This is the document I produced back in April/May in lieu of doing a traditional seminar paper for one of my graduate courses. Typically these seminar papers will take the form of a 25 – 30-page draft of a publishable research article. Because of my own exasperation at the contradictions of professionalism/professionalization and the fact that I was approaching this project during the first wave of the COVID crisis in the United States (who knows what wave we’re on now), I took a more experimental, unprofessional approach to this project.
I should note that I made this before the George Floyd murder by police and the subsequent protests that swept and are still sweeping the country. I imagine some aspects of this argument and imagery might be different if I made this today, but some of it might nonetheless resonate.
We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.
Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”
Then Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab, at the LORD’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.
Evangelical Christians of the stock that I was raised among read the Bible as a kind of originary last word. Whatever the doctrinal or theological dispute, the correct response is to return to the Word of God and see what he has to say on the matter. For them, the scriptural text is authoritative and inerrant, the articulate statements of the Lord channeled through the forty-some-odd writers by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, third member of the triune Godhead. Any time this flavor of biblicism was raised in itself as an issue for dispute, custodians of the text would pronounce a line that was itself taken from the text, a sentiment iterated first in the book of Deuteronomy—the last of the five Books of Moses—and repeated suggestively in Revelation—the canonically final book of the unified Bible: “You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it…” (Deut. 4.2.; cf. also Deut. 12:32 and Rev. 22:18-19). The words accumulated in this grand text over millennia are to be taken as final, the signature of the Author and the seal of the work’s authenticity.
This way of reading the Bible effectively obstructed any serious engagement with it as complex text with a complex textual history and content. What came first was not actually an honest engagement with the Bible but instead with a prevailing idea about the Bible. We knew the nature of the textual object before we allowed the text to teach us what kind of object it was.
As I return to this last Book of Moses, I notice a number of obvious truths about it that my institutionally-sponsored reading methodology refused me as a kid. The first—something I became aware of as I experimented with heterodox readings years ago—is the obvious irony of that line from Deuteronomy 4.2 as an authorial statement. The line is spoken by Moses in one of his three speeches that frame the narrative of the book, as he retells the history of this Israelite people and their sojourn so far. Moses commands, as from the LORD, that these laws he has given them should not be adulterated because the word of the LORD is singular and final. Moses, serving as the LORD’s chosen mouthpiece, has recorded this singular and final word in these five Books of the Law. However, this inspired prophet records his own death, in the third-person, within the narrative of this fifth book.
The narration includes an odd remark about Moses’s unknown burial place, that the burial place has remained unknown “to this day.” This remark makes much more sense to be read as an editorial insertion by whomever actually recorded Moses’s death in these iconic historiographical documents. It sounds a lot like another insertion in the previous chapter, describing the massive iron bed of King Og of Bashan: “In fact his bed, an iron bed, can still be seen in Rabbah of the Ammonites” (Deut. 3.11). If this were any other text, a plain reading would suggest that this insertion is something like an anecdotal footnote for a reading public contemporary to the writing, implying that both the writing and the reading took place long after the events described.
While Evangelicals would perform critical gymnastics to obfuscate minor insertions like this, many scholars of biblical studies instead have opened up passages like this to show much more, to make much more sense of a much vaster historical context animating and making use of this text. A serious reading of the Bible does not foreclose the readings that the Bible itself offers to us but instead allows the Bible both to speak for itself and to be read within the political history of the people among whom it emerged.
A common scholarly consensus reads Deuteronomy as emerging from a much later history than the events recorded. Though it aggregates older legal texts and concepts, it was arguably constructed as a part of the nationalizing political project of the Kingdom of Judah under King Josiah in the seventh century BCE and functions as the core introduction to the “Deuteronomistic history” texts from Joshua to 2 Kings, which were also likely compiled in that period. Josiah reigned during the period when the tribes of Israel were divided into two nations, the Kingdom of Israel in the north and the Kingdom of Judah in the south, with its capitol in Jerusalem. The Kingdom of Judah was the less prosperous of the two with fewer large cities and less arable land, and up to about the reign of Josiah, Judah had existed as a vassal state of the Assyrian empire. However, while Josiah was King of Judah the Assyrians were fighting a losing series of battles against the Babylonians and the Persians, which resulted in a brief amount of time during which Judah had the political space to determine itself more than it had previously. (This moment would soon come to an end, however, with the imminently encroaching Babylonian exile as Babylon secured further victories over the Assyrians and their allies.)
As Josiah led the people in this project of self-determination, the account of his reign in 2 Kings has him ordering the renovation of the temple in Jerusalem under his high priest Hilkiah. During this renovation, Hilkiah is said to have “found the book of the law in the house of the LORD” (2 Kings 22.8), and Josiah made this text the central authoritative guide in instituting renewed juridical norms within the Kingdom. Many scholars take this “book of the law” to be Deuteronomy.
When I was taught the story of King Josiah within Evangelicalism, the summative moral was that Josiah was a good king because he made the people return to a righteous way of life that was obedient to God’s commands after a series of wicked generations. He was presented as a model of good government—the king who truly loves God and makes God’s commands the law of the land. Josiah’s youth at the time of his coronation also provided a great illustration for kids that they too can be models of righteousness to transform their country toward godliness. (Bear in mind that I would have been taught this concurrent with the period depicted in the film Jesus Camp. Many of the didactic themes of the camp sermons were common in Bush-era Evangelical children’s education.)
However, reading this story now in the context of its scholarly discourse, I am able to see both this history and the text of Deuteronomy as serving a nationalist political agenda. These are the texts of a people trying to make sense of their history—of what led them to this precarious position, trapped between imperial vassalage, civil rupture, and approaching imperial conquest. But the text is also a tool in their effort to circle the wagons and consolidate cultural practices to redetermine themselves as an autonomous people. But Deuteronomy is also a complicated text, containing within itself layers of history and contradiction—contradictions that become sensical when read as an overdetermined accumulative historical document.
The text offers a few signs of its historical layers. A key shift occurs in Deuteronomy’s shift, for instance, of the authorized site of sacrifices to one that is centralized, though sacrifices had been previously common at many places: “Take care that you do not offer your burnt offerings at any place you happen to see. But only at the place that the LORD will choose in one of your tribes…” (Deut. 12.13-14). This “place that the LORD will choose” seems clearly to expect the temple at Jerusalem in the Kingdom of Judah. Such a sanction makes a lot of sense, given that the issue of authorized sacrificial sites served to fortify much of the divide between the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah in the 10th century BCE, when Jeroboam of Israel established alternative temples in Bethel and Dan to prevent Israelites from going to Jerusalem in Judah. King Josiah later tries to centralized authority in the southern kingdom by writing its exclusive legitimacy as a site of sacrifice back, obliquely, into the founding Book of the Law.
With this centralization of religious sacrifice, exceptions had to be made for the slaughter of animals that took place outside of religious sacrifice, such as for food, as Bernard Levinson notes in his annotations in the New Oxford Annotated Bible. This then explains the new allowances (contrasted to earlier Books of the Law) for slaughter away from an official altar: “Yet whenever you desire you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your towns, according to the blessing that the LORD your God has given you; the unclean and the clean may eat of it, as they would of gazelle or deer” (Deut. 12.15).
There are more signs of these layers that I won’t go into in depth, such as the coincidence of polytheism and monotheism within the space of the single book, suggesting the palimpsestic presence of Canaanite theology and the centralized national theology more consistent with the Kingdom of Judah (cf. Deut. 3.24, 4.7, and 32.8 against Deut. 4.35 and 6.4; one could note also the use, at times, of the names El and El-Elyon to describe the Israelite god but which were originally the names of the Canaanite god who sat at the head of their pantheon). Then there’s the allowance for converting livestock into money for the sake of traveling, necessary in a centralized kingdom but less so in a nomadic tribal system. And then there’s the curious anachronism that takes the ostensible present to be the distant past: “the LORD your God will bring you into the land that your ancestors possessed, and you will possess it…” (Deut. 30.5). This line, along with the surrounding verses, make much more sense if written during or after exile from the land, rather than long before.
With all of this in mind, I’d like to conclude with a meditation on a single passage that gets at some of the heart of this complicated textual scenario. Here, we can think about the relationship between terror and mediation that comes through in the account of the people beseeching Moses to talk to YHWH so that they don’t have to hear his voice. I’ll quote the passage at length:
These words the LORD spoke with a loud voice to your whole assembly at the mountain, out of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, and he added no more. He wrote them on two stone tablets, and gave them to me. When you heard the voice out of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you approached me, all the heads of your tribes and your elders; and you said, “Look, the LORD our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard this voice out of the fire. Today we have seen that God may speak to someone and the person may still live. So now why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any longer, we shall die. For who is there of all flesh that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and remained alive? Go near, you yourself, and hear all that the LORD our God will say. Then tell us everything that the LORD our God tells you, and we will listen and do it.” (Deut. 5.22-27)
The people fear that if they continue to hear the direct voice of YHWH, it will kill them, so they beg Moses to serve as their mediator, their salvation. I find this passage extremely provocative for a few reasons. In one sense, it serves to buff the authority of this text as holy scripture by suggesting that it has come from such a raw and terrifying source of divine power. The true author behind these words burns like a ravaging fire. Only the elect champion can draw near and return un-consumed. Moses’s divine right as prophet and warlord is tested and proven authentic.
In this sense, we can think of the terror that necessitates mediation and the terror that mediation produces. From the text’s narrative, the terror of the people at such undiminished voice becomes the opportunity for the mediation of ideas and laws—the message of the voice that they need to hear, condensed from the grave and dangerous reality of the voice’s presence.
On the other hand, we can read this as establishing a kind of monarchic political theology. Moses’s performance as mediator, within the text, transforms the text into a graven record of divine command. Since Moses is presented as the elect mediator, anything he is taken to mediate is blessed with the authority of holy writ. From this perspective, Josiah was a genius despot, knowing that what the people needed was not a new prophecy but an old one, with all the authority of law and all the power of a god. Moses, as mediator, stands in as the first monarch of a holy kingdom, in which the law that is executed is a law that was instituted by the god at the asymptotic heart of the community, a god that moved since time immemorial in the same direction as the self-determination of the contingent community. A negation becomes a presence via its mediation through this great undead author Moses, who becomes the signature of the authoritarian terror exerted by theocratic monarchy.
It’s not uncommon to read the Bible looking for its god. The ritual of personal “quiet time” with the Word that my friends and I practiced in college was done with the hope that something of that terrifying source would leak through this printed text before us. We would ask God to “speak through” this Bible to us, and, sometimes, we would walk away with a sense of direction, maybe a warmth of presence—not terrifying, but comforting—as though the feeling has resolved that fundamental question: Where are you? He is there, in the text—you only need to swim through the depths of mediation.
In the worldview of such practices, paradoxically, nothing is more terrifying than the idea that God could be mediated, that the “authors” of scripture are necromanced for many purposes, some national in scope and some personal, some intimately closer to the one who reads. To raise the question of mediation is to lift a red flag before the casual synods, councils, and church boards of the institutions who require the curtain never to be drawn, the holy of holies to remain forever occulted. The medium is the holy message, with all the weight and presence of the holiness it points to but which you cannot see. And the mediated body of text mobilizes another people who find new ways to choreograph the strings that connect the limbs of their authors, who have something new to say that was said long, long ago.
Even if it is called the social nexus, link to the other in general, this fiduciary “link” would precede all determinate community, all positive religion, every onto-anthropo-theological horizon. It would link pure singularities prior to any social or political determination, prior to all intersubjectivity, prior even to the opposition between the sacred (or the holy) and the profane. This can therefore resemble a desertification, the risk of which remains undeniable, but it can—on the contrary—also render possible precisely what it appears to threaten.
Jacques Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone”
…[T]he very violence of the foundation or positing of law must envelop the violence of the preservation of law and cannot break with it. It belongs to the structure of fundamental violence in that it calls for the repetition of itself and founds what ought to be preserved, preservable, promised to heritage and to tradition, to partaking. A foundation is a promise.
Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority’”
But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you then those whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides; they shall trouble you in the land where you are settling. And I will do to you as I thought to do to them.
Two thematic threads weave their way through the disjointed narrative in the Book of Numbers, stitching its various episodes and genres into a somewhat unified story. Before naming these two threads, though, let’s take stock of where the first three books have brought us. Genesis introduced the family from which the protagonist people would descend. It introduced as well YHWH, the god to whom this people would be fundamentally related, according to the promises he made with their bloodlines. Exodus told of YHWH’s deliverance of this people from captivity by means of plague and genocide. It then marked YHWH’s institution of this people as a people, a nation (more than merely relatives of a particular family) by means of the violence of law. Leviticus detailed the people’s law and the relation of purity and blood that was their law’s organizing principle. So we are left, at this point, with a people in possession of a legal identity and a few promises, wandering through the wilderness awaiting the consummation of those promises in the land they will enter.
The Book of Numbers then, on the one hand, is a story of the struggle for leadership of this people. This struggle concerns the distribution and delegation of authority—especially the establishing of legitimacy of authority—among the people in response to several rebellions. The second concerns the struggle for the land promised to the people by their god, a bloody struggle between the people who wish to settle in the land and the people already living there. Both of these struggles revolve around the problematic of the promise: what force a promise has and for whom it has force. Both the struggle for leadership and the struggle for the Promised Land determine the soul of this people—how, within the account, they came to define themselves and how the account lends itself to inspiring a certain continuing identity and claim within changing historical contexts. I would like to explore these themes and this problematic in connection with Derrida’s discussions in “Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone.” It seems to me that in examining the notion of this people alongside that of this promise, we stumble into a terrain where our every step concerns matters of purity and violence.
// Power, the People //
I have to keep reminding myself the difficulty of looking back at a text like this. Everything that happens in this story has oblique resonances of concepts and structures that concern us in the present, but the difficulty here is that this was a time before, a leafing back through the pages of history to pages that could not have predicted what would be written later. We are trapped in the bind between reading the soul of the past and the many ways that our reading is informed by concepts that did not concern these subjects in the same way they concern us or with the same definition. I repeat to myself this problem, again and again, like a paranoid schizophrenic, knowing the dangers but never quite knowing the source, only these voices that both are and are not the voices of my own age.
I see in this book a story of sovereignty, of political formation, of nation, and of governance. These words frame my orientation to the text, but I’m looking into the black box of a pre-political age, an age that existed before politics as we know it was imagined. Sovereignty means something else here. Power means something else. Who can know it?
I can only begin from what I have before me, every step into prehistory a penetration into a dark desert: “Nocturnal light, therefore, more and more obscure,” as Derrida describes revelation and our will to penetrate it. It’s a playful phrase that appears suddenly in my mind every now and then.
So, power, however we may come to understand it here. There is a portioning of power at work in Numbers, YHWH designating who holds what role. This is how we have to approach power’s function in this book: every designation or legitimation of power has always to do with how this people understands their relation to their god. Power comes from YHWH, or rather, power means a specifically defined relation to YHWH. He designates power early on in the book when he apportions to the Levites the role of administering the sacred instruments and the tabernacle:
[Y]ou shall appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of the covenant, and over all its equipment, and over all that belongs to it; they are to carry the tabernacle and all its equipment, and they shall tend it, and shall camp around the tabernacle. When the tabernacle is to set out, the Levites shall take it down; and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up. And any outsider who comes near shall be put to death. The other Israelites shall camp in their respective regimental camps, by companies; but the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the covenant, that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the Israelites; and the Levites shall perform the guard duty of the tabernacle of the covenant. (Num. 1.50-3, emphasis added)
This designation of power involves a regimentation of space within the camp (the tabernacle at the center, the Levites concentrically located nearest). The tabernacle was the meeting place between YHWH and the people, and the Levites both saw to that place and resided at the central heart of the community, in nearest relation to their god. This designation was so strict that violation of such spacing and administration was a matter of life and death. The Levites were insiders, the most inside, bearing a sharp distinction from the other tribes whose access to their god would always be mediated by this ruling class. Order emanated from this center; chaos involved an erosion of the established channels between the center and the periphery.
However, when we think of power and privilege and ruling classes, we think often of license. Those with the most power get to do the most of what they desire. This is complicated here, since the Levites receive their designation of power essentially by being received as communal sacrifices. They take their place at the center as a form of dying—they are taken by YHWH as the required sacrifice of the firstborn that was enforced in their deliverance from Egypt:
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: I hereby accept the Levites from among the Israelites as substitutes for all the firstborn that open the womb among the Israelites. The Levites shall be mine, for all the firstborn are mine; when I killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated for my own all the firstborn in Israel, both human and animal; they shall be mine. I am the LORD. (Num. 3.12-13)
Birth remains a constituent element of power. The firstborn receives the inheritance of the father and thereby the father’s authority in the clan upon the father’s death. So again, power descends along bloodlines. But notice the complexity here: this is an entire tribe designated as “firstborns,” thereby acting as scapegoats for YHWH’s wrath involved in their deliverance. Rather than require the physical death of the firstborn children and animals from the Israelites, YHWH accepts the eternal service of the Levites as substitution, making them a sacred class, already sacrificed but abiding as living sacrifices. The firstborn tribe, then, retains the power of being at the center of the community and presiding over their most sacred and significant affairs. Importantly, though, they are the firstborns both of the entire people Israel, of all the tribes, and of their divine father. Their power is not a substance that produces for them a kind of license. It is a position, articulated spatially, as they reside at the midpoint between the human community and the divine authority, and they reside there by constituting, in a sense, a kind of half-life, neither fully divine nor fully human. (N.B.: This will be crucial for reading the Jewish messianic interpretation of Jesus’s position as both fully divine and fully human. But we’ve got a long way to go before we get to Christ.)
The circle divides deeper; the Levite tribe is made up of several families. Each family is apportioned a role in presiding over certain of the sacred instruments and structures. The ancestral houses in the census of the Levites include the Gershonites, the Merarites, and the Kohathites. The Gershonites were placed in charge of the fabrics of the tabernacle and were positioned behind the tabernacle on its western side. The Merarites were in charge of the structures and pillars of the tabernacle and were positioned on its northern side. The ancestral house given the most significance—the most power—were the Kohathites, the house that included the clan of Moses and Aaron. “The service of the Kohathites relating to the tent of meeting concerns the most holy things” (Num. 4.4). They were in charge of the furnishings within the tabernacle and the Holy of Holies, its inner sanctum where YHWH resided at the very heart of the community. While the general house of the Kohathites were to reside on the southern side of the tabernacle, the family of the high priest—Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons—were to reside on the eastern side, “having charge of the rites within the sanctuary, whatever had to be done for the Israelites; and any outside who came near was to be put to death” (Num. 3.38). They were to position themselves between the entrance of the tent of meeting, where all communal judgment and decision-making occurred, and the rest of the entire community.
As shown in the passage above, Aaron’s family, as the preeminent family in the community, was given the power to put to death those who violate the laws of access to the tabernacle and, therefore, to the divine. It was this family that put to death those who worshiped the golden calf in Exodus. (Except for, interestingly enough, Aaron himself, who actually constructed the idol. Perhaps there is something to be said here regarding the sovereign exception as defined by Nazi political theorist Carl Schmitt, that sovereign is he who decides on the exception.)
The first time leadership emerges as a problem or question is coincident with the first narrated episode of rebellion. In this first episode, the people complain about the pain and privations of their wilderness journey. First, the complaints are vague, but the response from YHWH is fierce when he hears them: “Then the fire of the LORD burned against them, and consumed some outlying parts of the camp. But the people cried out to Moses; and Moses prayed to the LORD, and the fire abated. So that place was called Taberah [Burning], because the fire of the LORD burned against them” (Num. 11.1-3). As will be the pattern for subsequent episodes, this first one establishes the legitimacy and strength of Moses’s power as supreme mediator between the community and YHWH, and this is established by Moses’s ability to ask YHWH for mercy and thereby to bring about a salvation for the people from YHWH’s wrath.
When the Israelites continue to complain, Moses asks YHWH to lighten his burden of governing this rebellious and numerous people. YHWH responds by taking “some of the spirit that was on him” and placing it on seventy of the elders of Israel, as a sort of delegation of authority (Num. 11.25). When the elders receive this portion of the spirit that was on Moses, they “prophesy,” including two (Eldad and Medad) who were still in the camp rather than at the tent of meeting. (It’s unclear what is meant by “prophesying” here. I have heard an interpretation that it involved glossolalia, speaking in tongues, but this may have been an effect of the Pentecostal will to strengthen later doctrines by contriving their origin in a pre-Pentecostal text.) Some, including Moses’s second-in-command Joshua, complain about this act of prophesying as it appears to be an attempt at breaching Moses’s authority. Moses makes a gesture toward something democratic-sounding in his response: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!” (Num. 11.29). However, these seventy elders only prophesy this one time, while Moses apparently carries the gift with continuity, a mark of the preeminence of his divinely apportioned authority. It’s difficult to determine the intent behind Moses’s line then. Maybe it’s somewhat disingenuous and meant only to keep the peace. As there are such clear divisions in place regarding who can have access to the divine (and lethal punishments for those who violate it), it’s unclear how we can take seriously this stated wish that YHWH’s people would have such direct access to his spirit.
Following this episode, Moses’s right as leader is directly questioned for the first time. This challenge comes from Miriam and Aaron, his sister and brother. This challenge has again to do with relations of access to YHWH, but this time the question of leadership includes the element of racial/national purity, the purity of blood: “While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had indeed married a Cushite woman); and they said, ‘Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?’ And the LORD heard it” (Num. 12.1-2). Scholars point out that “the Cushite woman” could refer either to an Ethiopian or to someone from Midian, which means that they could be referring to Moses’s wife Zipporah. But their claim has not only to do with the purity of the community’s blood—that all in the camp would be properly children of Israel. Their challenge here also predicates the legitimacy of leadership on a relation of access to YHWH. One can be a leader of this people only if one can channel the voice of their god. Again, power, according to this community, describes a quality of relation to the divine, to the vital but occulted heart of the community.
As the text goes, this challenge is resolved in Moses’s favor when God appears in a pillar of cloud and offers his own verdict:
And he said, “Hear my words:
When there are prophets among you,
I the LORD make myself known to them in visions;
I speak to them in dreams.
Not so with my servant Moses;
he is entrusted with all my house.
With him I speak face to face—clearly, not in riddles;
and he beholds the form of the LORD.
Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them, and he departed. (Num. 12.6-9)
The legitimacy of Moses’s authority is established based on his unique access to YHWH. While others, such as Miriam and Aaron, are spoken to obliquely in visions and dreams, Moses is spoken to face-to-face, “and he beholds the form of the LORD.” For this reason, he is entrusted with the entire community. He has the greatest amount of power because he has the greatest access to YHWH. Because of Miriam’s insubordination (again, why is Aaron not punished?), she is struck with leprosy and thereby cast outside of the camp for seven days. Because she questioned Moses’s authority, she is made temporarily as one who does not belong to the community, as one belonging to the wilderness of the outside. The question of his intercourse with a non-Israelite woman is ignored, however. This is curious, because as we will see, the matter of sleeping with non-Israelite women becomes a fatal offense to YHWH, because his covenant is with Israelite blood. Anything else pollutes the channels between YHWH and his chosen people.
// Purity //
Okay, so far we’ve established the means by which power is attained in this community and what meaning power obtains for this community. The means and the meaning both have to do with a relationship of access to the voice of YHWH. Those nearest to the tent, those who can prophesy, and, most of all, those who can prophesy based, not only on dreams and visions, but on an actual encounter with the face of YHWH maintain the greatest amount of power here, the power to rule and the power to be indemnified against punishment. Power is given by YHWH to those who can hear it. Power is a promise from the mouth of YHWH given to those whom he chooses.
When we think in terms of promises and why they matter in this text, for this community, the element of blood purity at play in these power relations begins to make sense. All power and all promises between YHWH and the Israelite people have an originating force dependent on YHWH’s original covenant with the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Covenant and promise are somewhat interchangeable words in these Hebrew texts, but they mean something stronger and different than our modern senses of promise. (Though perhaps, arguably, these still provide the root of our modern sense of to promise and hence should shift the significance we give to the term.) A covenant denotes a relationship between two parties—a sort of pact or contract, but more existentially significant. As I mentioned in my post on Genesis, biblical covenants always seem to include four elements: a promise (in the modern sense, an assurance of future acts), a blessing, a law, and a sign. Each of these elements is constitutively bound in the others, such that a promise is never a promise in itself; it is a promise as a unique relationship between two parties who have agreed to act in particular ways (bringing in the element of law).
The Hebrew phrase denoting the forming of a covenant between two parties means, more literally, to cut a covenant. A covenant, in its etymological essence and therefore in the imagination of the culture that developed the practice, involves violence and blood. Keep in mind that the sign of the covenant with Noah was an archer’s bow in the sky, immediately following the annihilation of all humankind other than Noah’s family. Then, the sign of the original covenant made with Abraham was circumcision, a cutting of the flesh—and particularly a cutting of the flesh of the appendage associated with progenation. This covenant was reaffirmed for Moses in an episode from Exodus, when Moses was returning to Egypt from Midian with his wife Zipporah in order to inform Pharaoh ultimately of YHWH’s promise to kill Pharaoh’s firstborn son if he did not free YHWH’s firstborn son, Israel:
On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the LORD met him and tried to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, “Truly, you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” So he let him alone. It was then she said, “A bridegroom of blood by circumcision.” (Ex. 4.24-6)
The only prevention against YHWH killing Moses is for Moses to wound his child, thus reaffirming, via the spilling of blood, Moses’ place in YHWH’s covenantal family. (And to drive the point home, “feet” here was actually a common euphemism for penis.)
So, the shedding of blood—a common wounding of communal flesh—is a crucial sign of God’s covenant with Israel. His promise is, fundamentally, a promise with the bloodline of the Israelite people, and for this reason, it becomes crucial that Israel maintain the purity of this line in order to maintain the covenantal relationship in good standing, as all power and promise stems from this relationship. This is why it becomes a capital offense for the men of Israel to sleep with the women of other tribes in the following episode, quoted at length. (N.B.: See the sharp contradiction below between the way other men are treated for sleeping with Midianites and the way Moses benefitted from the sovereign exception for the exact same offense):
While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. Thus Israel yoked itself to the Baal of Peor, and the LORD’s anger was kindled against Israel. The LORD said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people, and impale them in the sun before the LORD, in order that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel.” And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you shall kill any of your people who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.”
Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman into his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the Israelites, while they were weeping at the entrance of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he got up and left the congregation. Taking a spear in his hand, he went after the Israelite man in the tent, and pierced the two of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly. So the plague was stopped among the people of Israel. Nevertheless those that died by the plague were twenty-four thousand. (Num. 25.1-9)
This nation—this protagonist of these civilization-shaping books—was founded upon the address of God to figures belonging to a family, and their manner of responding to the address reaffirms their status as a family, and moreover as the chosen family. In a sense, the unique status of this bloodline begins as an address, a communication between one party and another. The origin is plural, bound within various events of encounter. This recognition allows us then to invert the idea that promises here are determined by blood, because blood, too, is determined by a promise. The act of promising, as Derrida argues, is the origin not only of the possibility of religion but also of social connection at all, and religion cannot be thought without an attention to the ways social connections form and function. If we think of religion as an institution or even as a practice, we think of it as the repetition of acts bound to a common significance, and this repetition of activity binds people together by relating them to the original event(s) that allowed for their coming-together. Here is Derrida:
Axiom: no to-come without heritage and the possibility of repeating. No to-come without some sort of iterability, at least in the form of a covenant with oneself and confirmation of the originary yes. No to-come without some sort of messianic memory and promise, of a messianicity older than all religion, more originary than all messianism. No discourse or address of the other without the possibility of an elementary promise. Perjury and broken promises require the same possibility. No promise, therefore, without the promise of a confirmation of the yes. This yes will have implied and will always imply the trustworthiness and fidelity of a faith. No faith, therefore, nor future without everything technical, automatic, machine-like supposed by iterability. In this sense, the technical is the possibility of faith, indeed its very chance. A chance that entails the greatest risk, even the menace of radical evil.
The concept of the promise is a complex one, because it functions in all verb tenses. To promise, in the present, describes the activity of encounter that hinges on a future to-come. A promise, in the present, is the object of a past encounter that directs one toward something or someone not-yet-arrived—it lays claim on something that does not exist, but in bringing that inexistent thing to present attention, sealing it, appropriating it in this way, marking it as belonging to the one addressed with the promise, it makes it exist without existing. Here and still to come. A promise draws one back into the past, the moment of encounter, the act that forged a relation between two parties. The promise is a heritage, an identity, and a destiny. When a promise is fulfilled, it repeats the act of encounter but—because history is flux—it repeats the encounter by making it different, new, other.
Faith is more than trust as a feeling or mental state or rejection of opposing feelings or mental states (namely, doubt). We can follow Kierkegaard, in part, by agreeing that faith is subjective: it can only be described as something having to do with relation, how one relates to another, how much fidelity that relation has. The truth of faith is in relationship, not in correspondence between mental states and facts of the world. But we have to go beyond Kierkegaard, because faith must concern more than one. It is not about how one feels or believes or loves or trusts. Faith is an activity binding one to another. In a sense then—and to be pretty Derridean about this—faith undoes the one, cuts the one, opens the one by making the other have a constitutive relation to the one. Faith is wounding, exposure, infection. Faith makes one different from oneself. Faith is the activity of cutting this difference, of binding and loosing in the space between, binding and loosing as one simultaneous activity.
Derrida argues that the possibility of the promise creates the possibility of faith, of relation, of future. To go further, the possibility of promise creates the possibility of the one, the self (auto), because the one can only determine oneself by establishing oneself as distinct, as different. Different from what? Different from another. And then can only remain different by repeating a sameness, an automaticity. Difference via repetition. It follows from this that the self, the one, is the accident, the contingency—the more-than-one, the one-as-other, the relation that cuts across the closure of the one is fundamental. Only the many is given. The one as same to oneself is enforced by acts of violence that confirm an identity that was, that is, and that is to come.
Through this strange framework, we have another key to interpreting all the ways violence happens in these books of faith. These books are books about covenant, about promise, about faith in a promise. We have established that covenant is about wounding, the binding one to another. But the “menace of radical evil” that Derrida suggests is always possible where faith is possible is here in these books too. A promise is about a wounding, but a promise produces wounding too—this is how a promise repeats and binds, how a people is kept the same, how a bloodline remains pure. Radical evil happens when faith is turned in on itself—when the self is not made other to itself, but when the other is made one with the self. Here is how Leonard Lawlor describes Derrida’s notion of radical evil:
The worst violence occurs when the other to which one is related is completely appropriated to or completely in one’s self, when an address reaches its proper destination, when it reaches only its proper destination. Reaching only its proper destination, the address will exclude more, many more, and that “many more,” at the limit, amounts to all. It is this complete exclusion or this extermination of the most – there is no limit to this violence – that makes this violence the worst violence. The worst is a relation that makes of more than one simply one, that makes, out of a division, an indivisible sovereignty.
The worst violence, the most violent evil, happens when one refuses the wound that defines the binding of oneself and another. It happens when the binding is repeated without acknowledging the significance of the wound, when the binding is made complete, such that there is no wound. The determining power of the address involved in promising is turned in upon itself so that the address does not determine but is determinate—an address to be repeated violently, with a finite origin and destination, an irreducible addressor and an addressee irreducibly appropriated in the address. Here’s a metaphor that plays out concretely in these texts: the worst violence happens when blood is made into something pure, rather than something inconsolably infected by another’s blood. The worst violence occurs when a bloodline is made privileged and distinct as one bloodline, necessitating the exclusion and cleansing of other blood, of the blood of another.
So here’s the hard proposition that this comes down to: The function of YHWH in these texts is to facilitate the working of the worst violence.
These texts have refused the fundamental ontological status of the address and have instead made a singular addressor, YHWH, the foundation of all address. They have defined power and blessing as having a pure and direct relation to this addressor. The powerful human is the one in a position to be addressed by the one being who is to have existed before all address. These texts say that a command created the universe—Let there be light—and in saying so, they have blinded us to the reality that something exists more fundamental than sovereignty. By making YHWH the first and the sovereign, every act of address here becomes one of appropriating or annihilating. No one may speak back to the Speaker.
In establishing a foundation of chosenness by the sovereign, the people that wrote these texts wrote themselves into oblivion. Their only presence here is presence as completely appropriated to the sovereign One. They do not exist—they only live, move, and have their being in the One. The One necessitated that existence be submission of one’s being and will to him, such that separation would mean exclusion, dispossession, annihilation. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Deut. 30.19-20).
This total, complete submission to a god taken to be sovereign and first means that this national community can only continue by repeating and repeating the worst violence, identifying themselves with their god by denying themselves and all others. This is what they count as blessing: that they are nothing, but their god is all, and therefore that all others are nothing. When the mercenary prophet Balaam is hired by Balak the Moabite to curse Israel, YHWH stops him by having Balaam’s donkey speak back to him, refusing the mission. YHWH commands Balaam to bless, rather than curse, Israel three times. These blessings confirm YHWH’s will that Israel is special, distinct, set apart, and that Israel will dominate all others. Their blessing means a curse for everyone else:
How can I curse whom God has not cursed?
How can I denounce those whom the LORD has not denounced?
For from the top of the crags I see him, from the hills I behold him.
Here is a people living alone,
and not reckoning itself among the nations!
Look, a people rising up like a lioness, and rousing itself like a lion!
It does not lie down until it has eaten the prey
and drunk the blood of the slain. (Num. 23.8-9, 24)
As it is written, for the unchosen blood, the only choice is to be cleansed or to be consumed. There is a fatal cost that comes with the violence of a promise.
The first fulfillment of this promise, this blessing, and the violence that necessarily attends it occurs in the book of Numbers in the protagonist nation’s genocide of the Midianites who lived in the land they would enter and threatened the purity of their bloodline. The episode is worth quoting at length, though it is a difficult one to read:
They did battle against Midian, as the Lord had commanded Moses, and killed every male. They killed the kings of Midian: Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian, in addition to others who were slain by them; and they also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword. The Israelites took the women of Midian and their little ones captive; and they took all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods as booty. All their towns where they had settled, and all their encampments, they burned, but they took all the spoil and all the booty, both people and animals. Then they brought the captives and the booty and the spoil to Moses, to Eleazar the priest, and to the congregation of the Israelites, at the camp on the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.
Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the leaders of the congregation went to meet them outside the camp. Moses became angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. Moses said to them, “Have you allowed all the women to live? These women here, on Balaam’s advice, made the Israelites act treacherously against the Lord in the affair of Peor, so that the plague came among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves. Camp outside the camp seven days; whoever of you has killed any person or touched a corpse, purify yourselves and your captives on the third and on the seventh day. You shall purify every garment, every article of skin, everything made of goats’ hair, and every article of wood.” (Num. 31.13-24)
A number of themes come together in a harrowing way in this passage. Here we see that the promise associated with a privileged bloodline—the promise of a land that belonged to them, though it was already inhabited—effectually negated the lives of those who already lived in the land. The violence done in the taking of the land is not registered as indicative of moral failure or a sign of evil in YHWH or Moses, because the promise, dependent on purity, is supreme and definitive of this holy nation’s approach to the world. It is as though the others do not exist, and so they are made to cease existing—except for the young women who are made to exist in the social death of sexual slavery. Following the slaughter, the nation purifies itself of the dead—the dead who were always already dead to them and whose status was simply confirmed by the encounter. And so, the nation enters the land promised them by their god, colonizing a land now without a people, as was the chosen people’s birthright.
// Coda //
All around silence was falling, and very soon it would close upon that last circle. And when silence had closed in on everything and no man disturbed the stillness, which yearned noiselessly for what was beyond silence–then God would come forth and descend to roam the valley, and see whether all was according to the cry that had reached him.
S. Yizhar, Khirbet Khizeh (1949)
Image source: sdobie, Flickr (edited)
…but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the LORD to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.
Disgrace upon you, Azazel! For Abraham’s lot is in heaven, but yours is upon the earth. Because you have chosen and loved this for the dwelling place of your uncleanness. [T]herefore the Eternal Mighty Lord made you to be a dweller upon the earth […] for God, the Eternal Mighty One, has not permitted that the bodies of the righteous should be in your hand, in order that thereby the life of the righteous and the destruction of the unclean may be assured. […] [Abraham] is an enemy to you, and to those who follow you and love what you desire. For, behold, the vesture which in heaven was formerly yours has been set aside for him, and the mortality which was his has been transferred to you.
The Apocalypse of Abraham 13
And the whole earth has been corrupted through the works that were taught by Azazel: to him ascribe all sin.
The Book of Enoch 10.8
The concept of the sacrifice occupies an immense territory in human imagination. As a ritual practice, sacrifices have existed in so many different cultures throughout so many periods of history, and while the form in which this practice appears has changed, it has by no means diminished. With Christianity’s absolute focus on the theology of redemption taken from Paul, a core theme of contemporary Christian thought has described, in legal terms, the self-sacrifice of Jesus as fulfilling and thereby nullifying the Ancient Jewish requirements surrounding the rite of sacrifice. Because of his singular nature—being both fully human and fully divine while managing to live without sin of any kind—Jesus was able to serve as the scapegoat, bearing in his body the sins of all humanity. By submitting himself to a public execution, Jesus fulfilled the blood-debt for all humanity once and for all, allowing for the forgiveness of humanity’s sins. All counts of guilt could then be rendered, not innocent, but paid for, in a cosmic system of exchange functioning through notions of debt and debt-repayment. Sanctified humans—washed in the blood of the Lamb, as it were—no longer need to shed the blood of a sacrificial creature to cleanse their sins. With the consummate sacrifice already performed, the redeemed are made free to sacrifice themselves daily, to take up their own crosses—but this continuing sacrificial language translates the rite into one of abstract spirituality and inwardness. One goes on living by considering oneself dead, sacrificed to the greater sacrifice and thereby becoming eternally indebted—indentured, enslaved—to Christ.
This account of sacrifice as based in exchange and legal sentences of guilt is not the oldest biblical account, though the juridical/economic one does bear traces of the older model. For the original account, we would need to pay attention to the suggestions within the Bible of the practice as preexisting any institutionalization of Jewish worship, and those suggestions are certainly all over Genesis and Exodus. (There is, of course, the first blood in Genesis, where God sacrificed an animal to provide clothing for Adam and Eve following their first act of disobedience.) But instead of that, I would like to focus on the first place the practice is codified as an official part of the religious ritual practices of Israel, and where better to identify this institutionalization than in Leviticus—everyone’s favorite book.
Tell anyone that you’re reading through the Bible, and one of the first things they’ll remark is how much of a slog Leviticus is to get through. This may be true if you’re looking for a page-turner, but you have to place the book in its proper genre. Leviticus offers the account of the instructions YHWH gives to the Israelites following their exodus from Egypt, preparing them to ritually protect his dwelling among them in the tabernacle during their sojourn through the wilderness. Read from this perspective—that Leviticus constitutes a codification of the Israelite god’s first systematic list of instructions for his chosen people—the book offers an exceptional glimpse into the soul of this people and their relationship to their god.
In my post on Exodus I described the law as a way of identifying a people and separating them from other peoples. This post continues on that theme but with special attention to the role of sacrifice (which is to say, the role of violence) as well as to that which is beyond the law, to what and who is outside it. The text offers two understated figures key to this second theme: that of the wilderness, the territory of the outside, and that of Azazel, the god of the outside.
In this pre-Temple era of Jewish history, the tabernacle served as the dwelling place of YHWH. A mobile yet ornate structure, it was re-erected at the center of each new encampment along their journey and served as the site of their ritual practice. It was the center of their community both spatially and symbolically, and in the Holy of Holies—that inner sanctum of the tabernacle where only one person, a priest, could enter only once a year and only in a cloud of incense—their occulted god resided. When we understand the position of this tabernacle and its role as a house for the divine, the ritual laws that are given seem far less arbitrary than they are made out to be by some critics today. In fact, there is a unifying logic to these instructions, if a nevertheless mystical one predicated on a certain metaphysics of sin.
I think the general impression among lay Christians of the nature of Leviticus is that it offers a list of sins with their respective legal punishments. If you do this, then the just retribution is that, and so on. But this is not exactly the case. Rather, when we read the text for its intrinsic definition of sin, we don’t necessarily arrive at one of legal infractions calling for a retributive debt-fulfillment. Instead, sin is made to look much more like disease or a festering wound—it is a communicable impurity, prone to spreading through contact, leaching the life of the body. Sin, as festering impurity, is then not understood as a breach of social contract—as it would be in a modern legal sense—but rather as a natural byproduct that leaks from certain activities, many of which are not necessarily intentionally performed, and which manifests itself at times in visible blemishes on skin, furniture, or cloth. Most of the sacrificial offerings prescribed in Leviticus are aimed at ritually cleansing this festering impurity, and though they are often called “sin offerings” or “guilt offerings” it would be more accurate to call them “purification offerings” (Lev. 4.1-35n). (The other offerings described are gift offerings of food for the divine, performed as spontaneous acts of religious devotion, and these include burnt offerings, grain offerings, and well-being offerings.)
Understood this way, we might read Leviticus not so much as a codification of legal proscriptions but rather as step-by-step guide to cleanliness, but one for which the stakes are incredibly high. To follow these instructions is a simple matter of survival: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…” (Deut. 30.19). Jeffrey Stackert, in his contribution to Leviticus in the footnotes of The New Oxford Annotated Bible, describes the view of sin this way:
[The Priestly source] portrays sin both as a weight of guilt shouldered by the offender until it is borne away through forgiveness and as a defiling object attracted to the sanctuary like certain metals to a magnet. Left unremedied, such sins will accumulate in the sanctuary and drive the deity from it. (Lev. 5.1n)
And he describes ritual impurity—related but not identical to sin—in this way:
In Priestly literature, impurity is a real, though invisible, film that adheres to persons and objects and is attracted to the tabernacle as some metals are attracted to a magnet. However, impurity is fundamentally different from sin: impurity is contracted in the course of normal, daily activities and carries no moral stigma … Yet because impurity is contagious and threatens the continued presence of the deity in the sanctuary, its disposal must be accomplished fastidiously. Failure to purify is sinful and carries dire consequences (cf. 15.31). The sources of impurity are human and animal corpses (ch 11; Num 19), normal and abnormal genital discharges (chs 12; 15), and a disease, “surface affliction,” often mistranslated as “leprosy” (chs 13-14). The common denominator among these sources of impurity is their association with death or at least a loss of life force. (Lev. 11.1-16.34n)
As always, it helps our understanding of this religious imaginary by positioning ourselves, as best we can, within the perspective of an ancient people living in a time of constant tribal wars of conquest, wandering precariously through the wilderness, without the benefit of modern medicine or natural science. The threat of death was a condition of daily life, and you can imagine the horror they might associate with the spread of disease, especially when such disease bubbles on the surface of someone’s skin or, as in cases of mold or lichen, seems to eat away at their clothing and the structures of their dwelling places. It seemed that death, itself, was spreading across the surfaces of their lives. What can stop the spread of these ill-understood conditions? And more than that, what can cause these impurities? When all natural occurrences—as well as many human feats—are associated with some kind of divine intention as a response to the soul-health and moral behavior of the people, these festering impurities have a cosmic significance as well as local ramifications for daily life. They need a way of immunizing themselves against this threat of death, the disintegration of their body as a people. Believing that YHWH has been their rescuer and protector, delivering them from their enslavement in Egypt, the people turns to him as the one who can sustain them and rescue them from other dangers that creep into their lives as a condition of living.
This also serves to explain the strange (to a modern point of view) prescriptions surrounding genital discharge, childbirth, and menstruation. On the one hand, the key element in these things is the role of blood. I have mentioned before the significance of blood in the Bible, but Leviticus offers us another entry-point by which to understand how blood is made to mean. Here, blood is a contaminant, making the garments and people it touches unclean. Even when the flesh of a sacrificial animal is considered holy, the blood remains a contaminant, as in the discussion of animal sacrifices for purification offerings: “The priest who offers it as a sin offering shall eat of it; it shall be eaten in a holy place, in the court of the tent of meeting. Whatever touches its flesh shall become holy; and when any of its blood is spattered on a garment, you shall wash the bespattered part in a holy place. […] But no sin offering shall be eaten from which any blood is brought into the tent of meeting for atonement in the holy place; it shall be burned with fire” (Lev. 6.26-27,30). Stackert explains, “The blood of the offering seems to decontaminate by absorbing impurities, which explains how it contaminates garments and vessels” (Lev.6.26n). Blood is a contaminant because it absorbs the impurities contracted through daily activities and sinful acts. Blood is the detergent, washing away the things that threaten the life of the community—the life which is located in their blood: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement” (Lev. 17.11). Blood, then, is both the carrier of life and the carrier of death—it has the capacity to sustain and to absorb within itself that which festers and destroys.
For this people, life always seems to be understood within a frame that takes death as primal. The positive of life is thought always alongside the negative of the risk of death, such that life is that which has been protected from death. The sexual prescriptions—for ritual washing and containment after sexual acts, after menstruation, after less common genital discharges, and after childbirth—have to do with the danger of loss of life associated with these acts and with the spilling of blood more generally. René Girard, the great theorist of ritual and religion, makes this point within his broader argument that sacrifice, in all religious practice, constitutes a people’s way of containing and immunizing violence. Sacrifice, for Girard, is a method by which the violence inherent to a community—particularly the potential cycles of vengeance that can escalate from a singular act of intra-communal violence—can be relocated onto an acceptable substitute, thereby transferring the community’s inherent violence to something perceived as outside the community, dissociated from it in some way: “All our sacrificial victims […] are invariably distinguishable from the non-sacrificeable beings by one essential characteristic: between these victims and the community a crucial social link is missing, so they can be exposed to violence without fear of reprisal. Their death does not automatically entail an act of vengeance” (252). Girard remarks on the strong risk of death that these communities observed in childbirth and as a consequence of sexual acts: “Sexuality is impure because it has to do with violence. […] Like violence, sexual desire tends to fasten upon surrogate objects if the object to which it was originally attracted remains inaccessible; it willingly accepts substitutes” (271-2). So there is both a mimetic and a physical correlation between sexuality and violence in the imagination of such ancient communities.
Sacrifice, then, is a vaccination against death—against the violence that is seen as “eminently communicable,” as Girard explains: “Ritual precautions are intended both to prevent this flooding and to offer protection, insofar as it is possible, to those who find themselves in the path of ritual impurity—that is, caught in the floodtide of violence” (267).
The quintessential act of sacrifice, in this model, that is prescribed in Leviticus is that prescribed for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement—the annual ceremony established for the consummate purging of impurity from the community. This is the day when one priest would enter the Holy of Holies and meet with their occulted god to plead atonement for the sins of the whole community. It is, in other words, the day set aside for deep cleaning those hard-to-reach places. As a part of this ceremony, three animals are sacrificed. First, a bull is sacrificed for the sins of the priest, to wash him clean enough to enter the holy place. Next, the priest takes two goats, casting lots to decide which one is sacrificed for YHWH. This goat’s blood is shed for the people upon the mercy seat that sits atop the Ark of the Covenant, which is the residence of YHWH within the inner sanctum of the tabernacle. On this one day of the year, the sacrificial blood is spread deeper into the holy place than at any other time.
It is the other goat that interests me the most because the language surrounding the other goat troubles the idea that this was a monotheistic people. This is the goat on which the lot falls “for Azazel” (Lev. 16.8):
When he has finished atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness. (Lev. 16.20-22)
In many translations of these passages, this phrase is rendered as the much more well-known term “scapegoat.” Here’s the King James Version translation of this verse: “And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for the scapegoat.” Stackert explains this difference as follows: “Azazel, probably, ‘angry’ or ‘fierce god,’ a demonic figure (cf. 17.7), in contrast to the Israelite deity. Rabbinic interpreters understood Azazel as ‘the goat that goes away,’ i.e., the ‘scapegoat’” (Lev. 18.8n). As is often the case with moments in the Bible that challenge our views of its consistency regarding theology and cosmology, this figure has often been rendered as a symbol or metaphor and not representative of a legitimate belief in a second deity. For instance, the Jewish Encyclopedia cites the account of the 13th-century Talmudist Nachmanides: “Far from involving the recognition of Azazel as a deity, the sending of the goat was, as stated by Naḥmanides, a symbolic expression of the idea that the people’s sins and their evil consequences were to be sent back to the spirit of desolation and ruin, the source of all impurity. The very fact that the two goats were presented before Yhwh before the one was sacrificed and the other sent into the wilderness, was proof that Azazel was not ranked with Yhwh, but regarded simply as the personification of wickedness in contrast with the righteous government of Yhwh.” This symbolic sense of the scapegoat translates into our modern use of the term: some person, group, or object gets (often unfairly) designated as the one who will bear the guilt of others or as the one to blame for certain problems and is punished as a way of eschewing punishment for other wrongdoers.
However, it seems incontrovertible to me that there is a sense in Leviticus that Azazel was an actual being—a demon at least but perhaps a deity who dwelled in the wilderness beyond the camp. He is the one to whom sacrifices are made by the communities outside the tribes of Israel. He is the one to whom illegitimate sacrifices are made when the sacrifice has not been blessed by a priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting (Lev. 17.6-7). I see this anti-worship of Azazel as the necessary consequent of the sacrificial immunization of this community. The “holiness” they so valued really means a “separateness”—their ritual washings cleansed them from the outside, from the death of the wilderness, that constantly seemed to creep into the inside of their community. Life meant a connection to YHWH sustained through his continual dwelling among them. Death meant a separation from him, but death was always linked to these festering impurities spreading over their members, which required removal from the camp. On Yom Kippur, the day of purgation, the impurities of the entire community were soaked in blood and spread onto another living goat, who was then cast into the wilderness, carrying their risk of separation from YHWH out to the anti-divine whose territory was the Outside: one goat for the god who lived among them and sustained their life, one goat for the god who lived beyond them and threatened them with infectious death. In both cases, the powers of life and death are in the suprahuman hands of a supernatural being (though in a world where there is no distinction between natural and supernatural). If they one to whom they devote themselves in worship is their rescuer, their life-giver, and in so doing has made them into a closed community, then who animates the threat of the outside? It cannot also be their rescuing god, so it must be some other divine. I think this helps to explain the later use by Christians of the figure of Satan—the second god who must exist for the first god’s identification with a community’s life to make sense.
Girard, René. “From Violence and the Sacred.” Understanding Religious Sacrifice: A Reader, edited by Jeffrey Carter, Bloomsbury, 2003, pp. 239-275.
The violence that [Walter] Benjamin defines as divine is instead situated in a zone in which it is no longer possible to distinguish between exception and rule. […] Divine violence shows the connection between the two violences [i.e. law-making and law-preserving]—and, even more, between violence and law—to be the single real content of law.
Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life
When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” But he said,
“It is not the sound made by victors,
or the sound made by losers;
it is the sound of revelers that I hear.”
It is a difficult task to isolate biblical texts from the way they get used culturally today, but many of these uses reduce the texts to the point of being something other than they are in the plain meaning of their content. The Book of Exodus is a clear case in point. Many will think of this book in relation to its theme of deliverance and justice for the oppressed: the God who had promised to redeem a nation ensnared under the cruel boot of slavery makes good on his promise, leading that nation out from bondage on to freedom and bounty. This is the story that has also been firmly established in religious practice—most clearly in the Passover Seder ritual performed yearly in Judaism. It’s a powerful narrative that lends itself to all sorts of historical and political operationalization, as long as “Egypt” is made into an empty signifier attachable to any new enemy.
But this is not the whole story of the Exodus. Even in a simple sketch, the Exodus is not only about deliverance, but it is about the constitution of a people. A people was delivered, but this people only really existed in bloodlines before the Exodus. After the Exodus, they exist as a people unified under a law, with a unique ritualistic identity, a hierarchy of representative organization, and a unique devotion to a unique god. This people is made as a consummation of the process of their deliverance. And just as soon as they are constituted in this way, they also suddenly become a danger to themselves as a people. More on this in a minute.
The process of deliverance is not all tambourines and celebration, the great march through the parted sea on to a land flowing with milk and honey. As much as I love (read: love) the animated musical The Prince of Egypt, this deliverance cannot be adequately thematized in the joyous pronouncement, “There can be miracles when you believe.” As with so many moments of YHWH keeping his promise in the Bible, so it seems, this deliverance enters in the wake of a great and cruel genocide. The constitution of a people is perhaps a necessarily violent act, and despite all the tremendously horrific violence performed in the constitution of this people in the Book of Exodus, this text continues to be used as the mythic justification of such people-making endeavors. Or perhaps we should not say despite the violence, because in the case of the contemporary Zionist movement, this founding myth serves to justify the ongoing violence of a people against those seen as inimical to the people (as constituted by bloodlines and religious identity). A strange sort of reversal has occurred, where identification with the mythic oppressed has allowed oppressors to perceive their hands as clean.
As YHWH is imagined in this text, he too seems to insist that the violence is necessary for the spectacular deliverance he wishes to perform—hence the many times he “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” so that Pharaoh would refuse to let the Israelite people go: “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders that I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go’” (Ex. 4.21). (See also, for example, Ex. 7.3; 9.12; and 11.9.) Because YHWH deems it necessary that all of his macabre wonders be performed, he makes it impossible for Pharaoh to acquiesce to Moses’s demands prematurely, and for this reason, the Egyptian people are condemned to poverty, famine, starvation, thirst, skin diseases, vermin infestations, destructive hail, fire from the sky, the blacking out of the sun, and the divine slaughter of all the firstborns, both of the livestock and of the people of every class, from the royalty to the most precarious peasant and laborer. It would not at all be a stretch to say that God demonstrates total war, terrorism, and biological warfare as effective tactics for preserving the nation that sufficiently fears him. It would, then, also not be a stretch to say that a people who worships this God could use this text at any point in history to justify such tactics in their own pursuit of self-preservation.
When a people is made, they are often identified against an enemy or an outside, and they are often defined in terms of the legal relation they hold to one another. A people makes a law in order to make a people, but the law such a people makes in their self-constitution sets them apart from other peoples, thereby making that law inapplicable to those who do not belong to that people. I find it interesting to read Egypt in this text not only as the enemy of the protagonist nation—the justifying reason for the violence that ensues—but also as the people who reside outside of the divinely constitutive law of that nation. Egypt represents the limit-case or the boundary of Israel’s Law, which might give us some insight into the role of identity in this legal apparatus—as well as the violence that identity (necessarily?) emerges from.
But the question of how a people’s law functions in the Bible is not only crucially important but also very tricky to navigate. The first five books of the Bible—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—are referred to as the Torah in Judaism, and “Torah” is often translated as “Law.” So these first five books are regarded as the Books of the Law that contain the 613 commandments or mitzvot in the written Law. When you look at the narrative content of these texts, however, the Law as a set of commandments from God do not emerge until the latter part of Exodus. Genesis gives us the creation story and the founding legend of the family from whom would arise the nation of Israel, and we also get in that book a part of the covenant that God made with that family. In Exodus the Law is established—famously through the inscription of the Decalogue or Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai—and it’s really in Leviticus when the Law is more fully enumerated, down to the prohibitions on eating scallops or wearing polyester blends.
In Exodus, then, we get a clear picture into how Ancient Hebrew civilization imagines the institution of Law: what it relies on, what it prescribes, in what manner it is enforced, and what animates it. In critical theory—notably in the work of Walter Benjamin, Jacques Derrida, and Giorgio Agamben—there has been an interesting discussion of “the force of law,” and this discussion, focused on the driving motor of law in modern history, identifies a mystical core to the whole apparatus. Modern law does not, apparently, rely on the sovereign prince’s violent power over life and death in the same way that medieval law did, so theorists have worked to understand the way that a law without a prince could be understood to have a “force.” When we bring this frame of questioning to bear on a pre-modern and pre-monarchic civilization’s narrative about the institution of law, we might gain some curious insights. For instance, this people also lacks a human sovereign, but their law nonetheless relies on a spectacular sovereign force in this incredibly powerful god. And their law, though it ultimately becomes a written law, originates as the speech-acts of this god. In fact, “Torah” is perhaps better translated as “instruction” or “teaching,” rather than “law,” which illustrates the violent and binding nature of communal pedagogy, just as much as it highlights the pedagogical nature of communal law. A certain type of human is to be developed, one who would belong to this community.
When we think about religious laws, it seems more likely that we would think of those laws as primitive in some sense, primordial, by which I mean that they, in their nature, preexist any act of human will. There’s no constitutional convention for religious laws. (Though in the way religious laws are institutionally established, enumerated, and enforced, there certainly are. You only have to look at the history of religious councils or the way religious laws get enumerated in concert with the emergence of new religious movements, such as the Christian fundamentalists of the early 20th century or the resurgence of fundamentalist evangelicals in Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority of the 80s and 90s.) But despite the primordial dressings of religious laws, they nonetheless are often sourced in some sort of mythic narrative. Perhaps in critically approaching such mythic narratives we can identify the ways in which such stories undermine themselves or produce their own leakage. We can also notice the ways those stories also include, in themselves, their own reactionary counter-resistive techniques.
This mythic narrative presents us with an occult god at the heart of the Law who exerts violent effects on those who do not fear him. I say “occult” here because he hides himself, revealing himself only to those ambassadors who would represent him to the people. When the people hear what this god speaks to them, they actually only hear it through Moses’s mouth. Moses is the only one granted access to YHWH directly, though a chain of hierarchical representation is established as well: “Then he said to Moses, ‘Come up to the Lord, you Lord Lord and Aaron, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship at a distance. Moses alone shall come near, and the people shall not come up with him’” (Ex. 24. 1-2). Moses is consecrated as the mouth of God, as a prophet, and as a sort of judge, arbiting the complaints of the people with the judgment of the Lord. This gets difficult with so many people, so Moses’s father-in-law Jethro (who is also a priest, though of the Midianites who are described as possibly worshiping the same god as the Israelites) suggests that Moses organize a civil chain of organization, relying on a delegation of representative constituency:
You should represent the people before God, and you should bring their cases before God; teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do. You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves. (Ex. 18.19-22)
Moses will represent God to the officers, who will then represent Moses to the people, and so on goes the chain of access to the giver of the Law. In order to maintain the sovereign force at the core of this legal apparatus, several fear-mongering warnings are issued against the people’s approaching this god: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down and warn the people not to break through to the Lord to look; otherwise many of them will perish. Even the priests who approach the Lord must consecrate themselves or the Lord will break out against them’”(Ex. 19.21-22). I can’t help but think here of the Wizard of Oz—pay no attention to what goes on at the top of the mountain—but in this case, the curtain is never lifted, and the mouthpiece of YHWH maintains his role as representing this god to the people who shudder in terror before him:
When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.’ Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.’ Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. (Ex. 20.18-21)
The occult nature of the force of the law secures the sovereign’s control over the people subject to the law. In this case, we can be generous and say that it allows YHWH to secure his control over this newly constituted community, or, to read this more cynically, we can say that the occulted god at the heart of this legal order allows those who run the organization—Moses & Co.—to maintain order and control, because they alone have access to that which issues forth the law in the first place and that which animates its power. I would say that this mechanism also allows this text to be read in the modern era as cementing the power of a religious moral and ritualistic order against its detractors, because it has never been democratically instituted: there was, from the start, an occult despotic core against which no one may say anything because it is impossible even to approach it.
However, the text’s leakage and reactionary self-preservation occurs when the people choose to create an image of this god rather than to wait for Moses to come down from the mountain and present to them YHWH’s commands. They turn to Aaron, Moses’s brother who would become first in a priestly line, and ask him to make gods for them (Ex. 32.1). They give him their gold rings in order to do so: “He took the gold from them, formed it into a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” (Ex. 32.4). The Israelite people make gods for themselves to be the image of their deliverer, in the place of the occulted god on the mountain. Though they still attribute their deliverance to being distinct from themselves, at least this being is one whose image they had control in constructing—a god of the people, by the people, and for the people. As the story goes, YHWH, of course becomes enraged at their idolatry and tells Moses that he wishes to murder them all and start over with Moses to make a new nation, not unlike how he dealt with Noah’s generation or with Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses changes YHWH’s mind about this, reminding him of his promise to this people, and sets off on an inquiry as to the guilty parties. (Which leads to one of the funniest passages in the Bible, as Moses asks Aaron about what transpired. Aaron responds by saying that the people had asked him to make gods for them. “So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off’; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!’” [Ex. 32.24]. It just popped out like this! I was just as surprised as you were!)
But when Moses approaches the people initially, he and his assistant Joshua hear a sound coming from the camps that sounds almost like war cries, but it is not. The shrieks and singing and dancing are not the sounds of conquerors or the violently subjected, but rather it was “the sound of revelers” (Ex. 32.18). By making an image of the god who delivered them, the people succeed neither in revolting against that god nor do they succumb to his esoteric control, but instead they play with his form, allowing themselves to authenticate their experience according to their own imagination. Though this is not a perfect comparison, seeing as we’re dealing with an ancient people and a primitive law, this scene of dancing and creativity makes me think of Giorgio Agamben’s writings on “playing with the law” as the only sufficient way to resist its intensified control in the modern era of biopolitics and the state of exception:
What opens a passage toward justice is not the erasure of law, but its deactivation and inactivity—that is, another use of the law. […] One day humanity will play with law just as children play with disused objects, not in order to restore them to their canonical use but to free them from it for good. What is found after the law is not a more proper and original use value that precedes the law, but a new use that is born only after it. And use, which has been contaminated by law, must also be freed from its own value. This liberation is the task of study, or of play. (State of Exception, 64)
If the Israelites had been successful in their idolatry (but, alas, YHWH had all of the revelers involved in the apostasy massacred by the devout Levites) perhaps they would have been able to use their activity of playing with the form of their god towards their own liberation. Nevertheless, this might suggest a pathway for those of us who wish to resist religiously orthodox mechanisms of control and belief. Rather than merely claiming these biblical texts and narratives as either “true” or “false,” we might play with them, mold them into new forms, and use them as a site of revelry. In this way, we might secure a sort of democratic textual criticism that would allow us not only to approach the occulted center of this grand and violent machine, but also to speak back to it.
Image source: Thomas Cole, Moses on the Mountain, Wikimedia Commons (edited)
You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and no expiation can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it.
The tale spoke clearly: whatever brotherhood human beings may be capable of has grown out of fratricide, whatever political organization men may have achieved has its origin in crime.
Hannah Arendt, On Revolution
When we watch crime serials on television, we’re used to seeing the Keith Herring-esque chalk outline of an absent cadaver. These chalk outlines (if they are still in use) mark the place where a body once was, where the body was found dead and in what manner it was found. The outline orients the forensic specialists as they explore the scene for other material evidence of the crime, such as fingerprints, strands of hair, or spots of blood. When such traces are found, this can designate one of two things: the presence of the victim or the presence of the murderer. DNA testing in a lab confirms the identity of the figure who inhabited that space at the time the event occurred, and we find this information useful for the purposes of judgment and reckoning. The blood found at the scene casts some revelation on the bodies no longer present there.
In the Bible, as well as in much of culture for much of history, blood has a significant relation to notions of identity, of violence, and of life, three themes that are often crucially intertwined. Entire political histories have been determined by our taking blood to indicate some particular identity: a familial dynasty of power or a landed plot of property can only carry on down generations if we take the identity that ownership depends on to be transferrable by means of progenation (or some legally accepted symbolic equivalent, such as adoption). It’s a powerful statement to make of someone that they are “blood of my blood” or “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2.23)—blood runs thicker than water. Such a referral to blood designates the relationship between two people as something stronger than other sorts of relationships one might enter into with another: a relationship of family and of mutual familial identification. This is a kind of identification that we see as something stronger than a business partnership, a friendship, or even a sexual or erotic relationship. Something changes when another is or becomes family, and blood is what they share.
But blood also designates the life of a living thing. This is why the shedding of blood designates violence: an aggression against life by draining that life, in whole or in part, from the being to whom it belonged. The Bible several times explicitly locates the life of a creature in the creature’s blood (Gen. 9.4; Lev. 17.11; Deut. 12.23), and for this reason also establishes legal prohibitions on eating the blood of a creature, even if the creature is considered clean to eat. In fact, the entire history of the institution of law in the Bible, curiously enough, begins and ends with prohibitions on ingesting blood.
According to the story, on the twenty-seventh day of the second month of the six hundred first year of the earth’s existence, God told Noah to leave the ark he had built to weather the storm of God’s wrath and to step onto dry ground (Gen. 8.13-15). The first thing Noah does is to take one of every clean animal that he had rescued from the flood and to kill and to burn them as an offering to God (Gen. 8.20). And God—who consistently through the Old Testament finds the smell of a roasted animal on an altar delectable—responds to Noah with a new covenant. As is the case with all covenants made in the Bible, this one to Noah involved four things: a promise, a blessing, a law, and a sign. First, God promised to “never again curse the ground because of humankind,” and he added, “nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done” (Gen. 8.21) (Such mercy and justice, to only annihilate every living thing once.) God then blesses Noah and his family, saying that they will be fruitful and multiply on the earth and that all the animals will live in fear of them (Gen. 9.1-2), hence securing the dominion of humankind that was established in the creation of Adam. Following the blessing, God gives Noah and his family a new law:
Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. [In high school, I once used this as a retort to my sister’s veganism, but it turned out hers had more to do with unethical factory practices than divine commands.] Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings; each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life. Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind. (Gen. 9.4-6)
Here we have the first command against ingesting blood in the Bible and it comes, arguably, in the first institution of civil law. Noah and his family are the only ones left alive on the earth, and this is the first law that God establishes as a way of ordering the new society. Notice, again, that God locates the life of a creature in its blood, and while God does not command against humankind killing animals (he offers all animals to them as food), he does command against ingesting the locus of life in the animal, which is the blood. This prohibition continues all the way through the New Testament, when, at the Council of Jerusalem, the apostles are trying to decide what law Gentile converts should follow. James the brother of Jesus declares, after much debate—and this is simplifying the tale—that Gentile converts should “abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood” (Acts 15.20). Blood is a sacred thing in the Bible, meaning that it is both protected and potent. When blood spills somewhere, the ancient understanding was that the stain can never go away or be concealed. And we might say there is a modern tradition to this too—think of Lady Macbeth, failing to wash the phantasmal stain of blood from her hands.
When we try to disentangle the varied ways blood is made to mean in this ancient book of Genesis, it gets tricky. Take, for instance, that last aspect of God’s covenant to Noah, the sign, the infamous rainbow:
This is the sign of the covenant that I made between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring the clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. (Gen. 9.12-15)
Despite the hundreds of times I’ve read this verse, this is the first time I caught the symbol: this rainbow is no lovey-dovey symbol of peace, diversity, and togetherness as it is used to mean today, given its many colors and pleasing rounded shape. Instead, this rainbow is viewed how it might have been viewed by an ancient literary community, constantly in terror of their own precariousness at the force of the elements, which they see in divine and mythic terms, and the hands of warring tribes (and war, blood, and murder is all over this book): this was an archer’s bow. The sign of God’s covenant with Noah and with all of life on the earth is a cosmic weapon, this time turned away from the earth. Therefore, the sign of the covenant is an assurance of God’s violent strength but also his decision to no longer use it on such a grand scale. (He is willing, however, to use it on a somewhat smaller scale, given the utter desolation of all life in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah mere chapters later [Gen. 19.24-5].)
I guess one way of putting all of this more simply would be to say that Genesis, this book of beginnings and promises, is also fundamentally a book of violence. God sheds the first blood by making coats of animal skins to cover Adam and Eve’s nakedness, following their breaking of his first command (Gen. 3.21). Cain murders Abel, making the very first fratricide happen between the very first brothers, and Abel’s blood cries out from the ground, unrequited because blood cannot be cleansed from where it has spilled (Gen. 4.10-11). Cain’s descendent Lamech, father of Noah, tells his wives that he has killed a young man for wounding him, and that his recompense will be seventy times that of Cain’s (Gen. 4.23-5). The violence that began so locally is expanding, until only one generation later “the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6.11), initiating God’s annihilation of all flesh (notably, by means of flood—a bloodless way of committing mass slaughter, allowing civilization to begin again under the sign of God’s lethality).
And this is only the beginning of the bloodshed involved in these beginnings. There are accounts of warring tribes and conquest (Gen. 14). There is Abraham’s intended murder of his son according to God’s command (Gen. 22). There is the institution of circumcision, the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham fittingly embodied in a common wound. This wound is then later exploited by Abraham’s great-grandsons Simeon and Levi, who trick the men of Shechem into circumcising themselves and, while the men are healing, proceed to slaughter every last one of them as a reckoning for Shechem’s rape of their sister Dinah (Gen. 34).
Okay, I’ve made my point—there’s a lot of blood here. But there is one more instance of bloodshed I’d like to point out. When Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son, has dreams that he will one day rule over his older brothers, the older brothers, in their jealousy, plot his murder. However, Reuben initially stops them, saying, “Let us not take his life. […] Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” (Gen. 37.21-22). So they do so, and as they eat their dinner atop the pit where they’ve stowed their brother, a caravan of Ishmaelites arrives (possibly significant, given the tumultuous backstory to the Ishmaelites). Judah then gets an idea: “Then Judah said to his brothers, ‘What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.’ And his brothers agreed.” (Gen. 37.26-7). The fact that Joseph is their brother, their own flesh, forbids them from shedding his blood, which would be impossible to conceal—meaning, in a divine juridical sense and in an occult sense, since there seems to be some karmic element in this people’s understanding of God’s justice: blood for blood. So instead they sell him into slavery.
However, to cover their tracks, they still end up shedding some blood. In order to convince their father that Joseph had been devoured by a wild animal, rather than sold into slavery, the brothers slaughter a goat and dip Joseph’s robe in its blood—the same robe that his father had made specially for Joseph (Gen. 37.31). The ruse is convincing, and Jacob believes that the blood is his sons. In this episode, blood is used as a conflation of identity—Joseph’s with the goat’s—as well as a sign of violence and loss of life.
This story of the goat’s blood, in one sense, works like all other atonement sacrifice narratives in the Bible: the blood of the goat stands as substitute for the life of the man, in order that the man may be counted dead without having actually died. Think of Abraham’s use of goat’s blood following his attempt at sacrificing his own son—God offers the goat’s life as a substitution for Isaac, allowing Isaac to go on living in the company of his father. In the case of Joseph, however, the blood is offered as substitute, not in order that Joseph may go on living in the company of the community—the requisite obedience to God having been satisfied—but rather in order to cast Joseph away from the community. This blood, though sacrificial, divides the community and conceals its guilt without cleansing.
But is this so different, after all, from the uses of blood in sacrifice for the redemption of communities? If the slaughtered creature stands in for the life of the community in order that the community may preserve itself in the world, what slaughter serves that community and what slaughter undermines it? Which community does slaughter serve? This question of sacrifice’s role in community is one I will certainly return to, but it is enough to note here that this great book of beginnings—of the beginning of the world, of humanity, of civil society, of law, and of God’s chosen nation—requires the shedding of blood to tell its tale. The suggestion is that beginning requires violence, but that there are also moments where slaughter creates its own excess: Cain’s violence both turns him into a wanderer and provokes a new generation of humanity; the violence of Joseph’s brothers brings about his own blessing and theirs. All good things require violence, but which violence is required—and why? That is a question that will constantly reemerge in this incredibly violent Bible.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
Here one may certainly admire man as a mighty genius of construction, who succeeds in piling an infinitely complicated dome of concepts upon an unstable foundation, and, as it were, on running water. Of course, in order to be supported by such a foundation, his construction must be like one constructed of spiders’ webs: delicate enough to be carried along by the waves, strong enough not to be blown apart by every wind.
Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”
0. Before the Text
I’ve decided to do something ostentatious, and to what end, I’m not sure. I’ve decided to blog my way through the Bible book-by-book—the whole Bible, including the Old Testament (otherwise known as the Torah and the Tanakh), the Apocrypha (which I haven’t ever read, being a good Protestant), and the New Testament. While I’m still trying to define—or, rather, to cleverly justify my inability to define—the goal my project would aim toward, I can mention a few things that propel it from behind.
For one, I’ve just finished Emmanuel Carrère’s The Kingdom, which not only has quickly become a book that I will treasure for probably the rest of my life but has also shown me something new that writing can be and do. (Nearly all of my favorite books accomplish this latter task in some way.) Carrère fuses memoir and imagination with historiography and forensic investigation as he retells the story of the Gospels and the early church particularly through the lens of Luke the Evangelist. In the book, Carrère also recounts his own conversion experience and his couple-years-long “Christian period,” during which he meditated and journaled on one verse of the Bible every day. His retelling of this world-changing story captures not only the humanity of all the players involved but also his own. He intersperses among his first-century narratives the moments of his own life that instructed his approach to these narratives and the themes they involve: his readings about Trotsky and Stalin in preparation for another book, his depression and experiences in psychoanalysis, the horrific babysitter he and his wife hired on the basis of someone else’s lie, and, most poignantly for me, his loss and/or rejection and/or suspension of faith following his conversion.
Aside: I have to include a couple of lines that I loved from his book, which follow his statement that he had become the person he was most afraid of becoming: “A skeptic. An agnostic—not even enough of a believer to be an atheist. A man who thinks that the opposite of truth isn’t falsehood but certainty. And the worst thing, from the point of view of the person I was, is that I’m doing fine.” So much of this rings true from my own experience, and that last line—honest, defiant, risky, self-alienating, self-deconstructing, and confidently consoling—I just loved.
Carrère inspires me to do something I had thought of doing just before reading the fruits of his own practice of doing it: to return to the text that shaped my past life and, which is to say the same thing, my present one from the perspective of this moment in time. When I was in the last month of my senior year of high school—still a believer but desiring to know precisely what and why I believe, in ways stronger than before—I challenged myself to read the entire Bible in three months, finishing it by the end of the summer and before I would begin college. I made it through a solid month of that heavy reading, and though it took me a full year to actually finish the rest of the Bible, I did finish it.
I’m happy to be aware of the text in full, but as every good student of literature knows, we bring things to a text that change the text for us. In that reading, I brought my belief, my unrequited devotion, and my yearning for some kind of certainty or pious experience of grandeur, some enlightenment. I brought to the text as well my communities of faith: the non-denominational Christian school I had attended since preschool and that I was just leaving; the Evangelical Assemblies of God church I had grown up in and was about to start working at part-time; the group of friends I began praying with at the community college, some of whom I had known previously and others who were international students at the college from Ethiopia, Ecuador, and Colombia; and the house church I was participating in with my sister, through worship as well as small-group discipleship, a group whose doctrines and practices emphasized both the Jewish roots of Christianity (in a dogmatically and, I would argue, myopically Zionist framework) and the ecstasies and demonologies of Pentecostal Evangelicalism. These I brought with me to my reading while I still maintained an attachment to them.
Now I have the chance to return to that text that has been central to my life and the lives of my communities. But this time my reading will carry with it not only all of those things already mentioned but so much else as well: my changed attachments to those communities and to the faith overall, my theoretical and literary education that has continued for six years since the last reading, and my updated methodologies of reading, which have become both more critical and more playful (and there is always an element of play in good critical reading). My world has changed, and so has everyone else’s. Now is always as good a time as any to begin again and to make the familiar things new.
So as I prepare to begin my long journey through Bible, I would like to take the rest of this post to sketch out, if you will, a methodology of critical reading. This, like all of the posts on this blog, is an experiment. It’s a tentative playing-with of thought and text. I begin this series, appropriately, with the first chapter of Genesis: the Song of Creation. And I cast each day of that creative process as the stages of the critical process of thinking, reading, and writing. This is an arbitrary delineation, but the creation and intermixing of any schemas at all generally allows for new thought to emerge—indeed, Christianity itself as a hermeneutical framework imposed on earlier texts like the Book of Genesis allowed for not only a hell of a lot of new thought but also two millennia of civilization growth, change, destruction, and frustration.
First, before we begin, as all of this prelude attests to, we begin from somewhere, with something, and as someone. Even this great book of Beginnings begins in medias res—“In the beginning when…”: a qualification of time. And God was there. And the Spirit of God was there. And we might even say that the Son, the Word of God was there, if we were to impose a later writing (John 1.1) onto this earlier one, which is a difficult activity ever to avoid. So not only is someone there before the reading begins—the reader herself—but also a community is there, because not even God is alone in the universe. We bring so much to a text before we begin: we bring the royal We, but we also bring the multitude of singular people that we are, with all of our bundled experiences.
This is one reason why the text is a chaos before we begin. It is formless and void despite its existence as chaos, because it has not yet been shaped by a reader. But still there is movement. We hover over its face; we undulate in the dynamic lives we live, the dynamic being-with that we constitute, that constitutes us. We approach, ready to make something happen.
1. Perception: …and God separated the light from the darkness. (Gen. 1.4)
In arriving at the text, we must ensure first of all our own capacity to perceive that a text is there. Before any work is done on the text, some work must first be done on ourselves. We turn on the light. We give ourselves the gift of vision. But this act is the original act of reading, as much a part of the process as the rest of it. My approach to reading the first chapter of Genesis follows from my practices of learning to read at all, of learning to think and to see. This means that my reading here arguably began for me in kindergarten, when I first began to learn the letters of the English alphabet. It also began when I learned to read other texts prior to this one. Reading begins with a certain development of capacity, a capacity for perception—a capacity for a certain specific (though large in number) set of perceptivities. We read this verse, and we might think that light differs only from darkness. However, light differs from other light as well. We begin with a certain inflection of light which gives us the ability to see in a certain way.
2. Attention: And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” (Gen. 1.6)
Next, we pay attention—we pay attention to something. In this act, we separate off the rest of the world to read this text, this bit of the world. We introduce a principle of selection, which is a necessary act if we are to contribute speech about something in particular—and if this is not our goal, and if our goal is instead to ramble on about anything that flickers into our consciousness, then we play the fool to the mediatized status quo that seeks to jolt our attention toward a million sensational half-glimpses at the epiphenomena of things. Culture suffers from a lack of attention and a surplus of distractive compulsions—the tics of the 24-hour news cycles and punditry and presidents and social media—so that we feel that we know the world, but we don’t know a thing about the world because we fail to attend to any thing in particular. So the act of paying attention—of imposing selection—is not only necessary but is also a strong imposition of values. We cannot avoid this; we chose to speak about this material and not about the infinite other material we might have discussed. But if the status quo runs on a kind of distraction that we experience as paranoid attention-shifting, then to refuse close attention is only to consent to the attendant values of the dominant regime. So, on this reading, we select this water, for now, and when we are to speak about the water beyond the scope of the dome, it will be in reference to the water below, whose surface we hover over and gaze into. Again, we must begin from somewhere.
3. Distinction & Fertilization: And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” […] Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation…” (Gen. 1.9,11)
Once we’ve selected our material for reading, thinking, and writing about, we can make distinctions internal to that material. The work of distinction is the beginning of a kind of thinking that can produce something. This takes place on two terrains: conceptually and materially, and these two terrains interact. In order to theorize something productively, we need to get specific about the concepts at play—to define our terms, to clarify the stakes on the level of the concepts involved, what is equivalent and what is differential. The very term “critical” comes from a Greek word meaning, in one of its senses, “to divide,” which means that to think critically involves introducing difference into the subject matter at hand. (In fact, difference is far more productive than equivocation, which is a fallacy because thinking becomes impossible when we assert that too many thoughts are the same. Equivocal identification is a fascist and totalitarian instrument; such forces can function not only in the work of governments and nations but at the sentence-level of writing as well.) We must have distinct concepts of “water” and “dry land” with clear conceptual content before we can cultivate one side of the distinction—here the dry land—to bring forth the new that is in its capacity to bring forth. In making a distinction, we inscribe a certain range of capacities for what else can come forth—and we eliminate alternative capacities that could have been inscribed. The etymological root of “critical” also means “to decide.”
4. Relation: And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons…” (Gen. 1.14)
Despite all the language of “days” and “evenings” and “mornings” in the earlier parts of the first chapter of Genesis, we could say that time does not actually get instituted until the fourth day, with the creation—as this verse has been understood—of stars and planets. In one of its senses, time is an institution of relations, a system of standard differences that allows us to locate ourselves and things in a manner more precise than absolute categorization. In this sense, we might say that the fourth stage of critical reading involves the installation of relations between distinct objects of the text and the world. This also allows us to speak in terms of change and transformation, of tentative persistence through change. Perhaps this explains why the artist behind this Song of Creation found it necessary to use the language of time from the first act of creation rather than only from the fourth: because without this conceptual language, it would have been impossible to speak of transformation and evolution in the work of creation. A lot happens here in this fourth stage; in addition to relation, time, and transformation, we also have here the first potential for narrative to emerge. One event happens and then the next, in a diachronous relation of before and after where the following event depends on what preceded it for it to have even been possible at all.
5. Minor Proliferation: And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” (Gen. 1.20)
This stage differs from earlier ones more in terms of degree than of kind, as we have already seen the act of fertilization occur, which involved the inscription of a capacity to bring other things forth. Here this fertilization is intensified. The moving pieces become more dynamic, taking on a more mobile life of their own. A bird moves itself more swiftly and with greater autonomy than does a flower. However, there are two things further to notice about this proliferation of the life of the object under critical analysis. First, this intensified proliferation takes place, initially, in the area that was not privileged by the analysis. In the separation of land and sea, God focused on the land to bring forth life, but now it is the sea that is teeming, the air that has filled with life. The same thing occurs when analysis goes right: we lose some control of it, and the shadowy parts of our own attention begin to do and say things in ways we did not orchestrate. Second, this proliferation is one of swarming. The Song of Creation is often interpreted as describing an incremental increase in order: God makes a cosmos out of chaos. But swarming denotes a certain amount of organized chaos, like a swarm of bees or a murmuration of starlings, their collective organization rapidly reorganizing into shapes that nevertheless appear coordinated. However, the swarm moves too fast for us to comprehend and capture its shapes. We might say that this stage in the critical reading process is where we begin to notice a leakage, an aspect of our reading that exceeds us, that leaks through the gaps in our epistemological or inscriptive control. But good reading should exceed the reader. It is only in such reading that we can allow for our own transformation, through the opening of ourselves to that which exceeds us. (This is a theme that I return to frequently in my thinking.)
6. Major Proliferation & Subjection: And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind…” […] Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion…” (Gen. 1.24,26)
Despite the radical and elusive nature of stage five, it’s stage six where the trouble begins. It starts out well, with the proliferation of new forms of life on the land. These lives take on greater autonomy and mobility than the vegetation. Beyond the geraniums, tall grass, and potatoes, we now get lions, tigers, and bears. Beastly forms emerge from the land we had fertilized, and the dangerous and the strange approach the reader in the full light of the reader’s attention. When the dangerous and the strange are brought near and confronted, this, too, could allow for wondrous transformation. However, our tendency when confronted with the dangerous and the strange is not to let them disembowel us and turn us inside out, not to let them force the question of our own ontology before us (for more on this, read Derrida’s essay about standing naked before his cat). Rather, our tendency is to resort to methods of security and control. We introduce subjectivity, some figure constructed according to our own image. (But what would it mean for us to have a comprehensive image? What does the face of God look like?) This returns us to sense, to the familiar, to the illusion of the safety we brought with us when we first approached the reading. This act of subjection is rather a reaction. Like all reactionary movements, it seeks to enforce a procrustean image on the new, an image that is thought to comply with the figure of some virtuous or true precedent: Make Creation Great Again. But the image is itself a new one and an intensified strategy of power and violence. Again, even the act of reading can be fascist.
7. Consecration & Institution: So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. (Gen. 2.3)
By the seventh stage, everything has gone wrong. Not only has the reader subjected the material to his own fantasies of dominion and sovereignty just as the material was coming fully alive, but at the seventh stage the process of critical reading is evaluated as “very good” and “done.” This is an emphatic act of violence by a reactionary regime of reading and knowledge. The work is finished, the end of history is playing out now, as it was written. Adam, the image of the reader upon the anthropomorphized (theomorphized?) text, plays out his dominion by logging the names of the kinds of beasts, subjecting each form to his own ideal, and he feels as though he has, in this manner, conquered them. The text and all further readings of it, due to what has been forcibly imparted to it by the reader, will forever repeat, automatically, the claims of the first reader, the world that he has conjured. The reader ceremoniously cuts the umbilical to the reading, pronouncing it finished, takes his rest, and thereby installs a sterile repetition of this week for the rest of eternity: a cycle of automation going forever on without anything truly new or eventful. This is what it means to consecrate a reading, to make it sacred: it is to term it comprehensive, exhaustive, infallible, and absolute. The reader takes a cosmic syringe full of death and stabs it into the organic sites of proliferation, excess, and abundance that had emerged from the text so that it may be a living text no more. Consecration, as an act of reactionary power, leads to the institutionalization of the consecrated reading. The reading repeats itself monotonously forever, and this provides a foundationalism for the institution that would seek to profit from the securitized reading. And so it goes, and so it goes.
0*. Before the Text, Again
Beware the discourse of completion. Beware all talk of the end of history or creation. Beware the pronouncement of the absolute and the inerrant. Think about whose interests these discourses serve and who ensures their own self-propagation by means of these strategies of security and dominion. The thing is, the beast, as beast, exists and should be welcomed. The outer dark is where proliferative life actually flourishes and blooms, beyond the sacred and sterile institutions of what life must be. Reckoning with these strategies of power should encourage us to return to the text again, at the stage of, we might say, zero-prime: beginning again in a way that is wholly new, in order to bring forth the excess to the sacred. In the face of institutional and sacred readings, in order for life to flourish, it becomes time again to create new openings for the dangerous and the strange.
Image source: ESO, Yuri Beletsky (edited)
On that which follows terror.
Nothing in his fucked-up study of black history had ever hipped him to this: The long life of a people can use their fugitivity, their grief, their history for good. This isn’t magic, this is how it was, and how it will always be. This is how we keep our doors open.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, “A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof” (2017)
But maybe when we undergo what we do, something about who we are is revealed, something that delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that these ties constitute what we are, ties or bonds that compose us.
Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004)
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s recent GQ feature article on the making of Dylann Roof proceeds from the question of what led Roof to murder nine people during a prayer meeting at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. As Ghansah’s journey in the essay develops, the responses to that question shift from an isolated focus on Roof himself and toward the shedding of a little light on the social forces that play roles in the emergence of such an act. Moreover, as Ghansah follows Roof’s story, her own winding narrative spreads to include other faces, other names, and other figures shackled within an American history that has worked so insidiously to deny them faces and names.
What becomes clear is that Dylann Roof’s act of terrorism, while harrowing and absurd, must be understood as a fundamentally American violence. Roof was the first person in all of American history to receive a death sentence as the penalty for a federal hate crime, and yet his act bears within its substance an engine constituted by all the hate and terror that has defined the American world since its birth. We are a society whose origins consist in the systematic terrorization of entire people groups, from chattel slavery to the deportation of Latino/a children from their homes, and no matter how much time or reform goes on, there’s a blood like the biblical Abel’s blood—an originary violence, an original sin—that remains upon our doorposts, our monuments, and in our participation in this unfinished history. Ghansah describes Roof’s boyhood habit of compulsively using hand sanitizer “[a]s if he were aware of some stain or some filth that others did not see.” However Roof himself might have identified that stain, I believe it might be understood in some way as the terrorism bound up in our social practices of negating others in order to secure a life for ourselves, those who we allow to belong to our own blood and soil.
Ghansah’s writing in the essay exhibits the strength of a critical act of mourning that resonates for me—insofar as it functions as a reflection on terror—with two critical theorists whose work has revealed the functions of terrorism that are often obscured in our discourse of it. The first of these is Hannah Arendt, whose work in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) defines terror not according to violence perpetrated by lone-wolf actors or minority cells but according to the violence that allows terroristic state regimes to secure their dominance. The second is Judith Butler, whose book Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004) reflects on the conditions of possibility for the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the ways in which our response to terror may simply perpetuate the violence perpetrated in the first place. In thinking these writings together—particularly on this anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and considering the hate-fueled will-to-terror that came vividly to the fore in Charlottesville recently—we may better understand the nature of our lives together and what makes such life impossible.
Arendt was a Jewish refugee and political theorist who fled to America from the Nazi regime. In the academic work she undertook here in the States, she wrote provocatively and insightfully on a number of political subjects relevant to our lives in the world, including democratic performance, positive freedom, the construction of public realms, and the violence that plays itself out in law and governance. In The Origins of Totalitarians she reveals the ways in which fascist and totalitarian regimes, as well as the nation-state itself as a political-force, both displace certain people, turning citizens into the stateless, and control their own populations through a unifying political identity and narrative. It is in this latter discussion that her definition of terror arises.
For Arendt, terror does not consist in the spectacular violent acts of uniquely depraved or psycho-pathological actors. Rather terror consists in ideology—the ideological narrative that functions as the motor of totalitarian state power. It is a condition of and the central active ingredient in the administration of a certain type of state. Terror describes the totalitarian state’s practice of inscribing its subjected population into a single, unified political body whose purpose is to serve the ends of the state. Alternatively, against the notion that terror exhibits a fundamentally lawless relationship to a public, she describes terror instead as itself a certain type of law—not a law enforced to limit the actions of political subjects, but rather a law to motivate them toward acting so as to construct a particular arrangement of reality. She writes, “Terror is lawfulness, if law is the law of the movement of some suprahuman force, Nature or History.” Additionally, totalitarian terror produces an “identification of man and law.” Seen from this angle, terror constructs the world that totalitarian subjects occupy by making them construct that world for themselves, according to a single plan or the force of a single narrative agent. (For the Nazis, it was Nature and Nature’s expression through the proliferation of ethnic nationalisms; for the Stalinists, it was History and History’s predetermined end.) Therefore, following Arendt’s definition of terror, we might say that terrorism is expressed more essentially through the identity it enforces upon the actor, rather than the particular acts it pushes the actor to commit.
I like Arendt’s definition of terrorism because it allows us to step back from the momentary spectacles of terroristic violence and to see what actually drives the whole infernal machine. By thinking of terrorism as a type of and practice of identity, we can see Dylann Roof’s terrorism as consisting primarily in his white nationalism, even more so than in the shots he fired. White nationalism is itself a terroristic identity, in that it represents an ideological understanding of a history that is headed somewhere in particular—namely, a white ethno-state. The valorization of white identity as a closed group within the evolution of history is, from its origin, a murderous ideal. Abstractly, it constructs its reality around a strictly defined set of people and thereby negates the reality of others. On the ground, it calls for ethnic cleansing and genocide. Roof hoped that the nine murdered people in Charleston would represent a bloodbath to come, as was written in his identifying ideology.
As is clear in Roof’s case, the terror that Arendt pointed out as existing in the structure of totalitarian states can be seen as well in the actions of individuals for the very reason that the identity those individuals claim can represent many—though as soon as the identity is claimed, the many washes into the monolithic One. Looking in this way at the violence that occurs on the ground, we can use Butler’s ideas about violence and mourning to see how terror functions interpersonally, and how the act of mourning either affirms or complicates our will-to-violence.
In Butler’s account, violence is a revelatory phenomenon. When violence occurs, even in the most vulgar sense of a gunshot in a church, that violence reveals the state of relations that exist at the point between the people involved, and between people more generally. Grief and mourning allows for the practice of reflecting on those relations that come through. Roof fires shots and reveals two levels of extant relations: on the first level, he reveals his own negation of the others in that room, his attempted negation of his ties to them; on the second level, he reveals the ongoing and proliferative dependency we all have upon one another. If one can end the life of another, this shows that one’s life depends on the life of that other and how they choose to relate to us. We are bound to each other; we exist through each other and depend on a certain condition of general care in order for our lives to be possible at all. When we mourn an act of violence, we are compelled to acknowledge the precariousness of our lives, and we are left with a decision as to what to do with that knowledge regarding others.
After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon occurred sixteen years ago, the United States as a people were confronted with a decision in response to that violence. While the attacks revealed the United States’ state of relations to peoples and actors from across the globe—the mutual way global societies rely on the good faith and care of others to continue to exist—what the United States chose was to respond with an exaggerated reactive violence that has continued until today, with no signs of stopping. On domestic ground after the attacks, Muslim and Middle Eastern communities across the country faced harassment, bigotry, and violence on the part of the those who defined their national identity in opposition to them.
With regard to the world stage, three days after September 11, 2001, Congress and the Senate passed with near unanimity the Authorization for Use of Military Force bill that granted the President the authorization to use military force against anyone involved in the attacks or associated in some way with those involved. The violence of this response, largely due to the vague and infinitely applicable language of the bill, has proliferated and metastasized since the response was initiated with the start of the War on Terror. Business Insider points out that, under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the AUMF was used to justify militant violence in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Georgia, Yemen, Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq, and Somalia. We had a chance to curb such bloodshed when, recently, Rep. Barbara Lee from California—the only one to vote against the AUMF back in 2001—introduced an amendment to a defense spending bill that would repeal the AUMF. However, as things so often seem to go here in America, this gesture toward reaffirming care of and dependency on others with whom we share the world was refused, stripped from the final bill. Currently, President Trump is escalating this perpetual “War on Terror,” and we might say that he does so by using the very mechanisms of terrorism: the negation of the other, the instantiation of a unified identity against all possible difference, the denial of our precarious dependence on each other.
When I consider this cancerous terror that seems to infiltrate every sphere of our political and social activity, I find two particular moments in Ghansah’s writing on Roof especially poignant. Upon the end of her awkward visit to Roof’s church, in which she felt outed and side-eyed for being a black stranger, she stumbles upon the security procedures the church provides in a manual: “I flipped through all of it, but the St. Paul’s safety binder had no instructions for what to do if the shooter was one of their own.” We fail so often to see the terror that functions in our own communities, our own interactions with other individuals. We wind up so often blind to the ways our enclosed senses of self make it impossible to consider the care others require of us, our dependency on them. And in this blindness that proceeds from our finished, closed selves, violence strikes in all directions. Ultimately, this violence we do against others whom we depend on becomes a violence against ourselves.
When Ghansah writes of the Mother Emanuel AME church, she remarks on their ceaselessly opened doors, their welcoming attitude and willingness to invite the stranger, in a manner so unlike the white church that Roof regularly attended. Ghansah identifies this openness as a crucial element in black survival throughout a history of American terrorism that has acted upon those communities. She writes that they used their grief, their suffering, and their experience of being cast out while yet within in order to survive. Perhaps survival requires suffering. We feel that security comes through violence toward our opposition, but in the experience of grief, as Butler shows, we realize that violence toward opposition is always already a violence against ourselves—a cutting off of the life support we have in the care of others. In the place on the beach where Roof once inscribed Nazi symbols—symbols of negation—Ghansah returned to affirm the lives of the dead by writing each of their names in the sand. To affirm life and presence: this is the cure to terrorism, the only response to violence that does not aggravate violence at the same time. We keep our doors open, our selves open, our life proliferative, and only through our care for each other, we live.
Image source: The Atlantic, AP Photo/Suzanne Plunket (edited)
On imagining futures.
A philosophical attempt to write a general world history according to a plan of nature which aims at a perfect civil association of mankind must be considered possible and even helpful to this intention of nature.
Immanuel Kant, “Idea for a Universal History with Cosmopolitan Intent” (1784)
Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.
Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism (2009)
It’s hard to take the long view of history, and even when we do it’s usually wrong. We hold such small capacities to see and to know, but this nevertheless fails to deter us from thinking in terms of futures. Toward what does the arc of the universe bend? And what provokes us to seek out such a determinate logic?
As a boy, being fed histories of the great upheavals of the twentieth century—the trenches, the Holocaust, the dropping of the big bombs, Vietnam, the birth of computers—I would imagine the possibility that things might turn a corner and become interesting again. What if the rollercoaster sequence of all the accidents that happen, like the Mamba that I used to ride a dozen times per visit at our local amusement park, could just possibly be cresting that first big hill. I would lean back, shield my eyes from too premature a view of the drop, and await the plunge into the dynamic course that would always unfurl me along with it.
When September 11th happened, I was in the third grade, too young to know that something new had occurred and too young still to know that the ground of the new tends toward mundanity. Spectacles become background noise before they finish playing themselves out, if they ever do. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have trundled on in the background of the larger half of my life, so far from Kansas and Nebraska, and I’ve managed to forget about them more than I’ve remembered that, no, they still haven’t stopped. It took me several years before that old rollercoaster started making me nauseous. Despite the constancy of its path, how well I knew each pivot, rise, and fall, I just stopped riding along. I found it impossible to enjoy as rapturously as I used to. I could watch, uninspired but sufficiently composed, from the ground.
Later, I learned to spectate lethargically regarding other affairs. Some of my college pals and I would feel that “realism” was just another word for “cynicism,” and so we called ourselves cynics. We understood that caring too much about a cause was just another way of being strung along like we had been for years in our own lives by other grand redemptive narratives, messianic tales about the end of history and the beginning of a new one. Disillusionment—this was a term I learned from history class in the context of World War I, the crushed dreams of the entire modern epoch, a limp response following a confrontation with the great failure of their highest hopes in one prolonged blustering display of the great stupidity that humanity breeds in its advancement. Disillusionment—the only response we can muster when a redemptive myth not only fails but was proven to be a damning joke all along. As with all jokes, what makes it a joke is that, in the end, it comes to nothing, though everything else carries on. It’s the sudden violent recognition both that an illusion existed in the place of what you thought was reality and that the illusion can no longer be maintained.
Jean-François Lyotard was famous for declaring in the late 70’s that what defined the contemporaneous “postmodern” era was a general “incredulity toward metanarratives.” Here, “metanarratives” means any grand story that fundamentally serves to explain subordinate daily goings-on and thinking in society, a story that usually includes the end-game teleologies of various social forces. Whether or not that general incredulity was true of that era of recent history—and I have reason to think that it’s a bit reductive (and perhaps elitist) as a descriptive account of social phenomena—I certainly think it can be complicated today. If we think about the course of the later 20th century into the 21st, it is true that certain foundational modern metanarratives had apparently proven indefensible. As an example, the great modern philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose thinking arguably had a crucial impact on the whole modern epoch, in the late 18th century theorized history as a grand revolution of slow time. He argued that, by means of the various accidents and self-interested activities of humankind, an ultimate perfect state of rational relations between humans on earth could be achieved. This was not a revolution that could be forced into being by a singular act of the general will at a moment in time. Rather, it would be a moral revolution, in which humankind, through a process of incremental progress, would as a race achieve the full use of its reason and would therefore seek to act with a good will at all times. A cosmopolitan society of security and freedom would be constructed, with freedom defined by Kant as acting upon the rational use of one’s faculty of moral judgment. One day, by means of the long winding course of history, a future would arrive in which humans relate rightly to each other.
Kant’s was a utopian vision that every century seems more and more unlikely. It is, however, worth noting that his utopia ends in a stasis of civic relations: a perfect state of human relations is achieved at the teleological end of history. This leads me to my complication of Lyotard’s claim. Modern metanarratives of history, such as Kant’s, still exist today but have become mutated to endorse the current state of affairs. Moreover, where these narratives still exist, they often exist as Janus-faced, claiming a narrative of progress while simultaneously running on the premise that the teleological end of such progress has fundamentally already been achieved. Today the mutated metanarrative exists as a function of neoliberal capitalism’s self-reproduction.
The late Mark Fisher, in his book Capitalist Realism, interrogates capitalism’s claim that “there is no alternative” (as famously put forth by Margaret Thatcher in 1980). This claim fuels the engine of capitalism’s dominance: the idea that no alternative future can be imagined beyond a global “free market” economy and its bedmate liberal republican democracy. This claim was also made by Francis Fukuyama in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, in which he argues that human ideological evolution has concluded its progress and that, in a way, Kant’s teleological utopia had been achieved in the liberal democratic form of government. “Capitalist realism” as Fisher defines it is this: the belief that capitalism can be the only reality. It subsumes all resistance to it, and it defines all of its goals of progress within its extant bounds. Fisher writes, “The ‘realism’ here is analogous to the deflationary perspective of a depressive who believes that any positive state, any hope, is a dangerous illusion”—a tragically ironic comment, since Fisher would later, in January of this year, commit suicide due to his own depression.
Within the regime of capitalist realism, there can be no future, because everything that happens is a playing out of different iterations of the present state of affairs. Our best hopes for leadership lay with those who will uphold the status quo and save it from decrepitude—hence the (in my opinion, mistaken) perception that Hillary Clinton was a progressive candidate, when in fact she would uphold many centrist policies that would continue the violence of neoliberal capital’s imperialism both at home and abroad, maintaining both the financiers’ grip on domestic “democracy” and the global state of emergency that liberal democracy maintains to legitimize its wars. Even the “hope and change” of Barack Obama’s campaign turned out basically to be more of the same, though in a voice that was more pleasant to our ears than his predecessor’s.
Fisher titles his first chapter after the phrase associated with Frederic Jameson, that “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” When I hear this phrase, I relate it to the form of capitalism that was closest to home for me growing up, by which I mean capitalist evangelicalism—or, possibly, evangelical capitalism, because it’s nearly impossible to imagine evangelical Christianity today without its capitalist core. This religiously-inflected capitalist realism truly brings together the two faces of the current system in rather a clever, if somewhat subterranean, manner. The American system of Christian evangelicalism, on the one face, culturally fights tooth and nail in defense of and toward the intensification of neoliberal capitalism. They call for the privatization of public goods and public care, as well as the tax-sheltering of private institutions. They define freedom in terms inextricable from market freedom: because of Christ’s saving grace we are afforded the freedom to understand ourselves in whatever Christian-identitarian terms we like, but the actual acting out of that freedom must go no further than what the doctrines of financial maximization allows. None of our absolute freedom may presume to provide public structures or public goods to preserve the actual positive freedom required for hard-pressed communities to flourish. In this sense, evangelicalism, like capitalist realism writ large, believes that the end of history has arrived and that it is very good.
On its other face, Christian evangelicalism—whose doctrines of dispensationalist millenarianism developed concurrently with post-industrial capitalism—believes the end of history is imminent, that it is yet to arrive but will arrive, one day soon, like a thief in the night. With regard to this religious sect, I would take Jameson and Fisher one further to say that it is easiest to imagine the end of the world and to believe that there is no alternative to capitalism. The two claims support each other in political factuality, if not in logic. Kant presciently described the same dark chiliasm of end-times-obsessed Christians when he distinguished the three possible ways to predict the course of history in his essay “A Renewed Attempt to Answer the Question: ‘Is the Human Race Continually Improving?’.” One of those options is what he calls, intriguingly, “moral terrorism.” He defines it as follows, in terms that sound a lot like the signs-of-the-times sermons I heard as a teenager:
A process of deterioration in the human race cannot go on indefinitely, for mankind would wear itself out after a certain point had been reached. Consequently, when enormities go on piling up and up and the evils they produce continue to increase, we say: ‘It can’t get much worse now.’ It seems that the day of judgement is at hand, and the pious zealot already dreams of the rebirth of everything and of a world created anew after the present world has been destroyed by fire.
In the evangelical Christian imagination, the best system we can hope for on Earth is capitalism, with all of its cruelties and incoherencies. But that’s the key: on Earth. For them, there is no need to imagine alternative futures, because Jesus is coming back to save humanity from itself, to destroy all the kingdoms on Earth and to install a new kingdom on a new Earth, one that will reign perfectly forever and ever. One must wonder what sort of monarchy that will be—perhaps a bit like Kant’s ostensibly beloved Frederick the Great’s, with a little hedge-fund investing mixed in, and in which all the streets of gold are owned by private proprietors. But it’s not just that there’s no need to imagine alternatives to capitalist realism when the world will ultimately end by fire anyway. This end-times theology enforces capitalist realism’s present reign—the intensification of disparities in economic well-being, the willingness to benefit off of what must necessarily be a doomed system, and to keep enjoying the prosperity God gives to his chosen ones.
It’s a godless activity to imagine real futures. Those who dare attempt it deny both the God of the Armageddon, whose sword reaches from his mouth, and the God of the Invisible Hand, who gives us the absolute freedom to buy what we want to fit what we need. After several exhausting turns on this nauseating rollercoaster, however, I am not yet convinced that I am actually unable to use my own two feet, among the cloud of many witnesses—the disillusioned multitude who see the present two-faced “realism” as two faces of the same debilitating profane phantom—in new directions, right out of the amusement park. At the very least, if we allow ourselves, just for once, to second-guess the myopic resignation of the claim that there is no alternative, we may be able to open up the space in our imagination to conjure visions of different futures that are, against all odds, within our power to create.