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Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 14 (March 1998)

    1. Giuseppe Fornari: Towards a Biblical Anthropology of Violence. Acquisitive Imitation and Violence in Original Sin

Is the mimetic theory of Ren Girard only an anthropological aid to reading the Bible, or is the Bible itself to supply us with a mimetic reading? In the first case a mimetic interpretation could appear as a more or less useful approach, but somehow superimposed on the text; in the second case it would become an interpretative key offered by the text itself. A short analysis of the original sin story, the starting point for biblical anthropology, can help us to find an answer.

The Genesis text says several times that God created man in his image and likeness (1:2627) and then, from a rib of the man, created woman, defined as a helpmate similar to him (2: 18). This means that man has a fruitful and correct relationship to God, to himself and to others when he imitates his creator and remains similar to him. This imitation is good because it is founded on love, and love is the profound essence of God's creation project. As is said at the end of each day of creation, God "saw that it was good". At this point, by drawing out the whole theological and anthropological meaning of the text through its literal meaning, one can affirm that the ideal image of man presented at the moment of creation is original, not in a strictly chronological sense but in a final one, representing man as he should be according to God's original project. Here we are shown not a simple historical event but the condition from which history, each history, arises. Human history proper begins with original sin and the expulsion from Eden. In this sense there is no contradiction between the biblical account and the discoveries of modern science.

Yet this underlines that God's commandment not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is in itself a paradox, as it involves both the fullness of God's love and the concrete presence of evil, both the perfection of a final outcome and the possibility of jeopardizing it from the outset. What is being formulated here, in an apparently mythical and contradictory guise, is the paradox of the origin, the paradox of what we are. The contradiction is resolved if we think of the commandment not as precedent in a chronological sense but as an eternal divine law that man alone can only violate. Man's anthropological rather than theological origin can therefore only reflect God's project in an inverted and monstrous way, affirming it by negating it. Disobedience to the commandment is almost immediate. The serpent insinuates to Eve1 that God does not want the man and woman to eat the fruit because they would become like him. We have here a perfect triangular desire where 1) the serpent is the model, 2) Eve the subject imitating the model, and 3) the fruit, presented as forbidden, the object of desire. Eve eats the fruit and is immediately imitated by Adam. With the greatest simplicity the text shows a repetitive formula that could be propagated to infinity, in a chain process where everybody surrenders to desire and becomes in turn the model of another. Thus it is of quite secondary importance where the chain begins, as the point is that the phenomenon is contagious. This imitation is not the good imitation for which God created man and his companion, but bad imitation for possession. Through the serpent God himself becomes the rival-model of man. The serpent tells Eve: "...ye shall be as gods" (3:5). In this way the text refers directly to the divine transfiguration investing the rival-model in the paroxysmal phase of mimetic desire for possession, the phase of ontological or metaphysical desire. The idea of God resulting from this process is the precise reversal of the God of love who created man and woman: an envious and hostile God, who wants to prevent man from being like him.

Adam and Eve are driven out from Eden, but this expulsion can now be read as the direct consequence of what they have done and their necessarily distorted idea of God. This expulsion, like the whole story of Eden, certainly uses sacrificial mythical outlines taken from the surrounding civilizations of the Near East, but the context and the central situation of the story demystify what happens from within. The mythical outlines are internally disassembled to show their violent meaning. In this sense the expulsion may be read as a self-expulsion. Its profound meaning becomes still clearer if we think of the immediate consequence of Adam and Eve's deed, that is Cain's murder of his brother Abel. Here, too, we have a triangle for possession formed by Cain, Abel and the sacrifice to be performed to God. Abel's sacrifice is preferred to Cain's, for the fundamental reason that Cain, Adam and Eve's first-born, shares their tendency to see God as a rival or object of rivalry. If we put the two episodes side by side, we can see that each helps to read the other2, providing a complete picture of man's violent aptitude. Cain kills his brother, that is, he literally and symbolically sacrifices him. Every murder is nothing less than fratricide, the sacrifice of our own brother to our desire3. After this fratricide-sacrifice Cain, whom God protects from further revenge with a sign symbolic of differentiation, becomes the founder of cities4. The history of civilization begins with ordered activities and divisions, but violence continues to multiply, insufficiently checked by the cultural rules that actually arise from this violence.

This brief analysis already shows clearly enough how Girard has not invented an ingenious key to read the Bible, but has simply underlined and developed an uncomfortable truth that the text tells us from the beginning. This truth appears still more embarrassing if we interpret the tree at the center of Eden as symbol of the victim, as the symbolism of the center suggests. Myths where the murdered victim is transfigured into a tree bearing fruit are widespread, as for instance the myth of Milomaki analyzed by Girard in Things Hidden5 or in the Ancient Greek cult of Dionysus in the shape of a tree (dendrites). A well-known Babylonian seal, considered by some scholars as a precedent of the biblical scene, shows two divinities, one male and the other female, sitting opposite each other on either side of a palm with seven leaves and two date clusters; at the back of the goddess there is a serpent. The victimary symbolism of the image becomes clearer when compared with another Babylonian seal showing some divine figures fighting a seven-headed dragon in their midst6. We need only put these images in genetic succession to obtain the metamorphosis of the victim first as a monster and then as a beneficent divine tree. The serpent next to the goddess in the final image is the symbolic duplication of the victim now expelled and beneficent. The Bible begins to deconstruct the whole process bringing back the serpent to the tree and changing it into a tempter. The fruit of knowledge of good and evil, in their totalizing duality, can be read as a symbol of the double transference that makes the victim appear first as a monster to be killed and then as a god to be worshiped. This reading can be pushed further: the fruit that the tree consists of can be seen at this point as a transformed representation of the pieces of the victim quartered and devoured by the group members in archaic sacrificial rites. There is a dramatic contrast with Eve's creation from Adam's rib and with the image of the two ancestors called to form only "one flesh". Adam and Eve, with the potentially infinite mechanism of their mimetic temptation, are a symbol of multiplicity that can well represent, not only in time but also in space, a whole group, the whole of humanity around the victim.

Further details will serve to corroborate and reinforce this interpretation. The great ethnologist Adolf E. Jensen in 1951 analyzed a typical mythologem where a group of divine beings kills a fertility divinity, afterwards transformed into a beneficent tree7. He notes obvious analogies with the biblical account, that yet seem to him a weakened version of the original mythologem, for the Bible puts this transfiguration at the beginning and shows as negative the consequences of eating the fruit8. Jensen does not realize the demythologizing strategy of the Bible that reverses the constituent elements of the mythical pattern, placing the transfigured victim at the beginning and his killing at the end. It is plausible that the biblical compiler or compilers used a myth of collective murder9 where Jensen's pattern was present, or, better still, made a comparison between a myth of expulsion from Eden and this pattern. The Jewish and Christian tradition of the punishment of the rebellious angels could be a still archaic elaboration of the same mythical material as used in Genesis. The biblical text proves to be an extraordinary palimpsest where we can recognize ourselves and our history. The divine characters of the archaic myths now become completely human, but the meaning of their actions becomes clear in relation to the initial creation by a God giving love and life, a God who is not comprehended and thus remains transcendent. The message of non-violent imitation presented at the beginning, the central situation of the temptation of desire, and finally the direct consequence of the first murder, confirm the coherent, demystifying nature of the whole story. Girard's ideas have an ancient pedigree indeed. If they should prove irksome it is by no means because they are new, but because they are old, far older than our pretension of rational self-sufficiency is willing to admit.

(Based on a lecture given at C.I.S.A.C. 魭 Stanford (CA), July 1996)

1 On the serpent's subtle technique of temptation see R. G. Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence: Paul's Hermeneutic of the Cross. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.

2 Cf. R. Schwager, Must There be Scapegoats? Violence and Redemption in the Bible. Engl. transl. San Francisco: Harper &Row, 1987, p. 68.

3 See J. G. Williams, Violence and the Sacred: Liberation from the Myth of Sanctioned Violence. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1991, pp. 33 ff.

4 See R. Girard, Des choses caches depuis la fondation du monde. Paris: Grasset, 1991, pp. 22122.

5 Ibid., p. 155.

6 The seals are reproduced in A. Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1984, figg. 16魭17.

7 A. E. Jensen, Myth and Cult Among Primitive Peoples. Engl. transl. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1963, pp. 88 ff.

8 Ibid., pp. 10406.

9 See the interesting article by P. Duff and J. Hallman, "Murder in the Garden? The Envy of the Gods in Genesis 2 and 3" in Contagion, vol. 4, 1996, pp. 183200.