock, but “had no regard” for Cain’s offering from his fields).

Cain is angry at what he sees as God’s preference for Abel, and commits murder. There is, famously, no explicitly explanation for the success of Abel’s offering and the failure of Cain’s, but interpreters have supplied them without end. God prefers herders with their animal offerings to farmers with their vegetable offerings. Blood sacrifice is the only effective kind. In any event, Cain is cautioned by God that in his anger sin is lying close at hand, but he must overcome it. Instead, he kills Abel. One simple way to read this story is that a successful sacrifice does not lead you to kill your brother, and an unsuccessful one does.

This “fall” of Adam and Eve addresses why we humans need sacrifice. Our capacities for deep empathy with each other are twisted to construct intentions and instigate conflict of a sort that did not exist before. The story of Cain and Abel reflects the fact that sacrifice is not the source of creation (as in some myths of origin) but is a strategy to deal with a fallen creation. And the story encapsulates the true nature of sacrifice, in which violence fends off violence. Abel’s bloody sacrifice does so. Cain’s nonbloody offering (despite God’s caution) does not. God is an enigmatic figure in this story. God says to Cain, who perceives that his sacrifice is unsatisfactory, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Does God mean that Cain should sacrifice animals like Abel and then things would be all right, but in the meantime he should take care not to fall into murder? Or does God mean that if Cain resists falling into violence his offering will be acceptable, but if he continues to view the situation as one of rivalry with Abel for God’s favor, then he risks falling into murder?

The story of Abraham and Isaac suggests that animal sacrifice arises as a way of backing off from human sacrifice. This text suggests something strikingly different. It pictures a time after sin had entered but when there was a kind of testing whether it might be restrained effectively with animal sacrifice or even with the more limited offering from the field, before it led to any murder at all. And it is in the train of this failed experiment that the full weight of sacred violence descends. Abel’s blood cries out from the ground. Confronted by God, and sentenced to be a fugitive and wanderer on the earth, Cain raises the specter of reciprocal violence (“whoever finds me will slay me”). God places a mark of protection on Cain, promising that if anyone kills him God will take vengeance against that person sevenfold – deterring killing with the threat of more killing. Abel’s murder becomes the occasion for a law against murder, whose prescribed punishment is multiple murder in return.

Cain goes on to build a city and to found civilization. The rest of the story is told only in the genealogy of his children and the occupations they invented, except for a brief song from his descendant Lamech: “I have slain a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (Gen. 4:23-24 RSV). There could hardly be a clearer expression of progression from one murder to unlimited blood revenge. Death now is returned not for death but for a blow. With this hair trigger of escalating retaliation, society spirals quickly into such unbridled violence that God regrets the creation of humanity and contemplates the destruction of the entire world. We go quickly from Cain and Abel to Noah and the flood.

No one would suggest that Cain is a hero of the Bible and a model to believers. His story launches an acute diagnosis of the particular human evil we are concerned with. It unveils what myth hides. Rival brothers appear frequently in mythology. A well-known example would be the story of the brothers Romulus and Remus and the origins of the city of Rome. Romulus kills Remus for not respecting the boundaries he has set out for the new city. This is the founding event, looked back on in later Roman tradition not as a crime but as a sacred beginning. Romulus’s action is approved, and the account lacks entirely the supervening framework of condemnation and horror provided by God’s confrontation with Cain. The Bible looks back to Cain and Abel as a point at which things all went dramatically wrong, following on the original fall in the garden. The Romulus example demonstrates that we should not take it for granted that stories of a “first murder” would naturally have such a flavor. They were more likely to be seen as part of how things went right.

There is no foundational violence in God or God’s creation of the world. But the biblical God is quickly implicated in killing. In fact, the story of Cain and Abel beings a short, vivid portion of scripture in which God is caught up in the intensive spiral of violence at the end of which God destroys the entire world (save Noah and his ark) by flood. The explanation given for this is, “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11). Just as Cain’s descendants escalate their levels of retribution, God is recruited into this dynamic. God breaks out in violence…against violence. From Cain and Abel the world has spiraled into a relentless reciprocal destruction. The response is a massive attempt to drive out violence by violence, and attempt God then declares will never be repeated. The rainbow marks this unilateral covenant promise. To put it baldly, God too became subject to this disease, or was forced to violent judgment by it. By the end of the tenth chapter of Genesis, one response to the problem of human violence – greater and greater violence – has been tried both by humans and by God, and found wanting.

God is prompted to the rainbow promise when Noah sacrifices some animals as a burnt offering. “And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind…’” (Gen. 8:21). Human life is restored, and ritual blood sacrifice is at the center. It is the occasion for God to forswear manifold retribution against humanity. And in fact, God gives a new law: “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, / by a human shall that person’s blood be shed” (Gen. 9:6). This is a dramatic de-escalation of the sevenfold vengeance promised before. The act of sacrifice is associated with the restriction of runaway divine and human violence, with its limitation to a strict equal exchange.

What is striking about this is how sharply the opening verses of the Bible outline the fundamental human problem of violence. In the train of the first murder, the remedy of escalating revenge is tried (by humans and by God). This leads to total destruction. Then God and humanity begin again, with new limitations on the extent of both human and divine retaliation, a dispensation marked by Noah’s blood offerings. In some way these are substitutions for the now-forbidden violence. Humanity is given clear permission to sacrifice and eat animal (though not their blood). Perhaps this too is some kind of compensation. From a world of whole-sale violence we have entered the realm of proportioned violence, the realm of sacrifice. Though the problem of violence originates with humans, the response to it implicates both God and humanity. Caught up in a mimetic rivalry they attribute to God, humans then conceive God as the mirror imagine of their own escalating conflict. This chapter of the story ends with God destroying a world given over to violence. Then God appears as an enforcer of prohibitions to avoid the escalation of violence and a power who underwrites sacrifice to defuse it. If we are to judge from the Bible’s own plot, none of these representations gives a full or adequate characterization of God’s true nature. But they do tell fundamental truths about the human condition and our relation with God. Without such pictures, it is hard to see how we could grasp our situation, even if the full biblical story makes clear that we cannot stop with them.

A few chapters later we move from God’s destruction of an entire violence-ridden world, with only a tiny remnant saved, to Abraham’s intercessory argument with God about the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18:22-33). Now God agrees that if only ten righteous ones can be found in the city, all its guilty inhabitants will be spared. In contrast with the idea that the guilt of a few can contaminate and pollute an entire community and bring divine destruction on it (a classic scapegoating assumption), an alternative idea is introduced suggesting a positive contagion, a good pollution, in which the virtues of a minority can save a corrupt community.

I imagine some readers are scratching their heads wondering how contrary descriptions of God in the Bible can combine to give us a single, trustworthy character. As Heim himself says in this same chapter, such apparent inconsistencies are “often counted against the idea that the Bible contains revealed truth about God.” He enlarges on this point:

One (conventionally liberal) approach to biblical authority may find in scripture pearls of truth and revelation set amid errors and misapprehensions that never should have had a place there to begin with. Another (more conventionally conservative) approach may find the truth binding on us set amid inspired commandments that were God’s providential truth to their time but obsolete in ours. It falls somewhere between the two to suppose that there are portions of scripture that may have continuing revelatory content, though what they present is not something to be emulated or endorsed. The Bible, the faith that it expresses, and the God that it describes are all entangled in the dynamics of mythical sacrifice. To assume otherwise would suppose an absolute discontinuity to revelation, a truth dropped with no key to its context. If our human religious history has the qualities we have suggested, an alternative to the violent sacred could only be posed as an argument about God. And it must make reference to the only kind of god sacred violence knows, a sacrificial one. The Bible is engaged in a struggle over the sacred. It is a struggle waged in the substance of the texts themselves. (Link mine)