Oliver O’Donovan on the Israelite Individual

Oliver O'DonovanIt is important to understand the emergence of the individual in Israel historically, but equally important not to succumb, as we have said, to ‘Whig history’, supposing that the trend from community to individual could simply be extrapolated to authorise any kind of radical individualism as its final term. For what Israel affords is a strong concept of the individual on a quite different basis from the individualism of the West. The community is the aboriginal fact from beginning to end, shaping the conscience of each of its members to greater or lesser effect. But when the mediating institutions of government collapse, then the memory and hope which single members faithfully conserve provide a span of continuity which can reach out towards the prospect of restructuring. The fractured community which fashioned the individual’s conscience is sustained within it and renewed out of it. And from having been preserved through single members’ memory and hope, Jeremiah anticipates, it will be the stronger, for it will incorporate that direct knowledge of Yhwh’s ways which each has won by his, or her, faithfulness. (We add the words ‘or her’ at this point without gratuitousness; for Esther is one of the models by which this faithfulness was commended.) The distinctive strengths of a voluntary community have been grafted on to the racial stock.

To generalise, as we have done before, we may say that the conscience of the individual members of a community is a repository of the moral understanding which shaped it, and may serve to perpetuate it in a crisis of collapsing morale or institution. It is not as bearer of his own primitive pre-social or pre-political rights that the individual demands the respect of the community, but as the bearer of a social understanding which recalls the formative self-understanding of the community itself. The conscientious individual speaks with society’s own forgotten voice.

Taken from The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology, p.80.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in OT Theology, Quotations, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Oliver O’Donovan on the Israelite Individual

  1. I think O’Donovan has a lot of good things to say about political theology, but in DN I sometimes wonder how he gets things out of the narrative of Israel.

  2. Pingback: alastair.adversaria » ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’

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