Undead Authors // Deuteronomy

On the Bible., On theory., Uncategorized

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.

            Deuteronomy 34.5-6

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.

One for Azazel // Leviticus

On the Bible., On theory., Uncategorized

…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.

            Leviticus 16.10

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.

Before the Law // Exodus

On the Bible., Uncategorized

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.” 

            Exodus 32.17-18

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)

A Trace of Blood // Genesis

On the Bible., Uncategorized

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.

            Numbers 35.33

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.

Law // Esposito (Part 4)

On theory., Uncategorized

On the excess of death, the limits of life.

But something else comes into view, that is, the reason behind the desire for breaking, for going beyond finiteness and experiencing the infinite. This is another way of saying coming into direct contact with the Thing, experiencing community on one’s own flesh, taking pleasure in the Real beyond the imaginary and the symbolic… Yet taking pleasure in the Real, which is to say realizing the law to the point of canceling it out, would also mean touching what in life can prefer death.

            Roberto Esposito, Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community (1998)

 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.

            Romans 7:9-10

So much life is buried again in so much death. Christianity derives its every power from the death of life, from a transfiguration of a human life, enfolded into its own death. This is called rebirth: Jesus said to the Pharisee Nicodemus that no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born again from above, not of flesh, as with human birth, but of water and Spirit (John 3:1-5). To be born again – as this phrase is interpreted several times throughout the Bible – means to die to the flesh, to deny the impulses of the living body that torments us with its ungodly desire, and to submit instead to the resurrection that comes only through the resurrected Christ. Whom the Son sets free is free indeed. And what is this freedom? That it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives through us.

We become marionettes of a supposedly living law so that we no longer have to live – to make the daily choice concerning what our lives can be. These are decided for us, by a law written long ago and understood to be embodied in the life of a man who lived a millennium and a half later and two millennia before us. I’m hitting on a theme here which has run through all the essays in this series: that in the belief/power system of Christianity, we arrive into an all-consuming totalitarianism that decides our lives for us before any given moment in which we ourselves might make that decision. It exerts this entirely devouring power through identity, through fear, through myth and story, and also through law – a law that, as Scripture says, creates both death and life, the latter of which is also death so long as we are alive. To deny ourselves, to die daily – these anti-actions mark an ideal life within the government of Christian principles.

As I think about this, I’m reminded of that quote by Viktor Frankl, the survivor of the death camps who theorized man’s search for meaning as the central motivating force in a human life: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Frankl is wrong, because even the freedom to choose one’s own way and attitudes can be stripped away if power imports its strictures of law into the mechanisms of decision that govern a person’s behavior. Certain attitudes are good and certain are evil; there is a way which is the Way, and everything else is the broad road that leads to destruction. Freedom, defined within these limits, is total accordance to a law that may not be considered except to understand and to apply. The holy law must stand beyond the profane act of questioning.

Believers will often, in an attempt to make their gospel seem relevant to seekers of today, try to strip down Christianity into certain fundamentals. They will say that the whole lot of the program is captured in those two basic commandments “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” They follow Jesus in saying that in these two things are contained all the Law and the Prophets. Or they will say that all that matters is a saving faith in Jesus as the atoning sacrifice, that in his death we are allowed entry into grace and everlasting life, the infinite gift of forgiveness for the sins that damn us. In one of the college campus ministries that I participated in, a lot of the students were obsessed with the idea of Tullian Tchividjian’s book Jesus + Nothing = Everything. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, all-sufficient because he reveals the insignificance of everything beyond him, everything before him, everything after him. The desire for a simple gospel, a pure gospel, consummates in the obfuscation of everything that lay outside of the incarnated law. Fix your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.

To have Jesus is to acquire a law which may govern our entire lives and make possible a greater life beyond this one that we spend on earth, this life that is nothing more than a vapor, a wisp of fleeting smoke. It may be worth noting, not as a matter of shaming but of recognizing the lack of fit between Jesus as exemplary law and the actual nature of the lives we struggle to lead on the earth, that Tchividjian suggested a certain lack in the sufficiency of Christ when he forfeited his ministry by cheating on his wife with another woman. Why does this happen so often for leaders in the church? We should think that those who preach most vocally of the great sufficiency of Jesus, of the overwhelming peace and satisfaction in the law and grace of God, would be those least likely to desire the decadence that exceeds the Christian life.

The Christian law negates more than it affirms. As Paul says, the law tells us what sin is. The law makes death, submits life to death. Before the law, in the sense of preexisting the Law, we live. Before the law, in the sense of entering the courthouse, awaiting judgment, we all die. The best we can hope for is that we find, before the law, a rebirth so that the law can live through us, and we no longer have to live.

The Christian law consists of a series of negations. Even when it affirms something like “love,” when we bring these broad affirmations to the level of concrete action, what filters through the words are a series of “Thou shall not’s” and “I will not’s.” The “thou” becomes “I” in the moment of identification with the law. When I believe in the law – when I love the law – I say to the Law-Giver, I will not have any other gods before you. I will not make an idol to worship. I will not steal. I will not lie. I will not desire what is not mine. I will not kill (unless the fickle law instructs me otherwise). The law tells us what sin is, because the law’s only content is sin: the law is the construction of sin, evil, and death. When the law arrived, I died. We all die before the law.

Nietzsche writes that these series of “I will not’s” constitute our ongoing promise to the power structures which seek to manage our wandering on the earth. Christianity institutes a new people through a law which becomes that people’s memory, that which is said to transcend time so that at any point in history the people who ascribe to the timeless law make up the same people. We live and die before the same law that all the saints of old lived and died before, and the pendulum of death and life before the law undulates on perpetually, synchronizing a single dance to which we all falteringly step. In this way, Christianity as an institutional power gains control over large populations of people all across the globe. Government works best when it no longer needs to govern, because it has instilled all its principles of governmentality into the most intimate anxieties and felt obligations of the governed. The goal is not to enforce the law. The goal is to organize the group, and the law works as the adhesive: multitudes of singular lives who have chosen to die to their singularity in order to allow a timeless law to live through them. A Spartan army of good Christian soldiers.

In Christianity we have a perfect dispersion of law into the decision mechanisms of those who make up the Christian population, and the population becomes self-governing. This turns that population into a prime target for political leveraging, because if some policy or political value can be presented as integrally connected to the identity-forming law, the population will coalesce around that political action. We see then the emergence of a Christian Coalition, of a Moral Majority whose morality, now bound to new ideas, values, and policies, dictates that population’s political maneuvering. I know many believers whose single-issue voting on the matter of abortion drives their commitment to support for the Republican party no matter how much incoherence, in terms of morality surrounding the protection of life for its own sake, that party’s platform contains. Abortion presents a prime example of a moral issue which, being only recently politically relevant (relative to the timeless law), is used cynically by political organizations to sink their hooks into a self-governing population of religious believers who will then reorient themselves toward all the interests of those political organizations because they are the ones who care about the sanctity of life. The law dictates the issues we should care about, and as we pick up those issues and run with them, there are strings that trail from those issues to a heavy cart full of unrelated interests which we now pull forward in our zeal for the law that lives through us.

But there is also a deeper problem, I think, in the way the Christian law annihilates the world. When it is no longer we who live but the law who lives through us, we lose all the messy, beautiful excess of the world that complicates all simple notions of what life is. As we daily create our own lives, we run into contact with the lives of others, lives that exceed the limits of our lives and yet open apertures for the potential spilling-out into something utterly new for us. We become new when that which is outside us creates an opening for us to be outside ourselves, to be outside the governance of a limiting and negating law. In the words of Veruca Salt, I want the world. I want the whole world.

There was a time, halfway through high school, when I desired to leave the Christian school I had attended since preschool and spend my last two years at public school. A large part of my wish then had to do with the possibilities for the different classes I could take at another school, but also my sense that the culture of my Christian school had grown stale, lifeless, predictable in dry and arid ways. During the minor crisis of my decision-making process, the principal of my school gave a sermon at one of our weekly class chapels on the figure of Demas, referenced only three times in the New Testament. Demas used to work with Paul in his missionary ministry, but as time goes by, Paul suggests a change which has come over his partner – “For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me…” (2 Timothy 4:10). My principal used the story of this figure to explain how the love of the world, the desire for a life comprised of a world beyond our Christian institution, seduces us away from the life Christ has for us. In my narcissistic paranoia at the time (the sermon may or may not have been directed at me), I felt so angry. Looking back, I see the truth now in what he said, as I see the truth now in so many of the warnings of my Christian leaders from my youth, that the love of the world does lead us away from the life Christ has for us. However, in the revaluation of values that necessarily takes place as one deconverts from a totalitarian ideology, I see that risk, that danger, as far more affirmative of life than any life written for me by a messiah whom I have never met.

I don’t want to gain a soul and lose the whole world. I want a world that exceeds me, that pulls me outside myself, a world to which I owe the better part of myself. I want a million worlds, each one breaking my simple black-and-white ideas into a technicolor sea of potential. Here I must move beyond the language of law and embark into the territory of desire. Though I carry the baggage of a law I hate for the way it instructs the negation of so many other lives, I find pleasure in joining the reckless dance of the affirmative destroyers. We who have nothing in common spin like dervishes in an uncoordinated entropic motion that looks like beauty. We collide, we swing away, ever expanding the movement into new constellated forms, allowing the motions of the others to inspire our own direction, allowing our direction to inspire re-creation by another. Before the law, our dance looks like chaos, and means death. After the law, our lives mean nothing, and so flourish dynamically, unendingly, into real lives.