The Issues that Divide Us: Are the Jews a Chosen Nation? Part I

The Issues that Divide Us: Are the Jews a Chosen Nation? Part I August 6, 2018


My first post to this blog made the case for expanding opportunities for honest interfaith dialogue between Christians and Jews on the issues that matter most to us both. Efforts towards this goal have been going on since Vatican II and show no signs of stopping, despite pushback from religious extremists on both sides. So we are moving in the right direction. I just want us to get there faster, by improving the quality of the conversations we have.

In the next few posts, I thought I would begin to tackle head on some of the more controversial, confusing, and unsettled issues in interfaith dialogue. These will include questions like whether Jews and Christians worship the same God and how they read the Bible differently.

Today, my topic will be Jewish chosenness.

In this post, I’m going to lay out my interpretation of one Jewish position on this topic, using the Biblical texts, the Talmud, and medieval Jewish philosophers as my guides. In the next post, I’ll do my best to present what I believe to be one popular modern Catholic view of Jewish chosenness, based on Vatican documents and Papal speeches from post Vatican II.

i could have picked any number of Biblical verses to prove the point, but this one will do:

“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the LORD has chosen you to be his treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 14:2).

There you have it, folks. The Hebrew Bible is pretty clear that God chose Israel.
But why?
And for what purpose?

To answer that, we have to go way back to the Book of Genesis when God first chose Abraham and commanded him to travel to Canaan in order to found a nation. We actually do not know why God chose Abraham over any other man. But we do know why God wanted a nation:

“For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” (Genesis 18:19)

This is a really important but under-examined verse. Apparently Abraham, and by extension the Israelite (or Jewish) nation was chosen in order to do righteousness and justice.

But that raises more questions. Why would one nation alone be given this task? Shouldn’t God want everyone to be righteous?

The Biblical context of this passage is important. Until Abraham is chosen by God in chapter 12, the first 11 chapters of Genesis are filled with disappointment. Human beings sin and are punished, sin again and are punished, and the cycle continues. From the Garden of Eden to Cain and Abel to the generation of the Flood to the Tower of Babel, every single story in Genesis up to Chapter 11 is about humans sinning and getting punished.

So God ‘wised up,’ as it were. Instead of continuing to rely on human beings to “just do” the right thing, He decided to create a nation dedicated to the purpose of “the way of the Lord”—doing righteousness and justice.

But are the Israelites just supposed to go about being good people in isolation, away from the rest of the world? No.

At Sinai, God made a covenant with the Israelites: they agreed to become His people and follow His laws. A key phrase in that story says that the Israelites are to be “a kingdom of priests unto Me (Exodus 19:6).” A 15th century Italian Jewish commentator, Rabbi Obadiah Seforno, explains this to mean that Jews are called to “teach the entire human race to call on the name of God and serve Him with one accord.”

That makes sense. Of course God doesn’t just want one nation to be righteous and just.

Rather, He chose a nation to educate everyone else about justice, to model moral behavior/lead by example, and thus influence the rest of the world to become just. God saw that humans weren’t making any moral progress, so he chose one people to become a nation of educators and get the message out about goodness according to God.

Key takeaway:
the chosenness of Israel, properly defined, means the responsibility that this nation has to influence and educate the rest of the world in the teachings of “ethical monotheism”—devotion to God and to justice on earth.

So when the messiah comes, of course it makes sense that the Bible says he “shall execute justice and righteousness in the land (Jeremiah 33:15).” The Messiah, whose job it is to bring history to its ideal state, will do justice and righteousness, perfectly fulfilling the whole purpose of Israel as a nation.

When the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon and saw the nation of Israel at the height of its wealth, power, and influence, she declared:

“Praise be to the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on the throne of Israel. Because of the Lord’s eternal love for Israel, he has made you king to maintain justice and righteousness (1 Kings 10:9).”

Once again, we see this core idea pop up. From the mouth of an impressed gentile onlooker, we are reminded of the lesson that God chose Israel and gave Solomon power in order to maintain justice, and thus hopefully inspire everyone to become more moral.

This is also one purpose of all the special laws that God gave the Israelites to observe, as His nation. As Moses says about these laws in the Book of Deuteronomy:

“Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people… “And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?”

That’s a pretty clear description of how Israel is to pursue education and influence: through good role modeling. Faithfully observing its own laws at the individual, family, and national levels is what will enable Israel to affect and inspire its surrounding gentile neighbors.

Finally, Israel’s role a model nation chosen to educate the rest of the world explains why God punishes her so harshly for her sins. After all, if this nation represents God and His standard of morality in the world through its conduct, then when she sins, that makes God look bad. Hence, the prophet Amos (3:2) says:

“You only have I chosen
of all the families of the earth;
therefore I will punish you
for all your sins.”

That’s my take on Jewish chosenness. Let me know what you think of it in the comments. Next post will be about the Catholic perspective on Jewish chosenness, and some possible Jewish responses to their position.

(Some of these ideas were inspired by the following excellent article. Check it out for a longer version of this argument:

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  • Barros Serrano

    I’m not a Jew. I hear a lot of criticism against Jews for believing they are “chosen”. Somehow this is construed as a supremacist belief, and racist.

    Yet when I look into the ethos and mythology of any people I find a similar claim to being chosen. Some deity, or at least some heroic figure, acting righteously, claimed the land and founded the “nation”. Ask Native Americans by what right they occupied the land they were on, and you’ll get something very similar to the Jewish justification for having Israel as a homeland.

    All groups were chosen. My own belief is that every group has a Creator-given right to their own independence and freedom. The Jews may articulate this better than some, but they are no different. Just like every group, they are a Chosen People.

  • Michael Weiner

    Thanks for your psychologically enlightening comment, Barros. I definitely agree with you that lots of peoples and nations have claimed to be special. The Greeks were especially insistent on that point, dividing the world between Greeks and non Greeks (which they called ‘barbarians’).

    But I wonder how many peoples have claimed to be chosen by God. For one, back before monotheism when the whole world worshipped forces of nature as gods, I’m not sure they would have said that these forces had a special relationship with humans. In Greece, for example, the gods didn’t choose man because the gods were uninterested in man. The idea of God choosing a nation can only come when you accept the idea of God revealing Himself to people and caring about them, which most polytheistic gods did not do. Sorry for the long response. Let me know what you think about all this.

  • philliardbmt

    An excellent essay. I read with great interest your opinions of what prompted God to act in response to the sins of his people. Your annotation was spot-on (in my opinion), and gave credence to your essay. I must admit, though, that I do get uneasy when I, personally, or anyone else, tries to nail down God’s actions in such an anthropomorphic way. I’m not being critical; just expressing a problem I have that seems, well, too simple for a God who said, “My ways are not your ways…” Again though, an excellent and thought provoking essay.

  • rtgmath

    “The Biblical context of this passage is important.”

    Indeed. The context of the whole first half of Deuteronomy is that God chose them, they were to be obedient in all things — including the extermination of the people’s of the land. Genocide was a requirement of God’s Chosen, coupled with dire consequences if they did not.

    If you are going to quote Deuteronomy, don’t you think the larger context is important? Especially when the Ultraorthodox use this context to call for the extermination of the Palestinians? Which they do.

  • Imnoaheinstein

    Somewhere in my biblical studies it finally hit me — “but of course God chose Israel. After all, Israel invented him so it’s no accident this God not only chose them, but said exactly what they needed him to say, even to the point of calling them to genocide when necessary for their survival and expansion. It’s the story of all evolving and triumphant peoples. How else could it be?” Every nation and people create god in our own image, as America itself has done, so it’s no surprise this imagined God always forgives us, encourages us, reinforces our prejudices and values, and chooses us to fight his deadly wars — and then to seek the peace of God that comes with winning.” Twas ever thus.

  • Chris Aikman

    Israel was chosen by geography and climate. The Jews were a small, non-aggressive tribe, surrounded by larger, more warlike nations, at the juncture of the three parts of the old world (Africa, Arabia-Asia, and Europe). This surely placed them in a primary position. Their ideas would permeate throughout the known world. Likewise they would be formed by interactions with their Nile, Tigris-Euphrates and Asia Minor neighbours, and beyond.

    There’s another way to look at this. If a Creator wanted to reveal his loving-kindness to the humans of his creation, he would chose to communicate with those located a such a spot, who were oral and literate storytellers, who practiced gender equality, and who had dessert sites where their manuscripts would survive through the ages. They could be the small, still lasting voice of the creator’s love. The Creator might have spoken also to, say, the peoples of the northwestern coast of the Americas, but climate would have erased their records of the revelation. Parchment in the desert lasts a thousand times longer than ideas scrawled or carved in the rainforest.

    They were chosen by vulnerability, geography and climate. They fulfilled a destiny to reveal a positive view of creation and the Creator. We are all beneficiaries of that.

  • David Kralt

    I found this thought provoking interpretation angle to conjure the trek of this man’s genitalia to the construction of three major faiths fascinating. One man’s genitalia is quite the antecedent for such an expansive acute institutional blossoming.

    I agree with the fervor that is evident in the underlying premise that a non- benevolent dourness logical ensues if the divine mind were to refrain from spreading his wisdom which was passed to Abraham.

    From my own experience, it appears many adherents to his faith evangelize more by remaining reticent in their devotion then imposing their beliefs.

    Key to all these faiths, is peregrination, in both mind and body to ensure the individual relinquishes the rights to the world. Subsequently, perpetual recrudescence is effluent in future generations. Unlike a single dictator and state suppression for control, which does have some benefits for society; it’s not purely evil. I think this rick upon which these faiths keep popping up and growing like grass.

  • Freespirit

    This article like all articles composed by Jews and/or Evangelical Christians. is based on 2 false premises: 1.) “Jews” are a Race, when they are not, unless one considers Khazarian ( Caucasian Race, mainly) a Race. and 2.)The Jews are Semites ,when,again 98% on them are not, unless he is talking about Palestinians,who ARE Semites.Those “Jews” are Ashkenazi

    I am surprised at the authors lack of honest research, but then again, I am not (surprised) !

    Thus, the article is a non-starter

  • Michael Weiner

    Beautifully put. A very rationalistic explanation for what makes the Jews special, which doesn’t put anyone else down but still shows why God would want certain people in a certain time and place to be His messengers. Looking back, it seems like His plan succeeded, as nearly the whole world became monotheistic in under 2,000 years Thank you!

  • Michael Weiner

    Thanks for the comment, To be fair to me, I don’t think I have to address every topic in Deuteronomy just because I quote a couple verses from it. But I take your point that this is an important issue. I’ve been doing a series of posts on difficult biblical passages. Stay tuned for one on the commandment to wipe out the Canaanites in the next few weeks. I won’t argue the point here quite yet, but just so you know, I don’t actually believe that God commanded genocide.

  • Michael Weiner

    Thank you for your kind words and gracious feedback. Delighted to hear that you enjoyed this piece, and I absolutely accept your critique of discussing God anthropomorphically. I guess I take my lead from the Bible, which insists that God is utterly unlike man and impossible to fathom, and yet describes God so vividly, physically, and even humanly sometimes. It’s a paradox. Maybe I’ll write about that sometime!

  • Michael Weiner

    Thanks for the comment. This is what Wikipedia says about the Khazar theory of ashkenazi descent:

    “Genetic studies on Jews have found no substantive evidence of a Khazar origin among Ashkenazi Jews, as opposed to evidence they have mixed Near Eastern/Mediterranean and Southern European origins.
    The hypothesis has been used at times by anti-Zionists to challenge the idea Jews have ancestral ties to ancient Israel, and it has also played a role in anti-Semitic attitudes.”

    So forgive me if I’m a bit skeptical of that theory, given that it’s not accepted by most academics and has been used by Jew-haters to advance their cause.

  • Michael Weiner

    Thanks for the comment. I respectfully disagree. The Old Testament isn’t all that triumphant, and the God it depicts doesn’t always forgive and encourage Israel. Judges, the Book of Kings, and all the prophetic books are about how the Jews keep failing to keep their covenant with God and don’t listen to the rebuke of the prophets and create a society of polytheism and immorality.
    God is pretty demanding. Check out Amos 3:2 for proof.

  • Dax Williams

    Unfortunately that monotheism only represents 75%of the population and 10000 different gods

  • Chris Aikman

    It’s pretty hard to believe in 10000 different gods when we view the amazing design extending across all cosmic creation.

  • Chris Aikman

    There’s another reason why the Jewish nation was special: they were an egalitarian society, perhaps the first modern one. Our pre-civilization tribal ancestors had been, for the most part, egalitarian. But the first civilizations that arose were not; they were largely fashioned by top-down power. The pharaoh controlled the food supply, so had enough control over the masses to compel them to build pyramids. Other civilizations turned their new technologies to creating weapons and armies to control their own people, and to make war on their neighbours.

    Israel had no permanent army, only volunteers. They had no lordships or hierarchical structures, and were perhaps to first civilization to abolish slavery. Women were given far more respect as human beings than in most cultures. What other country could compare with this 3000 years ago?

    Also, in Israel, most people earned their living by individual effort as shepherds and tradesmen. They did not rely on a hierarchical economy to survive as individuals, but on their personal merits.

  • Imnoaheinstein

    please know I respect your interpretation, but question only your bias in such matters.

  • philliardbmt

    Embracing paradox and mystery is surely one of the most challenging necessities for being a believer. Thanks again and I’ll keep following.

  • Michael Weiner

    I can’t ask for much more than that. Thanks for disagreeing so civilly and respectfully!

  • Helen4Yemen

    Ancestry dot com has 26 genetic groups for the entire people of the earth and the genetic group named “European-Jewish” is listed under Europe. What is “European Jewish” if not Khazar?

  • Cally

    I wonder when God is going to punish Israel for not loving their neighbors, the Palestinians? To me Israel exemplifies the worst of human behavior and therefore are not worthy of representing God. The Israeli government seems to be driven more by desires of the ego, i.e. a thirst for power and control with no thought for who gets hurt in the process.

  • Michael Weiner

    You might find this book of interest, written by a Jewish Biblical scholar:
    “Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought”