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

 

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: https://tanach.org/breishit/lech.txt)

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