- Sacrifice, Scripture, and Substitution: Readings in Ancient Judaism and Christianity edited by Ann W. Astell and Sandor Goodhart
I first encountered the work of René Girard as a graduate student in a course on ritual, and I remember being intrigued by the theorist’s background in literary criticism and the ease with which his work could be used to analyze biblical descriptions of ritual and particularly depictions of violence and sacrifice. Revisiting Girard’s work and critical appropriations of his theory in biblical interpretation for the purposes of reviewing this book for Shofar was a welcomed opportunity. Sacrifice, Scripture, and Substitution advances the conversation well beyond where it was thirty years ago when James Williams published The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred (1992). This collection of twenty-one essays, along with a substantive introduction by the editors, presents readers with a richly textured and highly rewarding look into the many and varied contours of mimetic violence in biblical literature.
In the introduction, Goodhart and Astell acquaint readers with Girard’s theory, discuss the history of its reception among biblical scholars, and provide a very useful overview of the essays that follow. Girard’s theory is premised on the idea that “desire is not object-based but mimetic, [i.e.] we desire neither objects of our fantasies nor the subjects of our inspirations but what others desire” (4). This mimetic desire takes shape within a larger system of sacralization wherein the sacred is in fact violence expunged from the community, while violence itself “is the sacred that formerly occupied a position outside of the city and currently circulates within it, wreaking havoc among its unfortunate participants” (4). This economy is regulated by sacrifice within the framework of culture and ritual activity associated with every meaningful aspect of communal life. Ordinarily, this all happens rather transparently in society, but occasionally the system breaks down or is dramatically threatened somehow, bringing about a “sacrificial crisis” that causes “the substitutive logic at the heart of the scapegoat mechanism [to become] a little more visible than usual” (5). In such instances, “the [End Page 143] logic of substitution is determinative. As each approaches the condition of being enemy twin of each, any one approaches the condition of being the enemy twin of all, the surrogate victim each dreams of sacrificing” (6). The subsequent eruption of violence is followed by tranquility and resolution, at which point the gods and ritual commemoration emerge, both of which, through the logic of substitution, contribute to the management of differences that threaten sociocultural stability.
There is, of course, the question of how we know of this logic, given that “the system in its entirety exists nowhere” (7) and that “knowledge of the system undoes it” (7). Girard himself locates the answer in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, which he contends reflect a “profoundly anti-sacrificial” history (8). The editors, therefore, describe Sacrifice, Scripture, and Substitution as an assessment of this claim (9).
The essays are divided into two parts: “Sacrifice” and “Scripture.” Part 1 begins with a stimulating interview between Goodhart and Girard himself in which the latter, commenting on a diverse array of topics including literature, nation, advertising, culture, anthropology, religion, psychology, twins, philosophy, monarchy, and more, provides an accessible entrée into mimetic theory by drawing attention to an assortment of commonplace sites and systems where it is in play. In addition to the editors and Girard himself, contributors include T. Ryba, M. Fishbane, B. Chilton, R. Daly, A. F. Segal, L. H. Feldman, E. S. Gruen, S. and D. Roberston.
Part 2 is further divided into four sections: “Hebrew Scripture: Genesis 22,” “Holy Writings: The Book of Job,” “Christian Gospel: Matthew, Luke, and John,” and “Christian Epistles: Colossians and Hebrews.” Contributors to part 2 include M. Pattillo, S. Stern, C. A. Carter, W. Morrow, W. M. Aiken, G. Rossé, C. S. Morrissey, P. Lee, and A. W. Bartlett.
Space will not permit any meaningful, let alone comprehensive, treatment...