- Book Review Index
Sacrifice, Scripture, and Substitution: Readings in Ancient Judaism and Christianity, edited by Ann W. Astell and Sandor Goodhart. Christianity and Judaism in Antiquity 18. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011. 475 pp. $49.00.
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” (p. 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” (p. 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” (p. 5). In such instances, “the 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” (p. 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 socio-cultural stability.
There is, of course, the question of how we know of this logic, given that “the system in its entirety exists nowhere” (p. 7) and that “knowledge of the system undoes it” (p. 7). Girard himself locates the answer in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, which he contends reflect a “profoundly anti-sacrificial” history (p. 8). The editors, therefore, describe Sacrifice, Scripture, and Substitution as an assessment of this claim (p. 9).
The essays are divided into two parts: “Sacrifice” and “Scripture.” Part One 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 Two 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 Two 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 of these essays, so summary remarks will need to suffice. The selection of material discussed, at certain points, appeared somewhat odd and unbalanced. For example, I found the section on Job both surprising and engaging in the way that it emphasizes, by implication, the fundamental literary dimensions of Girard’s theory. It would have been nice, however, to see fuller, more focused treatments of the (Levitical) laws governing sacrifice, Paul’s writings (e.g., what of Paul’s treatment of meat sacrificed to idols?), and Revelation (especially if postcolonial perspectives were taken into account on latter). These texts are touched upon, to be sure, but one does not find the extended treatment one might expect. Similarly, the decision to include Hebrews was a good one, but the inclusion of Colossians seemed a little strange. Granted, had the editors attempted an exhaustive treatment of sacrifice, ritual, and mimetic violence in the entire biblical canon, the result likely would have been either a multi-volume series or else a far too superficial reading of the materials in question. Still, to see no reference to Joshua (especially, for example, the battle at Ai), or of the “sacrifice” of Jephthah’s daughter (i.e., reflecting, as it does, the intersection of gender with mimetic violence—only Alan Segal comments on this), seemed to me curious gaps.
On the other hand, it is important to note that this volume offers numerous models and ample resources for further and independent analyses, by individual readers, of biblical material not taken up here. In fact, in my judgment, the most valuable aspect of this collection—something not necessarily easy to achieve—is that the reader is here presented foremost with examples and tools that will allow and encourage her to think with Girard, mimetic theory, and diverse uses thereof. Moreover, where the editors and contributors do strike an excellent balance is with respect to synchronic and diachronic analyses, and with regard to sweeping surveys and more focused examinations of individual texts.
My critiques notwithstanding, the length, arrangement, scope, and depth of the volume make it a book very well-suited to upper-level undergraduate, graduate, and seminary seminars focused on sacrifice and ritual violence in the Bible. For researchers working on anything related to sacrifice, violence, Girard, or mimetic theory, it will serve as rich resource, rife with useful bibliography and exegetical insights. And the two indices (one for scriptural citations and the other a general index of names and topics) are eminently helpful when it comes to locating various bits and pieces of relevant information, which, on account of the fact that the fundamental aspects of Girard’s theory are inextricably intertwined, are scattered throughout the volume.
Scott S. Elliott