Covenant and Chosenness

According to some interpreters, the Jews chose to be chosen.

Reprinted with permission from “The Concept of the Chosen People: An Interpretation,” in Judaism (Spring 1994).

According to a famous ditty: “How odd of God / To choose the Jews.” To which the response is: “It’s not so odd / The Jews chose God!”


A Reciprocal Relationship

Chosenness is mutual; the chosen people is also the choosing people. There are those who argue that, logically and chronologically, God must have initiated the choice, and that the alternative is to preempt the divine initiative and to force God’s hand, as it were. Even then, God’s choice of Abraham and his descendants would have been meaningless had it not been reciprocated. David Novak proposes such a view in a forthcoming study:

“The election of Israel involves not only the free act of God but, also, the free act of Israel. The fact of election designated by the word ‘covenant’ (berit) is not a bilateral pact mutually initiated by God and Israel. It is, rather, an historic reality created by God. Nevertheless, this historical reality would have no human meaning without Israel’s free acceptance of it and participation in it.”

“The covenant could not function in the human world if Israel had not, does not, and will not respond to God’s election of her. However, the response is an acceptance of the prior event of God’s choice. When Israel does not respond–which is all too frequent‑-God reiterates the choice again and again and again. The covenant is always initiated by God not by Israel, even when Israel’s reiteration of it comes centuries after the initial covenantal event.”

Novak’s position is well reasoned and certainly is in harmony with many of the traditional sources. However, as might be expected, other views may be found in the literature. Let me touch on two radically differing medieval views, both of which reverse the logic and chronology of election.

Biologically Chosen

Judah Ha‑Levi [1086-1145] developed a theory that the Jews possess a divine biological faculty enabling them to communicate prophetically with God. Just as animals have faculties of sensation and voluntary locomotion lacking in the vegetable kingdom, and as only the human species, among the entire animal kingdom, possesses the faculty of reason, so there is one nation endowed with this “divine power” (Arabic: amr ilahi; Hebrew: ‘inyan ‘elohi).

Adam was created with this faculty, and it was transmitted among certain individuals over the generations down to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, after which it became transmitted to all of Jacob’s children and all their descendants. Ha‑Levi makes it clear that this faculty is biological [that is, natural]; it is not the Torah which enables the Jews to attain the “divine power.” Rather, because they are born with it, they, and only they, could receive the Torah in divine revelation.

The implication for our purposes, therefore, is simply this. Ha‑Levi’s theory means that one cannot argue that God chose Abraham and his progeny. Rather, because only Abraham, and subsequently the Jewish people, were already endowed with the biological capacity to receive divine communication, God could reveal the Torah to them. This is not to say that the Jews first chose God. It means that God could choose only them to receive the Torah because they alone had the prior capacity to receive it. The Jews did not choose God, but it was the Jews who made God’s choice possible.

Abraham Initiated Chosenness

The approach taken by [12th-century philosopher] Rambam (Maimonides) in the Guide of the Perplexed I:63 differs fundamentally from that of Judah Ha‑Levi. Nevertheless, we have here an even clearer case for the initiative of the Jews, specifically their ancestor Abraham, who, Rambam suggests, arrived at a rational understanding of God through “speculation and reasoning” (Arabic: nazar wa‑istadal, Hebrew: ‘iyyun u‑mofet):

“At those times, everyone who claimed to be listened to either claimed, like Abraham, that speculation and reasoning had come to him indicating to him that the world as a whole has a deity, or else he claimed that the spirit of a star or an angel or something similar had descended upon him. Yet that an individual should make a claim to prophecy on the ground that God has spoken to him and sent him on a mission was a thing never heard of prior to Moses.”

In his earlier code [the Mishneh Torah], Rambam described Abraham as weaning himself from the prevailing idolatry and contemplating the cosmos, without the benefit of any teacher, until, at the age of forty, “he attained the way of truth and apprehended the right line by his correct reason (tevunah), and he knew that there is one God who governs the sphere and created everything, and that in all existence there is no God besides Him.”

Whereas Judah Ha‑Levi had argued that the philosophical concept of the impersonal “God of Aristotle” is intellectually inferior to, and less existentially compelling than, the biblical concept of the personal “God of Abraham,” Rambam in effect is arguing that the God of Abraham is the God of Aristotle.

Returning now to the question of chosenness, whether or not we find Rambam’s portrait of Abraham as a philosopher or protophilosopher persuasive, the interesting thing is that the initiative is entirely Abraham’s. God did not choose Abraham, rather, Abraham discovered God.

The Establishment of the Covenant

The issue of chosenness is further complicated by a certain ambivalence in Jewish tradition regarding Israel’s willingness to become God’s covenantal partner. There are two opposing trends in Jewish tradition regarding how the Jews received the Torah.

According to the one view, God first offered the Torah to other nations. However, only Israel was ultimately willing to accept the covenantal relationship with God: Moses “took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; they said, ‘Whatever the Lord has spoken we will do and we will obey (na’aseh ve‑nishma)'” (Exodus 24:7). The other traditional view, which is equally authentic, is that God held Mount Sinai over the heads of the Israelites, and threatened to drop it on them if they did not accept the Torah.

Whether the divine or human partners are seen as having initiated the covenant, and whether Israel is seen as having agreed to the terms of the covenant freely or under coercion, there can be little doubt that the subsequent relationship between God and Israel was seen as a mutual partnership.

The term berit is etymologically obscure, but at least according to some scholarly opinion it is derived from the root b‑h‑r, to choose. The berit thus means that the partners choose to establish an ongoing relationship, and the biblical usages of the term denote what we would call a treaty, alliance, or constitution.                                                                                                     

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