The contingent nature of sacrifice: Relational determinants in biology & theology

Sacrifice: Biological and theological investigations

for economic and military/political praxis


Humboldt University-Berlin

Theology Faculty

Burgstr. 26, Berlin

16-17 June, 2016


The contingent nature of sacrifice:

Relational determinants in biology, physics, and theology

Marcia Pally

The type, meaning, and assessment (value) of sacrifice is known to be contingent upon time and culture. I would like to look at the meaning and value of sacrifice as contingent on the nature of the relationship of the parties.

In his book On Sacrifice, Moshe Halbertal distinguishes between sacrifice to and sacrifice for. Sacrifice to is an offering—not a gift—that presupposes a power imbalance between sacrificer and recipient and entails the risk of rejection—a terrifying dilemma: I sacrifice to engage the power party’s good will but may be spurned or punished. The fear of rebuff and anger at rejection may then lead to aggression against those who were not rebuffed, an observation made in the biblical Cain and Abel story, where, in the face of God’s acceptance of his brother Abel’s offering but rejection of his own, Cain murders his only brother. This fear/rage, Halbertal notes, must be contained for societal survival, and from this come the highly ritualized protocols of sacrifice to contain the fear and anger inherent in sacrifice to.

Halbertal’s sacrifice to in some ways recalls the Girardian analysis that societal competition—for resources (Girard) or for acceptance of one’s sacrifice (Halbertal)—accumulates into socially destructive aggression that must be constrained by the rituals of sacrifice.

In sacrifice for—for a child, a cause—the sacrificer chooses to assign great value to the recipient, granting the sacrificer more power and less anxiety about rejection. Nonetheless the problem of aggression presents itself in the possibility that the sacrificer is willing to commit violence for the cause. This may be contained, as we contain the willingness to sacrifice for one’s country in the protocol of the military. But the potential of aggression in sacrificing for a cause is not always so containable, as we see in suicide bombings.

I would like to look at the effect kind of relationship has on sacrifice to and for and their potential to violence, specifically how sacrifice changes when the relationship between sacrificer and recipient is covenantal.

Covenant is a bond of reciprocal regard and care, a bond of giving—including sacrifice—for the flourishing of the other. Unlike contract, which protects interests, covenant protects relationship. That we exist in covenantal relationship is an idea that evolutionary biology, neurobiology, and physics seem to be catching up to. One quote from each, given time constraints: Evolutionary biology finds that we are a “hyper-cooperative species”[1] in which “reciprocal altruism” [2] structures not only dyadic and kin relations but large societal networks even among highly mobile persons and groups absent long-term contact.[3], [4] Neurobiology finds that whom a person becomes is a co-construction of genes, gene expression from environmental effects… and the ecological and cultural surroundings… There is no being without shared social relations.”[5] From the physicist Carlo Rovelli we find that “we must accept the idea that reality is only interaction.. All things are continually interacting with one another, and in doing so each bears the traces of that with which it has interacted.” [6]

To return to the theology of covenant: It is easy to imagine a non-reciprocal covenant between unequal parties, and easy to imagine a reciprocal bond between equal parties. The innovation of the biblical covenant is a reciprocal bond between unequal parties—between the transcendent and humanity and between persons even of unequal status and power. The powerful have covenantal responsibilities to the needy.

Because the relationship is covenantal, sacrifice is no longer sacrifice to but an act of reciprocal care. Both the reciprocity and care gain weight by covenant’s irrevocability, as God expressed in the Noahite covenant, repeatedly to the patriarchs,[7] and at the burning bush, where God’s name is the words, eheyeh-asher-eheyeh, not “I am as I am” as often mis-translated. The words are in the future tense, “I will be as I will be.” God’s covenant will not extinguish as the burning bush is not[8]–an idea taken up by Paul Ricoeur, who reads the text as “I am who will be with you.”[9]

The act of sacrifice then is not sacrifice to, requiring a ritual to contain fear, outrage, and violence but rather a gift exchanged in a reciprocal relationship. Gift exchange, as Marcel Mauss described it in his early anthropological studies,[10] is freely given and unrequired yet establishes covenant because something of the spirit of the donor rests within the gift, given to the recipient. In a gift-exchange society such as the ancient Hebrews had, a gift from God, carrying God’s spirit to persons, is a breathtaking idea. Not just any chieftain but God—the source of all–entrusts his spirit to humanity in covenant. The creation story describes God precisely as breathing his “spirit” into Adam.

What does humanity give back in reciprocity? One example is the dedication of land to God and bringing the harvest to the Temple. As God’s gift to humanity is being/existence itself, the people bring back to God gifts of food from the land, from our means of survival, of being. It is acceptance of the reciprocity of covenant.

Another instance of gift from humanity to God is generosity to other persons. A gift to the needy, a sacrifice from person to person, is considered a gift to God. How do we come to this triangulation? God—the cause of causes, the ground for existence—must be “in” each of us in order for us to exist. God breathes his spirit into us, giving us life; Aquinas called this God “intimate” within us. [11] Poetically, we are in God’s “image,” the imago or tselem Elohim. Having something of God “in” us, we have something of a moral correspondence, similitudo, dmuth Elohim, and can act–within human capacities–as God acts in world. As God acts covenantally with us, we–with God “intimately in” us—have the capacity to act covenantally with others, both with God and persons.

This is the mutual constitution, the linked-ness of covenant between persons and God and among persons. Being in the image of a covenant-making, sacrifice-making, gift-giving God, we have capacity to make covenant with others and sacrifice for them, God and other persons. When we act covenantally and give to other persons, three things follow: first, it is an instance of the donor’s or sacrificer’s being in the image of a covenant-making, giving God and therefore of being able to give covenantally. Second, as the donor/sacrificer acts covenantally to other persons, in whom God’s spirit “inheres,” the donor is also acting covenantally to God “in” other persons. Third, the donor acts covenantally to those with whom God also is in covenant. Thus, as in gift exchange societies, covenantal giving or sacrifice with one person expresses and strengthens covenant with all (all persons and God).

To sum, in a covenantal relationship, sacrifice to, is stripped of its fears, anger, and aggression and becomes reciprocal gift expressing covenant. In covenant, sacrifice for is also stripped of its violent potential–for instance, suicide attacks–because the suicide bomber, as human, is in covenant with those he might blow up. Killing undoes the three features of our covenantal nature described earlier. First, killing violates his being in the image of a covenant-making God, violates his very nature. Second, it kills the spirit of God that is “in” his potential victims; and third, as he violates covenant with his victims, he vitiates covenant with all others, including God.

In short, that we have a covenantal nature owing to our being in the image of a covenantal God re-frames the nature of sacrifice. I suggest of course that all seven billion people on earth start taking their covenantal nature seriously. The unproductive outcomes when we don’t are illustrated biblically in the binding Isaac story, traditionally interpreted as a test of Abraham’s faith, which Abraham demonstrates by his willingness to sacrifice his son. God stops the sacrifice, making clear that human sacrifice—the killing of human beings—is not an expression of covenant with God because it violates the linked covenants: between person and God and among persons.

On Yoram Hazony’s reading, Abraham does not demonstrate faith by his willingness to kill but rather knows, as he twice says, that human sacrifice—the violation of covenant among persons–violates covenant with God, who will find an animal substitute, which God does.

Yet another reading suggests that Abraham fails covenant with God as he fails covenant with Isaac. That is, in failing to protest against Isaac’s sacrifice (as Abraham protested against the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah), Abraham fails to act as a moral agent in reciprocal linked covenants with God and Isaac. He acts not as a responsible agent in reciprocal relationships but as a servant in moral obsequiousness. Thus, Abraham loses both covenants at once. God never again speaks to Abraham but sends a representative, an angel, to stay the knife. The angel acknowledges that Abraham meant to do right. But the special relationship between God and Abraham is past.

So will ours be if we do not put our notions of sacrifice in their rightful covenantal frame.

[1] Paul Schmid-Hempel, Institute for integrative biology, Zurich, Switzerland, personal communication, May 15, 2015.

[2] Robert Trivers, “The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism,” The Quarterly Review of Biology 46, no. 1 (1971): 35-57; see also Samuel Bowles and Herbert Ginties,  A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and its Evolution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013); Edward O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth (New York, NY: Liveright/Norton, 2013); Joan Silk and Bailey House, “Evolutionary Foundations of Human Prosocial Sentiments,” PNAS 108, Suppl. 2 (2011): 10910– 10917.

[3] See, for instance, Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney, “The Evolutionary Origins of Friendship,” Annual Review of Psychology, 63 (2012): 179–199; Carlos Roca and Dirk Helbing, “Emergence of Social Cohesion in a Model Society of Greedy, Mobile Individuals,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2012).; Michael Tomasello, Why we Cooperate (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009); Frans de Waal, The Age of Empathy (London, UK: Souvenir Press, 2010).

[4] Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler find that, even amid present-day mobility and urban anonymity, generous acts prompt generous responses not only dyadically and immediately but expansively, in network fashion, see, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, Connected: The Surprising Power of our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives — How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do (New York, NY: Little, Brown & Company, 2009).

[5] Darcia (2014). Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture, and Wisdom. W. W. Norton & Company, pp. 15, 103

[6] Rovelli, Carlo (2016). Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. New York: Penguin Publishing, pp. 20, 69. See also,

The vast majority of human societies in past and present do not display a dominator model (Fry, 2013).

Narvaez: two ways cultures can be set up, with either an emphasis on competition or on cooperation. In the natural world, competition is a thin icing on a thick cake of cooperation… the currently dominant competition story may be a natural output of the way we have been raising children and ourselves. (p. 10)

[7] Genesis 12:3, 26:4, and 33:3

[8] If the more traditional translation, “I am as I am,” were correct, the Hebrew would be “Ani asher ani.” For the correct use of the future tense in English, see Alter, R. (2008). The five books of Moses: A translation with commentary. New York, NY: Norton, p. 321.

[9] LaCocque, A. & Ricoeur, P. (1998). From interpretation to translation. In Thinking biblically: Exegetical and hermeneutical studies. (D. Pellauer, Trans.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, p. 331.

[10] Mauss, M. (1990a). The gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic society. (W.D. Halls, Trans.). London, UK: Routledge. (Original work published as Essai sure le don: Sociologie et anthropologie 1923).

[11]  Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the Dominican English Province, vols. 1-5 (Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1948; original 1265-1274), Ia, q. 105, art. 5; see also, Summa Theologica 1.8.

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Marcia Pally

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