What is divine violence? How can we understand it? I begin with these questions because I do not know the answers. But, I will suggest in what follows that divine violence is an extra-temporal violence that purifies the community of the mere life that provides the law with a body for its inscription. In so doing, it produces a piety in excess of life, a piety necessary for community.
Benjamin sets out divine violence in opposition to mythical violence. Divine violence destroys laws and boundaries. Moreover,
if mythical violence brings at once guilt and retribution, divine power only expiates; if the former threatens, the latter strikes; if the former is bloody, the latter is lethal without spilling blood.
Benjamin draws on the example of God’s judgment on the company of Korah:
It strikes privileged Levites, strikes them without warning, without threat, and does not stop short of annihilation. But in annihilating it also expiates, and a deep connection between the lack of bloodshed and the expiatory character of this violence is unmistakable. For blood is the symbol of mere life. The dissolution of legal violence stems, as cannot be shown here, from the guilt of more natural life, which consigns the living, innocent and unhappy, to a retribution that ‘expiates’ the guilt of mere life—and doubtless also purifies the guilty, not of guilt, however, but of law. For with mere life the rule of law over the living ceases. Mythical violence is bloody power over mere life for its own sake, divine violence pure power over all life for the sake of the living.
1. Benjamin uses the word "expiate," not exonerate or exculpate. Atonement is an appropriate synonym. Thus, there is a guilt or
sin that must be extinguished, not a prior innocence that must be restored. This guilt must be extinguished
in order to bring about a piety, to effect a cleansing or purification.
Among the definitions of expiate are to cleanse or purify; to extinguish the guilt of; to avert portended evil by religious ceremonies; to make amends or reparation for.
The German word is sühnen, which also means to atone for (von Schuld, for guilt or sin).
For English verbs, the prefix, “ex” has many meanings, including: to bring into a certain state, to remove or expel, and to deprive of.
Expiate, then, suggests a bringing to piety or making devout.
2. Who is Korah and what is his story? (A detailed version can be found here.)
In brief, the story of Korah is one of rebellion against Moses’ rule during the exodus or period in the wilderness. Much of the dissatisfaction focused on Moses' elevation of his brother, Aaron, to the position of high priest. As part of his calling Moses’ leadership into question, Korah tried to make Moses look ridiculous by emphasizing the odd specificities and ultimate irrationality of the law Moses was giving. Korah also fabricated stories about the Moses and Aaron using the law to enrich themselves at the expense of poor widows. And he led outright rebellion, with 250 followers. Faced with all this, Moses doesn’t immediately ask for God’s punishment. Rather, he suggests a test: Korah and his 250 followers should light a particular sort of incense. If they can light it, then they are suitable to be high priests. If not, they’ll die. Moses offers this test in order to give Korah and company time to change their minds and stop rebelling. Korah persists in insisting that Aaron alone should not be high priest. Moses then summons Korah to appear before his court, doing so “because the law required that the accused be summoned to appear before the judge, before the judgement may be passed upon him.” Korah and the rest refuse to come. Now Moses has had it. So, he tells God not to accept any of their offering because they have “withdrawn themselves from the community.” Yet, by the next morning, when the business with the incense is supposed to happen, Korah has persuaded the entire community to side with him. So, everyone goes to Moses and Aaron and starts arguing. Then, Moses warns folks about what will happen and the “community” obeys, except for a certain Dathan and Abiram who continue to yell abuses. At this point, the mouth of hell opens where Dathan, Abiram and their families are and swallows them up, slowing and painfully. Of course, the 250 men who lit the incense are consumed by fire. Korah gets both burned up by fire and swallowed by the earth.
3. What does Benjamin get wrong? Benjamin is mistaken when he says that divine violence strikes the Levites without warning or threat. More important, however, are the matters of law, blood, and purification.
4. On law: does divine violence destroy law? One might read the story of Korah as one of upholding the law. Those who would rebel against Moses' law are destroyed, completely. In their deaths, they testify that "Moses is truth and his Torah is truth."
A better reading might say that important for Benjamin is the fact that the divine violence comes from outside the law. This is marked in the story in the detail that Korah and company would not come before the law. They refused to come up when Moses summoned them to the court. All that happens with them from this point, then, is outside of Moses' law. Divine violence, then, is outside law in this very literal sense. It follows a failure of law, or, better, it is beyond the reach of law and occurs when some have made themselves unreachable by law, perhaps in their rejection or contestation of law. Or, perhaps in their very preoccupation with law, in their obsession with law's rationality or law's provisions. Precisely this law-mindedness, then, could suggest a lack of piety, a preoccupation with judging or determining law, with questioning and challenging law in a way that disrupts community through an excessive investment in law. And, this very investment could well involve a sacralization of mere life over something in life that is more than itself.
5. On blood: crucial to Benjamin is the fact that divine violence involves expiation without blood. Thus, it involves an atonement and a guilt. Those who are annihilated are guilty, fully and completely guilty. They are not sacrificed, as if they were worthy of being sacrificed to and accepted by God. They are annihilated without being made a sacrifice.
Of what are they guilty? A more natural life, mere life. What does this mean? How is one guilty of mere life or of living? Benjamin writes that
Man cannot, at any price, be said to coincide with the mere life in him, no more than with any other of his conditions and qualities, not even with the uniqueness of his bodily person . . . there is no sacredness in his condition, in his bodily life vulnerable to injury by his fellow men.
If man is not the same as mere life, if he is split in his being between mere existence and something more, then the something more is, in a way, sentenced to existence. This existence, mere life, bears whatever guilt is pronounced upon a man. It's the site of guilt's inscription. As long as there is mere life, there will be guilt. Hence, divine violence may 'expiate' the guilt of mere life, but not purify the guilty of it. But, there is in man an excess of life, something that exceeds guilt, that follows a different temporality. In "Fate and Character," Benjamin writes:
The guilt context is temporal in a totally inauthentic way, very different in its kind and measure from the time of redemption, or of music, or of truth."
We might also wonder how it is that Benjamin does not oppose guilt and innocence. Those who are guilty of mere life are also "innocent and unhappy." Of what are they innocent? How can we think about this conjunction of guilt and innocence? Is there a living that is not guilty? Might it be a living purified of law?
6. On purification: divine violence purifies the guilty not of guilt but of law. What does it mean to be purified of law? Law is limited to the living. It cannot reach beyond life to touch what is in excess of life, what is more than mere life. Divine violence can touch this excess, yet, it is pure power that also touches life, "pure power over all life for the sake of the living." What might this mean?
It no doubt is connected to a different time, likely one of truth, music, and redemption. It concerns itself, then, with more than mere life, with something besides existence, besides "goods, right, life, and suchlike."
Perhaps to be purified of law is to be purified of an emphasis on mere life or life for its own sake because such an emphasis is precisely what enables law, what gives law its locus, its site, what provides law with a body. To purify the guilty of law, then, involves annihilation, such that law has no hold.
7. To return to the story of Korah. Korah was preoccupied by the law. He argued with Moses over the details in order to persuade the people of the irrationality of law. He appealed to the people's bodily experiences. He suggested a democratic alternative to the one high priest, Aaron. Yet, even as he was preoccupied with law, he withdrew from law, withdrew into a space law couldn't reach.
Further, before he and his 250 followers lit the incense that led to their being consumed by fire, they had persuaded the entire community that they were right. The entire community had come before Moses in anger. Yet, some, "the community," obeyed Moses and were neither swallowed by the earth nor engulfed in flames.
This community, it seems to me, was purified of law but not of life. Divine violence was for their sake, for the sake of the community, to purify it of the hold of law, for the sake of something more, for the saking of being chosen by God, for being a people, for being more than bodies in the wilderness. They remain guilty of mere life, but not of law. Korah and his followers were not a sacrifice. Rather, they marked the guilt of life and law, a guilt of preoccupation with mere life and with law that stained the people and made them less a community. The time of this community, then, is a time of redemption and truth that cannot be reduced to the time of life, blood, guilt, and innocence.