Traditional Views of Jewish Chosenness

The Bible implies that God's choice of the Jews was random; later traditions made the Jews seem deserving of this privilege.

Print this page Print this page

Choosing Abraham

Jewish history, as the Bible tells it, began when God singled out Abraham with the command, "Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father's house to the land that I will show you" (Genesis 12:1) and the subsequent promise to bless Abraham and his descendents. This blessing, reiterated several times throughout the Bible, became the basis for the doctrine of chosenness--the idea that the Jewish people have a relationship with God unlike that of any other nation.

What is strange about the selection of Abraham is the apparently arbitrary nature of God's choice. The Bible does not explain why Abraham is chosen and does not suggest that Abraham is more deserving of God's attention than anyone else. The lack of explanation here stands in contrast with the specification, a few chapters earlier, that Noah's righteousness compelled God to save him alone from the flood that wiped out the rest of humankind.

In the book of Genesis, the arbitrariness of God's choice recurs in generation after generation. Repeatedly, God rejects an older sibling in favor of a younger one. Thus, the Jewish line passes from Abraham to his younger son, Isaac, and then to Isaac's younger son, Jacob.

The Israelites Were Nothing Special

The Torah's most extensive and explicit discussion of chosenness appears in the first few chapters of Deuteronomy. There, Moses repeatedly reminds the people that God's choice of the Israelites does not indicate any virtue or special quality on their part:

"It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the Lord set His heart on you and chose you--indeed, you are the smallest of peoples; but it was because the Lord favored you and kept the oath He made to your fathers that the Lord freed you with a mighty hand and rescued you from the house of bondage, from the power of Pharaoh, king of Egypt (Deuteronomy 7:6-8)."

The logic here is tautological. God chose the Jews because God favored the Jews. God favored the Jews because God chose Abraham. And, as we have seen, the Torah offers no explanation for the selection of Abraham.

Even more strikingly, two chapters later, Moses specifies that "it is not for any virtue of yours that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people (Deuteronomy 9:6)." The only real justification for the selection of the Israelite people is the suggestion that God's choice reflects a desire to punish all of the other nations (Deuteronomy 9:5).

With Chosenness Comes Responsibility

While not suggesting any particular virtue on the part of those whom God chooses, the Torah does require that the chosen respond by following God's commandments. Presumably, Abraham would have forfeited God's blessing if he had not complied with the commandment to "Go forth." At Mount Sinai, the people respond to revelation with the words, "All that the Lord has spoken, we will do (Exodus 19:8)." Later, when the people construct and worship a golden calf, God threatens to destroy them and to choose a different people.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.