Rene Girard and the Literal Sense of Scripture

We have recently (on my birthday, Nov. 4, in fact) lost one of the great thinkers of our time.  While others have offered helpful introductions to his work (the interested reader might look at “Robert Barron, Rene Girard, Church Father,” “Rene Girard: Are The Gospels Mythical” and “The Scapegoat: Rene Girard’s Anthropology of Religion and Violence,” in order), I want to take this opportunity to reflect on a problem that Rene Girard has helped me to better understand, an issue that is of pressing apologetic value in our contemporary situation.

The New Atheism is quite fixated on the kind of god it believes is revealed by the Old Testament.  In the words of Richard Dawkins, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

It is hard to square this with all that stuff about caring for widows and orphans, but I digress.  The fact is that the Old Testament is, in fact, chock full of brutal scenes, some of which, at least, seem sanctioned by God.

In responding to the New Atheist critique, Robert Barron, for one, has turned to a spiritual reading of the Old Testament in the tradition of the Church Fathers.  Here’s an example:

For Barron, it is important that contemporary Christians read certain scandalous passages allegorically.  If God asks Saul to put the ban on the Amalekites, e.g., we must put the ban on sin in our lives.

And that way of reading Scripture is perfectly legitimate.  Not only does it have a long history in the Church, stretching back to the Fathers, Scripture itself sometimes reads Scripture allegorically.  Just think of Paul’s Old Adam and New Adam in Romans.

On the other hand, if you are like me, you might have the feeling that Bishop Barron has skipped a step somewhere.  Surely it is legitimate to exhort the Christian people to battle sin without compromise when preaching on a text like the battle with the Amalekites.  But is that what the text is actually trying to say?  Did the writers of this text simply invent a story with an allegorical meaning?  Or were they trying to say something to their own people and culture about the actual event in question?

Catholic biblical hermeneutics accepts what it calls “spiritual” senses of Scripture.  (For more on this, see the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s excellent The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, section II, Hermeneutical Questions.)  That is the sense Barron is employing.  But it insists that any spiritual sense must be anchored by the literal sense.  “Literal” here does not mean “literalistic,” as in insisting that the world was created in seven literal days, but rather what the original authors and editors of the text were trying to communicate.  So, in fact, a literal reading of the creation narratives in Genesis would involve determining which ideas the authors were explicitly rejecting from the dominant cultures surrounding them, e.g., that creation was the result of violence, or that the sun and moon were deities.

It is here that I find Girard extremely helpful.  His work gives us powerful tools for discerning what was actually going on in a community that was producing certain texts and what those texts meant to that community.

A little background.

Girard discovered what he calls “the scapegoat mechanism” in his study of the literature of the west and then the mythology of the world.  (If you’re not already familiar with this, now would be a good time to look at some of the introductory pieces linked to at the top.)  In every culture, harmony is found by expelling and/or killing a common victim and so culture is founded on victims.  Everywhere Romulus is killing Remus.

When Girard turns his attention to the Bible, he finds the exact same dynamic.  Cain kills Abel and goes on to found culture.

But something vital is different in Scripture.  It is not that the people behave any better.  All of the things that people do are documented in the Old Testament: child sacrifice, ethnic cleansing, fratricide, etc.  The difference is that, unlike the mythology of the world, the stories are told in a self-accusing way.  Israel, somehow, looks unflinchingly at its own history and laments.  Israel does not view Cain the way Rome views Romulus.

This is easier to see in some stories than others.  It is fairly clear that God favours the victim in the Cain and Abel narrative.  Less so in the Amalekite episode from 1 Samuel 15 referenced above.  Nevertheless, even a cursory reading of 1 Samuel 15 shows a lot more ambiguity than the basic, God-commanded-genocide, interpretation.  Indeed, Saul’s justification, that his decision not to apply the ban stemmed from a desire to present sacrifice to Yahweh, is roundly rejected with the Old Testament mainstay:

Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
    as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
    and to heed is better than the fat of rams.”

And it is in such ambiguity that Girard finds the key to their meaning.  Girard calls the Bible, especially the Old Testament, “a text in travail.”  It is the beginning of the unmasking of the scapegoat mechanism by a people (like all peoples, including ourselves) still caught up in it.  For Girard, the crucifixion and resurrection are the final unmasking of this mechanism, but the process begins with Israel, the people whose very identity was that of the expelled foreigner.  It is this experience that gives Israel the tools to see the scapegoat mechanism in action even if it is also constantly participating in it.

Of course, this can lead to certain uncomfortable conclusions.  It means, for instance, that not everything that Samuel thinks the Lord said is, in fact, what the Lord said.  Samuel himself may be caught up in some scapegoating mechanism unwittingly and attributing things to God that are more realistically attributed to Samuel himself.

Let’s look at another aspect of the passage above.

What Saul fails to do is to enforce the ban.  The ban, for Girard, is a sociological defense mechanism.  Bringing in prized animals or foreign kings or treasure stoked the fires of jealousy in the camp and led to a social breakdown that could only be resolved by an episode of scapegoating.  See, e.g., the episode of Achan in Joshua 7, masterfully treated in Gil Bailie’s Violence Unveiled.

Samuel recognized that the plunder must be destroyed before it destroys the community.  Hence, he puts “Agag to death before the Lord at Gilgal,” a dead giveaway that this is an act of ritual sacrifice designed to mollify the crowd.  Samuel, therefore, recognizes in principle that sacrifice is not what God wants, and says as much, but cannot avoid sacrifice himself.  In this he is, in fact, a microcosm of the whole Old Testament.

It may be uncomfortable to think that perhaps not everything attributed to Yahweh by the authors of Scripture should be literalistically understood to be such by us, but the text itself is full of such warnings.  Read Obadiah.  It is easily the most xenophobic book of prophecy in the Hebrew Scriptures.  And what did the editors choose to put right after Obadiah?  Jonah – whose brilliant last line is: “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

Scripture is not God-dictated.  It is, as we learn from the Incarnation, the Pontifical Biblical Commission insists, fully human and fully divine.  It is a story by and about humans that is, at the same time, by and about God.  God speaks to us through Scripture by speaking to us through the sins and errors of humanity.  This makes reading Scripture a complex task, for it is sometimes difficult to realize that God does not endorse something just because his book describes it.

On the other hand, it is often much easier than we are given to believe.  If the New Atheist reading of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah was the right reading, we should expect it to lead to the flourishing and endorsement of child sacrifice in ancient Israel.  What we see instead is the marginalization and eventual extinction of the practice, first in Israel, and then, through Israel, the whole world.  Even if the New Atheists can’t bring themselves to see what God is saying in such a text, ancient Israel could.

And this returns us to Barron’s opening point.  Scripture must be read in light of Scripture.  The whole canon informs how we should interpret questionable or difficult passages.  A Girardian reading of certain difficult texts might seem forced on occasion.  It may even be forced.  Not every possible Girardian reading is necessarily accurate.  Nevertheless, if the Girardian reading leads to an understanding of the passage that harmonizes that passage with the basic pattern of Scripture, it deserves a serious hearing.

In listening to Girard and his interpreters read the Old Testament we have a great apologetic tool at hand, for with their insights we need not skip over the literal meaning in favour of a more spiritual sense that seems to ignore that the Bible actually does seem to say that God commanded things like ethnic cleansing.  With Girard we are able to discern the ambiguities in the texts that hint that there is often more to the literal sense than we might have suspected – a more that coheres with, rather than opposes, the spiritual sense.

Brett Salkeld is Archdiocesan Theologian for the Catholic Archdiocese of Regina, Saskatchewan. He is a father of four (so far) and husband of one.

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  • Aaron Anderson


    Great stuff, and I’m largely in agreement. I think one particular obstacle to a reception of Girard in popular circles (and some more conservative academic circles) is a suspicion that a Girardian exegesis like the one you advocate above subsumes divine revelation to anthropological and cultural analysis, to the point where certain O.T. narratives and history-like (to invoke Hans Frei) stories cease to be bona fide *revelation* and are actually made to be part of what needs to be revealed (and subverted) by the prophets and by Jesus.

    How does one continue to speak of the problematic passages in the O.T. that “sacralize violence” (and are therefore particiapting in the structures and dynamics of violence that Jesus unmasks, on Girard’s reading) *as* divine revelation?

    I hope this question is stated clearly enough.

    • Thanks for this Aaron. I think you’re right.

      First off, I think Girardians can overshoot, so they need to be careful not to dismiss certain things too easily. The Girardian toolkit is so powerful and compelling it can be used to clarify or obscure. Also, we must guard against the idea that “only now that we have Girard can we really understand the passage at hand.” Christians have been reading the Scripture with profit for long before Girard.

      Of course, we have all kinds of new tools for helping us sort out the literal meaning of passages, and Girard is a great tool, one very well-suited to our time. But that doesn’t mean Girardian analysis exhausts a passage, or even the literal meaning of it.
      Again, I think the key for keeping Girardian analysis on track is a canonical approach that reads Scripture with Scripture.
      It has also been my experience that, when you start looking at the passages that “sacralize violence,” they are almost always ambiguous in themselves. That ambiguity is, to me, a sign of revelation. They are the chinks in the armour of the archaic sacred that Girard helps us to exploit.

  • Archdiocesan Theologian Salkeld,

    I think the relevant realization Girard produces is this:

    When biblical texts manifest a God who is petty, unjust, unforgiving … it may be because these qualities are a reflection of those writing and those writing are projecting onto God qualities that, in light of the revelation in Jesus Christ, are shown to be not rightly his.

    Girard calls the Hebrew Bible familiar territory to mimetic rivalry. At moments an absolutely distinctive interpretation of that rivalry nonetheless emerges in the Hebrew Bible. Despite texts often maintaining the perspective of those collectively transferring violence, Girard perceives a “process underway … not chronologically progressive, but rather a struggle that advances and retreats”.

    As you noted some may be discomforted by this but I think this is where Girard has basis in Catholic approaches to the Bible. Verbum Domini speaks of how, within the biblical texts, God’s “plan is manifested progressively … accomplished slowly, in successive stages”.

    I think that the revelation of God in Christ brings us to that place where we can recognize those elements of the texts that do manifest, as Dawkins says, pettiness, injustice …

    I think that the revelation of God in Christ brings us to that place where we can say that, in those moments, the sinfulness of the human author, and the rivalry about which Girard writes, are made apparent.

    • bill bannon

      . The elephant in the living room however is that Christ announces the worst ever massacre to happen and its in the future to Jerusalem in 70 AD well after 12,000 were killed in Ai in the OT and Christ attributes it’s coming to their not knowing their hour of decision about him.
      That means that in 70 AD, Rome is not the only active killer according to Christ ( God is too ) of what Josephus gives as 1 million killed and Tacitus gives as 600,000. Now if Christ never said what He said in that regard…then the Bible from front to back is deceptive and the role of theology is to translate a book that is deceptive on major events by supplanting one projection with that of modern theologians. Why not discard the Bible wholesale and just have theology students determine values. If Christ didn’t announce the worst massacre in the Bible, how do we really know He said the nice things that we attribute to Him? How do we know He said to forgive or love your enemy? Maybe the gospel writer projected those and projected the destruction of Jerusalem? Yes….you guessed it. I believe God takes lives inter alia in punishment and He took Herod’s in Acts 12 and that of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5… well after Saul and even after the Ascension of Christ. 70 AD is the elephant in the living room and was absent in section 42 of Verbum Domini by Benedict. How did he miss it?

      • Hi Bill,
        I’m afraid I don’t feel the force of your argument. Why, if Jesus could predict certain violent acts would follow from certain circumstances known to him, yes even including the response (or lack of it) to his own death, does it mean God demands blood in the way you seem to be suggesting? Sure, one could read Scripture in this way, and people have, but it is far from self-evident in the way you seem to assume. I, for one, feel no need to deny that Jesus said what he said because of Girard or any other version of atonement that does not have an angry God demanding blood.

        Btw, anyone interested in a Girardian reading of Jesus’ apocalyptic statements might start with Alison’s Raising Abel.

        • bill bannon

          You’re assuming I believe God is capable of anger and demands blood of the Jews in 70 AD literally identically as in Christ’s case. No, He required death in 70 AD but the elderly and preborn need not bleed as in Christ’s case since He …Christ alone… was subject to the verse…” without the shedding of blood there is no foregiveness”… Hebrews 9:22.
          I don’t see that belief in literal wrath in my text. I agree with Aquinas that there is no real wrath in God because wrath is in the lower part of the human soul and Aquinas notes…God does not have the lower part of the soul. Since God is Love essentially and is always in joy and peace, He never suffers perturbation or change like anger …outside the incarnate period and that was in Christ only on earth. Wrath for Aquinas and I following him is an anthropopathism of an human emotion standing for or symbolizing …a willing within God….not an emotion within God. Aquinas saw God as willing justice throughout the universe and thereby willing punishment concomitantly. In willing justice, He wills as a corollary to that justice the destruction of those in Jerusalem in 70 AD based on the Sinai Covenant ( Exodus 20:5) which stated that those who hated Him would be punished down to the third and fourth generation…i.e. probably half those in 70AD Jerusalem were too young in 33 AD to reject Christ. But by the Sinai covenant, they would be punished physically not eternally. You’ll note that that dictum of Sinai only seems to contradict Ezekiel’s dictum that the son will not die for the sin of the father ( eternally). God killed the infant son of David in the physical sense only, for David’s sin and that obtains also both in the Sinai covenant and in 70 AD also….wherein Christ had predicted that their infants within them would be killed…not that such would go to hell. Ezekiel is saying really that the son will not go to hell for the sin of the father whereas Sinai is saying the son might die physically only for the sin of the father as in David’s case and in 70 AD.
          In 2010 the PBC asserted that the massacres of Canaan never happened, so long after them were the accounts written whereas just a bit earlier Benedict in Verbum Domini sect.42 said they happened but were sins of the Jews. Which is it? Neither. The rush to remove the massacres from God either by projection theories ( Benedict and Girard ) or historical criticism ( the PBC in 2010 ) is panic and frankly an immense ignorance of Wisdom 12 seen in light of Gen.15:16. God tells Abraham in the latter that He will give the Canaanites 400 years to repent of eg cannabilizing their children and Wisdom 12 reiterates that incomprehensible mercy….” punishing them bit by bit that they might have space for repentance”. Lol…God lightly punished those eating their own children as part of idolatrous belief for four hundred years before He killed them literally by using Israel as His axe ( see Isaiah 10 for the term axe as God’s description of the nation He uses). And Benedict and Girard and the Pontifical Biblical Commission never seem informed of that prior stage of four hundred years of mercy….so then the massacres seem precipitate and sudden to them because they don’t read the fine print….errr….the whole Bible.
          Modern Catholic intellects like Benedict and Girard ( latter in life converting ) are frustrated at the existence of successful intelligent non believers like the Japanese whose country puts many Catholic countries to shame on various levels….ie they make cars and cameras perfectly and have a murder rate that is a decimal of northern Latin America. The largest Catholic country, Brazil has a murder rate 74 times greater than Japan and four Catholic countries seem to make cocaine primarily rather than cars or cameras. I think mega embarassment about half our countries is creating panic at the top of Catholicism and some are trying too hard to make the Bible politically correct….for intelligent non believers ( think of Girard’s milieu…Stanford…when he was alive). If you’ve read the whole Bible as I have, you had to laugh when Benedict in section 42 of VD stated that the prophets opposed every form of violence..individual and communal. Elijah killed a minimum of 552 men and Jeremiah warned the Chaldeans to show no mercy to the Moabites or they would be cursed by God. Eliseus had two bears kill 42 children for sacrilege ( Aquinas ) and yes the prophets opposed one type of violence repeatedly…rich Jews against poor Jews in land grabs.
          That was it. War was promised success by God in the Sinai Covenant …presuming it was just. The prophets could not go beyond that parameter.

          • I’m afraid our hermeneutic is too far apart to come to much common ground on this. In any case, I am willing to throw in my hat with Girard, Benedict, and the PBC. None of the above strike me as people compromised by trying to please modern sensibilities. And none of your points seem to push me in the other direction, though it is always possible I am not fully understanding them.

            I have read the whole Bible though. 🙂

        • bill bannon

          Peace …but one theme I forgot for those struggling with this area. Neither in the herem massacres of Canaan nor in Jerusalem in 70 AD did either take place until God saw in His wisdom the completion or filling up of a group’s sin. In both below sentences, God infers that timing mechanism regarding complete sin ..the first is about Canaan and the second brings on 70 AD.

          God talking to Abraham.: Genesis 15:16 ” In the fourth generation, your descendants will return here, for the wickedness of the Amorites is NOT YET COMPLETE.”

          Christ talking to the leaders in Jerusalem…Matthew 23:31-32. ” Thus you bear witness against yourselves that you are the children of those who murdered the prophets; now FILL UP what your ancestors measured out.”

          When sin is complete or filled up, only then do these catastrophes take place….after centuries in both cases.

      • Actually the thing to read in light of Bill’s comments is this:

  • I am a follower of Fr. James Alison, a disciple of Girard. Thank you.

  • Really enjoyed this article! Clearly written, fair, and thought provoking. I wonder if Bishop Barron has commentary on Old Testament violence/difficult passages anywhere else? Could it be that he accepts on equal footing the literal and spiritual sense of such OT passages, but puts the emphasis on the allegorical in the above commentary? I’m excited to see how Girard’s work can enhance the Church’s efforts in apologetics. Will definitely take some further unpacking, however, to make it accessible on a more popular level…

    • Thanks Matt. I’m sure Bishop Barron does accept the Church’s teaching on the relationship between the literal and the spiritual senses. I just suspect he had something to say about the latter that excited him enough that he overlooked the former in this case.

      He actually added an additional small section to this commentary and my naive hope was that he was going to go in this direction, but he didn’t. I’ve seen him do other things on the same topic, but it’s basically the same angle each time. Maybe some day.

      Your last line is exactly why I am hoping Bishop Barron takes up this line. He has a bigger platform than anyone outside of Pope Francis to do it. He obviously finds Girard compelling, but he doesn’t seem to have found him useful in this area yet. I think I even wrote that something like this would be helpful back when Word on Fire sent out a survey to their subscribers a while back. I also think Brandon Vogt should be using this stuff on Strange Notions. Mmm? I wonder if he’d be interested in posting this piece over there?

      The book that has helped me most here is Bailie’s Violence Unveiled. I wonder if Barron or Vogt have come across it. Anyone who wants to think about Girard’s value for apologetics should start with that book.

  • Hopewell

    Hmm. I think you’re missing something too, Brett.

    I think the unmasking of the scapegoat mechanism, as it were, doesn’t mean that “God didn’t say” these things.

    If anything, the whole understanding of the scapegoat mechanism reveals that there is, in fact, a “wrath of God.” If God is something like the supreme object of desire (the supreme good, the sacred), and desire is by nature mimetic, and mimetic desire by nature needs to mimetic crisis…it means that God really DOES demand sacrifice.

    Where Girard may be insightful about the Old Testament, he’s an absolute heretic regarding the New. He doesn’t believe that the Atonement consists in anything other than the fact that the Gospel text takes the perspective/side of the Victim and that the apostles felt convicted to the degree that they were part of the mob doing the killing.

    If anything, such a reading would negate any sense of Atonement or sacrifice in favor of some idea that Christ’s sacrifice is valuable only to the degree that it reveals the falsehood of sacrifice.

    But that is not a Christian reading. The Christian reading is that God really was demanding blood. That the tools for definitive peace vis a vis desire were achieved only through an infinitely valuable/divine sacrifice. That God really is angry and bloodthirsty, but also paid the price to Himself since we couldn’t. The sacred really exists and really did die to save us.

    But the way you read Girard, it’s almost like he thinks we’re saved only by realizing there is no sacred…

    • Hi Hopewell,
      Thanks for your comment.
      I don’t know how familiar you are with Girard, but I do not read him as saying what you do.
      He certainly thinks that part of what is saving about the cross is that it reveals the degree to which we all, including the apostles, are part of the mob that kills innocent people, but he has other themes that are important. In particular, as it relates to your comments about desiring God, Girard highlights the non-competitive nature of Christ’s desire for God. He does not say “imitate me,
      but rather “imitate me as I imitate the father.” The circle of imitation that leads to conflict is broken in Christ’s relationship to the Father and our relationship to Christ.

      In any case, you may or may not be aware that Girard moved over the course of his career from rejecting sacrifice, and a sacrificial reading of the cross, outright, to a view that there is good and bad sacrifice. If I may put it this way, good sacrifice is when we sacrifice ourselves, and bad sacrifice is when we sacrifice others. Christ shows us that the only way to peace is through refusing to sacrifice others even when it means dying unjustly at the hands of the mob.

      In any case, I am afraid I must disagree with your assertion that “The Christian reading is that God really was demanding blood.” Some Christians have read Scripture that way, but it is far from being THE Christian reading. It becomes common only after the Reformation and while some Protestant communities have made a Penal Substitutionary version of Atonement almost the whole of the gospel, this is an historical aberration. I am with Ratzinger who, in his Introduction to Christianity, writes that “this picture [of atonement] is as false as it is widespread.” If you’re interested in checking it out, see pp. 281 and following.

      My own attempts to work through this are here:

      • Hopewell

        I don’t know how on earth you can say such things about the atonement with a straight face.

        Just look at the notion of sacrifice in the Bible. The “pattern” of sacrifice is quite clearly the sacrifices of the Old Testament.

        God demanded Isaac but then let a ram be substituted instead. God demanded the firstborn but then let a lamb be sacrificed instead.

        Clearly the message of Christ’s crucifixion is that God was (literally) mad as hell, but took it out on His son instead of the rest of us.

        Of course there are a great many layers to this mystery. The cross is also in some real sense “the death of God” in the sense of “the death of the [Letter of the] Law,” it is God’s self-emptying so that God maybe be found even in godlessness. Heck, if the Fathers are nor heretics, it is even a sort of trap for, and even ransom paid to, the devil for our captivity.

        But these are all just symbolic/poetic interpretations in which the cross saves us “by its symbolism.” But in addition to its didactic purpose like this it also must have had a REAL efficacy (similar to how original sin can’t just be “bad example” lest we become Pelagians).

        And the real efficacy was satisfying God’s Justice because He decided He wanted it satisfied (though strictly speaking He could have just forgotten the whole idea of satisfaction… But what kind of message would that send?)

  • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

    Brett, thank you, this was an interesting summary of Girardian ideas. He has been on my reading list for a very long time. If I understand what little I know about him, there seem to be parallels between his scapegoat mechanism, and Zizek’s idea of the Other and stolen jouissance. In both cases, some kind of lack in society is blamed on an “other” who must be punished or eliminated to restore order. And just as the death of Christ was the final revelation of the scapegoat mechanism—one from which no Christian should hide, though we often do—a Christian Zizekian reading sees embracing the Crucifixion as the final step in “traversing the fantasy” and realizing that there is no other who is responsible.

    I blogged about Zizek in this vein a few years ago; I really wish I had the time to go back and continue this analysis.