A Girardian interpretation of Genesis 22:1-14(This is one of the essays I wrote for my Hebrew class last term.)
The thought of the French philosopher René Girard 1 provides an interesting context in which to read the story of Abraham and Isaac. Girard believes that sacrificial rituals arise when uncontrolled violence threatens to destroy a society. The usual way for a community to survive this crisis is for the violence to become focused on a particular victim, or scapegoat; a real or imagined transgression is usually cited to justify the victim’s selection, but the choice is in fact arbitrary. Once the victim is destroyed, peace is temporarily restored. The people therefore believe this violence to be divinely sanctioned; they establish rituals that re-enact the “founding murder” and develop a mythology that justifies it.
This sacrificial mechanism, however, can work only if participants do not understand what is really going on. Girard believes that the Judaeo-Christian scriptures chip away at the myths of violence to reveal the inner workings of scapegoating and sacrifice and so destroy them. This process begins in the first books of the Old Testament and gradually becomes more radical until it reaches its conclusion in the Gospels.2
Genesis 22 retains some characteristics of primitive sacrificial myths, but at heart it is very different -- and not just because of its surprise ending. A number of elements in the text subvert the sacrificial theme and show that the story is not simply part of the usual cycle of violence.
The difference begins when Isaac is named as victim. The victim in a sacrificial myth is generally depicted as having done something to deserve his fate; Isaac is not shown to have done anything at all. Indeed, it may be to emphasise his innocence that the author depicts him as if he were a young child, even though the timescale of Genesis suggests he would have been an adult.3 Girard believes that this acknowledgement of the victim‘s innocence is the first step in dismantling the sacrificial process: “The true ‘scapegoats‘ are those whom men have never recognised as such, in whose guilt they have an unshaken belief.” 4
As Abraham prepares to kill Isaac, the language used is not that of ritual but that of butchery. In his translation of the Pentateuch, Robert Alter points out that the word מאכלת, which is used throughout for the knife, usually refers to a cleaver used in butchering rather than a weapon used for sacrifice. Likewise, עקד (verse 9), while it does not appear elsewhere in the Old Testament, is used in rabbinic Hebrew to mean trussing the legs of animals, and שחט (verse 10) means not “sacrifice” but “slaughter.” 5 It is difficult to see the attempted killing as having the dignity of a divinely approved ritual when this brutal vocabulary is used.
Another very significant change in vocabulary occurs when the angel saves Isaac. Up to this point, the word used for God has been אלהים. While often used in the Old Testament to mean the God of Israel, this is really a generic term that can refer to any god or goddess. Only when Isaac is rescued does the true name of God -- יהוה, “the Eternal” -- appear in the text. The Girardian scholar Paul Nuechterlein believes that this change holds the key to the story:
Very important to a Girardian reading of this crucial passage is the idea that the God at the beginning of the passage who demands the sacrifice from Abraham is a different God from the one at the end who stops it. … Is this story trying to sort out the gods? Abraham begins hearing the common tribal gods of ancient polytheism who demand human sacrifices. On the mount of Yahweh-yireh, however, he begins to hear and envision the one true God who wants us to stop that nonsense. 6
This is not to say that a pagan god literally speaks to Abraham. It seems likely that Abraham starts by acting upon his own conception of God, the one men have made in their own image as part of their cycle of violence. Only when the true God, the Eternal, intervenes will Abraham begin to realise how wrong this conception is.
After Isaac is spared, Abraham sacrifices a ram in his place. To modern eyes, this, while undoubtedly preferable to child sacrifice, hardly marks the beginning of a kind and enlightened era. It is notable, however, that God does not ask for the ram to be sacrificed: Abraham merely sees it and assumes that it is to be killed. It is as if, now that the crisis has reached this point, it is impossible to leave without shedding blood of some kind.
We must also consider what sort of animal is being slaughtered. When Abraham and Isaac were discussing an alternative victim for the sacrifice, they assumed it would be a sheep (שה) -- a passive and neutral animal 7 that was bred for the purpose of sacrifice. A wild ram (איל) is a very different creature!
How did the ram come to be caught by its horns? This sort of accident is not uncommon among wild hoofed mammals during the battles of mating season. It usually happens either when the animal is ‘horning’ vegetation to intimidate a rival, or as it charges in a blind rage. An animal caught this way is doomed: it will either be killed by a predator or starve. 8 Could it be that the ram appears in the story, not to provide Abraham with a “surrogate victim" 9, but as another warning of the destructive effects of rivalry and violence?
Abraham chooses a telling name for the mountain: not “the Eternal spared my son,” but “the Eternal sees.” The Eternal does see, but man does not quite yet. There will be many more victims to come in our story; but something has already changed. The revelation on the mountain is just the start of a process that will reveal the truth about God to man.
1 The most thorough account of Girard’s theories on sacrifice is given in his 1972 book Violence and the Sacred. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, published in 1978, considers his theories in relation to scripture.
2 Things Hidden, pp. 141-144, 157-158. Girard does believe, however, that many Christians have given the Gospels a “sacrificial interpretation” that defeats their true purpose.
3 Most of what I say about Isaac here can also be said of Ishmael in the preceding chapter of Genesis.
4 Things Hidden, pp. 46-47.
5 Alter, p. 107.
6 The Girardian Lectionary, “Proper 8A."
7 The Hebrew word literally means “one of a flock.”
8 In her classic account of the wildlife of the American Southwest, The Land of Little Rain, Mary Austin describes finding the skeleton of a young ram with its horns still embedded in the trunk of a tree (p. 58). And Richard Despard Estes, an expert on the hoofed mammals of Africa, tells a true story that could just as well serve as a parable. Two fighting springboks found their horns inextricably locked; each spent the rest of its life face to face with its rival as they starved to death together (African Mammals, p. 83).
9 See Violence and the Sacred, pp. 101-103.
Alter, Robert. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004.
Austin, Mary. The Land of Little Rain. New York: Dover Publications, 1996 (first published 1903).
Estes, Richard D. The Behavior Guide to African Mammals. London: University of California Press, 1991.
Girard, René. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. London: Continuum, 2003 (originally published in French, 1978).
Girard, René. Violence and the Sacred. London: The Athlone Press, 1988 (originally published in French, 1972).
Nuechterlein, Paul. “Proper 8A,” The Girardian Lectionary. Published on the Internet June 27, 2005; accessed March 27, 2006.