Hapax Legomenon: This Body of Death
“They know not, neither will they understand; they walk on in darkness: all the foundations of the earth are out of course” (Ps. 82:5).
One of the last things Jesus said before He died was “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). It’s true. And with reference to sacrifice, it’s not clear from an anthropological standpoint why it has ever been practiced. If one stays within the confines of the Judeo-Christian worldview, taking its cues and clues from that umwelt, if you will, they need only look back to Genesis 3:21 and 22:2 as the basis for its practice therein. The former reference prefigures Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for the sin of Adam and Eve and the latter the test of Abraham, ensuring he cared more for God and His plan than the son he and Sarah waited so long to receive.
“Who can understand his errors? Cleanse Thou me from secret faults” (Ps. 19:12).
However, syncretizing all sacrifice into a homogenous, easily explained act as a means of finding a through-line or commonality (other than violent, brutal death), is impossible. One culture says the sacrifice is guilty; that the being on the altar has committed some unforgivable sin and is therefore worthy of death. Most cultures sacrifice animals—many practiced human sacrifice. Other cultures proclaim a divine sacrifice. Whether they were divine prior to being offered is another variable. Most divine sacrifices “rise again” in a cycle of death and rebirth. Some do not. Call it what you will: “scapegoat,” “sin offering” (see Lev. 9:2), atoning immolation and oblation, et al. (“ritual murder”), the idea that something has to die in order to keep the multitude from bearing the curse of the gods is endemic in ancient history and religion. Widespread, yes. Understood? It remains to be seen. Consider this quote from French anthropologist René Girard (from his little book Sacrifice):
“If the term sacrifice is used for the death of Jesus, it is in a sense absolutely contrary to the archaic sense. Jesus consents to die in order to reveal the lie of blood sacrifices and to render them henceforth impossible. The Christian notion of redemption must be interpreted on the basis of this reversal.”
Girard proposed mimetic theory to explain, among other things, the idea of sacrifice as beneficial to human progress. Evident in everything from familial relations to advertising, mimesis—the act of advancing mimicry—is a primal, underlying motivation of the individual and the collective. Appeasing through sacrifice a fickle deity or deities ensured everything from peace to fertility to abundance. With guilt and sin as recurring parts of the human experience and condition, the need to displace it is woven into our psyche (see Lev. 16, too). The difference, however, that Girard proposed between all other cultures and Christianity, was that Jesus was the only one—as narrated and elucidated in the Gospels—who took the sin of the many, yet was innocent. Innocent; divine, before and after; resurrected; ascended. Jesus is all this and more. And faith in Him is all that is required to see it.
“But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For He is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; Having abolished in His flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in Himself of twain one new man, so making peace” (Eph. 2:13–15).
When Asaph declares in Psalm 82 that “all the foundations of the world are out of course,” it’s as if each sacrificial act outside of Christ is being done incorrectly. A holy God, on whom all are reliant for every need, cannot abide a gift coming from any place other than He. I remember hearing once that “The Lord provides the sacrifice.” It didn’t make any sense; I’d never thought of it that way, nor heard it. A closer reading of Genesis, then, served to show me where the concept came from.
“And Abraham said, My son, God will provide Himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together” (Gen. 22:8).
I was in the middle of grappling with the idea that Christianity was myth and all its attendant symbols and stories were echoed (and sometimes predated) in mythological antiquity. I had been seeking to substantiate my faith for myself and this only served to complicate (and invigorate) my personal theological quest. Far from a widescale confirmation bias, I wanted to understand these things in a broader light and context. This is the first in a constellation of entries explaining Jesus as unique among myth.