Nonviolent Bible Interpretation V : Science of Human Relationships

So far we have been trying to undo, or deconstruct, violent bible interpretation (eternal decrees, literalism, empire, commodified soul). Now we can turn to the constructive side: a positively nonviolent interpretation.

If we read Genesis holistically, rather than legally and piecemeal, we gain a completely different sense of the human condition. Rather than an isolated legal fault condemning all, there is a profound and extended description of anthropology. This is the biblical anthropology identified by Girard: a science of fundamental human relationships arising in the bible.

To take up Genesis this way is a radical hermeneutic, just as Luther’s “only faith and only scripture” was a radical hermeneutic for his time. But Luther depended on an embedded interpretation of Christ’s death, one that understood that death in legal terms of compensation. In this sense Luther did not challenge a violent hermeneutic; he may well have served to intensify it.

Luther derived his understanding of the “sin of Adam” from the powerful impact of Augustinian tradition. It is a “vice of origin” which brings eternal death. Augustine, in his argument with Pelagius, used a faulty Latin translation of Romans (Kirwan 131-32). At 5:12 he believed the text read “in him all have sinned” rather than “because all have sinned.” Although this has been corrected in later translations it served to cement in tradition the notion of direct sharing in Adam’s personal sin.

It has been well said that Romans 5 is about a “communion of sinners” (with Adam) just as there is a “communion of saints” (with Christ). This idea stands in contrast to the thought of one man’s individual sin transmitted to all. The concept of original sin set the whole of humanity (and Christianity) on the wrong end of a legal judgment by God: rather than seeing it as trapped within a structural condition of desire and violence which it is God’s salvific intention to treat and reverse.

If you look at the accounts of the Garden of Eden and Cain and Abel (Genesis 2-4) it is evident these stories are doublets or mirror images and cannot be interpreted separately. They have the following features in common: familiar conversation between God and humans, warning about a crime and its consequences, commission of crime and resulting curses, mitigation of punishment. Most of all they have instigation or provocation in common.

The presence of the serpent (snake) in the Garden is left unexplained. At the level of the story the snake is simply the most cunning of the creatures; there is no thought of a supernatural Satan. It is a story-telling device to introduce the language of rivalry to Eve. But from a mimetic perspective it is God who already established the relationship of rivalry by setting up the prohibition against eating of the fruit of the tree in the first place. (A “test” is always a “model-obstacle.”) This mimetic componentĀ is reinforced at the end of the story when God gives as reason for excluding the first parents from the garden, “Because the man has become like one of us…and…he might…take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever;” 3:22.)

The instigation is corroborated when we look at in the second story. God arbitrarily prefers Abel’s sacrifice to Cain’s, without having given any ordinance for animal husbandry or animal sacrifice. He explicitly made Adam a tiller of the ground, not a pastor of sheep. God’s preference in fact can be seen to up the sacrificial ante for Cain, provoking him to kill his brother not a sheep. After this Cain has God’s sevenfold protection! It is no accident that Cain goes on to be the founder of the first city (4:17).

An unprejudiced reader cannot help but sense these subtle implications in the text. In other words, the story works to introduce problem themes of rivalry, violence and sacrifice as part of the actual process of becoming human. The thought of “God” is deeply implicated in the process and must therefore be understood as being subjected to deep questioning by the author. What is called the “historical grammatical” method, favored by conservatives, must surely recognize these textual features. It is only a secondary, imposed level of “interpretation” that can bend the meaning back to a simple legal matter of “original sin followed by bad consequences, and needing the sacrifice of Christ to forgive.”

A fundamentalist interpretation is itself an anthropology, since it depends on the law of mimetic exchange and displacement on the victim, implicit in substitutionary atonement. In other words it already makes God subject to a deeply human (anthropological) mechanism. God can’t just forgive: he has to provide a victim, for himself! As one member said, to forgive on condition of compensation (in particular the horribly violent death of a son) is not to forgive. The difference in the nonviolent hermeneutic is that it sees God subverting the mechanism itself, in order to transform actual humanity. Which then seems the more likely?

Another core aspect of Genesis 2-4 is its account of desire. The woman observing the fruit of the tree was awakened to desire on three levels: it was good to eat, good to look at, desirable for gaining wisdom. In a highly concise story this is a significant amount of text, developing a theme. It shows the author is fully alive to the issue of desire undergirding the whole drama. This is greatly reinforced in the Cain story where desire is described as so powerful that it has assumed a displaced, externalized role (4:7) : it is now itself the subject, desiring the figure of Cain who has abandoned his self to desire! As AA says, the disease of alcoholism is a subject in its own right, “cunning, baffling and powerful.” The intense commentary on human desire already evident in Genesis has, again, been passed over in favor of a purely legal interpretation.

Toward the end of our study someone made the telling point that the beginning of the human world for Jesus did not occur with Adam but with Abel (Lk. 11: 50-51). In other words for Jesus the story of Cain was the hermeneutic key for our human condition, not the story before it. But presumably he also read them together.


2 thoughts on “Nonviolent Bible Interpretation V : Science of Human Relationships

  1. Tony, I’m preaching on Romans 5 tomorrow (Lent 3) and your comments on ‘original sin’ have shed some amazing light into my exegesis!

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