Sacrifice and the Communal Body in the Hebrew Scriptures
by Michael Bryson
Library of Social Science publishes papers and essays by the world’s most passionate, insightful scholars. Bryson’s superb paper (10,000 words) illuminates violence in the ancient world. In our Newsletter version below, we have attempted to capture the essence of Bryson’s argument—showing how community formation grows out of sacrifice and bodily dismemberment.
About the Author
Leah Greenfield
Michael Bryson
is Professor of English at California State University, Northridge. His research and teaching focuses on authority and its construction.

By the Author, Michael Bryson

The Atheist Milton

Author: Michael Bryson
Publisher: Ashgate
Format: Hardcover 
Published: 2012
ISBN-10: 0874138590
Language: English
Pages: 184

Michael Bryson posits that John Milton - possibly the most famous 'Christian' poet in English literary history - was, in fact, an atheist. Bryson argues such tensions are central to Milton's poetry - and to any attempt to understand that poetry on its own terms.

The formation of community is inextricably bound up with violence in the Hebrew scriptures. The first murderer becomes the first city-founder. The first unified action by the tribes of Israel—the first not in response to an external threat—results from the dismembering of a woman’s body.

The mythological and religious heritage of the West relies heavily on the analogy between the corporal body and the communal Body. Christ is spoken of in Ephesians 1.22-23 as “the head over all things for the church, which is his body [soma], the fullness of him who fills all in all.” ‘The unity of this body of Christ/Body of Christians is expressed in Galatians 3.28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

This theme is sounded again in Romans: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another” (12.4-5). Note that in this passage not only are the individual parts united in a greater whole, but the individual parts are “members of one another.” In this vision of the communal Body, the relationship between parts is as important as that between parts and whole. Only when each part becomes a member of each other part is the communal Body whole.

Sacrifice must involve blood; a body must be rendered, cut, burnt, somehow consumed in order for the sacrifice to be acceptable, and in order for the community—the communal Body—to be formed. Rene Girard’s thesis that “sacrifice serves to protect the entire community from its own violence”, and “to prevent conflicts from erupting” finds no support in the earliest chapters of Genesis, where the first sacrifice results in violence: Cain murders Abel.

“Must identity be forged in violence?” In the narratives considered in this essay, I believe the answer is “yes.” Communities are formed, communal actions are undertaken, and communal identities are reinforced through sacrificial violence and the violence (often war) that follows. In the portrait drawn by these narratives, violence among humans did not arise until after the sacrificial process; the pattern of violence, rather than being quelled by sacrifice, actually emerges from the sacrificial pattern.

Even the sign of the original covenant between Yahweh and Abraham involves sacrifice, blood, and dismemberment as a way of establishing the roles of Yahweh as central authority and of Abraham as the origin of the communal Body:

This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant. (Genesis 17.10-11, 14)

The original sign of a communal Body involved the “dismembering” of corporal bodies; flesh was cut off of the body so that the body might not be “cut off” from the Body. The pattern of symbolizing Bodies with bodies, of using mutilation and dismemberment to symbolize the formation of a unified communal Body, and of using that Body as a symbol of totality, of centralized authority, is established at the beginning of the scripture.

Outside threats created an ephemeral unity, a kind of “national” exoskeleton that temporarily bound the disparate tribes into a single military Body. Rather than being celebrated, this situation is portrayed in the Judges narrative as leading only to trouble; the continual necessity of raising up yet another “judge” to deliver the tribes of Israel from their larger, better organized neighbors serves to highlight the need for, and justify the move towards, a monarchical Israelite nation.

The literal dismemberment of a human body as a call for the formation of a communal Body is, for the writer of Judges, a sign of a “society” in which such a war is taking place. This war is blamed on the fact that there was “no king in Israel”; Hobbes would, no doubt, agree:

. . . during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called War; and such a war, as is of every man, against every man.

Would a King in Israel serve to keep all the warring factions “in awe” rather than at each other’s throat? The answer of the book of Judges is “Yes.”

At this point it seems that the monarchical hopes expressed in the Judges narrative have been realized. The “war of every man against every man” has been halted; the many have been made one Body; there is a king in Israel, and all is right with the world. But Saul doesn’t stay in Yahweh’s (or Samuel’s) good graces very long, and old conflicts soon threaten to tear the new and fragile nation apart—requiring more sacrificial dismemberments.

The analogous relationship between the corporal body (the bone, blood, sinew, and muscle at once familiar and alien) and the communal Body (Society, the Church, etc.) is expressed in metaphors so deeply ingrained in our thought and language as to be nearly invisible. We speak of leaders as “heads.” The productive capacity of a manufacturing and transportation infrastructure is the “backbone” of a capitalist economy. A Congress or Parliament or town/village council is a deliberative “Body.”

We constitute a Body Politic, and we speak of the various organs of a society.12 In various disciplines, we speak of a writer’s “body of work.” We refer to a “body of knowledge”; we speak of economic “growth,” the “birth” of nations, and of the Renaissance (literally rebirth) or the revival (return to life and consciousness) of ideas and social forms. The body is perhaps our most basic metaphor: our experience of the world is as a body, and our sense of unity, arising from a fragmentation by which it is ever threatened with reengulfment, is a body’s sense.

The metaphor of the communal Body can be traced back in the West through Hobbes and Hegel, to Aristotle and Plato. For Hobbes

[the] great Leviathan called a Common-Wealth, or State is but an artificial man . . . in which the sovereignty is an artificial soul giving life and motion to the whole body.

Hegel, in his Philosophy of History, writes of the decay of a political body in terms of the decay of a corporal body:

As, when the physical body suffers dissolution, each point gains a life of its own, but which is only the miserable life of worms; so the political organism is here dissolved into atoms—viz., private persons.

In Hobbes, Hegel, Plato, and Aristotle, the Body serves as an image for a society built on principles of centralized authority. In this view, order is represented as a whole and healthy Body, while chaos is pictured as a diseased, and decaying Body. Each member of the Body partakes of the whole Body by submitting to, and participating in, the system of centralized authority.

Our metaphor of a social Body may not be fundamentally totalitarian, but it is a centripetal metaphor: all elements of the Body have meaning, have life, only through their relation to the Whole Body. Just as a kidney is meaningless without the corporal body, so (in this view) is the citizen meaningless without the communal Body, so meaningless, in fact, that in Athens of the 5th century BCE, the “private” person—whose actions were not directed to the maintenance of the polis—was given the label idiotes, the root of our word “idiot.”

Perhaps our particular notions of totality, authority, and community are the problem; our tendency is to personalize totality, to give it the visage of a jealous god, quick to anger and slow to forgiveness. Our tendency is to think of human individuals as members of a communal Body, a dangerous anthropomorphizing of community which suggests that—though it might be painful—some “members” of the Body may be sacrificed for the good of the whole Body.

This line of thought takes the dismemberment imagery of Judges 19 and 1 Samuel 15 and transforms it into the imagery of self-dismemberment in Mark 9.43-48,” which in turn becomes the model for the functioning of the communal Body. This entire line of thought—the analogy of corporal body to communal Body, added to the notions of sacrifice and dismemberment in the formation of community—has been, and continues to be, at the root of the problem of community in the West. The Biblical stories have been, and continue to be, among our most influential models. The question we must now face is whether we are able or willing to conceive of other models.