One of the reasons I love reading the Old Testament in Hebrew is because it forces me to slow down (at least at this point, since I am not yet fluent) and pay closer attention to what the text is saying. When you are more deliberate about every word, you see things you may not otherwise see.
In this case, I was reading Genesis 26 this morning and noticed something I had never noticed before. The very brief context is that Isaac, like his dad, takes refuge in the land of the Philistines because of a famine in the land. And, like his dad, he claims that his beautiful wife is his sister. But the truth comes out, and when King Abimelech discovers it, he is obviously distraught. And his words to Isaac are revealing of the ancient Near Eastern worldview (shared by God’s people). “One of the people might soon have lain with your wife,” Abimelech says, “and you would have brought guilt on us” (v. 10).
The Hebrew is clear: if someone had slept with Rebekah, he would not only have incurred guilt upon himself, but all the people would have also shared in that guilt.
This is because the ancient Near Eastern worldview thought corporately first. The group was the primary point of focus, rather than the individual. The success and failure of the group had greater significance than the success or failure of its individual members. And thus, if one person sinned, everyone sinned (we see this in the story of Achan, of course, in Joshua 7).
What Abimelech goes on to say in verse 11 is just as significant. He thus tells his people that whoever “touches this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.” This is not simply an attempt to punish an individual for wrongdoing, however; it would have been an act of expiation on behalf of the corporate body. To not punish the individual would have produced a continued guilt on the entire group; so one had to die for the sake of all – a thought we see still in place in the days of Jesus, when Caiaphas encouraged the Jews that “it was expedient that one man should die for the people” (John 18:14). Christ’s death, it was thought, served to expunge the guilt of all of Israel.
There are many implications of this corporate concept – an idea we, who are individualistic, have a hard time wrapping our minds around. Those implications range from how we understand our corporate responsibility toward one another, to how we understand what happened at the cross, to how we experience community together, to how we understand so-called “genocide” or mass destruction in the Old Testament, to how we relate to church discipline, to how we relate to church history. But those implications will have to be explored another day.
But I will point out what Joel Kaminsky has written in his work, Corporate Responsibility in the Hebrew Bible. It’s food for thought.
Corporate responsibility is . . . a fundamental theological principle in ancient Israel that God relates not just to autonomous Israelites, but to the nation as a whole. Inasmuch as God relates to the community as a whole, he holds each member of the nation to some level of responsibility for the errors of any other member of that community. (12, 13)
Just as tellingly, Kaminsky posits:
Israel’s fundamental insight into the fact that we are all our ‘brother’s keeper’ could provide a corrective to many of our current philosophical and political tendencies that inform us only of our rights as individuals, but rarely of our responsibilities as members of larger communities” (13-14).