The election of Israel is a given fact in the theology of the Old Testament, but scholars differ on when it took place. Some scholars speak of two election traditions in the Bible: one in the time of Abraham and another in the time of Moses. Personally, I believe that the election of Israel took place when God called Abraham and told him to go to the land of Canaan. However, the full implication of that election happened with Israel’s redemption from Egypt and the promulgation of the covenant at Sinai.
God’s promise to Abraham was the basis for the election of Israel to be God’s people. Israel became a nation after it was delivered from Egypt and established a covenant with God at Sinai. The belief that Israel was the special people of God is affirmed throughout the Old Testament.
The history of Israel’s relationship with God is the central reality of the Old Testament. The choice of Israel to be God’s people has a universal dimension. No other nation in the history of the world has influenced humanity more than Israel. Israel’s religious contribution to humanity is greater than any other nation, for it was to Israel that God introduced himself in the greatest act of unselfish love ever demonstrated to humanity. To comprehend Israel’s religious contribution to our understanding of God, one is compelled to understand the concept of God’s election of Israel as his special people.
The study of Israel’s election must begin with two questions. The first question is one of definition: What is the meaning of election? The second question is one of purpose: Why did God choose Israel to be his special people?
The word “election” comes from the Hebrew word bahar (Hebrew בחר) which means “to choose,” “to elect.” However, although the word bahar does not appear in the call of Abraham, the concept of divine election pervades the whole Old Testament. The idea of divine election is emphasized in the book of Deuteronomy: “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 7:6).
Although the basic concept of election is expressed by the word bahar, other words are also used to convey the idea that Israel was set apart as God’s special people. The terminology of election includes the word bahar “to choose,” qara’ “to call,” yada‘ “to know,” and bādal “to separate.”Amos uses the word yada‘ to express Israel’s election: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth” (Amos 3:2). The expressions “treasured possession” and “the people of the Lord” also convey the idea of election.
The second question, “why did God choose Israel?” is answered by Deuteronomy 7:7-8: “ It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love upon you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples; but it is because the LORD loves you, and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”
The choice of Israel to be a special people, at its most basic meaning, testifies to the fact of unmerited grace. God did not choose Israel because they were worthy of being chosen. In fact, God chose a people who were slaves in Egypt, redeemed them and established a special relationship with them. The point that the writer of Deuteronomy was trying to convey to the new generation of Israelites was that it was because of God’s faithful love (hesed) and because of the promise he had made to Abraham that he, in his sovereignty, elected Israel to be his special people and his special possession. God told Israel on Mount Sinai: “Out of all the nations you will be my own special possession” (Exodus 19:5).
The basis for God’s promise to Israel was the covenant he had established with Abraham. At Sinai, Israel responded to what God had done in bringing them out of Egypt and to his revelation by establishing a covenant with him and by agreeing to be his people and live in accordance with his commandments.
Thus, it was at Sinai that Israel became God’s special people. God had established a covenant with Abraham, choosing him to be the father of a great and mighty nation. Now, as the people understood their mission in the world and their place in the redemptive work of God, the people accepted their call and destiny as the elected nation of God: “And all the people answered together and said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do’” (Exodus 19:8). Israel became a special nation not because they were great and mighty, but because of the sovereign grace of the God who had delivered them from Egyptian bondage.
This particularism of God’s love, the view that Israel was chosen to be God’s special people and to have a special place among the other nations of the earth, has become offensive to many people. What made Israel to be special to God? The Bible clearly says that it was not that Israel was a greater nation among the nations of the world. The selection of Israel is not easily understood when the issue of merit is taken out of the equation. Why is anyone, for that matter, special to God? The answer to why God chose Israel from among the nations to be his special people is hidden deep in the character of God himself. It was in God’s sovereignty and love that He chose Israel to be his chosen people. In his desire to reveal himself to humanity, God chose to do so through a special people.
The election of Israel does not mean that God has rejected the other nations. To the contrary, the election of Israel is a call to service to God and to the other nations. T. C. Vriezen, in his book An Outline of Old Testament Theology (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958), p. 76, wrote:
The truth of Israel’s election is untruth if it is rationally understood to mean that for that reason God has rejected the nations of the world, that for that reason Israel is of more importance to God than those other nations, for Israel was only elected in order to serve God in the task of leading those other nations to God. In Israel God seeks the world. . . . For in His mercy He has called Israel to the service of His Kingdom among the nations of the earth.
Perhaps God chose Israel to become a paradigm to the nations. Israel was to be an example of what it means to be a people who live according to God’s laws and teachings. Perhaps God saw fit to take a people who were slaves in a foreign land, a people rejected by society, with no laws, organization, or government in order to demonstrate his power and salvation to the world.
Israel was not only small in number, but they were also hard-hearted, stiff-necked, and a stubborn people, and yet, God chose these people to be his own people The election of Israel, therefore, is a great demonstration of God’s electing love. God’s love is absolutely free and unconditional and this love was bestowed on one nation out of the many nations of the world. If there was some hidden potential in Israel, the Bible does not specify it. What is clear is that Israel was chosen to be God’s people by divine sovereignty and by the kind of love that only God can demonstrate.
God’s love and God’s grace is the focus that permeates the concept of election in the Old Testament. The recipient of this love and grace is called to service to others. God’s love is never conditional. However, as in all relationships, there must be a sense of responsibility and fidelity, and Israel was no exception. God established a relationship with Israel on Mount Sinai, on the day that he chose the descendants of Abraham to be his special possession. Yahweh gave himself to Israel and in return the people of Israel were to give themselves to him. Deuteronomy 4:40 states:
Therefore you shall keep his statutes and his commandments, which I command you this day, that it may go well with you, and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which the LORD your God gives you for ever.
The election of Israel is one of the most important concepts for understanding God’s relationship with his chosen nation. The election of Israel explains the destiny of Israel as God’s special people in the world and required of the nation an exclusive relationship, a relationship that God has maintained throughout the ages, despite Israel’s rebellion and disobedience.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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