Sacrificial Currency
Commentary on Michael Bryson’s essay, “Dismemberment and Community
Sacrifice and the Communal Body in the Hebrew Scriptures”
Alexander Chirila
To read Michael Bryson's Essay, click here.
Alexander C. Chirila PhD, teaches English and Literature at Webster University, Thailand.
The correlation between violence and community formation relies on another paradigm: belief that individual human bodies can be amalgamated into a communal Body as part—or members—of a whole. Bryson states that this paradigm is related to the concept of centralized authority, “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.”
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The human capacity for extreme violence is evident in the foundational scriptures of the Judeo-Christian mythos. Not long after the world is given form and life in Genesis, the first murder is committed—a fratricide, no less.

Nor is there abatement in bloodshed as the Pentateuch moves into the settlement of the Holy Land. Indeed, the formation of the Israelite community is attended at almost every pivotal juncture by violence, from intimate familial violence to regional war and the brutal annihilation of entire cities and peoples.

This is the subject of Michael Bryson’s essay, “Dismemberment and Community: Sacrifice and the Communal Body in the Hebrew Scriptures,” a powerful foray into the violent underpinnings of the Torah. From Abel to the unnamed concubine of Judges 19, Bryson explores the implications of the link between Israel’s body politic and the bloodshed that makes its evolution possible.

This link is not an idle point belonging to the philosophy of a religion. Since the Bible is one of the most influential texts in Western history and society, the implications of the connection continue to resound in today’s more world.

The correlation between violence and community formation relies on another paradigm: belief that individual human bodies can be amalgamated into a communal Body as part—or members—of a whole. Bryson states that this paradigm is related to the concept of centralized authority, “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.”

Bryson mentions the Chandogya Upanishad as an Eastern counterpoint to the Biblical narrative’s emphasis on authority and sacrifice:

The Brahminic vision displays no will to power; there is a focus on totality, on the identity of Atman and Brahman, but there is no mechanism of sacrifice [at work], and thus there is no need for the shedding of blood which is a constant element in the sacrificial mechanisms at work in the Bible.

Bryson is correct: nonviolence is a persistent element in many of the spiritual systems that flourished throughout the subcontinent, including Jainism, Buddhism, and many forms of Hinduism. However, sacrifice does appear in Hinduism—largely in the form of animal sacrifice—particularly in the Vedas.

There is also an instance of dismemberment found in the Rigveda, namely of the primordial, macrocosmic man Purusha:

When the Gods prepared the sacrifice with Purusa as their offering, its oil was spring, the holy gift was autumn; summer was the wood. They balmed as victim on the grass Purusa born in earliest time…From that great general sacrifice the dripping fat was gathered up (Hymn XC: 6-8).

In Creation Myths of the World, David A. Leeming writes:

The world parent sacrifice-dismemberment motif involves the sacrifice and usually the dismemberment of a being who is turned into the various orderly elements of creation, thus becoming, in the literal sense, the world parent. It remains to be emphasized that at the base of any creative act is the necessity of sacrifice (2010).

This motif, as Leeming points out, is present in creation stories across the globe, from Oceania to North America.

In the case of cosmological creation myths, the original entity whose limbs and fluids become the mountains and rivers of the world is primordial and often monstrous (e.g. a world-devouring serpent). The death and subsequent transformation of such an entity requires an exercise of imagination to fathom, a highly abstract and symbolic feat of representation undertaken to provide an answer to perennial questions regarding the origins of our world.

The death and rebirth of gods and monsters is perhaps more palatable because they are fundamentally inhuman (although they often possess many human characteristics).

The matter changes when the formation of human community arises from the sacrifice and/or dismemberment of a human being. Bryson writes, “The original sign of a communal Body involved the ‘dismembering’ of corporal bodies. 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.”

Sacrifice is an act of violence—against an animal or human—intended to invoke, placate, or gratify a receptive deity. Sacrifice is a specific form of offering, ubiquitous in much of the world’s history and still practiced today. While there are bloodless offerings made to deities, saints, and other intercessors, as for example in Buddhism, sacrifice remains a conspicuous element in the practice of many religions.

The concept that sacrifice is required to achieve a desired result is, of course, entirely familiar and can be found outside of religious contexts. It is most evident in the rhetoric of authority, particularly when it concerns conflict and war.

Sacrifice is a complex term; the act itself can be willing or unwilling, sacred or profane, performed or inflicted, sanctioned or prohibited. A sacrifice is ritualistic when it is embedded in a sacralized context according to a particular logic. This logic does not actually need to be “rational;” it need only maintain a consistent attribution of meaning with respect to ritualized objects, actions, and languages.

Sacrificial offerings were (and are) a form of currency within a religious system. Naturally, livestock possesses the greatest value and consequently produces the greatest potential return from a recipient (god, spirit, etc.) that values that form of currency.

In the same way that an animal, for example, has value as a whole and in terms of its parts (flesh, organs, limbs, etc.), it is common for sacrificial rituals to include dismemberment, in order for the offering’s different parts to be allocated according to their individual value.

This value, moreover, may be literal and symbolic. Sacrifices may be personal, of course, but in religious scriptures and traditions we often find that they are communal affairs, employed to obtain benefit for the whole Body.

Communal sacrifices may also be offered in exchange (in place of something that it would be taboo to sacrifice), as when an animal is sacrificed to expiate a transgression committed by a human being or group.

Bryson maintains that

Communities are formed, communal actions are undertaken, and communal identities reinforced through sacrificial violence and the violence (often war) that follows. The pattern of violence, rather than being quelled by sacrifice, emerges from the sacrificial pattern.

The extremes of dismemberment and mutilation are matched by subsequent extremes of wholesale slaughter and genocide, whether of a “dismembered limb” of Israel itself (the Benjamite city of Gibeah) or an external foe (the Ammonites).

Bryson suggests that the sacrificial act may be interpreted to sanction violence rather than prevent it. The unfortunate concubine’s body was both a sacrifice and a call to arms, specifically in response to the “lewd and outrageous act” (NIV Judges 20:4) committed by the men of Gibeah. Importantly, it is a Levite man who dismembers the concubine’s corpse; a member of the priestly class responsible for and authorized to perform sacrifices.

One may interpret dismemberment as a form of sanctification embedded in a ritual context: the Levite intended to rouse the tribes against Gibeah with the blessing of the Lord. The woman’s death was profane—and grotesque—but the Levite’s actions invested the body with ritualized, symbolic meaning, transforming the original act of violence into something capable of unifying the tribes as a Body organized around a common purpose.

Later, in 1 Samuel, the king of the Amalekites, Agag, is dismembered as “a graphic representation of the rejection of Saul as king of Israel. The communal body must be re-formed, and a blood sacrifice is needed. Agag serves nicely” (Bryson). Here also dismemberment is employed ritualistically—to compensate for Saul’s transgression against a divine mandate to destroy every single Amalekite, including their livestock and beasts of burden. Bryson asks, “What better way to symbolically sacrifice a king than by actually sacrificing another king?”

Bryson emphasizes the relationships between human bodies and the Body of which they are part, and sketches the persistence of this correlation in Western thought through Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, and of course Hobbes. He writes, “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.” He goes on to say that

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.

However, rather than condemn this governing paradigm of Western thought, it may be helpful to examine the ritual symbolism underlying sacrifice—and sacrificial dismemberment. In our contemporary world, we have not escaped the irrational logic that assigns value to blood sacrifice; it is only that we have replaced a predominantly religious system of meaning with a sociopolitical one. Our sacrifices are conducted in government buildings and on battlefields, and we propitiate states, governments, and oligarchies rather than deities and spirits.

Many of our world’s societies remain willing to cut off or dismember entire communities and groups in a bid to ensure the perpetuation of certain ideologies, social systems, and patterns of behavior. The question is whether these actions are ritualistic and symbolic; may properly be called sacrificial offerings.

When a state decides to send its young men and women to war, does this constitute a ritual sacrifice? When the well-being of an entire group of people is forsaken because it is judged convenient or ideologically warranted, does this count as ritual sacrifice?

To answer these questions, we may look for the underlying logic of ritual sacrifice: the symbolic meaning attributed to the violence in question. When a community scapegoats, imprisons, or otherwise isolates a group as somehow “diseased” or “dangerous” to the Body, to what extent is this ritualistic? The answer depends on the extent to which authority is surrendered to, or bestowed upon, the Body.

In the Bible, God will always have more power than the nation and its people; sacrifices are necessary to placate a being that is more than capable of erasing creation in its entirety (and is known to have done so once already, via the Flood). Without God, of course, sacrifices are wasteful and meaningless.

Outside of a religious context, sacrifices depend on a similar relationship: the Body must be more than the sum of its parts, even ideologically deified, to the point where any sacrifices made are elevated to a level of symbolic meaning that validates and justifies the violence.

In the case of the Hindu atman or Buddhist deities, they are already intrinsic, ever-present, and all-pervasive: they do not require blood sacrifice because there is no distance for the sacrifice to close between the deity and the community.

In a relationship defined by distance, imbalance of power, sacrifice is assigned value as a means of communion. When the State or Nation assumes a similar relationship to its people, couched in the rhetoric of absolute authority, sacrifice may be a viable way to appease, invoke, or move that authority.