"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Did Western Individualism Come from the Jews?

The Gifts of the Jews by Thomas Cahill -- "How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels"

I got this book (along with four others) yesterday when I went to return the 8 books I checked out last time. I had plans to finish the books I have here waiting at home which I received for Christmas and Valentine's, but my "let's just see what they have on the new book shelf" turned into my browsing the other shelves and I came home with books about a journey through the Himalayan passage as told by some adventurous Westerners, ancient India, Jews, Greeks and a Chinese woman.  So I started this one yesterday - The Gifts of the Jews - and finished it today while getting sunburned on my arms as I sat outside enjoying the glorious warmth.   I jotted down page numbers of things that interested me and here is a bit of that.  I may write about more later. 

First a quote the author used on a page when he was trying to make sense of God.  And found he couldn't.

"We are talking about God. Which wonder do you think you understand? If you understand, it is not God." - Augustine of Hippo  (pg. 159)

Then this which makes me think the notion that man has a sin nature was known well before Christianity popularized it.

"Man behaves badly." -- Utnaphishtim

"Never has a sinless child been born." -- Sumerian proverb  (pg. 61)

A Lesson from Exile....

 27 “The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will plant the kingdoms of Israel and Judah with the offspring of people and of animals. 28 Just as I watched over them to uproot and tear down, and to overthrow, destroy and bring disaster, so I will watch over them to build and to plant,” declares the LORD. 29 “In those days people will no longer say,
   ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes,
   and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’
 30 Instead, everyone will die for their own sin; whoever eats sour grapes—their own teeth will be set on edge. (Jeremiah 31)

No longer will God visit the sins of the fathers onto the next generations.  Each person is responsible for his own sins.  Individualism -- a difficult concept in a "world of groups, tribes, and nations, in which all identity and validation comes only from solidarity with a larger entity."  (pg. 230)

"Democracy...grows directly out of the Israelite vision of individuals, subjects of value because they are images of God, each with a unique and personal destiny. There is no way that it could ever have been 'self-evident that all men are created equal' without the intervention of the Jews."  (pg. 249)

So, see, there is a bit of the gifts the Jews gave us.  Rather, God gave us all through the Jews.  I wonder if this is what God meant when He said the Jews would be a light unto all nations.

I found this rather interesting because I'd been wondering - and asking Amber - where our western sense of individualism came from...tada!  The Bible!

Or did it?

What do you think?


Amber said...

Buuuttt...Judaism is an Eastern religion. And it's *not* very individualistic. Yes, everyone is responsible for their own sins. But that's not the same thing. So if the roots of our obsession with individualism are in Judaism, what caused it to go out of control in the West and not in the East?

sanil said...

I'm with Amber on this. That might be a bias, but I really think that's a mis-reading of the text. At the least, the text is talking about generations being judged independently, and doesn't say anything about a change from communal to individual sin and punishment. There is no indication there that the community purification rituals would change, just that they wouldn't be purifying them from their parents' sin.

I see it more as talking about the non-Israelite peoples. See, the other nations couldn't be blamed in that generation for their sin - they had never been a part of the Jewish community and didn't know what they were doing. They inherited guilt from ancestors who stopped worshiping God and passed that onto their children. That's why the text notes that in the future, the Israelites would be planted among the other nations, so that everyone in that generation would know and have a chance to turn back, and if they didn't they were responsible themselves.

Responding to the other quotes you have about sin, I hadn't really considered that issue before. It looks like they're both from the surrounding cultures of the Israelites, and I think it'd be fascinating to one day study sin in the ancient Near East. It'll be awhile, but I'll keep it in mind. Thanks!

Susanne said...

Amber, thanks for your feedback. :) Maybe the Western church took that individualistic bit more seriously? Haha..I don't know. I was just rehashing the author. Actually you'd have to read the book I guess. The series really. It's part of a series on western civilization and I'm currently read the book about why the Greeks matter. :)

Sanil, always good to hear your perspective as well. Thanks for what you shared! Yeah, sin in the ancient near east ... that WOULD be rather interesting to learn about. He just mentioned these in passing and I thought, "Huh, I didn't realize this 'original sin' concept could also be found in other sources" because I'm always made to believe Christians made that up and even Muslims aren't so stupid to believe such a senseless concept!

Thank you both for your feedback!