Choosing To Be A Chosen One: Plural Relationships – OpEd


A major misunderstanding of the Biblical concept of God choosing a people or a prophet is caused by the use of the word ‘the’ chosen when a better translation would be ‘a’ chosen prophet or people. The word ‘the’ has a connotation of the only one or the authentic one.  

Chosen relationships are always unique and exclusive. But, a husband in the polygamous societies of Biblical days, might have unique loving relationships with several different wives; and in all human societies a parent can and should have unique loving relationships with all of his or her different children. So too, God can and does have unique and exclusive relationships with many different prophets who establish many different religious communities. This is the teaching of both the Torah and the Qur’an.

According to prophet Hosea, the relationship between God and Israel is similar to a marital partnership that has survived, and will always survive, difficult times because God’s love is endless and undying: “I will punish her (Kenesset Israel) for offering incense on the feast days of the ba’alim (pagan Gods), when she decked herself with earrings and jewels, pursuing her lovers and forgetting me,” says Adonai. “Assuredly I am going to woo her. I will bring her out through the desert and I will speak to her heart. I will give her her vineyards from there and the Akhor Valley as a gateway to hope. She will respond there as she did when young, as she did when she came up from Egypt. 

“On that day,” says Adonai “you (Kenesset Israel) will call me Ishi (My Man); you will no longer call me Ba’ali (My Master). For I will remove the names of the ba’alim (pagan Gods) from her mouth; they will never again be mentioned by name. When that day comes, I will make a covenant for them with the wild animals, the birds in the air and the creeping things of the earth. I will break bow and sword, sweep war from the land, and make them lie down securely. I will betroth you to me forever; yes, I will betroth you to me in righteousness, in justice, in grace and in compassion; I will betroth you to me in faithfulness, and you will be devoted to Adonai.” (Hosea 2:15-22)

The marriage of God and the People of Israel began when God proposed a marriage covenant at Mount Sinai. God said to Moses (the go between): “Speak thus to the house of Jacob, and tell this to the children of Israel… Now if you listen to me and keep my covenant, then you will be my special possession out of all the peoples, for the whole earth is mine. You will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation. These words you shall speak to the people of Israel” (this is the proposal). “Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all these proposals as God had commanded him. All the people answered together, “All that God has proposed, we will do. (the acceptance, similar to the “I do” at a wedding) Moses brought this answer back to the Lord.” (Exodus 19:5-8)  

Why did God choose to marry the Jewish People? The Torah makes it clear that Divine love isn’t based on popularity or large numbers. “It was not because you were more numerous than any other nation that the Lord cared about you and chose you, for you are the smallest of nations; it was because of the Lord’s love for you, and his oath (engagement proposal) to your ancestors.” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8) 

Who can really fully explain the process of falling in love? God just loved their ancestors. “The Lord cared for your ancestors, loving them and chose their descendants after them from all nations, as you are to this day.” (Deuteronomy 10:15) “I will fulfill my covenant between myself and you (Abraham) and your descendants after you, generation after generation, an everlasting covenant, to be your God, yours and your descendants after you.”  (Genesis 17:7) “All the families of the earth shall be blessed through you (Jacob) and your descendants.” (Genesis 28:14)

The important thing to remember is that being chosen and special does not automatically make you better. A committed loving relationship results in more giving (Mitsvot), more receiving (Torah, Prophets and sages) and more pain and grief (because each cares about the other). “For you alone have I cared among all the nations of the world, therefore I will castigate you for all your iniquities.” (Amos 3:2)

Most important, while Israel can’t adore any other God, God can and does redeem other nations.  “Are not Israelites like Ethiopians to me? Says the Lord. Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Crete and the Aramaeans from Kir?” (Amos 9:7)  Thus, Jews are not THE chosen people; they are A chosen people, the first of several monotheistic religions that have lasted to the present. A parent can have many children but only one can be the firstborn. “These are the words of the Lord, Israel is my first-born son.” (Exodus 4:22)

It is a fact and a historical reality that the Jewish people was the first community to enter into an ongoing sacred relationship with the one God of Abraham; but they are not the only community to have done so. In later centuries other religious communities were formed, that Jews see as our younger siblings. As the prophet Zachariah predicted: “Someday many nations will join themselves to the Lord, and (also) become my people, but I will (still) dwell amidst you. You will (then) know that the Lord of Hosts sent me (Zachariah) to you.” (Zachariah 2:15)

That process is ongoing and will continue until in the Messianic Age all nations have a sacred relationship to the one God of Israel. “Each nation will walk in the name of its God, and we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.” (Micah 4:5) Even in the Messianic Age the other nations will be free to faithfully follow their vision of the One God.

What is Israel chosen for? To be an agent of holiness and enlightenment. “You are the children of the Lord your God…You are a people holy to the Lord your God (see Leviticus 19) and the Lord has chosen you out of all the nations on earth to be his special possession.” (Deuteronomy 14:1-2) “I will make you a light for the nations.” (Isaiah 49:6) So other nations will also be blessed through their own religions that were ignited by Israel’s original covenant with God at Sinai, thus fulfilling God’s promise to Israel that their descendants would become a blessing to all the nations of the earth.

This theory, that Israel is the first of a series of monotheistic communities that will be established by Divinely inspired prophets; is also supported by the Qur’an which, as the last of the holy scriptures of a worldwide religion, is the only book of revelation that includes within itself a theory of prophethood which includes other religions. 

Of course, there have always been (since the days of Adam) humans inspired by God who urged their own community to avoid destruction by turning away from their corrupt and unjust ways; and turning to the One God who created all human beings. But the ongoing community that descended from Abraham and Jacob/Israel is the only monotheistic community to have lasted for over thirty five centuries. 

The Qur’an mentions 25 prophets by name (most of them Jewish) and Muslims believe there were one hundred twenty four thousand other prophets, whose names are now unknown. Of the 25 mentioned by name in the Qur’an, only four; Moses, David, Jesus, and Muhammad (Qur’an 4:163) revealed books of sacred scripture (Torah, Psalms, Gospel, and Qur’an) that are the bases for the three major monotheistic religions that still flourish today.

The Qur’an relates God’s special concern for faithful Jews when Prophet Moses speaks to his people as follows: “O my people! Remember God’s favor upon you, for He appointed among you Prophets, and rulers, and He granted to you favors such as He had not granted to anyone else in the worlds” (5:20). This is one reason why Jews in Sunni Muslim lands have rarely been forcibly converted; as frequently happened in Christian lands.

The principle that God has made a covenant with a whole people, and not just with those who are good and faithful believers, helps us understand two powerful verses in the Qur’an which narrate that at Sinai, before Allah give the Torah to the Children of Israel, He made a covenant with them. 

Allah raised the mountain (Sinai) above the whole Jewish people: “We took a covenant from you when We lifted the Mount (Sinai) over your heads saying, ‘Hold firmly to what We have given you (the Torah) and remember what is in it.'” (2:63). The whole nation’s future fate stood under the shadow of Mount Sinai, and this explains the miracle of all Israel choosing to agree to the covenant with the One God of Abraham. 

This Jewish experience at Sinai is also referred to in the Oral Torah. When God offered all the newly freed slaves the Torah, a party of them hesitated. Most of our rabbis could not conceive that the Jewish people could hesitate when offered the opportunity to commit themselves to God.

But the Torah itself faithfully records the frequent mood swings and ambivalences felt by both small and large parts of the Jewish people. God’s proposal of a covenant partnership was the most awesome offer the recently freed slaves had ever received. If many people in the Western World today have a problem making a long term marriage commitment, what about people who had been slaves in Egypt only three months earlier.

Some of the Jewish People said yes right away. Others thought about it for many hours and then decided to make a commitment. but a few remained undecided. A small minority were afraid to commit. So, would the fear of making a commitment by an ambivalent few, keep everyone else from accepting God’s proposal of an endless commitment and partnership?

Fortunately, according to Rabbi Avdimi, God came to the rescue: “The Holy One, blessed be He, lowered the [uprooted] mountain over them like a bucket, and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, fine; but if not, there will be your grave.” (Talmud Shabbat 88a) Sometimes, the ardor of the proposal makes all the difference in the other person’s answer.

This explains the miracle of all Israel agreeing to the covenant at Sinai; probably the only time in more than 3,500 years of Jewish history that all Jews agreed on something.

This may also be the reason why Musa is the only prophet whose book comes not from an angel but directly from Allah. (Qur’an 4:164) Individuals who hear a prophet may choose to believe or disbelieve, but in this case God Almighty makes “an offer that you can’t refuse,” so, as far as Judaism is concerned, everyone of the Children of Israel has to struggle for all generations to come, with living up to the covenant their ancestors chose to enter into.

This concept, of a chosen (by being pressured into a) choosing people, can and among many ultra orthodox Jews has led to exaggerated and self-righteous feelings of pride. Thus, when the Qur’an mentioned the same event in another verse (7:171) “when We raised the mountain above them like a dark cloud, and they were certain that it would fall upon them, (Allah said), “Take what We have given you with determination and remember what is in it, that you might fear Allah.”; this verse is followed by a reminder in 7:172 that all the “children of Adam” were made to bear witness against their own souls: “‘Am I not your Lord?’ They said ‘Yes, we do bear witness.” God Almighty made a covenant with all human beings and not just Jews, “lest [they] should say on the Day of Resurrection, ‘We were indeed unaware of this'”. 

This reminder by the Qur’an that no religious community, especially Israel, should be self-righteously exclusive, is similar to that of prophet Amos who tells the Children of Israel, “Are you not like the Children of Ethiopia to me, O Children of Israel? says God. Did I not redeem Israel from Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Syrians from Kir?” (Amos 9:7) 

Indeed, the Rabbis taught that long before Abraham, God had made a prior covenant with Noah and all his descendents that applies to all humanity. This covenant was neither replaced nor nullified by the later covenantal choosing that took place at Sinai; just as the prophets chosen to establish Christianity and Islam, neither replaced nor nullified the prior covenantal choosing that took place at Sinai. In liturgical terms: 





Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *