Sunday, May 12, 2013

More On Sibling Rivalry & Scripture

There are some thinkers who have suggested that the real original sin is Cain's killing of Abel. While I generally reject this view, it has some merit. After all, the Cain/Abel story begins a pattern of sibling rivalry and struggle that in many ways defines the rest of Genesis. Abraham and Lot part ways. Ishmael and Isaac are set at odds by their mothers' rivalry. Jacob contends with his brother Esau and later his uncle Laban. Then the biggest of sibling rivalry's: Joseph's conflict with his brothers.

At the heart of all these stories is the theme of scapegoating. Rene Girard, who argues that scapegoating is the central sin in scripture and that scripture should be read as a working out of the scapegoating process in human history, is one of those who argues for the Cain and Abel Story as the true story of original sin. Cain of course kills Abel to work out his conflict with God, and out of envy. Isaac and Ishmael are the victims of Hagar's place as the scapegoat for Abraham and Sarah, whose unresolved issues are visited on Hagar and Ishmael. Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and His Brothers, are all examples of similar situations, if not identical situations.

And the whole of Genesis is the long story of people dealing with parental conflict by turning on their siblings. Limited resources add to the tension, a situation which is no one's fault becomes a reason to attack some individual as sinful or evil (Jacob and Esau grow up at a time when the Israelites' ancestors face limited water resources, as the various fights over wells in Genesis attests to). What is amazing is how open and honest the Bible is about the Scapegoating theme. Whereas other myths and stories try to conceal the theme, in the Bible it is open for all to see. Jacob the scapegoater is scapegoated himself, and realizes the errors of his ways.

Certainly, the Bible speaks to a universal human truth here. Siblings' unresolved parental issues often lead to in-fighting. Brothers and sisters scapegoat each other. Indeed, the family structure is the first one that provides a framework for scapegoating. The legacies of these practices in the Bible are monumental: they lead to family feuds that become tribal feuds and later national feuds that last for centuries, and in some cases millenia. All of this surely speaks to Girard's hermeneutic. He was right in detecting the scapegoating theme as important and pervasive, though I disagree with him that it is foundational. What is certainly true is that the Girardian framework helps explain the importance of sibling rivalry in the Bible.

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