Core Beliefs of Second Temple Judaism: Election

“Yet out of the whole human race He chose as of special merit and judged worthy of pre-eminence over all, those who are in a true sense men, and called them to the service of Himself, the perennial fountain of things excellent” (Philo Spec. Laws 1.303).

“I will give my light to the world and illume their dwelling places and establish my covenant with the sons of men and glorify my people above all the nations” (Pseudo-Philo Bibl. Antiq. 11.1f)

One of the foundational assumptions of the Hebrew Bible is that the one creator God chose Israel out of the nations to be his own people. For example, Deuteronomy 7:6, “The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession.” God rescued his people from their slavery in Egypt, brought them to Mount Sinai and entered into a special covenant with them. And despite the rebellion in the wilderness, God gave them a special land promised to Abraham.

Image result for chosen people IsraelWith respect to the basis of this election (works or grace), it is best to use a both/and approach. There is no reason given for the choice of Abram in Genesis, but there are responsibilities within the covenant which will result in continued blessings for the elect people of God. Paul says in Romans 9 the basis for God’s choice of Jacob over Esau was the “electing purpose of God” rather than foreseen faith or good works on the part Jacob.

In Sifre Deuteronomy 343 God offers the Torah to other nations, but they all refuse.

“At first God went to the children of Esau. He asked them: “Will you accept the Torah?” They said right to his face: “What is written in it?” He said: “You shall not murder.” They replied: “Master of the universe, this goes against our grain. Our father, whose hands are the hands of Esau (Genesis 27:22), led us to rely only on the sword, because his father told him, ‘By your sword shall you live’ (Genesis 27:40). We cannot accept the Torah.”

The text goes on to say “not a single nation among the nations to whom God did not go, speak, and, as it were, knock on its door, asking whether it would be willing to accept the Torah.” But finally God came to Israel and they said, “We will do and hearken” (Exodus 24:7).

The basis of Israel’s election was a matter of some discussion in the Second Temple period. The Testament of Abraham describes Abraham’s realization the gods his father Terah crafts are nothing but wood and stone. His father asks him to sell five idols of Marumath, but Abraham loses three in the river.  Later, while cooking his father’s dinner he sarcastically asks the god Barisat to watch over the cooking fire while he went to ask his father what he should cook.  When he returns, the fire was still going and the god was burning himself. Abraham and Terah argue over this; Abraham says the god is nothing and says the gods are only honored because Terah made them well. While Abraham is pondering the gods, a voice from heaven calls to him and says he is the God of gods and commands him to leave the house of Terah (Test.Ab. 8). The story was likely written to offer an explanation of why God chose Abraham, but also to encourage Jews in the Second Temple to avoid idolatry.

It is little wonder many other nations thought Israel was exclusivist. They were, to some extent, separate from the nations because they alone were the elect of God. Monotheism alone requires exclusivism.  But his exclusivism was not snobbery (or at least should not have developed into snobbery). The nation was set apart in order to be preserved from false beliefs and therefore raise the whole world.


Bibliography: Simon Gathercole, “Election,” pages 571-23 in Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2010).

11 thoughts on “Core Beliefs of Second Temple Judaism: Election

  1. It is interesting that this exclusivism would be brought up again, as we have previously discussed the issue of whether or not the Jews should engage in the Hellenistic culture around them. I know, however, that this differs due to the belief of election. In order to remain a distinct and elect people, they would have to be exclusive because God chose them specifically to inherit the earth. Even Exodus 19:5 says, “Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine”. A continued blessing for those who are “the elect people of God”. I also think that they were meant to be viewed as exclusive because of their differing and steadfast beliefs in a one true God.

  2. To be “set apart” and to be set above are too completely different things. Sadly they are all too easy to confuse with one another, at least, for prideful man. Israel was called to adhere to a code of conduct that was righteous in the sight of God, but they were not declared better than other people because of it. On the contrary, the purification and atoning sacrificial system set in place by God in Leviticus were necessary because the Jews were unclean just like everyone else. The important distinction between being superior to others and having a higher calling is just as important for the contemporary Christian as it was for the ancient Jew. Our inheritance and calling in Christ don’t make us better than everyone else. Rather, the elevated status of Christ covers us in our lowly status. This perspective is radically important for us to understand before we try to go out and evangelize.

  3. In reading this post it was very interesting to me the fact that the many other nations indeed considered the nation of Israel as a nation of exclusivity. As was mentioned in the post, Exodus 24:7 describes the fact that all the nation’s denied the Torah, except of course the nation of Israel. It’s not like God did not give the other nations the ample opportunity to accept the Torah. Part of the reason Israel was chosen was based on the fact that they were the only nation willing to accept the Torah. The other reason being it was God’s will as well. I believe the other nations perhaps acquired this “snobbery” mindset toward the elect nation of Israel, in due part to the fact they were not chosen as the elect people of God. The nation of Israel was selected as a means to set the example of the way God truly wanted those living on earth to live. It makes sense then as to why God did select the nation of Israel as his chosen people. I would think God would want to exemplify His will and intentions through a group of people prepared to accept the Law, rather than that of nations that were unwilling to do so. The chosen people of Israel were in fact exclusive because they chose to accept the Law and were selected by God, while the other nations who did not accept the law acted snobbish in response because of the fact that they were not “exclusive” like the nation of Israel.

  4. This blog post semi-reminds me of a conversation I have with other Christians; why is Israel, or why are Jews God’s chosen people, if we believe in the truth?
    It’s true that historically and biblically speaking Israel was God’s chosen people, and biblical text still holds it to today. Even so, it’s understandable to see how because of the direction that Israel was given by God, it’s easy to set oneself apart. I have to admire their steadfast practices because of their election, and as referred to above, there’s a lot of biblical citing about how Jews were called in election/to inherit the earth. What I find interesting is that God offered the Torah to other people, and how odd yet unsurprising it is that other nations excluded it and turned it away. I think the imagery of that is pretty important when we try to understand why Israel could be considered exclusivist but not consider themselves as such.

  5. I can’t say that I would disagree with the “feelings” of other nations during the time of the second temple period, in reference to Israel being God’s chosen people. People today have the luxury of seeing the Scripture as a whole, and being able to see and read the journey of God’s chosen people all the way up to the distinction of the church of God and Israel as God’s chosen people. I think I too would feel that Israel is being favored, especially their given reputation of rebellion and then restoration.
    I think Israel was definitely held to a higher standard by Yahweh, since they were his chosen people. Time and time again there are prophesies that rebuke the actions and behaviors of the elite of Israel for disregarding the laws of the Torah and ignoring or taking advantage of the blessings from God. Maybe the higher standard of living that God had intended for them, came off as pious and snobby to the other nations? Just trying to look at it from a different angle…
    However, because I can read the Bible as a whole, I cannot deny that there is in fact a very clear distinction between Israel being “set apart”, and being “set above” (Like Nate had said ^^^).

  6. You mention that the exclusivism of the Israelites “should not have developed into snobbery” but unfortunately, I think that it did to some extent. I think that the Jews who were not joining their pagan neighbors and worshipping idols or becoming Hellenized did think of themselves as superior people compared to other nations. However, in reality it is only God’s grace not their attempt at following the law that could make them special. Also, they were supposed to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6). Priests were lay peoples’ connection to God. They could not just try to avoid the unpleasant lay people. What is the point of their position then?

  7. To me, the “election” of someone isn’t as much of an election as it is a logical choice. Say you have five people and tell them to make a cake, and three of them make a pie. And this test is for determining who would bake a wedding cake, who would you pick? Someone who baked a pie, or one of the two who baked a cake as asked? In my mind, it is somewhat of a similar situation. The people of Israel were typically better with following Goods law. Yes they had their downfalls, and big ones at that, but consistently we’re they better. So why wouldn’t God pick a people better at following rules than ones that blatantly never obeyed. That’s how I look at the people God “elects”.

  8. when reading this I didn’t know God offered the torah to other nations and they refused. then when he got to israel they accepted. they are the chosen people because they chose to follow God laws laid out for them. why didnt other nations say yes? why didnt christians adhere? i wouldnt feel they are being favored because if i had chosen not to follow what God had for me that is my choice and God created us with the ability to choose, so that we choose him over all. Jewish people were the people that CHOSE to do what God wanted them to do so they became the chosen people.

  9. I wrote a paper not too long ago on the concept of election and it is a very complicated and sometimes confusing topic. Some people believe that it denies the fact of free will or that God is not a loving creator and Father because He gets to “choose” who are His elect. There are far more details to that concept, but it was definitely something that I was curious about and wanted to learn more about. What it seems to come down to is yes God made a choice on a specific people, but He never turned away people that became believers. Just like in the post, the other nations had an option, but it wasn’t taken up. I feel like other religions also faced questions of this nature with the unknown questions of beliefs or just having questions that are unable to be fulfilled. An example would be the Greeks with their idea of fate. “Fate was an important and highly debated concept among the various schools of Greek philosophy” (Tomasino, 163). It was something that was never fully agreed on, but was always something of importance. I think that this is a similar situation to election.

  10. The topic of election was of central significance to Jews during the Second Temple Period, producing much discussion over the implications and reasons for such an election of Israel. Scripture itself provides no explicit reason for choosing Israel over other nations, other than God desiring to create His own nation following the Tower of Babel event, in which all the people of the world failed to multiply and spread across the world as God commanded in Genesis 9. Yet, God choosing to create Israel was not because of their obedience, as Israel in the Old Testament cycles between periods of apostasy and repentance. It is also not based on good works of any kind, as Paul in Romans 9 describes Jacob’s election of Esau as for God’s “electing purpose” not any specific event or foreknown behavior.
    It is also of interest to me that election is portrayed as a corporate act, as God elected all of Israel, not simply individuals, as later systems of thought often perceive New Testament soteriology and discussions on election. Election itself is not necessarily directly tethered to salvation, as while all of Israel was elect, not every individual in Israel properly served or worshipped Yahweh. Rather, it seems, in my fallible observation, the elect served as a group or communal identity that individuals had to actively participate in through works and aligning themselves with God. This is not to say that one’s initial entrance into becoming elect and entering into covenant with God was tethered to any action or work, as Israel and each individual entered into a relationship with God through His grace. Yet, one participated and remained in this divine identity of election through one’s behavior and actions, as without active allegiance they untied themselves from God’s requirements to remain in covenant with him, essentially forfeiting their election.

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