A Bolt from the Blue, Or: When God Falls in Love

Parashat Devarim

A Bolt from the Blue Or: When God Falls in Love1

Few ideas have traditionally been more central to Jewish theology than the election (or “chosenness”) of the Jewish people, and few ideas have been more controversial. Of the Five Books of Moses, it is Deuteronomy that gives the most sustained attention to what election means—and also, crucially, to what it doesn’t.

The surest way to misunderstand biblical theology is to insist upon a stark binary distinction between the particular and the universal. The Torah begins by looking through a wide lens: It deals not with Abraham, but with Adam; not with the Promised Land, but with the whole world. Neither the people of Israel nor the land of Israel is considered primordial, written into the fabric of creation itself.2 As Genesis progresses, the Torah narrows the scope of its lens, focusing—primarily, but not exclusively—on God’s relationship with one particular people, but the broader, universal horizon is never effaced or forgotten: God is the God of the whole world and of all humanity. And yet one cannot get around the fact that one of the central claims of the Torah as a whole is that God has fallen in love with, and entered into an eternal covenant with, Abraham and his descendants through Isaac and then Jacob. Biblical theology is thus at once profoundly universalistic and unabashedly particularistic.

But what does God’s election of Abraham mean? Does the Bible assert that Jews are somehow better than other peoples?

Reading Deuteronomy, one gets the sense that Israel is at once startled and delighted by God’s love, almost like a young lover who is overwhelmed by his good fortune and cannot quite believe that his beloved really loves him.3 Israel is so small, and yet God loves it: “It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the Lord desired you and chose you—indeed, you are the smallest of peoples; but it was because God loved you and kept the oath God made to your fathers…” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). And God is so great, and yet God loves Israel: “Mark, the heavens to their uttermost reaches belong to the Lord your God, the earth and all that is in it! Yet it was your fathers that God desired in God’s love for them, so that God chose you, their lineal descendants, from among all the peoples.” (Deuteronomy 10:14-15). “In both cases,” Bible scholar Christopher Wright notes, “the message is that Israel’s election was based on nothing in themselves that had evoked God’s favoritism, but solely in the character and action of this amazing God.”4 God’s love, in other words, is pure grace.

Standing at the border of the Promised Land, the people are reminded that God’s deep and abiding love for them is thoroughly entwined with God’s passion for their ancestors (10:8). Surely, their ancestors must have done something to earn God’s favor? Remarkably, though, while the post-biblical stories we know about Abraham’s pre-covenantal greatness—shattering his father’s idols,5 searching for God in a world consumed by flames6—attempt to understand why God singles out this one man,7 in Genesis itself, God’s election of Abraham comes like “a bolt from the blue”8; it is an act of divine grace rather than a reward for human merit. According to the Torah, Israel did nothing to earn its privileged status. Accordingly, an authentic biblical theology of election cannot be self-congratulatory, as if Israel had been chosen for embodying this quality or that. In truth, says the Torah, we don’t know what God was thinking in choosing Israel.

Deuteronomy’s concern lest God’s love for Israel lead them to develop a “superiority complex”9 is of a piece with its broader project of warning the people against pride and self-congratulation. They are instructed to remember that whatever they achieve in the land is due, ultimately, to God’s power rather than their own (Deuteronomy 8:17-18), and are reminded that their possession of the land, like their election, is not a result of their own righteousness (Deuteronomy 9:4-5). All of this is intended to “uproot feelings of superiority that might be stimulated by election, affluence, or inheritance of new land.”10

Election is thus not tied in any obvious way to merit. Nor, it is crucial to emphasize, does it guarantee impunity. The prophet Amos unabashedly affirmed Israel’s election but worried about the dangers of chauvinism and triumphalism. Faced with the people’s smugness and self-satisfaction, Amos proclaims in God’s name: “You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth.” One can imagine Amos’ followers nodding complacently, perhaps expecting to hear words of affirmation from their divine patron, but Amos upends their assumptions, thundering: “Therefore, I will call you to account for all your iniquities” (Amos 3:2). Amos’ “therefore” is intended to jolt his listeners: The people may assume that, as God’s elect, they are immune to punishment and entitled to a bounty of privileges. But God is no patron; on the contrary, with “great privilege” comes “great condemnation”: “Israel’s great privilege of election by God… exposes them to judgment rather than exempting them from it.”11 Amos seeks to purify Israel’s shallow and self-serving understanding of chosenness, but nowhere, crucially, does he suggest abandoning it.

Amos’ words should be sobering; triumphalistic notions of election are, after all, not rare. And so, chosenness leaves us with a paradox: From a biblical perspective, Jews are elected to serve God and, by extension, to examine our deeds.

Parashat Devarim seeks to avoid another potential pitfall of (superficial, self-serving) election theology: Subtly but powerfully, the text makes clear that notwithstanding God’s unique love of Israel, God is still very much involved in the lives of other peoples; God’s election of Israel must not be taken to imply that God has simply written off everyone else. Thus, for example, God issues strict instructions to Moses that when the people pass through the territory of Edom, they must be “very careful not to provoke them, for I will not give you of their land so much as a foot can tread on; I have given the hill country of Seir as a possession to Esau” (Deuteronomy 2:4-5). Similarly, God warns Moses “not to harass the Moabites or provoke them to war, for I will not give you any of their land as a possession. I have given Ar [in Moab] to the descendants of Lot” (2:9). And again, as Israel approaches Ammon, God adjures them “not to harass them or start a fight with them, for I will not give any part of the land of the Ammonites to you as a possession. I have given it as a possession to the descendants of Lot” (2:19). In other words, as Bible scholar Patrick Miller astutely observes, “other communities from the seed of Abraham have been kept by [God’s] providence; other communities have been given place to live by [God].” As if to emphasize and bolster the point, “the same language [n-t-n] is used for [God’s] consignment of territory to Edom, Moab, and Ammon as is used for [God’s] consignment of land to Israel.” The point of all this, Miller concludes, is to insist that “the Lord of Israel has other stories than simply the one with Israel.”12

God’s grant of land is not a gift exclusive to Israel; on the contrary, the text makes clear that “the provision of land is as sure for [Edom, Moab, and Ammon] as for Israel.” Remarkably—though perhaps not surprisingly—“the same book that makes the strongest case for the particular election of Israel… vigorously resists a misreading of that [election].” We’ve already seen how strongly Deuteronomy rejects any hint that Israel did something to earn or merit God’s love; parashat Devarim works to undermine another, equally dangerous misinterpretation of Israel’s covenant with God: “the assumption of exclusive benefits. Others have benefited in the same fashion from [God’s] power and grace. Israel thus hears that its story is not the only one going on.”13

A careful reading of Tanakh thus demonstrates that election, or chosenness, is not a function of merit; it does not give the people a moral blank check; nor does it suggest that Israel is God’s only concern.14 While there are many problematic—and destructive—ways to understand election, Tanakh works hard to cut the legs out from under them.

So central is election to Tanakh that contemporary Jews who wish to have a theology rooted in scripture have no choice but to reckon with chosenness. To jettison the language of chosenness is, I fear, to jettison Tanakh itself.

The notion of election faces many challenges in contemporary Jewish culture. In order to speak of election coherently, one has to affirm a God capable of making a choice—that is, a personal God who has a will; many contemporary Jews have lost the ability to think and speak this way. Moreover, we live in a time when, in some quarters, even speaking of the Jews as a people is considered troubling and outdated;15 if one cannot speak of the Jews as a people, the notion of election cannot get off the ground.

In confronting chosenness, Jewish theology faces many questions, none of them easy: In this day and age, do we find it plausible to believe in the kind of God who loves and chooses? Can we talk about covenant without chosenness? Can we affirm election without deluding ourselves into thinking that we have a monopoly on God’s love? Is it enough to affirm election as a subjective, experiential claim, but not as a metaphysical one? One thing is clear: To be an inheritor of the Jewish tradition is to grapple with the powerful, mysterious, enchanting, disturbing idea that we are God’s chosen people.

1 An earlier version of this essay appeared in the February 2015 issue of Sh’ma (www.shma.com) as part of a larger conversation about chosenness.

2 Cf. the discussion in Jon D. Levenson, “The Universal Horizon of Biblical Particularism,” in Mark R. Brett, ed., Ethnicity and the Bible (1986), pp. 143-169.

3 Walter Moberly writes that “generally speaking, one of the recurrent notes that is sounded by a responsive individual recipient of love is an astonished ‘why me?’... The question expresses sheer marvel at the gratuitous wonder of being loved… If this note of astonished wonder at the unpredictable gift of love is lost, then a significant dimension of understanding the nature of divine choosing is thereby lost.” R.W.L. Moberly, Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture (2013), pp. 44-45.

4 Christopher J. H. Wright, Deuteronomy (2003), p. 146.

5 Genesis Rabbah 38:13. For an intriguing analysis of this portrayal of Abraham. and of the biblical “hints” (the term is mine) that make it possible, cf. James Kugel, The Bible As It Was (1997), pp. 133-138.

6 Genesis Rabbah 39:1. I have explored the theological implications of this midrash in Shai Held, “Wonder and Indignation: Abraham’s Uneasy Faith,” Jewish Review of Books, 3:4 (Winter 2013), pp. 36-37.

7 But note Genesis 22:15-18, which already begins to complicate this picture. Cf. Jon D. Levenson, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2012), pp. 83-84.

8 Jon D. Levenson, “Genesis,” in Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., Jewish Study Bible (2004), p. 30; and Levenson, Inheriting Abraham, p. 67.

9 Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy 1-11 (1991), pp. 61, 368.

10 Weinfeld, Deuteronomy 1-11, p. 406.

11 David Allan Hubbard, Joel and Amos; An Introduction and Commentary (1989), p. 147.

12 Patrick D. Miller, Jr.,“The Wilderness Journey in Deuteronomy: Style, Structure, and Theology in Deuteronomy 1-3,” The Covenant Quarterly 55 (August 1997), pp. 50-68; passage cited is on p. 57. Cf. also Patrick D. Miller, “God’s Other Stories: On the Margins of Deuteronomic Theology,” in Israelite Religion and Biblical Theology: Collected Essays (2000).

13 Miller, “The Wilderness Journey,” p. 57.

14 In this context, it is important to emphasize that for Deuteronomy God’s concern with other peoples does not mean, as some Evangelical Christian scholars insist, that Israel’s election is for the sake of other peoples. Providing a good example of this (misguided) interpretive trend, Christopher Wright avers that “there was a universal goal to the very existence of Israel. What God did in, for, and through Israel was understood to be ultimately for the benefit of the nations.” Deuteronomy, he concludes, ought to be read “missiologically.” Wright, Deuteronomy, p. 11. But there is really very little in Deuteronomy to support such an interpretation. To state the matter differently: There is a significant difference between saying that God elects Israel and cares for other nations, on the one hand, and saying that God elects Israel for the sake of other nations, on the other. Much closer to the mark, I think, is Joel Lohr’s assertion that “Deuteronomy, by and large, is not concerned with a larger plan for the nations.” (As Lohr recognizes, the passages I have discussed in the previous two paragraphs complicate his point but do not undermine it.) Joel N. Lohr, “Taming the Untamable: Christian Attempts to Make Israel’s Election Universal,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 33 (2011), pp. 24-33; passage cited is on p. 31. In my view (and Lohr concurs), Miller’s reading is far more nuanced and careful than Wright’s.

15 Cf. Shaul Magid, American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society (2013).