Judaism - the Emergence of the Individual

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Up to this point, all the myths in the world had been about gods or demigods. Nobody told stories of ordinary people who had accomplished something exceptional. Of course, people have always told stories about "when uncle fell into the water", or "when my baby sister was born" and the like, but great narratives about ordinary people, individuals who had done something spectacular, did not exist.

Judaism is best known for having invented monotheism, but in relation to democracy, it is far more interesting that Judaism also invented the individual and introduced the idea that all people are of the same kind, created in the image of the same God. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, as well as Noah and his whole family are depicted as completely ordinary people; only God is extraordinary. In other words, neither demigods nor people with superhuman powers exist, and even the main characters and heroes of Judaism are, from time to time, a bunch of incompetent clowns who commit ordinary, human mistakes.

On the Old Testament

The Bible was not written by God; it was written by human beings. And like all other books, the Bible is a product of the specific period and culture in which it was written. For as long as people have told each other stories, we have told the stories it made sense for us to tell. Similarly, the stories in the Bible were written and told because it made sense for people to tell these stories.

It is, unfortunately, impossible to detect the earliest origin of the Bible, where its myths really come from, or how old they are, with even a modicum of accuracy. Most historians, bible scholars and archaeologists generally believe that the texts in the five books of Moses (aka the Pentateuch, i.e. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) were written down for the first time between 900 and 700 BCE, but for how long the tales had been oral lore before then, nobody knows.

It cannot be proved that the characters in the Pentateuch have actually lived. As for Adam and Eve and Noah and the Great Flood, it is certain that they are simply fictional archetypes. Not least because the story of the Great Flood originates from the heroic poem Gilgamesh from Mesopotamia. Regarding more recent figures such as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, it cannot be ruled out that real people have existed with the names that the stories are built around. But no-one can prove it is true either.

The natural sciences have proved a long time ago that neither man nor universe was created in the way it is portrayed in Genesis. But then again, that is not what makes the story interesting. What is interesting is how the text perceives and portrays mankind because the Old Testament's view of humanity is one of the foundations for democracy.

Ordinary people without magical powers

Firstly, there is a radical difference between human beings and God: God does "magic" - human beings do not have that sort of power. We must get by using our brains and the things we are able to create with our hands. But that is no small thing either.

Secondly, the Pentateuch introduces three of the ideas that are prerequisites for democracy: all men are of the same kind; we have a free will and must be individually accountable; and individuals are different.

All people are the same kind

The tale of Adam and Eve says that all people have descended from one and the same place. Thus there is no difference of species between different groups of people and no group of people was created prior to or better than others. Yet that was actually the Egyptians' perception of themselves: the gods had created the Egyptians first and best!

The Old Testament was, in other words, the first place where "the abstract man" and the concept of "humanity" appeared. Already in biblical Hebrew, there is a difference between the word "adam" - meaning man as a species - and "ish", meaning man as a male person. Furthermore, "Chava" or "Eve" actually means soil, while a woman is called "isha".

Free will

There are texts older than the Bible where it makes a difference whether people do things by accident or whether people do things on purpose. But the Old Testament is the oldest text in which free, individual choice plays a major role from the beginning of the story.

When Adam and Eve ate the apple, they did so from their own free choice, so they had to pay the price for defying God. Now it was no longer spirits and invisible forces that were controlling human beings. When a person made a choice, it was an individual choice which they themselves had to take responsibility for.

When Cain killed Abel and then asked, "Am I my brother's keeper?", the Bible's point was: "Yes, and you as an individual have committed a terrible crime by failing to take care of him!"

With this individual responsibility followed ethical implications. When Noah was saved from the Great Flood, it was because he was "a righteous man", as stated in the text. He was judged on his individual actions and saved because of them.

Individuals differ

When we are judged on our individual actions, it is implied that individuals are different: when two or more people are in the same situation, each one will choose to act in their own way. That the rest of Noah's family were also saved because of his righteousness blurs the picture somewhat, but the myth is from a time when the father was the head of the family and acted on behalf of the family - and all this stuff about the individual was very, very new!

Abraham - a solo story

What matters about the story of Abraham is not whether he has lived or not, but that there were people who found his story important. In fact, the story of Abraham tells us something that no tale had ever told before.

The tale of Abraham heralds a new type of narrative. Through it, the individual and its autonomy are brought centre stage. Abraham himself and his wives, sons and daughters-in-law are all acting individually.

The story recounts that Abraham came from one of the largest cities in Mesopotamia, namely the city of Ur. His God told him to break away, first from his city and then from his father's family, in order to move to a completely different country together with his wife.

These few lines do not seem much in a modern context, but the content was a radical break with the ancient way of thinking.

Ur was not just any city. It was the neighbouring city to Uruk, the Mesopotamian city with more than 40,000 inhabitants, and thus the ancient New York or Beijing. This was where things were happening; this was the place people would live and do business if they wanted to prosper and become rich. And the ancient Mesopotamians took pride in prospering and being rich!

What did it actually mean to people 4,000 years ago when the Bible says that Abraham "speaks with his god"? Did the ancients perceive their own thoughts and their inner monologue as "a god talking"? Or was Abraham hearing voices?

Nobody knows. But what we do know is that it was a rather unusual message that was given to Abraham: "Leave the city and its wealth and settle in a country far away where nobody knows you, and where nothing really happens!" Most wealthy, modern people would probably decline politely, and so would a typically wealthy man like Abraham in ancient times. However, he chose to do what the god told him to do.

What is also striking about this story is that Abraham's god adjusts his plans a couple of times during the course of the narrative, and that he is continuously in contact with Abraham with information about the changes. Not even God has a set plan for Abraham's life.

This is what is ground-breaking: the narrative introduces the concept that there is no fixed destiny. An individual may change his circumstances, leave where he is, and create a new and better future for himself somewhere else. The story of Abraham also introduces the individual who breaks away from his community and is rewarded for it, plus the concepts of "change" and "future".


In Biblical times, people did not perceive change as something good. Quite the contrary; people were convinced that when the gods were friendly, things stayed the way they were. Moreover, one's destiny was fixed from birth, and moving to somewhere unknown was something one only did out of necessity.

Abraham was in no need where he was. On the contrary, he is portrayed as wealthy. He chooses of his own free will to do as the god says in the belief that the change will lead to something good. There were no other myths of antiquity that had told that story before.

An ordinary man with a personal responsibility

Abraham had no children at that point, which was probably the worst thing that could happen to a man in those days. This shows us that Abraham was an ordinary, powerless human being. He had no personal magical powers which could help him out. In other words, he was a human being living his life under precisely the same circumstances that anybody listening to the story did. They could identify with him 100%.

Thus the story about Abraham and his choices became relevant in a new way: all other myths at that time were about mighty gods who intervened in powerless people's lives more or less at random, but Abraham's story is about an individual who had to think and make decisions for himself. Like Adam and Eve, the story of Abraham is about free will. It may be that "god spoke to him" and promised him heirs, that this was a guided free will, but nobody could help Abraham with the actual decision. The ultimate responsibility for his choice was always his.

Divine Law

In a number of ways the Jews were just like everybody else 3,000 years ago. For instance, their laws and ethics had been given to them by a god, just like in every other society. That it was in fact the king who had formulated the laws himself according to a hereditary tradition is secondary in this context. Moses and other Jews had also been heavily involved when the Law of Moses was formulated. What is important in the historical context - and in relation to democracy - is that 3,000 years ago the typical explanation for the laws was that they were divine.

The Greeks changed all that.

Next chapter: Greece - The First Democracies