“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).