Chosen? for What?
Were you ever the first one onto the baseball diamond but the last to be chosen for a team? Or worse, maybe you were never chosen at all? Maybe, though, you were the best player on the field and were always chosen first. For some of us, it was routine for a teacher to choose us to run an errand or perform a special service. Then again, others among us might identify better with the person who volunteered for everything, yet never was selected to do anything. What a wonderful feeling it is to be chosen—to realize you made the team or were selected for something special. Conversely, the pain and humiliation that sometimes come to those who are not chosen can be immense.
Hopefully, this illustration helps explain why the biblical concept of a chosen people evokes such varied responses. Reactions run the gamut from vehement denial and displeasure to excitement and euphoria. And between these extremes, you can always find the people who ask, uninterestedly, “What difference does it make anyway?” This spectrum of reactions comes from Jewish people, Gentiles, and Christians.
Many years ago in Hebrew school, I learned a fanciful Talmudic story that tried to explain how the Jewish people came to be “chosen.” God supposedly went to all the nations of the earth, individually, to offer them the opportunity to embrace Torah (five books of Moses). Each nation refused to accept the offer because of a difference or disagreement with some aspect of the law contained in the Torah. But when God came to little Israel with His offer, the response was swift and immediate. It was received with great joy.
The textbook we used during those days was titled A Treasure Hunt in Judaism, published by the Hebrew Publishing Company. It explained the concept of Israel as God’s Chosen People this way:
Think of the world as a large classroom, with God as the teacher. He calls a small pupil, named Israel, to the front of the classroom and says, “Here are ten rules I want the class to observe. Will you please write them on the blackboard so that everybody may see and copy them.” And while the class copies from the blackboard, the Teacher sits in a back seat and watches the progress of His pupils. And when I think of this, I get the feeling that perhaps we should be called the Chosen Pupil, who is trying his best to help his Teacher.1
Both explanations helped me to understand clearly that it was God who took the initiative. He chose us. It was up to us to understand the great privilege we had and the responsibility that came with it in order to please Him. Noted author Abraham Hershel affirmed this truth when he said, “There is no concept of a chosen God but there is the idea of a chosen people.”2
Some Jewish people disagree. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881–1983) was one. Kaplan founded the Reconstructionist movement within Judaism. He urged his fellow Jews to erase the concept of chosenness, reasoning that being a special people set the tone for a racist ideology and denoted arrogance. In addition, he believed such thinking was divisive, causing distrust and difficulties between people groups.
Many Jewish people agree with Rabbi Kaplan. They either have seen or experienced terrible persecution and know that for hundreds, even thousands, of years, the Jewish people have felt the sting of anti-Semitism. That is why so many Jews invariably ask, “If this is what being ‘chosen’ means, why couldn’t God have chosen somebody else?”
Other Jewish people see the idea of chosenness from an entirely different perspective. A first-century rabbi stated bluntly that God did not choose Israel but, rather, Israel chose God.3
Why would Jewish people believe they are the Chosen People? In his well-known book This is My God, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Herman Wouk, an Orthodox Jew, gives the clearest and most accurate explanation: “It is the Holy Bible that so describes the Jews. The quotations run into the thousands, the theme rules Scripture.”4 One such verse is Deuteronomy 14:2:
For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God, and the LORD hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth.
Martin Buber, a noted Jewish philosopher and theologian, believed that the Hebrew term am segula, translated “peculiar people“ (Dt. 14:2; 26:18) and “peculiar treasure” (Ex. 19:5), was derived from the Akkadian word meaning “cattle” or “property.” He explained that, just as cattle was man’s treasured or chosen property in nomadic times, so Israel was considered God’s treasured possession.5
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch commented on the verse in Deuteronomy this way:
God’s choice of Israel does not imply Israel’s exclusive possession of divine love and favor. On the contrary, it means that God has exclusive claim to Israel’s service. The most cherished ideal of Israel is that of universal brotherhood. Israel’s character as the chosen people does not involve the inferiority of other nations. It was the noble obligation of the God-appointed worker for the entire human race.6
When the Jewish people think about “chosenness,” they emphasize the spiritual aspect:
Being God’s chosen people carried with it greater spiritual responsibilities and implied more demanding standards and the necessity to develop a spiritual vigor worthy of those whom God had selected to preserve and transmit his revelation to all the world.7
Thus the idea that Jews believe they are superior to other people is absolutely false. They realize God could indeed have chosen someone else, but He did not. Thus they are obliged to carry out His will and follow His marching orders.
So why did God choose the Jewish people? Again the text of Torah, the Jewish Scriptures, provides the answer:
The LORD did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people. But because the LORD loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers (Dt. 7:7–8).
God chose Israel based not on her inherent strength but, rather, on her distinct weakness.
According to Jewish thinking, God chose the Jewish people to be the source of light in the world. They were to study the rule of law given to them and obey it—to take the 613 mitzvot (365 “thou shalts,” 248 “thou shalt nots”) and incorporate them into their daily lives.
Does this kind of thinking affect the way Jewish people view non-Jews? Is there a Jewish expectation for the way Gentiles are to live before God? Religiously observant Jewish people often believe God has placed a minimal biblical standard on all men. “They [Jews] are obligated to observe the whole Torah, while every non-Jew is a ‘son of the covenant of Noah’ and he who accepts its obligations, is a gertoshave (resident stranger).”8
Maimonides, a 12th-century rabbi who is considered one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of all time, declared Gentiles as hassid, or righteous, if they follow these seven laws:
- Behave equitably in all relationships and establish courts of justice.
- Refrain from blaspheming God’s name.
- Refrain from practicing idolatry.
- Avoid immoral practices, specifically incest.
- Avoid shedding the blood of one’s fellow man.
- Refrain from robbing one’s fellow man.
- Refrain from eating a limb torn from a live animal.
Orthodox Jewish people used to cite these seven rules as their reasons not to “evangelize” or seek converts to Judaism. They felt it is better for someone to be a righteous Gentile than an unobservant Jew. It is no wonder that a Yiddish proverb states, in utter simplicity, “It is hard to be a Jew.”9
Noted rabbi and author Joseph Telushkin wrote,
Because of the Jews’ small numbers, any success they would have in making God known to the world would presumably reflect upon the power of the idea of God. Had the Jews been a large nation with an outstanding army, their successes in making God known would have been attributed to their might and not to the truth of their ideas.10
Historically, evangelical Christians have heartily embraced the biblical teaching that God chose the Jewish people. For them, such issues are settled in God’s Word. If God said it, they believe it, and that’s all there is to it. The fact that God chose a people to be His own neither intimidates nor infuriates them. To the contrary, many biblical Christians recognize that God not only chose the Jewish people and calls them “the apple of his eye” (Zech. 2:8) but that He has a plan and purpose for them, just as He has a special plan and purpose for His church.
David’s attitude before he became king reflects how so many Bible-believing Christians feel toward the Jewish people. David was doing his best to keep one step ahead of being murdered by King Saul. He had numerous opportunities to kill the king. But he refused to do so. Why? He gave the reason to his nephew, Abishai, Joab’s brother, in 1 Samuel 26:9: “Destroy him not; for who can stretch forth his hand against the LORD’s anointed, and be guiltless?”
David recognized Jehovah as the Sovereign of the universe. God was in charge, and He could choose any king He wanted. David was more fearful of Jehovah than of any Israelite king. He was not going to interfere with God’s choice.
Christians should feel the same way about Israel. We know that the same God who chose Israel also chose individual Jews and Gentiles to become part of the body of Christ through faith. Like Israel, there is nothing inherent in any of us that would merit our being chosen and receiving the forgiveness of sin that comes with salvation. It is strictly the gracious and merciful act of an infinite and loving God who is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).
Ultimately, the most important question, perhaps, is not, “Why did God choose the Jewish people?” but, “How can I become chosen?” The answer to that is easy:
If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation (Rom. 10:9–10).