Monday, January 25, 2016

Reimagining Sacrifice

An exposition of 1 Kings 3:2-28

How do we understand sacrifice? 

As Rene´ Girard was developing mimetic theory he was confronted with the challenge from his critics over the use of the word "sacrifice". He understood the scriptures throughout to reveal an anti-sacrificial message but he was still hemmed in by having to use the word "sacrifice". He stated that he believed "the answer to everything" was somehow within the story of Solomon's Judgment and he carried that story in his mind continually.

Therefore the primary insight here I have borrowed from Girard but in pursuing a better understanding of this I observed other meaningful interpretive elements in the texts cited above. Here is the first scene as I examine some of these elements.

After two introductory verses we come to verse 3:
Solomon loved the LORD, and lived according to the statutes that his father David obeyed, except that he sacrificed and burned offerings at the high places.

It seems clear from this text that this sacrificing by Solomon was regarded as a negative attribute in his appraisal as king. The word rendered sacrifice could as well be translated "slaughtered" as every meaning of the word zaw-bakh includes slaughter; brutal or violent killing. Further it is to be noted that this "slaughtering" is not connected by the writer with any form of idolatry. Too much should not be made of the allusion to high places as it previously states in verse two that sacrifice was occurring throughout the land at "high places" simply because there was, as of yet, no temple.

Verse 4 cites one such location, in Gibeon, where Solomon sacrificed 1,000 burnt offerings. So we have here birthed a nascent awareness that there is something amiss with this sacrificial behavior and or orientation.

Verses 5 through 8 recount the dream that Solomon has where God makes an offer for Solomon to "ask for whatever you want" and this results in Solomon wisely asking for the following in verse 9a:

"So give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, so I can discern between good and evil..."

The specificity of Solomon's request should not be overlooked: "so I can discern between good and evil."  This point and the discussion of sacrifice above taken together provide the interpretive key that unlocks the fuller meaning of what follows in the text.

This scene in the narrative closes with God being pleased by such a request and the granting of riches, etc., in consideration for such a humble request. Now we move on to scene two.

Scene one closes with Solomon waking up and realizing he's "dreamed a dream" and sacrifices and throws a party for all his servants.  Scene two begins with this: "Right about then". It almost seems as if the writer doesn't want you to forget the previous keys before you get to the door that needs unlocking. I reproduce the text of the second scene here for reference:

1Ki 3:16  Right about then, two prostitutes approached the king and requested an audience with him. 17 One woman said, "Your majesty, this woman and I live in the same house. I gave birth to a child while she was in the house. 18Three days later, this woman also gave birth. We lived alone there. There was nobody else with us in the house. It was just the two of us. 

19This woman's son died overnight because she laid on top of him. 20She got up in the middle of the night, took my son from me while your servant was asleep, and laid him to her breast after laying her dead son next to me. 21The next morning, I got up to nurse my son, and he was dead. But when I examined him carefully in the light of day, he turned out not to be my son whom I had borne!" 22"Not so," claimed the other woman. "The living child is my son, and the dead one is yours." But the first woman said, "Not so! The dead child is your son and the living one is my son." This is what they testified before the king. 

23The king said, "One of them claims, 'This living son is mine, and your son is the dead one' and the other claims 'No. Your son is the dead one and my son is the living one.' 24"Somebody get me a sword." So they brought a sword to the king. 25"Divide the living child in two!" he ordered. "Give half to the one and half to the other."

From verse 23 it is clear that Solomon cannot make a just determination from this as he recognizes their competing claims and the impossibility of being able to discern the truth of the matter between them. As brilliant as the tact he applies is to this situation in verse 24-25 this really only leads us to the true revelatory structure of the text itself, leveraging the prior interpretive keys a) the explicit leaning against the idea of sacrificial slaughter and b) the longing for discernment between good and evil.

Now we come to the point in the story where is the revealing of a distinction in our language of "sacrifice".

1Ki 3:26  The woman whose child was still alive cried out to the king, because her heart yearned for her son. "Oh no, your majesty!" she said. "Give her the living child. Please don't kill him." But the other woman said, "Cut him in half! That way, he'll belong to neither one of us." 

What we should be led to here is the fact that both women were willing to "sacrifice" the child. But the nature and understanding of that sacrifice is completely subverted away from slaughter and toward a form that is a redemptive self-giving, non-retributive, and non-violent. It is in fact an anti-sacrificial sacrifice. So then if we are to consider that Solomon received the ability to "discern good from evil" then we should ourselves make a distinction here. But exactly where or how should we do this? 

Referencing the interpretive keys above and one other detail from verse 16 we should be able to rightly divide this text. Verse 16 tells us that these two women are prostitutes. It seems significant that the writer includes this detail. At minimum their moral status as prostitutes has no bearing on a judgment here regarding the issue of good or evil. That one of the women, in her obviously grief stricken state would have no regard for a child that is not hers and would see it killed rather than suffer a second loss of a child doesn't seem to quite fit either. There is no corresponding good with which to juxtapose this understanding.

Therefore I propose, and think this is supported by the textual arrangement here, that what is really being judged by Solomon is, in fact, sacrifice. One is a "good" or "acceptable" sacrifice, and the other an "evil" or "unacceptable" sacrifice. 

There is here in both instances the same object of sacrifice, the child, yet the manner and at least as importantly is that the motivation for sacrifice is completely different. The woman who would see the child slaughtered was moved by grief and brokenness; unable to escape from the pain and fear that dominates her moment. Wanting that some other would "know" her suffering. The true mother of the child is willing to surrender all claims to the child, giving it over completely to the other so that the child could live.

It is in this second woman, a prostitute no less, that we find, in a christological reading of the text, the image of God and the only acceptable sacrifice that is a self-giving one following Christ's self-giving to us to become our victim and open our eyes to the fact the we are all, at the end of this story, portrayed as the one who says: "cut him in half" or more contemporarily: Crucify him! There is here a clue to the secret of living out a life that begins to mimic God and it is revealed in the prostitute/mother who would abandon all claims so that another-or others-might live.

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