Israel and Individualism

One of my hobby horses is emphasising the communitarian view of people in Scripture, in an attempt to throw out of balance what I have often seen to be an overly individualistic approach to faith (with some important exceptions!) in contemporary church life. But while I think this horse’s race has is not yet fully run, it is important also to make sure that we get a sense of the whole picture. I found this overview of an article to be interesting:

“Rainer Albertz argues that there is evidence for the religious life of individual persons [in ancient Israel], and that it is notably uncoordinated with the salient features of the so-called ‘national’ religion portrayed in the Hebrew Bible. Individual psalms, for example, hardly mention the great ‘acts of God’ such as the Exodus or the giving of the Land, and concentrate rather on salvation and blessing as known or sought in the personal life of the worshipper, while the wealth of theophoric names [i.e., names that have an element of a divine name in them: Isra-EL, Eli-JAH, Meri-BAAL] concentrate on the divine care for the individual being named. Personal piety was by no means always directed to Yhwh — indeed, the biblical prophets attest that people often prayed to other gods, perhaps in some cases local or household gods, seeing Yhwh as the god of the nation rather than of the individual. (Albertz points out, however, that no theophoric names occur with Asherah or any other goddess as an element — a feature Israel and Judah share with some of their neighbours …) Evidence of personal piety can also be found in wisdom collections, especially Proverbs, which also has scarcely anything to say about the ‘national’ religion. Biblical scholarship has sometimes seen the individual as merely part of a larger collectivity, and has thought it anachronistic to see him or her as having a life apart from the group; but the evidence for individual piety tends in the opposite direction, suggesting that many individuals had a distinctive kind of religious belief and practice, radically different from the national cult and focused on living a good life and trusting in divine power in times of crisis. Archaeology supports this picture, with amulets attesting to the belief in divine aid in trouble and the many figurines of nude women holding their breasts mediating prayers to the divine realm to ensure conception and safe delivery.”

From the introduction to Religious Diversity in Ancient Israel and Judah, ed. Francesca Stavrakopoulou and John Barton. Albertz’s essay appears in the same volume.

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