Over many decades and in voluminous writings, René Girard has elaborated a theory of sacrifice, scapegoating, and violence that purports to unveil things hidden from the foundations of the world. He has become a guru, not least to Christian theologians eager to formulate non-violent versions of atonement.

Girard has not persuaded everyone. Among the unconvinced is Moshe Halbertal, whose elegant 2012 essay On Sacrifice offers an alternative. To see the differences clearly, yet another summary of Girard’s well-known theory is necessary.

According to Girard, human desire is mimetic. We want what we want because we mimic others wanting it. Our desires thus make us rivals. Rivalry breeds violence, and when society collapses into a Hobbesian war of all against all, a plague that Girard calls a “sacrificial crisis,” it casts about to find the cause. It soon fixes on an outcast—a foreigner, a cripple, a crippled foreigner—ready-made to bear the burden of society’s rage.

Once its violent energy is spent on the scapegoat, the society finds itself miraculously whole again. The city welcomes the expelled scapegoat back home, acknowledging him as a savior, honored and elevated, perhaps deified. When another sacrificial crisis erupts, the process is repeated: another crisis, another scapegoat, another god.

And another myth. The “scapegoat mechanism” survives by its own occlusion. All societies have violent origins, but they clothe their naked violence in the myth of the scapegoat’s guilt. This works until the New Testament Gospels unmask the myth by insisting on the utter innocence of the scapegoat, Jesus. The Gospels tear away the mystifications of myth, and, exposed, the machinery grinds to a halt.

For his part, Halbertal begins canonically, from the biblical story of Cain and Abel. He points out that Genesis 4 characterizes the offerings of both brothers as minchot, “gifts.” When the Lord accepts a sacrificial gift, the worshiper enters into an exchange relationship with him and hopes for a return.

When a gift is brought by an inferior to a superior, it is an offering rather than, strictly speaking, a gift. Gifts are not gifts unless received. An offering is “brought before” God, who may or may not receive it. For God to receive it is an act of condescension and grace, not a guarantee. This gap between offering and reception is inherent in sacrifice, and as a result sacrifice takes place in an atmosphere of anxiety. The possibility of failure haunts sacrifice.

Halbertal says that this accounts for the fraternal violence recounted in Genesis. Abel brings his offering before Yahweh; Yahweh accepts it. Cain also brings an offering, but Yahweh rejects it. It’s sad not to receive a gift; it is far worse to offer a gift that gets rejected. Refusing a gift is an insult, a slap in the face, an “annihilation.” By refusing Cain’s gift, God excludes him from the circle of exchange. Outraged in his unrequited love, Cain kills his brother, “offering” blood to the earth. There will certainly be no return on that anti-sacrifice. Cain is instead condemned to wandering and barrenness.

Girard’s theory of violence focuses on our desire to receive: I resent a rival because he wants the same thing I do, and he may get it. Violence arises from resentments about not-getting. Halbertal argues that “exclusion from the possibility of giving is a deeper source of violence than the deprivation that results from not getting.” Violence expresses the frustrated worthlessness felt by someone who doesn’t measure up, who cannot contribute.

More generally, Halbertal suggests that biblical sacrifice is not “a substitute for venting [man’s] anger and rage, thereby satisfying his desire for revenge without opening a new cycle of violence,” but “a substitute for the violence that the offerer himself might deserve.” Sinners know they are treading on dangerous ground when they approach God, and they hide behind the shield of substitutionary sacrifice. Sacrificial violence again arises from fear rather than anger. Halbertal concludes, quite traditionally, that biblical sacrifice is both substitutionary and penal.

Halbertal’s conclusions will appall Girardians, who will charge that he perpetuates rather than exposes mythic scapegoating. That charge is tricky because its target is ultimately bigger than Halbertal. Halbertal is Jewish, and his theory of sacrifice is rooted in exegesis. Thus the Girardian rejection of Halbertal raises questions about the Girardian evaluation of the Hebrew Scriptures: Do Genesis and Leviticus perpetuate mythology?

I doubt that either Girard or Halbertal gets sacrifice entirely right. It’s hard to imagine that anyone will isolate a single motivation for something as complex and varied as sacrifice. But Halbertal’s counters to Girard’s powerful theory are too firmly based in text and tradition to be dismissed. Girard has not yet fulfilled the modern dream of a theology that finally transcends primitive savagery, and that suggests the savagery might be here to stay.

Peter J. Leithart is president of Trinity House. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here.

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Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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