In most creation myths, an essential part of creating is to divide things from each other, thereby bringing order from chaos.
In Genesis, God divides light from darkness, the waters above the firmament from waters below the firmament, and the dry land from the water. In the Theogony story from ancient Greece, Chaos exists first, followed by Earth, the Underworld, and Love, all of whom divide the universe. Similar tales appear in all cultures.1
Likewise, to “choose” our people means to create something new: to divide various peoples from each other, thereby bringing order from chaos.
It doesn’t matter if our ancestors were chosen simply as one people among many in the ancient Near East, as a nation of priests, or as a training ground for future Nobel laureates.2 When chosen — whether by God, by Moses, or simply by themselves — they became something new and different from what had existed before.
Chosenness in Historical Context
Surprisingly – or perhaps not – our Jewish notion of being a “chosen” people is not unique in the context of Ancient Near Eastern religions.
The idea is surprising because in our era, we are the only religious group to make such a claim explicitly. Other groups make similar claims, such as Christians’ claim to be God’s “elect” and Muslims’ claim that their faith supersedes both Judaism and Christianity – but Jews are the only religious group claiming to have been chosen by God. We give many different interpretations to the claim, but we do make it.
The idea is unsurprising because, like almost all religious traditions, Judaism was influenced by other religions in the area where it arose. As Dr. Reuven Firestone notes:
Every national unit seems to have had its own national goddess or god … One particular feature of religious life in the ancient Near East is that all believers were ‘chosen’ by their national gods …3
Thus, for example, the Moabites were chosen by Kemosh, Ammonites by Milkom, Philistines by Dagon, and Tyreans by Ashtoret. On the other side of the Mediterranean, Athena was the patron goddess of the Athenians. All those gods, including the god of the ancient Israelites, were conceived anthropomorphically, like humans but more powerful. Members of each national group believed that given appropriate incentives, sacrifices, and flattery, the gods would bless them with good luck, fertility, and success in warfare.
What differentiates Judaism from the other religious traditions of people “chosen by a god” is that we Jews still exist as a distinct group. We have lasted long enough for our concept of divinity:
- To change in number, from polytheism (worship of multiple gods) to monolatry (worship of one god but belief in other gods), and finally to monotheism (worship of one god and belief that no other gods exist).
- To change in description, from a finite, human-like warrior god of one nation to the transcendent, incomprehensible creator of the entire universe. This moves from anthropomorphic to abstract monotheism.
The covenant between Israelites and God, described in Deuteronomy, is similar to vassal state treaties imposed by the Hittites on conquered countries. Most scholars believe the authors of Deuteronomy either copied or were influenced by the Hittite treaties, which adds another link between the ancient Israelites’ chosen status and the historical context in which they lived.4
Chosenness in the Jewish Tradition
Explicit references to our chosenness are not abundant. Contemporary writer Joseph Telushkin speculated about the reason:
Perhaps out of fear of sounding self-righteous or provoking anti-Semitism, Jews rarely speak about chosenness, and Maimonides did not list it as one of the Thirteen Principles of the Jewish Faith.5
Prominent Jewish philosophers seldom discuss the issue. Saadia Gaon does not discuss chosenness in his Book of Beliefs and Opinions.6 Judah Halevi argues that Jewish chosenness is connected to a mission of informing the world about God. We are commanded:
… to clearly witness that the world has a King Who watches and directs it, Who knows both great and small, rewarding the good and [punishing] the wicked … So that today the entire civilized world acknowledges that God is eternal, and that the world was created. They look upon the Israelites and all that happened to them as a proof of this.7
Maimonides does not address the issue directly. In Chapter 10 of Talmud Sanhedrin, he wrote that Moses:
… was the chosen one of all mankind, superior in attaining knowledge of God to any other person who ever lived or ever will live. He surpassed the normal human condition and attained the angelic.8
However, since Maimonides thought that God was incomprehensible and that prophecy was inspiration through natural processes, his references to chosenness must be taken as metaphorical.
The most offbeat interpretation was given by Sigmund Freud, who speculated that Moses was an Egyptian monotheist who himself chose the Israelites to receive his monotheistic religion after it was rejected by Egyptian polytheists:
Moses’ active nature conceived the plan of founding a new empire, of finding a new people, to whom he could give the religion that Egypt disdained … Perhaps he was governor of that border province (Gosen) in which perhaps already in the Hyksos period certain Semitic tribes had settled. These he chose to be his new people.9
At Hebrew College, our own Prof. Arthur Green suggested a middle ground between Halachic and ethical-cultural ideas of chosenness by covenant:
The special love of God for the Jewish people, the descendants of Abraham, stands within the context of our berit or covenant with God … That love is, on the one hand, unconditional and, on the other hand, entirely conditional, dependent upon the job we do as bearers of God’s love-message to the world.10
Meaning and Performative Statements
Discussions of religious issues such as chosenness usually neglect to consider what such statements actually mean or what functions they perform.
Statements about people and earthly events belong to the “empirical domain.” They refer to things we can see and experience. If I say “the dog is brown,” it’s meaningful because my hearers have seen dogs and brown things.
Statements about God, on the other hand, refer to a transcendent, incomprehensible being about whom — if we believe Maimonides — we can say nothing literally. A statement like “God is good” belongs to the transcendent domain, and Maimonides would warn that neither “is” nor “good” mean the same applied to God as they do when applied to us.
Within each domain, words, beliefs, and behavior are connected to other elements within the same domain. They are meaningful relative to each other. However, they are unconnected to the corresponding elements in the other domain. The elements in each domain are meaningless in the other domain.
That causes obvious problems for beliefs that combine elements from both domains.
As long as we conceived God as a finite, human-like being who lived in the universe but did not transcend it, the belief that “God chose the Jewish people” made logical sense even if it was based on myth. It said that God, a finite being who lives in the world, chose (in the same sense as a human would choose) the Jewish people. It is an empirical-domain statement. It might be false but it is not meaningless.
However, when our concept of God changed into that of a transcendent Creator, we kept the words of our belief and lost the meaning.
Instead of being an empirical-domain statement, it now had two terms from the transcendent domain (“God chose”) and three from the empirical domain (“the Jewish people”). Since neither part of the statement is meaningful relative to the other part, it is nonsense — but, as the 20th-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein called it, “important nonsense.”
Exactly how is it important? In the 20th century, we learned that we use words and statements for more than just asserting things. We also use them to make what the philosopher John Searle calls “performative utterances.”11 Among other things, we use them to:
- Signify our membership in groups.
- Express loyalty to people or groups.
- Encourage ourselves and others.
- Mark our status within a group.
- Signify that we are moral people.
When we state beliefs held by all members of our group, we signify to the group that we are a member and not an “other.” We signify that we are loyal. We are one of them. We are not a threat. That applies almost regardless of the content of the belief. Similarly, when we state beliefs that command moral behavior, we encourage in ourselves and others a tendency to engage in that behavior.
Choosing to be Chosen
The statement that “God chose the Jewish people” has no coherent literal meaning, so we must look elsewhere for its significance.
Most Jews today understand chosenness as based on a covenant with God, however they interpret that, and even if they don’t believe in God. The covenant enjoins them to behave morally, to promote justice, and to observe the Jewish law (however we interpret it).
When we say “God chose the Jewish people,” we are urging others and trying to encourage ourselves to:
- Live morally,
- promote justice,
- defend the rights and welfare of the Jewish people, and
- follow the elements of the Jewish tradition that we find true and helpful.
In practical terms, the belief that “God chose the Jewish people” is more important as a moral commitment than as a hard-to-interpret theological statement.
On earth, it’s our moral commitment that matters. We choose that.
Brettler, M. (2005), How to Read the Bible. Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia.
Firestone, R. (2008), Who Are the Real Chosen People? Skylight Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont.
Green, A. (1999), These Are the Words. Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT.
Jones, K., translator (1939), Moses and Monotheism by Sigmund Freud. Amazon Digital Services, Seattle, WA.
Morrison, C., editor et al (2015), The Kuzari by Judah Halevi. Amazon Digital Services, Seattle, WA.
Rosenblatt, S., translator (1948), The Book of Beliefs and Opinions by Saadia Gaon. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.
Searle, J. (1969), Speech Acts. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Sproul, B. (2013), Primal Myths. HarperOne, New York.
Telushkin, J. (2010), Jewish Literacy. Harper Collins, New York.
Twersky, I. (1972), A Maimonides Reader. Behrman House, Springfield, NJ.
- For an excellent survey and analysis, see Sproul, B. (2013). ↩
- Jews are 0.2 percent (one-fifth of one percent) of the world’s population but win 22 percent of the Nobel prizes. “5 Reasons Jews Win So Many Nobel Prizes,” Jewish Journal, October 9, 2013. ↩
- Firestone, R. (2008), loc. 326. ↩
- Brettler, M. (2005), loc. 1219. ↩
- Telushkin, J. (2010), p. 567. ↩
- Rosenblatt, S. (1948). ↩
- Morrison, C. (2015), loc. 1148. ↩
- Twersky, I. (1972), loc. 5594. ↩
- Jones, K. (1939), loc. 364. ↩
- Green, A. (1999), loc. 1056. ↩
- Searle, J. (1969), loc. 469. ↩