The Story of Frank and Two Goats

Hans Urs von Balthazar has formulated what he calls the “theological law of proportionate polarization” in which “the more God intervenes, the more he elicits opposition to him.” Love and sin, intervention and opposition, work in reciprocal relation: sin escalates in the presence of love and ever-greater mercy arouses ever-greater anger.” What is most holy and pure, such as the Tabernacle and the Temple, will draw to itself—like a magnet—what is least holy and what is least pure. This is why the day of atonement requires two goats, this is why evil accumulated in direct opposition to Christ, and this is why the Church is peculiarly conducive to the growth of both wheat and tares.  Great evil and great good will grow up together and tend to accumulate in one time and place.  It is the story Scripture tells and it is a life principle which calls for a peculiar discernment.

Tares and wheat, the goat of the Lord and the goat of Azazel, wolves in sheep’s clothing, are identical or nearly identical in appearance. For those who have the frame of mind, the perspective, maybe it is simply the raw intelligence, it is “obvious” and straightforward how to sort things out (not being so gifted I am challenged to describe it).  Years ago, Frank, while my student, began work on the two goats of atonement, the YHWH goat and Azazel goat, which has proven to be a deep grammar of Scripture – and an insight into Frank.

First a bit on Frank’s key part in Forging Ploughshares.  Before I fully realized exactly what shape FP might take Frank volunteered to help us put it together and to build the various media and web tools we would need. In addition to helping provide content, Frank is our webmaster, which means he does our web set-up and management, he decides what does and does not go up and how and when it appears. He specializes in a deep grammar sort of discernment.  The impact of capitalism on the food supply, sustainable agriculture and living, are his specialties. (He can also explain how to cure an earache, treat depression, and prolong life, with tools immediately available, e.g. a common weed.)

In his study of Rene Girard, Frank recognized that Girard’s notion of the scapegoat – a word taken from Leviticus, is not functioning as Girard had described it.  Girard gets the scapegoat right in the world’s religious sacrificial systems. However, both Girard and theories of penal substitution fused the two goats of Yom Kippur. Where Girard came to see his mistake, hundreds of years of theology have depended upon an imagery that is blurred and mistaken. It is typical of Frank to discern that the deep grammar, the programming language, the code, the back end of the process, contains an error.

As Jacob Milgrom has described it: “Azazel is the name of a demon who has been eviscerated of his erstwhile demonic powers by the Priestly legislator.” This is not a goat for sacrifice or for presentation to the Lord.  As Milgrom points out, the Azazel goat would not be acceptable as an offering, certainly not to an all-holy God, and not even to a demon.  Where the Azazel goat is conflated with the YHWH goat the demonic, impure, and evil, is projected onto that which is dedicated to God and ultimately onto God himself. There is a black and white nature to this realization that it is shocking to have missed.

Frank has connected the immediate impact of this to the Lord’s Supper and the manner in which it is practiced.  “What sort of body is it that we are partakers of?  Is this a meal of mourning aimed at memorializing death or is this a meal of celebration aimed at rejoicing in life?”  Where the Azazel goat is preserved and memorialized along with the YHWH goat, that which was supposed to have been consigned to oblivion as evil – death itself – is preserved as sacred.

For Frank to come to this required a facility with languages on the order of his facility with computer languages.  Beyond this there must be a capacity to enter the world this entails.  In Leviticus the Azazel goat, as representative of sin and death, is sent into the oblivion of miḏbār, the wilderness and desert, the place that represents the polar opposite of holiness, the polar opposite of “life-sustaining order.  His destiny is ’eres gezêrāh – “an inaccessible region,” “a land cut off.” The destination of the Azazel-goat was descent into the pit of no return.  There is a Hebraic form of thought here which when violated or set aside is bound to skew the meaning of the symbol system and thought world of the Bible.

To imagine Christ’s death is a sacrifice on the order of Azazel goat or privileging the Azazel goat, as in penal substitution, is a violation – a sacrilege –  which was black and white even to me, once Frank pointed it out.  There has been a complete reversal, among those who cannot see in black and white, among those who are incapable of reading code and entering the strange new world of the Bible. Flat footed readings have reversed the importance of what Christ has done. The YHWH goat associated with the temple, is the place of “life-sustaining order,” but now it is conflated with death and chaos. The YHWH goat is the source of light, living water, and true freedom, now conflated with eternal darkness, death, and bondage.

While Christ deals in all of these categories, death, darkness, and bondage, are not eternal (in the mind of God) categories, as demonstrated in Christ’s overcoming and defeat of them.  But where they are fused with divine categories (God as eternally angry requiring infinite death) the evil load of the Azazel God has been emptied into the holy of holies.

In Frank, and I hope he is representative of his generation, there is a return to basic(s).  The symbol system that constitutes a computer language can produce the dimensions, colors, and images of a full-blown world.  Behind the matrix of appearances, or in biblical terms, behind the symbols and meanings of temple, sacrifice and atonement, is the code constituting this world.  Only someone attuned to the code can realize the momentary glitch, the blurred image, the distorted end product. I believe we are witnessing the demise of one matrix of understanding (American evangelicalism in all of its various manifestations) and the beginnings of a more biblical understanding.

I am never sure how the chicken and egg work in regard to theology: do we hit upon particular theological insights because of who we are or are we so shaped by our theology that it is determinative of who we are? Do twisted people produce twisted theologies or vice versa are the clear minded nurtured by the church and theology they find? Either way, in the present political climate it is apparent a stunted, twisted, theology is reaping the whirl wind.  At a more immediate level, I have seen Balthazar’s proportionate polarization played out in my own life: I have encountered cruelty and meanness in the name of Jesus which enlightened pagans seldom betrayed in twenty years in Japan.  The FP community, including Frank, has been the proportionate antidote – a community of love completely absent in a pagan realm.  With this has been a realization of the fruit of a theology sorted out into its proper hues of black and white – a goat for the Lord and a goat for Azazel.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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