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God’s Elect: What Does It Mean To Be Chosen?

Solveig Eggerz
Winter 1998

The sacred myth that holds the Jews to be God’s chosen people has been central to Judaism from the beginning of ethical monotheism. According to this myth, God chose the Jews as his special people. He made a covenant with them whereby they were to worship Him and Him only. They were to obey His commandments and, in return, God would protect His Chosen People. The substance of this covenant varies from place to place in the Bible. In many places in the Torah the Jews must simply worship God only and no other god, in order to earn God’s love. In other places, especially in the books of the prophets, the mission of the Jews was to proclaim God’s truth among all the nations of the world. Just as the nature of God varies from one book of the Bible to the next, so too does the interpretation of "chosenness" change.  

The sacred myth of chosenness is reflected in many Jewish rituals, such as the blessing over the wine at religious festivals: "Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has chosen us from among every nation, exalted us above every language, and sanctified us by Your commandments."  

Whenever a Jew is called to read from the Torah in public the congregation hears: "Blessed are you, O Lord, Our God, King of the universe, who has chosen us from among all peoples and has given us Your Torah."  

Eyes of God  

The Amidah, the central prayer in Jewish liturgy, projects the image of a people selected as special in the eyes of God: "You have chosen us from among all peoples, You have loved us and taken pleasure in us, and have exalted us above all tongues. You have sanctified us by your commandments, and brought us near to your service."  

Many religions have, at one time or another, viewed themselves as God’s elect and have, in fact, fought "holy wars," animated by this idea. The sense of being chosen inspired the Hebrew tribes to grapple with the Canaanites for years in order to gain control of the land which God promised his special people:  

"And now, O Israel, give heed to the statutes and the ordinances which I teach you, and do them; that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, gives you." Deut. 4:1.  

Were the Jews chosen, or did they choose? The answer is both. How odd of God to choose the Jews. Not so odd, for the Jews chose God. According to one Midrash, God offered the Torah to other nations who rejected it. But the Jews accepted it. Exodus describes the solemn ritual of Israel’s acceptance of the covenant:  

Blood of the Covenant  

"Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said,’ All that the Lord has spoken we will do and we will be obedient.’ And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words." Exodus 24:7-8  

Just as the Hebrews, a tiny tribe, were unlikely candidates for Chosen People, so does God exhibit a pattern of choosing unlikely heroes. First there was Abraham, who alone among his contemporaries appeared to be seeking the one universal God. Later God makes the unlikely choice of Isaac over Abraham’s first born, Ishmael, and of Jacob over Isaac’s first born, Esau. But the covenant begins with Abraham:  

"And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. And I will give to you, and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God." Genesis 17:7-8.  

The concept of Chosen People may have a different meaning at different times in Jewish history. Yet there are also those who believe that the same basic message has always been at the core of the covenant relationship. God’s nature appears to change from that of the warrior God of Deuteronomy to the lover of social justice as presented by the prophets. Some perceive a development in God’s nature as well as in the Chosen People concept from the God of Deuteronomy to the God of the prophets.  

Tribal Deity  
The book of Deuteronomy features a tribal deity, who is the God of the Exodus, and of the wilderness, depicted in a series of speeches given by Moses in Moab just before his death and on the eve of the Israelite entry into Canaan. Moses implies that God has a special purpose in mind for his people:  
"But the Lord has taken you, and brought you forth out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own possession, as at this day." Deut. 4:20.  
"To you it was shown, that you might know that the Lord is God; there is no other besides him." Deut. 4:35  

"...know therefore this day, and lay it to your heart, that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other. Therefore you shall keep his statutes and his commandments, which I command you this day, and it may go well with you, and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which the Lord your God gives you for ever." Deut. 4:39-40.  

God’s partiality to this people is a constant refrain:  

"For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the lord set his love upon you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples; but it is because the Lord loves you, and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt." Deut. 7:6-8.  

Warrior God  

The tribal warrior God will stand by the Chosen People in their holy wars against other nations:  

"You shall not be in dread of them; for the Lord your God is in the midst of you, a great and terrible God. The Lord your God will clear away these nations before you little by little.. But the Lord your God will give them over to you, and throw them into great confusion, until they are destroyed. And he will give their kings into your hand, and you shall make their name perish from under heaven; not a man shall be able to stand against you, until you have destroyed them." Deut. 6:21-24.  

Ferocity, not tolerance, in His name will be rewarded:  

"And if you obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments which I command you this day, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth." Deut. 28:1.  

"The Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you; they shall come out against you one way, and flee before you seven ways." Deut. 28:7.  

Superiority of Followers  

Chosenness in Deuteronomy causes the national deity to exalt the superiority of His followers. To understand the warrior tone of God in this book, it is important to consider the historical context of its origins. King Josiah of Judah, who reigned approximately 640 to 609 BCE, followed on the heels of Manasseh, a proponent of religious syncretism. In 722 BCE Assyria destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and the ten tribes were deported. In 701 BCE Sennacherib I of Assyria invaded Judah, and thus the southern kingdom became, under Manasseh, a submissive ally of Assyria. The strong foreign influence led to a deterioration of mores in Jerusalem, including a loss of faith in Yahweh, the God who brought the Hebrews out of Egypt and into Canaan. Under Manasseh the foreign sun and astral gods had altars next to that of Yahweh. Asherah, the fertility goddess, had been elevated to Yahweh’s consort.  

When Josiah came to power, the Yahvists were but a small cult competing for the Jews’ attention in a polytheistic environment. Josiah set out to purge Jerusalem, as well as the Judean countryside, of foreign cults. In 621 BCE Hilkiah, the high priest, is said to have discovered in the Temple an ancient manuscript purported to be Moses’ last sermon to the Hebrew tribes. The Temple had been undergoing extensive repairs under Josiah’s direction. Upon reading the "ancient" document, Josiah concluded that all of Judea’s troubles were due to its lapse in Yaweh worship. He instituted sweeping reforms which included the removal of images, idols and fertility symbols from the Temple. He tore down a large effigy of Asherah and destroyed the apartments of the Temple prostitutes who spent their time weaving garments for Asherah. Then he reinstituted observation of Passover and the Sabbath.  

Most scholars agree that the "found" book, which came to be called Deuteronomy, was actually written by priests of Josiah’s time, perhaps even by Hilkiah himself The seventh century writers focused on the concepts of covenant and Chosen People. The book gave new life to the flagging Yahweh cult and provided spiritual inspiration which saw the Jews through the Babylonian exile. Deuteronomy was wide enough in scope to inspire both those who sought guidance in the form of commandments as well as in spiritual matters. It includes the declaration which would later become the essence of Judaism, the Jewish profession of faith:  

"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." Deut. 6:4-5.  

Transformed God  

How was the warlike Mosaic God of Deuteronomy transformed into the compassionate God of Second Isaiah? For the seventh century reformers, living in a time of great political insecurity, the tribal God who unifies his people and steers them successfully through wars was just what they needed. Karen Armstrong, in her book A History of God, describes the God of Moses as a "brutal, partial and murderous god: a god of war who would be known as Yahweh Sabaoth, the God of Armies. He is passionately partisan, has little compassion for anyone but his favorites and is simply a tribal deity."  

Moses’ God commands the Chosen People to celebrate the superiority of Israel and exclude all other nations from God’s love:  

"When the Lord your God brings you into the land which you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you then you must utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them. You shall not make marriages with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons. For they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods; then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire." Deut. 7:1-6.  

The Deuteronomist’s tone celebrating Israel’s chosenness is heady and triumphalist. The theology of election can be manipulated for different purposes, such as creating solidarity among a people. "Like any human idea, the notion of God can be exploited and abused. The myth of a Chosen People and a divine election has often inspired a narrow, tribal theology from the time of the deuteronomist right up to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim fundamentalism that is unhappily rife in our own day," Armstrong notes.  

Theories of Election  

Theories of election must be qualified by a transcendent perspective, lest they lead to the "holy wars that have scarred the history of monotheism. Instead of making God a symbol to challenge our prejudice and force us to contemplate our own shortcomings, it can be used to endorse our egotistic hatred and make it absolute."  

There were other developments among the followers of Yahweh, prior to Josiah’s seventh century reforms, which would have a major impact on the development of Judaism. Armstrong speaks of the years 800-200 BCE as the "Axial Age, characterized by a quest for a transcendent element among the major religions. It was during this period that Yahweh ceased to be a mere tribal deity, biased in favor of Israel, and became the God whose glory filled the entire universe. Allan Tarshish, author of the book Not By Power, calls the years 740 to 590 BCE vital to the development of Judaism. "It was during this era that a large group of people came to accept the idea of the moral relationship between man and man, man and God, and the idea of a universal God," he writes.  

Thus the 8th and 7th centuries BCE called forth not only a purification of the Yahweh cult and a return to ritual, but also a spiritual revival that stressed compassion over ritual. Jeremiah the prophet began to preach in the 13th year of Josiah’s reign. At first he was pleased with the reforms, but then he realized that the reformers were more interested in the Temple cult than in improving the morals of the followers of Yahweh. God had chosen the Hebrews for greater tasks than the performance of rituals:  

"Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices, and eat the flesh. For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them, ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you."’ Jeremiah 7:21-22.  

Social Justice  

Jeremiah then denounced the evil he perceived in Judaean society. A concern with social justice and compassion above the rituals of Temple worship, however, began long before Jeremiah with the first of the literary prophets, Amos. The prologue to the perpetual moral outrage expressed by the literary prophets was complex. It was not until the time of King David in the year 1000 BCE that the Hebrews gained full control over Canaan. During the following 250 years they adapted all too well to life in Canaan, adopting many of the gods and religious practices of their neighbors. By 750 BCE syncretist worship was entrenched. When Josiah sought to purify the worship of Yahweh, he had to eliminate altars to Baal, the god of heaven, Ashtarte, the goddess of the earth, and Adonis the child of their union. At the same time that the cult of foreign gods flourished, there emerged an ever widening gap between the rich and poor. Among the disadvantaged this disparity bred envy and hatred. Among others it stimulated a sense of injustice and a cry for compassion. The time was ripe for the entry of the literary prophets, beginning with Amos in 760 BCE, Hosea in 750 BCE and Isaiah in 740 BCE. Amos associates chosenness with God’s mission of justice and righteousness:  

"Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family which I brought up out of the land of Egypt: ‘You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities."’ Amos 3:1-2.  

"I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream." Amos 5:21-24.  

Isaiah begins the description of the vision which led him to prophesy by depicting a world permeated by God’s divinity:  

"Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory." Isaiah 6:3.  

Sense of Holiness  

But it is precisely this sense of holiness of which the people are deprived. During the seventh century Temple rituals all but excluded any but the priests from any role but that of observer in the sacrifices and worship. The prophets argued that everyone be allowed to worship God directly without mediation of the priests. This concept of holiness is important for the development of Judaism away from an attachment to a particular place as God’s domicile. Isaiah depicts a universal God who has chosen the Israelites to enact this concept of holiness, to carry out the mission of justice and mercy toward others. According to Tarshish, Isaiah "was not concerned with a ritual holiness, or holiness limited by pious observance of certain ceremonials, but rather the essence of high morality — justice, kindness, brotherhood, and peace. He meant that as God is the essence of all that is good and fine, so men achieve that holiness by trying to lead good lives in the everyday world."  

Tarshish finds what others overlook in Deuteronomy, a message of God’s universality, of Israel’s specialness combined with its mandate to treat all men as brothers. He states, "Once we accept the idea, not only intellectually, but with our whole being, that there is one universal God over all the world, it follows naturally that all men are His children, that all men are brothers, and that therefore every man should treat his fellow human with consideration, kindness, justice and love."  

The prophets’ interpretation of chosenness led to a change in the basic essence of Judaism. Under the covenant, which was modeled on a typical ancient Middle Eastern treaty between ruler and ruled, God promises to protect and bless His faithful people. No other nation enjoyed that privilege. But with the help of the prophets, the Chosen People realized that their obligations might be weightier than their privileges. This change in the concept of chosenness coincided with the transformation of the tribal God of the armies to a universal, transcendent God who symbolized compassion. Armstrong points to Amos as the first of the prophets to emphasize social justice and compassion. In vibrant terms, he informed the Chosen People that the covenant represented responsibility, not privilege:  

"Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph." Amos 5:15.  

God of All Nations  

God, in the words of the prophets, was no longer interested in elevating the Israelites above other nations. Instead, as the God of all nations, he manipulated Assyria as a scourge to punish the sinful Israelites. Armstrong explains that, "The covenant meant that all the people of Israel were God’s elect and had, therefore, to be treated decently. God did not simply intervene in history to glorify Israel, but to secure social justice. This was his stake in history and, if need be, he would use the Assyrian army to enforce justice in his own land."  

When the Hebrews came out of Egypt, they enjoyed the leadership of Yahweh, their national God, who cared about the Chosen People and them alone. In return the Israelites cared for Him and Him alone. But the concept of God as a universal deity, which flourished in the 8th century BCE, seemed to conflict with the idea of God as Israel’s national God. Gradually the prophets harmonized these conflicting principles, beginning with Amos and culminating with Deutero-Isaiah or Second Isaiah.  

Every catastrophic political event was accompanied by the colorful preaching of the prophets. In the year 604 BCE, when Nebuchadnezzar ascended the throne of Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah not only warned the Hebrew people, but associated the upcoming disaster with their wicked ways. He gave the Hebrews the bad news that, God would not favor one nation over another: "Am I a God at hand, says the Lord, and not a God afar oft? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? says the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the Lord." Jeremiah 25:23-24.  

In fact, Babylon was God’s instrument for punishing Israel. Because the Jews were chosen, they were obligated to uphold a higher level of virtue. His words symbolize the opposite of the Mosaic triumphalist view of the Chosen People:  

"Because you have not obeyed my words, behold, I will send for all the tribes of the north, says the Lord, and for Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants, and against all these nations round about; I will utterly destroy them, and make them a horror, a hissing, and an everlasting reproach." Jeremiah 25:8-9.  

Seventy Year Exile  

From 605 to 601 BCE Nebuchad-nezzar consolidated his empire. In 600 BCE he invaded Syria and Palestine and all the nations, including Judea, submitted to him. The Temple treasury began to pay tribute to the Babylonians. In 597 BCE, despite Jeremiah’s advice, Judea rebelled. In 587 BCE Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and deported 10,000 of Jerusalem’s leaders to Babylon. The seventy year Exile had begun. Jeremiah softened his tone to one of consolation. Here too his words constitute a radical transformation of the Chosen People concept. The new covenant he proposes is entirely different from the first covenant between God and the Hebrews. The new covenant offers no promise of a particular place where the Hebrews may worship God. The Temple is in ruins. The new covenant will be enacted within the heart of each individual Jew, who is instructed to carry out God’s mission of mercy and justice wherever he may go:  

"Behold the days are coming says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people." Jeremiah 31:31-33.  

As we shall see, Judaism"s view of God slowly expands beyond the early narrow covenant relationship to the role being a "light to the nations that my salvation may reach the end of the earth." (Isaiah 49:6).  

(Part II of this article will deal with the question of what it means to be a "light to the nations.")  

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