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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter 2022

Election

Joel S. Kaminsky and Joel N. Lohr

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Introduction

Though differences exist in their understandings of the idea, both Jews and Christians share a common view that God elected certain individuals and families, especially the people Israel that descends from Abraham as narrated in the corpus of literature they both revere as sacred scripture—called the Jewish “Tanakh,” Christian “Old Testament,” or “Hebrew Bible.” Where differences exist, and hence opportunities for fruitful dialogue and deepened relations do occur, is in each tradition’s understanding of who precisely is elect and what this election means, especially as these concepts come to be articulated in the authoritative writings unique to each tradition mostly produced subsequent to the Hebrew Bible (e.g., the Apocrypha, New Testament, patristic, and later theological writings for Christians; and ancient rabbinic and later classical commentary literature for Jews). Particularly important in discussions on election for Jewish-Christian relations is the Christian theological claim, rejected by Judaism, that Jesus of Nazareth is the specially elect (or “only beloved”) son of God, as well as the distinct place of the Jewish people and the land of Israel in the theologies of Judaism and Christianity.

Election in Biblical Literature

At its most rudimentary level, election within the Bible is the notion that God favors some individuals and groups over others, an idea that eventually finds fuller expression in the Hebrew Bible’s affirmation, supported in the New Testament, that Israel is God’s chosen people. As will be seen, election is quite pervasive in the Hebrew Bible, evidenced first in the recurring barren wife and endangered child rivalry stories in Genesis. For Christians, this motif culminates in Jesus’ role as God’s beloved son in the Gospels. God’s granting individuals as well as Israel special status, a status claimed by the Jewish people and the church (1 Pet 2:9), entailed both unmerited privilege as well as an expectation of a proper human response toward God.

Genesis

The theme of divine favoritism first appears in Genesis 4 in the Cain and Abel narrative and is developed further in the later more elaborate sibling stories of Isaac and Ishmael (Gen 16-22) and Jacob and Esau (Gen 25-33) —reaching its zenith in the Joseph novella (Gen 37-50). In all of these stories a younger sibling is favored by God over the elder brother or brothers, a motif that recurs throughout the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Ephraim, Moses, Samuel, David, and Solomon). God’s choices are rarely justified within the text and they seem to run counter to social convention as demonstrated by the recurrent divine preference for the younger or youngest child over the elder sibling(s). On a theological level, this motif highlights God’s power, for the biblical God often subverts societal arrangements and expectations. On a socio-historical level, the prominence of this theme may reflect Israel’s self-perception in relation to its older, dominant neighbors, Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Election has some counterintuitive features within Genesis, which are worked out in distinct ways within later Jewish and Christian traditions. In these narratives of sibling (and at times wife) rivalry, being “non-chosen” does not necessarily mean that one is destined for peril or divine punishment. In several instances the non-favored brothers or wife are neither hated by God nor denied blessings of their own. The language in Genesis 17 and 21, for example, reveals that even though Ishmael is outside of the Abrahamic covenant (17:19, 21), he receives many of the blessings God promised to Abraham’s descendants. Much the same can be said of Hagar (Gen 16, 21) and Esau (Gen 33, 36).

Being chosen, on the other hand, is not a purely positive experience. Chosenness often brings mortal danger in its wake. Thus, Abel is murdered by Cain (Gen 4); Isaac is nearly sacrificed by Abraham (Gen 22); Esau wanted to murder Jacob (Gen 27:41-45); and Joseph is nearly killed by his brothers (Gen 37). This pattern of the endangerment of the chosen one that usually precedes eventual exaltation is central to both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, as indicated by the Exodus and Gospel narratives.

Even among those divinely favored, some (e.g., Joseph who rises to great power in Egypt when he successfully interprets Pharaoh’s dreams) are more favored than others. Distinctions exist even among God’s one chosen people as exhibited elsewhere with the descendants of David and Aaron.

Finally, within the Hebrew Bible the chosen are often morally flawed characters, even while both later Jewish and Christian literatures at times seek to obscure or even whitewash such failings. Further, while chosenness is often linked to divine service, the failure to live up to the highest ideals expected of the chosen rarely results in forfeiture of one’s election. For example, Jacob, Israel’s eponymous ancestor, obtains both primogeniture and Isaac’s blessing intended for his brother Esau in morally problematic ways, but he retains them and continues to benefit from God’s favor. On the other hand, God’s treatment of King Saul in the wake of his disobedience may imply that the divine favor he once possessed was transferred to David, a character whose name derives from a Hebrew root dwd, meaning ‘beloved’.

God’s Promises

Ideas such as promise, covenant, and holiness are closely bound up with chosenness. Promise is a framing device within the patriarchal stories. God’s promises to Abraham first mentioned in Genesis 12:1-3, 7 initiate Abraham’s and his descendants’ special relationship to God. Elements of these promises echo like a refrain throughout Genesis (Gen 15:4-5, 16-21; 17:20; 22:15-19; 28:13-15; 35:9-12; 48:15-16). They are composed of at least three elements: the promise of progeny, blessing, and land. Many of these promised blessings are spoken by God, but several are on the lips of fellow human beings (Gen 24:60; 27:28-29; 28:3-4).

These promise texts articulate Israel’s self-understanding of its divine election. Genesis 1-11 represents God’s failed attempt to create a working relationship between humans, nature, and himself. In the wake of this failure, God moves from a plan in which he demands equal obedience from all humans to a two-tiered plan in which most people are held to a minimal religio-moral standard (which later Judaism conceives of as the seven Noahide commandments), while one man’s extended family is obligated to maintain a higher standard of religious behavior (eventually entailing 613 commandments). As Genesis 12:1-3 makes clear, Abraham’s and thus Israel’s election is closely bound-up with God’s larger plan to bring blessing to the wider world, even while God’s purposes in choosing Abraham and his descendants are not exhausted by this linkage.

Great scholarly attention, with significant implications for both Judaism and Christianity, has been lavished on this short passage. Indeed, one’s understanding of this text deeply affects one’s view of how the Hebrew Bible balances the particular and the universal. Important Christian commentators have read this passage as undergirding the “instrumental” aspect of Israel’s election, noting that for Paul Genesis 12:1-3 contains the gospel in advance (Gal 3:8). These scholars argue that God’s special relationship to Abraham, and thus to the people of Israel as a whole, is primarily for the sake of the eventual salvation of the Gentiles. For example, in his influential essay “The Kerygma of the Yahwist,” Hans Walter Wolff puts tremendous weight on Genesis 12:1-3, particularly on the final phrase in 3b translated by the NRSV as “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” The attempt to read this text in instrumental and particularly missional terms recurs regularly among Christian exegetes, often resulting in a problematic supersessionism.

Yet, Walter Moberly, another Christian scholar, has argued persuasively that Genesis 12:1-3 is primarily directed to Abraham as a message of assurance rather than addressed to those others with whom Abraham and his chosen descendants will interact. The idea that all the families of the earth will somehow obtain blessing through their relationship to Abraham and his descendants is clearly of great theological importance. But the blessing that the other nations of the world experience might be better conceived as a consequence that flows from God’s special election of Abraham and his select descendants (an interpretation supported by Gen 18:18 and 48:20), rather than something that explains the purpose of Israel’s election (for more, see Lohr 2011).

Election in Deuteronomy

Probably no book of the Bible brings the theme of election more into clearer focus than Deuteronomy. It is here that the idea of Israel’s election becomes explicit. Up until this place in the Torah, the Hebrew term baḥar (to choose) occurs sparingly, and almost always in secular contexts. In Deuteronomy the term is used some thirty times with God as subject. Deuteronomy, more than any other book in the Bible, argues for God’s special relationship with Israel. This divine love for Israel is not just one example of God’s love, as if we could look for other people God loved similarly. Rather, Deuteronomy distinguishes God’s special love for Israel with God’s substantially different relationship to the other nations. “The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession,” states Deuteronomy 7:6. The text then goes out of its way to ensure that readers not conclude that Israel deserved God’s promises or love, or somehow having exhibited righteousness or faith earned election (e.g., Deut 8:11-18; 9:4-5). Rather, God loves Israel because God loved Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. To put this another way, God loves Israel because God loves Israel—a tautology that defies logic but is assumed in Deuteronomy. This theology influenced later prophetic literature like Jeremiah and Isaiah 40-66, as well as many Psalms and eventually post biblical Jewish and Christian writers.

The Anti-Elect and The Non-Elect

An important feature of the Hebrew Bible’s election theology is that it appears to distinguish between three categories of people, rather than two: the elect (Israel) are contrasted with those we might call the “anti-elect” and the “non-elect.” The anti-elect are the few groups deemed to be actual enemies of God and Israel, and whom Israel is commanded to resist, indeed annihilate (e.g., the Canaanite nations). The command to annihilate the Canaanites poses serious theological problems for contemporary interpreters even if it is intended to be a metaphor for Israel’s total obedience to God rather than reflecting actual history.

The non-elect, however, include the vast majority of foreign individuals and nations in the Hebrew Bible, and they often play an important and at times positive role in God’s plans. While the non-elect are not chosen, they are also not condemned like the anti-elect. It appears Israel was to work out its destiny in relation to the non-elect, even if in religious separation from them. This idea is deepened within later Jewish tradition (e.g., the extensive discussions of the Noahide laws) even while certain later Christian traditions, especially those influenced by Calvin’s theology of double predestination, tend to use more binary delineations of only the elect and the damned (see below, Election and the Protestant Reformation). Election within the Hebrew Bible is neither strictly dualistic nor necessarily directly linked with one’s personal salvation or damnation (the latter two ideas are largely anachronistic to the Hebrew Bible).

Along these lines, the Hebrew Bible contains one of the most open postures towards “the Other” found in any extant ancient text. Many non-Israelite figures are treated with great respect, including: the pharaoh who rules during Joseph’s lifetime (Gen 37-50); the daughter of a later pharaoh, who saves Moses’ life (Ex 2:5-10); Job, the wise and righteous man from the East (Job 1); and Cyrus, King of Persia, who authorizes the return of the exiled Judeans to their land (Isa 45:1-4; 2 Chron 36:22-23). Additionally, some non-elect individuals or groups are closely attached to or even merged with Israel. Ruth the Moabitess becomes King David’s great grandmother while Jethro the Midianite priest becomes Moses’ father-in-law (Ex 2:16-22; 18:1-12). A number of texts appear to challenge Israel to recognize that the non-elect often have much to teach the elect about how one should act in the world and serve God (e.g., King Abimelech in Gen 20 and Uriah the Hittite in 2 Sam 11). Some foreign figures go so far as to proclaim aspects of God’s character or articulate his saving actions to Israel, leading Rachel Billings to argue that we should place certain figures into a unique category of the pro-elect (see her work on Rahab in Josh 2; compare Jethro in Ex 18, Balaam in Num 22-24, and Naaman in 2 Kings 5).

Eschatological Images of Israel’s Relations to the Gentile Nations

The notion of election is already articulated within the earliest pre-exilic prophetic texts (e.g., Am 3:1-2). Furthermore, Hosea pioneered aspects of the love language that became prominent in Deuteronomy (D), while 1st Isaiah (Isa 1-39) explores the notion of God’s holiness in ways that likely influenced the final shape of the Priestly source in the Torah (P). In turn, authors like Jeremiah drew on aspects of both P’s and D’s election theology (Jer 2:2-4 from Hosea and Lev 5:14-16; Jer 3:1 from Hosea and Deut 24:1-4). This rich dialogue between pentateuchal and prophetic reflections reached a new zenith within 2nd and 3rd Isaiah (40-55, 56-66), collections of exilic and post-exilic oracles containing some of the most strikingly beautiful and powerful images of God’s love for his chosen people in the Hebrew Bible. Certain expressions within this corpus such as “a covenant to the people, a light to the nations” (Isa 42:6; 49:6) have received immense attention, especially because historically Christians have understood them as authorizing missionary efforts to bring God’s word to the whole world (Acts 13:46-47). Yet, scholars debate to what extent, if any, 2nd and 3rd Isaiah envision Israel missionizing the Gentile nations. 

Apart from translation challenges, these expressions raise difficult interpretive issues. Do these phrases authorize Israel’s mission to the Gentile nations, or are they describing God’s relationship with Israel? Even if these expressions were taken as being addressed to the nations of the world, it is far from certain that they should be read in a missionary way. For example, as Isaiah 49:22-26 makes clear, the nations’ acknowledgement of Israel’s God often implies their humiliation and punishment, not their conversion. Even those more universalistic prophetic passages emphasize that God’s larger plan involving the whole world was being worked out by means of God’s special relationship to Israel. Furthermore, the exact dimensions of God’s larger plan remain enigmatic. But, rather than being commanded to missionize non-Israelites and adopting them as members of the Israelite people, it appears that Israel’s role is simply to be God’s chosen people and obey God’s teaching, or Torah, something that Israel is told will “show your wisdom and understanding to the nations” (Deut 4:6). 

The Chosen Land

God’s choosing of specific places plays a large role in the Tanakh’s theology. This is seen most obviously in God’s affection for the land God bequeaths to Abraham and his descendants through Isaac and Jacob (Gen 12:7; 26:4; 35:12). Canaan, which would later become the land of Israel, is described as a place that God “looks after” and that God’s eyes “are always on” (Deut 11:12). Within this land, Jerusalem, which is conceived as the sacred center, also receives special divine favor (Ps 78:67-69; Ps 122). And within Jerusalem itself, the temple precincts are often spoken of with election terminology (Pss 46 and 48). While there are many different ways the land of Israel is viewed in various Hebrew Bible texts, biblical religion has a very strong locative dimension. And the theology of the chosen people is closely intertwined with the theology of the chosen land. Broadly speaking, obedience to God’s covenantal norms leads to a long and blessed life in the land of Israel in which God dwells among the Israelites (Lev 26:3-13). Alternatively, disobedience results in exile, suffering, early death, and alienation from God (Deut 28:15-68), even while restoration remains possible either through Israel’s repentance or by God’s intervention (Deut 4:25-31; Ezek 36:16-32)

Although the exilic experience left a huge imprint on the Jewish scriptures, major theological streams within it continue to affirm that God’s chosen people can only achieve their destiny and full potential while observing the Torah’s laws in the land of Israel. In fact, a number of the Torah’s laws, such as those surrounding the sabbatical and jubilee years, are tied directly to life in the land of Israel. Furthermore, the temple and its sacrificial cult, which occupy a major place in the biblical imagination, can only function when Israel is securely ensconced in the promised land.

Election in Second Temple Literature

The Apocrypha consists of the thirteen additional books (or twelve, depending on how these are counted) found in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles but not in Jewish or most Protestant Bibles. These books, along with those found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Pseudepigrapha, contain narratives, wisdom texts, letters, and historical materials that at times fill in the gaps in certain narratives of the thirty-nine books of the Hebrew Bible. Produced primarily by Jews during the Second Temple period (around 530 BCE to 70 CE), these texts also provide readers with a great deal of useful social and theological information about ancient Jewish life both inside and outside the land of Israel. Later New Testament and rabbinic Jewish understandings of election grow not only out of the Hebrew Bible, but also out of this broader set of texts that had authoritative status among many ancient Jewish communities.

These texts often assume, promote, or at times challenge biblical notions of election while wrestling with questions of exclusion and inclusion in relation to non-Israelites (Gentiles). For example, the book of Judith, like many other documents from this period, wrestles with how to maintain one’s tradition when one is ruled by those who worship idols or threaten one’s religious fidelity. The idea of Judaism as a distinct set of beliefs to which one could convert arose fairly late in the biblical era, which is unsurprising when one remembers Israelite identity was originally conceived in tribal and ethnic ways. Additionally, a dualism between the elect and the doomed becomes a prominent motif, as does the idea of the immortality of the chosen, arguably more in line with later and contemporary New Testament teachings. For example, while most scholars agree that the Wisdom of Solomon is a Jewish composition, some ideas in the book are found also in early Christian communities. In chapters 2 and 3, a group of wicked people oppresses and ultimately kills a righteous person, arguing that if this man was actually as close to God as he claims, then God should protect him. The text goes on to assert that while the wicked assume that this person has died, they are mistaken in that the person is in fact immortal. This narrative line closely resembles the passion story in the New Testament gospels in that the character is deemed to be specially protected by God and live beyond his suffering and death (with Wis 3:9 underlining that God “watches over his elect”).

The Dead Sea Scrolls likewise share an interest in chosen, at times messianic-like, figures as well as broader conceptions of election, increasingly framed in a dualistic fashion. The non-biblical scrolls at Qumran regularly use the term bachar, to choose, often in theological ways. Thus, the Qumran sect associated with these texts at times refers to itself or its members as “the chosen of God,” something not out of keeping with Second Temple Judaism in general or Jewish movements of this time in particular. Fragmented texts like 4Q534-536, as well as similar non-Qumran texts like The Parables of Enoch, explore the qualities of God’s chosen one, or the elect of God. As Simon Joseph has shown, the

earliest apocalyptic books, 1 Enoch and Daniel, seem to have influenced the composition of 4Q534 and 4Q246, respectively. It also seems likely that the Parables influenced the composition of Q and Matthew. The use of the titles “Son of God” and “Son of the Most High” in 4Q246 are paralleled in the Gospel of Luke, as is the use of the title “Elect,” where it has implicit messianic connotations […]. (Joseph 2012)

This larger shift, whereby individuals come to be viewed in messianic ways, left a deep imprint on the New Testament. Other significant parallels between certain sectarian scrolls and New Testament views of election, which we discuss next, include two significant ideas: 1) a growing emphasis on the idea that only a small part of Israel (e.g., Qumran sectarians or Jesus followers) has remained truly faithful to God, which may have given rise to the pauline notion that not all Israel are true Israel (Rom 9:6); and 2) the movement toward more binary understandings of election, pitting the elect “sons of light,” who are destined for salvation, against the “sons of darkness,” who are doomed to experience God’s wrath (e.g., 4Q177; 4Q428). 

Election in The New Testament and Early Rabbinic Judaism

While major streams of New Testament thinking broadened the elect group to include those Gentiles who came to believe in Jesus as the Christ, this does not signify a rejection of the biblical view of election and its implied exclusivism. Early Christians did not understand themselves as universalists who accepted everyone because of their common descent from Adam, but rather as particularists who found a new way to link God-fearing and Jesus-following Gentiles to Abraham through a process of becoming “grafted into” God’s elect people, Israel (Rom 4:16-25, 9-11).

Of particular import is the unique status Jesus comes to hold within the New Testament as the specially elect or beloved of God, one who comes to be referred to by early Christians and New Testament authors as the Messiah, or Christ (e.g. Mt 16:13–20, Mk 8:27-30 and Lk 9:18-21). Some might argue that in addition to Jesus’ status as the beloved son of God, New Testament authors at times attempt to show that Jesus supersedes earlier elect figures, often in subtle fashion. One example stands out in which Jesus becomes a “Second Moses.” In Matthew 5–7, Jesus gives a new “Torah on the Mount” and in Matthew 17 he is “transfigured,” a scene reported in Mark and Luke’s Gospels as well. Here, Jesus ascends a mountain and is said to change form (i.e., be “transfigured”); further, Jesus’ face shines like Moses’ did when he descended from Mount Sinai after receiving the Torah (Ex 34). The transfiguration scene closes with Moses and Elijah, two figures understood to represent the full teachings of Judaism at the time through the Law and the Prophets, appearing with Jesus and being told—by God himself from clouds on the mountain—to “listen to him.” Here Jesus is called God’s beloved son and his teachings are given even higher authority than the authoritative Jewish teachings of Moses and Elijah (the Torah and the Prophets), highlighting Jesus’ specially chosen, exalted status.

During his lifetime Jesus himself appears to push the boundaries of who might be included in God’s chosen people, or in the Kingdom of God. His openness to Gentiles who plead for healing and show faith (e.g., the Centurion in Mt 8:5-13 and the Syrophoenician woman in Mt 15:21-28) seems to have ruffled the feathers of some Jewish religious leaders, even while his stance was often in line with more inclusive streams of the Hebrew scriptures and early rabbinic thought.

However, despite parallels between various first century traditions, there are clear differences between the New Testament’s understanding of election and that found in rabbinic Judaism. The two traditions diverge on a number of central theological issues including: missionary outreach, the fate of those not elected, the roles played by divine and human actions respectively, and the acceptability of God’s arbitrariness. 

In certain inverse ways, each of the two traditions remains more consistent with the Hebrew Bible’s theology in some areas and more innovative in others. For example, in much of the Hebrew Bible the motivation for God’s special favor toward certain individuals and groups remains shrouded in mystery. New Testament authors such as Paul continue to stress this inscrutable dimension of divine chosenness (Rom 9-11). In contrast, a number of rabbinic texts attempt to construct rationales for God’s mysterious election of (among others) Israel (Mek. on Ex 20:2) and the Patriarchs (e.g., Abraham, BerR 38:13) by explaining how they earned God’s favor.

On the other hand, Rabbinic Judaism establishes the Noahide laws, which provide a code of behavior for the non-elect (for sources, see Novak, Image of the Non-Jew). While the Jewish people were required to observe all 613 commandments the rabbis find in the Torah, the rest of humanity was bound by far fewer divine obligations. The exact number varies in different sources, but one commonly finds references to seven basic commandments Gentiles must observe, including: setting up proper courts, not murdering, not stealing, not engaging in idolatry, not cursing God, not committing adultery, and the ethical treatment of animals. Scholars such as Markus Bockmuehl have argued that an early understanding of these Noahide laws may stand behind the compromise struck in Acts 15:20 concerning the limited number of obligations that Gentile followers of Jesus would be required to observe. Rabbinic Noahide laws imply that non-Jewish individuals may live in righteous accordance with God’s expectations for larger humanity, as is suggested in various places within the Hebrew Bible. In contrast, the call within New Testament texts to missionize the gentiles (Mt 28:19; Mk 16:15-16; Lk 24:44-49), and the conception of the elect as the saved, standing against the damned (Jn 3:18; Rev 7:4; 14:1, 3), are ideas that occur rarely if at all within the Hebrew Bible.

The communal claim to elect status is central to the theology of both Judaism and Christianity. Election plays a very large role within foundational texts of both traditions. The Hebrew Bible is not only the Jewish Bible, but was also the primary corpus of scripture used by the earliest followers of Jesus and it has continued to function as sacred scripture for Christians throughout history. And, as argued by both Jewish and Christian New Testament scholars, early Christianity and Jesus, an often “Misunderstood Jew” (see Levine 2006), are both profoundly Jewish in orientation. Both Judaism and Christianity become theologically impoverished when either community surrenders its unique claim to be God’s chosen people. As Michael Wyschogrod has cogently argued, while the idea of chosenness may seem arbitrary and unfair, it discloses God’s close and gracious relationship towards humanity as a whole, as well as the profoundly personal and relational character of the biblical God.

Election in the Church Fathers

The church fathers continue a trajectory already witnessed in the New Testament of gentiles gaining elect status as followers of Jesus, though increasingly at the expense of the very Jewish people into which Paul indicates they were grafted. Jeffrey Siker has argued that there is a four-stage evolution from Paul to the early church fathers, especially Justin Martyr (c. 100-165), all hinging upon Abraham and God’s promises to him: (Stage 1) Paul, an early Jewish believer in Jesus, uses Abraham to argue for gentile inclusion within the promises of God; (Stage 2) Luke, whom many believe was a gentile follower of Jesus, also invokes Abraham to argue for gentile inclusion within the promises of God; (Stage 3) John, whom many believe was a Jewish member of the early Jesus movement, uses Abraham to argue for the exclusion of his Jewish opponents who reject Jesus from God’s purposes; and (Stage 4) Justin, a gentile Christian, deploys Abraham to argue that the Jews have forfeited their elect status to the nascent church, the newly elected people of God (Siker 1989). Here we briefly discuss the differing election theologies of Justin Martyr and Augustine of Hippo (354-430).

In Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho—perhaps better characterized as a monologue given that Trypho’s existence is uncertain—Justin systematically lays out a supersessionist election theology in which the Jewish people are replaced with gentile Christians as the new, and true, chosen people Israel. He states:

As, therefore, Christ is the Israel and the Jacob, even so we, who have been quarried out from the belly of Christ, are the true Israelitic race. […] [The scripture] says, “the seed out of Jacob, and out of Judah: and it shall inherit my holy mountain; and mine Elect and my servants shall possess the inheritance, and shall dwell there […] But as for you, who forsake me, and forget my holy mountain, and prepare a table for demons, and fill out drink for the demon, I shall give you to the sword. You shall all fall with a slaughter; for I called you, and you hearkened not, and did evil before me, and did choose that wherein I delighted not” [Isa 65:9-12]. Such are the words of Scripture; understand, therefore, that the seed of Jacob now referred to is something else, and not, as may be supposed, spoken of your people. (Dialogue, CXXXV)

As Siker rightly points out, it would be one thing for a Jewish author to argue that some of his Jewish opponents are no longer elect, something seen in John’s Gospel, or in Isaiah 65. It is quite another thing, however, for a gentile, in this case Justin, to argue that all Jews are diselected, something that has undoubtedly contributed to generations of anti-Judaism, or what we today call antisemitism.

Not all church fathers held to such strong replacement views of the Jewish people or negated their election. Augustine’s work is more nuanced, even while it paves the way for later Protestant reformers, like Luther and Calvin, to develop election theologies far removed from communally oriented biblical views of election, instead focused on individual salvation, damnation, predestination, and freewill. Augustine’s view of Jews and Judaism is hopeful, as Paula Fredricksen demonstrates in her book Augustine and the Jews. Of special interest to Augustine is the idea of grace and the distinct fates of the twins Jacob and Esau, something Paul explores in Romans 9:10-13. Augustine ultimately concludes that Jacob’s merit (or that of his parents) could not contribute to his election, lest grace be robbed of its meaning. These ideas were pivotal in Augustine’s own conversion and were of tremendous importance for the Protestant Reformation.

Election in Jewish Medieval thought

One finds a deep tension between various streams of medieval Jewish thought, likely reflecting tensions within the Hebrew Bible itself between the familial dimensions of election found in the Abrahamic covenant and the sinaitic dimensions of biblical thinking that link covenant to consent and the fulfillment of the commandments, the 613 mitzvot. Thus, Judah Ha-Levi (c. 1075-1141) and the Zohar, the most influential Jewish mystical text (much of it penned by Moses de Leon c. 1240-1305), characterize born Jews as having special capacities or higher types of souls that gentiles lack, so that even gentile converts to Judaism remain somewhat outside of true Israel. Note how the Zohar speaks of converts being under the wings of the divine presence (the Shekhinah), but the souls of born Jews being directly issued from the body of the divine:

But, as for Israel, their souls emerge from the trunk of that tree [...] Furthermore, converts have no share in the celestial tree, certainly not its trunk; rather their share is in the wings, no higher. (The Zohar 1.13a-b)

On the other hand, Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) understands the primary advantage of Judaism to be that it possesses the best system to obtain moral and intellectual perfection. In his view, converts are fully equal to born Jews, as he emphasizes in a letter on the subject where he states that God sent Moses “who separated us from the nations and brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence, us and all proselytes, and gave us one Law” (“Letter to Obadiah the Proselyte”). These medieval arguments between Jewish essentialists as opposed to those who conceived of Judaism as a rationalistic religion recur in the modern era.

Election and the Protestant Reformation

Augustine’s influence on Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531), Martin Luther (1483-1546), and John Calvin (1509-1564) cannot be overstated. Working closely with the New Testament, the reformers stressed grace over works, emphasizing Paul’s writings over books like James. They ultimately developed predestinarian theologies in which the individual is saved from sin not due to one’s merit, or works, or even one’s will (which was determined to be depraved). Rather, one is saved by God’s “grace alone, through faith” (drawing from Eph 2:8-9), making election and salvation one and the same. Faith itself was expounded to be a gift from God, and eventually Augustine’s emphasis on grace, an idea that reached its zenith in the teaching of John Calvin, formed what came to be known as the theology of “double predestination.” In this line of thinking, God’s election is binary, with some individuals deemed elected to salvation and others relegated to damnation, though later Protestant adherents and creeds tended to use the language of being “passed over” by God for the latter. Calvin treats the question rather matter-of-factly, stating that “God adopts some to the hope of life, and adjudges others to eternal death,” indicating that this “high mystery” penetrates “into the recesses of divine wisdom” (Institutes 3.21.5; 3.23.12; 3.21.1).

Though ideas of election were fundamental to Luther, he thought of Judaism as a dead religion and rejected the claim that the Jews remained God’s chosen people. Luther’s views on the political treatment of the Jewish people began on a more positive note, but evolved, for the worse, during his lifetime. The younger Luther expressed modest sympathy toward the plight of the Jews, even highlighting Jesus’ Jewishness and coming out publicly in support of toleration of the Jews in Protestant territories in his 1523 treatise, “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew.” Later in his life, after observing that Jews were not converting to the Reformed Christian faith as he had hoped, Luther became increasingly antisemitic, indeed rabidly so, penning some of the most harmful words toward Jews in modern history. His 1543 treatise “On the Jews and Their Lies” continues to be a favorite of antisemites to this day. The irony, as Brooks Schramm has suggested, is that

[…] there is likely nothing that Martin Luther despised more than the Jewish claim to be the children of Abraham and the chosen people of God. […] On the other hand, the doctrine of election itself is at the very center of Luther’s own theology. (Schramm 2013)

Enlightenment Critiques of Election

Modern critical philosophical approaches to the idea of election reach back to Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). The ways in which these major Enlightenment figures critiqued biblical texts and ideas they found troubling, including particularistic biblical claims like divine chosenness, continue to reverberate today. Spinoza was not only a philosopher who wrote on issues surrounding the relation between religion and politics, but he was among the first figures to engage in modern historically oriented biblical criticism. 

Spinoza argued that while the Jews had been once chosen by God, a close reading of the Hebrew Bible demonstrated “that God chose the Hebrews neither absolutely nor forever” (Spinoza 1670). He arrived at this conclusion by arguing that chosenness only applies to a group’s socio-political organization not to individuals of a group. Since the Jews lacked an independent state in Spinoza’s time they were currently not chosen, although they could be chosen once again in the future. However, this would not, according to Spinoza, elevate them over any other well-organized and prosperous nation. Spinoza’s philosophical approach to election preserves the shell of the biblical idea while excising its theological content.

Kant’s takes this further by arguing that Christianity “from the beginning bore within it the germ and principle of the objective unity of the true and universal faith” and that Judaism, while it provided “the physical occasion for the founding of this church,” stands in absolutely no essential connection to the Christian faith (Kant 1793). Kant supported this rather tenuous idea by reducing Christianity to a purely ethical system of moral truths that are universally knowable through reason alone. Both Spinoza and Kant attempted to prove their points through combining reason with a very selective reading of the Bible, obscuring the centrality and pervasiveness of the idea of election within both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Equally important, these Enlightenment figures were able to marginalize election by arguing that it was in fundamental contradiction to certain universalistic ideas, particularly monotheism. Here the Bible’s core truths are equated with Enlightenment universalism. On the other hand, the Bible’s more particularistic claims are seen as an accident of history that can be discarded as chaff once the valuable universal truth within has been recovered. Subsequently, even those Jews and Christians who have sought to defend the biblical notion of election have had difficulty freeing themselves of certain deeply ingrained Enlightenment biases such as the tendency to favor the universal over the particular, or the notion that Israel’s understanding of God’s universal nature ultimately conflicted with its election theology, necessitating a rejection of the particularistic dimensions of that theology.

Election in Contemporary Judaism and Christianity

In recent decades, there has been a growing discomfort with the notion of chosenness among some Jews from all three of the more liberal Jewish movements (Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative); generally Orthodox Judaism has found Jewish election less problematic. The intellectual roots of this uneasiness were articulated as far back as the Reform prayer book adopted by the Berlin Reform Congregation in 1844, produced during the period when Enlightenment ideas began to penetrate Central European-Jewish culture:

[T]he concept of holiness and of a special vocation arising from this has become entirely foreign to us, as has the idea of an intimate covenant between God and Israel which is to remain significant for all eternity. Human character and dignity, and God’s image within us—these alone are signs of chosenness. (Cited in Eisen 1983)

This discomfort with the notion of Jewish election was further exacerbated within the pluralistic democratic environment of the United States resulting in various attempts to redefine the meaning of election or find an alternative central purpose for the existence of the Jewish people. In fact, Arnold Eisen has argued that the problems posed by the notion of election drove much of the explicit theological discourse in American non-Orthodox Jewry between the late 19th and late 20th cent.

The most serious recent Jewish critic of election theology is likely Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. Kaplan felt that the traditional idea of Jewish election was no longer defensible and that modern Jews “must be prepared not only to foster their nationhood but to see in nationhood as such, whether it be their own or that of any other people, the call of the spirit. By this they will achieve a revaluation of the doctrine of election” (Kaplan 1934, original emphasis). In other words, Kaplan sees all nations as elect, thereby dissolving the Bible’s highly particularistic idea of chosenness. The Reconstructionist movement continues to be committed to eliminating the idea of election from its liturgy and effacing it from the Jewish theological landscape. More recently, other prominent voices, such as the feminist thinker Judith Plaskow, have called for the rejection of the notion of election and suggested replacing it with the allegedly less offensive notion of Jewish distinctness. Clearly, Judaism, no less than Christianity, has been deeply affected both by Enlightenment universalism as well as by contemporary discussions of ethnicity, multiculturalism, and gender, and this has led to a call particularly within more liberal minded Jewish and Christian circles to eliminate the notion of election.

At the same time, many Jews have not embraced this radical approach, but rather tend toward redefining what Jewish chosenness might mean. Thus, many liberal Jews incline toward seeing the Jewish people as having a special responsibility to heal our broken world (in Hebrew the act of tikkun olam), although oddly enough this idea derives from kabbalistic mystical ideas that highlighted Jewish particularism.

And yet, questions related to the meaning of Israel’s election are often central to Jewish and Christian theological dialogue today. Classical Christianity embraced the idea of election and saw itself as the New Israel. Too frequently over the past two millennia this led many Christians to see the people from which it split as enemies, often giving rise to antisemitism and what has come to be called “the teaching of contempt” toward Judaism and the Jewish people. The murder of six million European Jews and the destruction of their culture by the Nazi regime in the mid-20th cent. has led to a sea change among many Christian thinkers who have come to see that Christian anti-Judaism was a necessary, even if not fully sufficient, cause of the Holocaust, or what many now prefer to call the Shoah. Christian acknowledgement of this teaching of contempt toward Jews, which stems from texts like Matthew 23 and 27, John 8, and 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 and was bolstered by centuries of canon law and troubling anti-Jewish theological exegesis, resulted in major denominational statements beginning in the 1960’s. These include the Roman Catholic Church’s Nostra aetate and the less well known Lumen gentium, both produced during Vatican II, which also brought about important liturgical changes (see Ben-Johanan). Similar statements were eventually issued by Protestant denominations such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s 1994 and 1998 statements toward the Jewish community and on Lutheran-Jewish relations. In turn, a group of Jewish scholars and clergy issued a statement titled Dabru Emet in 2000 seeking to articulate a more open and productive theological stance toward Christianity.

While Jewish-Christian understanding and communal bonds have been deepened by dialogue, many difficult issues remain. These include, but are not limited to: Christian commitments to missionize Jews, the theological significance of the State of Israel, how Christians might more carefully use or mitigate those Gospel and Pauline texts that bolster anti-Jewish stereotypes, and so on.

Particularly important for contemporary Jewish theological reflections on election are the works of Michael Wyschogrod, David Novak, Jon Levenson, and Joel Kaminsky. Though recent Christian theological works on the subject are relatively few, especially important are the works of Robert Jenson, Kendall Soulen, Matthew Levering, and Joel Lohr. Interestingly, it would seem that the former, Jewish authors, are all, in some way or another, influenced by and build upon certain theological insights of the 20th cent. Christian theologian, Karl Barth (1886-1968). In turn, it might be argued that the latter, Christian scholars and theologians, often drew upon their Jewish dialogue partners, in particular: Jenson and Soulen building upon Wyschogrod, Levering building upon Novak, and Lohr building upon Levenson and Kaminsky.

Rather than pass over this observation as little more than an interesting fact, perhaps it should give us pause. One might argue that contemporary Jewish and Christian election theologies have in many ways been the rare example of how dialogue and learning from each other through respectful Jewish-Christian relations can enhance the understanding of one’s own tradition by seeing it through the fresh eyes of those standing outside one’s religion.

Bibliography

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