God's relationship with the Jewish people

In the Hebrew Bible, why did God pick the Jews as God's chosen people?

Asked By: 
Think theologically and contextually, rather than historically and universally.

This is a question that necessitates a long exposition but given the fact that you have been charged with finding answer to this issue, here are some thoughts you may want to share with your Bible Study group.  

The traditional answer is that God's choosing of Israel was an undeserved status conferred upon Israel based on God's grace, not on Israel's merits. There is no logical explanation. Israel was no better than other nations and yet God chose her. We can stop here and say that it is all part of God's mysterious ways. No one can explain it. That is the traditional theological answer. The apostle Paul expresses it very well in Romans 11:33. "O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!"

Believers of each of the monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - claim to have been chosen by God. When one believes that there is only one God, then there has to be only one people that can claim absolute access to that God. The Hebrew Bible attests to this in Deuteronomy 6:4: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord." The New Testament says something similar: "For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human." (1 Timothy 2:5). And the Holy Qur'an asserts: "And your God is one God; there is no God but He, the Gracious, the Merciful." (2:164).

Exodus 6:7 provides an early witness to this idea of Israel having been chosen by God: "I will take you as my people, and I will be your God." The rest of the OT confirms this. In the New Testament a similar thought is presented: "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. God's own people." (1 Peter 2:9). And the Qur'an resonates with the same idea: "Allah chooses His Messengers from among angels, and from among men." (22:76)

But rivalries arise when you are faced with these three exclusive claims. Who is right? Who are God's chosen people, the Jews? the Christians? the Islamic people? As you can see, this is a very dangerous thought that has justified many religiously motivated conflicts in the world, from the Crusades, to the Inquisition, to the Conquest of the Americas, to the Holocaust, to the Palestinian/Jewish conflict, to mention just a few. If we interpret the concept of a chosen people as historical, that is, that the Creator God actually took sides and chose a people over another, well, that will make God very limited and prejudiced and will lead us into the problem outlined above. But if we say that that is how an oppressed people experienced God, then it is different. That is, if we interpret it theologically rather than historically, and contextually rather than universally, then we can see how this idea can bring comfort to the lives of troubled men and women.

So, the short answer is: God did not pick the Jews only. God has picked, that is, is willing to work with the faithful of any religion who are willing to invest their lives for the betterment of the human race.

Author: Osvaldo D. Vena, Th.D.
The one who said "Yes"
The first line from Dr. Gottlieb in the previous response contains the essence of my own answer as well, which is that God looked for someone to do the job of revealing God to the world and simply chose the ones who said “Yes.” Of course at first it wasn’t "the Jews” —it was one man named Abraham. Since the Bible is the story of his descendants, we don’t know if God got lucky on the first ask or whether Abraham was the 157th person God asked to travel to a new land and volunteer to live a life that would lead to a blessing for all nations. But Abraham was the one who said, “Okay, I’ll do that,” and the story was off and running.
As you look at the earliest chain of Abraham’s descendants, it’s interesting to contemplate why God chose Isaac over Ishmael (although God did promise Hagar that her son would also become a great nation—for a helpful article about God’s promise to Hagar, see this: https://interserveusa.org/gods-promise-to-hagar-clearing-up-a-misunderstaning/) and, even more baffling, why Jacob got the torch and not Esau. Dr. Gottlieb’s response that they were chosen for struggle has resonance there, as Jacob wrestles with the angel at the Jabbok River. But Jacob was clearly the prodigal son, compared to his twin brother, and my money would have been on Esau as the better pick. But Isaiah reminds us that God’s ways are not our ways, so there’s that.
Next up, while the biblical story centers on the story of Joseph, once Jacob’s name is changed to Israel, the promise is broadened out from one particular descendant to all of the descendants of all of Jacob’s children. It is only at that point that we can speak meaningfully of “the Jews” as a people and really only after the covenant at Sinai that the ethnic identity as descendants of Abraham becomes a religious and national one as well.
But I find the most important thing to remember is that God’s overall goal was to bless all nations. In Genesis 22:18 God says to Abraham, “by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” God wanted to become known throughout the earth, but you have to start somewhere, and so God picked a man who was willing and faithful to get the ball rolling. The faith of Abraham was enough of a legacy to get his descendants to pick up the work, and because of that first act of faith by Abraham, an entire nation was born and has worked ever since to show forth the nature of God through their lives and practice.
Of course people are people and that witness was marred and broken only to be restored and healed many, many times. We have all the details in the Hebrew Scriptures. But it remains that the Jews were chosen because Abraham was obedient to the call, and over time it was the descendants of Abraham that blessed those of us who are Christians with the gift of Jesus and that blessed Muslims through Ishmael. 
Abraham and his descendants were chosen for special service, not special privilege, although the overall message of Scripture is that service to God is a privilege accorded to all who are faithful in loving God and neighbor. Whenever any of us say “yes” to God’s call, we volunteer to help the descendants of Abraham extend God's blessing to the world.
-- Rev. Anne Robertson
To worship and to struggle . . .

The Talmud suggests that all the other nations were offered the Torah, and only the Jews accepted. 

Other interpretations are that Jews are particularly 'Israel' - which means literally those who wrestle with God (the name given to Jacob after his dream/vision of wrestling with some divine being). So God chose a people who will not just worship, but also struggle. Cf. Abraham arguing with God over punishing Sodom and Gemorrah.

Some Jews say - "If we are the chosen people, maybe He can chose someone else for a while."

My brother - Dovid Gottlieb - who is an ultra ultra orthodox rabbi, thinks the long existence of our tiny group shows how chosen by God we are. My reply is that maybe God is keeping us alive to torture . . . and that in any case, using numerical proofs of a divine order is simply a category mistake.

Best for your holidays, however you observe.

Author: Roger S. Gottlieb




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