Individuality: a fresh concept

Sometimes, when reading very old books, you come upon a moment in history where a corner is turned. And your own presuppositions make it difficult to see what’s going on.

Last night I was reading the Book of Ezekiel (that’s in the Bible, for our younger readers) before bed. And I was suddenly struck by what was going on in Chapter 18.

The word of the LORD came to me: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?’ As I live, declares the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine, the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.

This is stuff that seems self-evident to us. No surprises here. It’s what we expect from God. But the significant thing – to me – is later in the chapter:

“Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?” (Verse 25).

You see what’s going on here? The prophet’s audience, the Jews of the Babylonian exile, find it hard to understand how anyone – let alone God – would not want to punish a son for his father’s wrongdoing. And vice versa. Acting in any other way seems to them not only stupid, but positively unjust. What we see happening here is a major cultural shift. A brand new idea in human history, imported from outside our world.

The “normal” human point of view (historically speaking) has been to see human beings in terms of the groups to which they belong. Their families. Their races. Their nations. We recognize today that it’s unjust to say, “All those [insert group name here] are the same.” But such thinking is instinctual. Statistically normal in the world. Prejudice of this sort is born into us. We need to be educated to think otherwise.

What we see here in Ezekiel is the moment that God revealed to humanity the revolutionary new idea of individuality. Treating people as one of a kind, rather than representatives of a group. Gone are the days of stoning a whole family because one member is a thief (as in the story of Achan in Joshua 7).

You and I have been taught to look at people as individuals since childhood, so much so that we can’t imagine thinking any other way. But in fact, prejudice and stereotyping are “natural.” Such thinking is the norm in human societies. We see it everywhere. Almost any non-Judeo-Christian society will take such thinking for granted. And even in Judeo-Christian societies, we have to constantly beat prejudice down. It’s natural. It’s born in us. It even has a certain level of practical utility.

I don’t believe that good and evil change. Right and wrong have always been the same. But people are not naturally good, and God revealed higher levels of morality to His people very gradually, over time. Because they couldn’t handle it all at once.

As we see here. “You’re not gonna let us stone the whole family? No fair!”

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