Israel’s election by God and her appointment to be Yahweh’s chosen people, as manifested through various events in Israel’s history, is one of the major theological themes of the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures) and therefore, often has been identified either as the centre of its theology or as its fundamental theological structure. The primary word that is used to denote this divine act is the verb bḥr (בהר , choose, elect) and its derivatives (although the word is also used in a profane sense in contexts such as Gen. 6:2; 13:11 and 1 Sam. 17:40). The biblical authors also use certain images to describe the close and mutually binding relationship of Israel to God, for example, those of marriage (Hos.; Jer. 2:17; 3:11–22; Ezek. 16, 23; Is. 50:1; 54:5, 8, 10; 62:4–5), of the father-son relationship (Ex. 4:22; Deut. 14:1; Hos. 11:1; Is. 63:16; 64:7–8), and of the potter and clay ( Jer. 18:1ff; Is. 64:8). The abstract noun for “election” is absent in the biblical texts, but the prominent use of various verb forms to describe the divine decision and act, shows that the Old Testament authors understood election as a series of concrete acts that took place within history. As such, the biblical texts name the election of patriarchs, kings, priests and Zion. Most prominently, the Exodus itself is a concrete act of election, an event often reflected upon later; it functions as the interpretive lens through which Israel’s adventurous course in history is interpreted.
The subject of these elective acts is God, who takes the initiative and manifests divine free decision and authority. The objects of election can be either places (e.g. the temple in 2 Chron. 7:16 and Mt. Zion in Ps 78:68), individuals (e.g. Saul, David, Solomon but also the Pharaoh, Cyrus and the Messiah or Servant of Yahweh), the people of Israel or a particular group within Israel (the house of Phinehas or the Davidic line). However, even in the case of the election of individuals, the election mostly remains a corporate concept; references to elected individuals gain significance within the covenant community.
The idea of election is interconnected with other main theological themes of the Old Testament, such as that of God’s righteousness, the covenant, the law or the promised land. God’s righteousness should be understood, first of all, as God’s faithfulness and committed decision to make Israel God’s elected people. This has a salvific character. Additionally, righteousness should be understood within the context of the covenantal relationship of God to Israel. The covenant is a theme closely related to the election, expressing their mutual bond. This is evident in the election formula (Bundesformel) in later texts (e.g. Ex. 6:7; Jer. 7:23; 24:7; Ezek. 11:20; 14:11; Zech. 8:8: “I will be your God, and you shall be my people”) as well as its earlier partial formulations (e.g. Judg. 5:3, 5; Ex. 3:7, 10). Israel was elected by God to become God’s own people. However, along with this election came obligations to God, Israel’s commitment to the covenant, and the imperative to do God’s will, as expressed in the Decalogue and other statutes.
Finally, the concept of the “land of the promise” is also closely connected. The land to which Israel was led after the exodus from Egypt was seen as God’s gift to the elect people (Deut. 26:5–10; cf. Deut. 11:10–11). This gift could be taken away, and was, when Israel proved to be unfaithful and oblivious to being God’s elect (Amos 3:11; Hos. 2:16–25). Yet again, this became the promised hope in the time of the Exile ( Jer. 11:5; Is. 11:10–16; Ezek. 47:13ff; Ob. 19–21). The land always was perceived as a divine gift in the context of the covenant and of Israel’s election by Yahweh, related to God’s faithfulness and righteousness and to Israel’s obligations towards God (Deut. 30:16–20). It demonstrated this relationship. As a divine gift (according to Lev. 25:23, it remained Yahweh’s land), occupying the land should never be regarded as self-evident and permanent, for it depended on Israel’s obedience to God’s commandments and faithfulness to the covenant.
The motives that led to Yahweh’s decision for and commitment to the people of Israel usually remain unexplained. It is not, therefore, clear why Abraham or the other Patriarchs or even Israel were chosen. Moreover, in Deuteronomy, where “electiontheology” is most fully developed, it explicitly states that Israel was the smallest among the nations (Deut. 7:7), and Israel also is chastised for stubbornness and ingratitude (Deut. 9:6–7). In Deuteronomy 7:6–8 (cf. Deut. 14:2; 26:18–19; Ex. 19:3–8), however, it is stated that Israel was elected to be Yahweh’s possession, God’s holy people, based on God’s love and faithfulness to what was promised to Israel’s forebearers. The idea of divine love as the motive for God’s act of election is also prominent in Deutero-Isaiah, where God’s faithfulness to the people is stressed, along with the role that the elected Israel will play in God’s plans for other nations in the future (Is. 42:6: “I will make you to be a covenant to the people, a light to the nations”).
For Israel this divine initiative can have a double meaning: it is a high honor and privilege and at the same time a heavy responsibility and commitment. Israel becomes God’s precious possession and inheritance (e.g. Ex. 19:5; Deut. 4:20), is called holy or separate from the other nations (Deut 7:6), and receives God’s law (Deut. 4:8). God dwells with this people (Ex. 40:34–38) and promises divine blessing (Deut. 28:1–14). On the other hand, God’s blessing and faithfulness entail that Israel respond in faith and obedience (Deut. 4:37). Despite the fact that the election is the result of a divine initiative and is rather a corporate concept, Israel is not regarded as a passive recipient of God’s decision; each Israelite and the people as a community are perceived as active participants in a dialogic relationship with God. They consciously choose God as their partner in a mutually binding covenant (cf. Josh. 24:14). This willful acceptance of God’s calling demands righteousness, loyalty to God’s law and separation from the other nations (Lev. 18:2; 20:22; Deut. 14:1 ff.; Ezek. 20:5–7).
However, in the course of history Israel often abused this commitment. Lured by other cults and false prophets, Israel turned her back to Yahweh. Often in the prophetic texts Israel was warned not to take her election for granted (Amos 3:2), but because these warnings seemed ineffective, Israel was chastised (Lev. 26:14ff.) and her election revoked. In the prophetic texts, especially in Isaiah, the idea emerged of a faithful remnant of Israel. This righteous remnant that remained faithful to God’s covenant guaranteed the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel and functioned as the loyal representative of Israel as a whole.
Election and Israel’s role as the chosen and holy people in the midst of the other nations inevitably leads to difficult questions regarding the particularistic or universal consciousness of Israel as God’s people. Recent discussions in New Testament scholarly circles, influenced by Ferdinand Christian Baur’s scheme of theological history, juxtapose Jewish nationalistic and exclusive notions of election against the spirit of universalism and freedom of the early church. However, this stereotype based on post-Enlightenment and Hegelian ideology, clearly reflects contemporary concerns. It is not found in the patristic exegetical texts, despite the anti-Jewish rhetoric that can be detected in some of them. Furthermore, the Old Testament itself calls for discretion and avoidance of over-simplifications. In many texts of especially the post-exilic period, it is emphasized that Israel was chosen among the other nations, not so that they would be condemned to perish but that they might know God and be blessed through Israel. This is particularly evident in biblical texts that reflect the eschatological expectations of Israel. Here, again, we can find traces of universalism and of an “open-ended hope.”
We agree with Jon D. Levenson that the biblical election is “instrumental,” meaning the elected people are to act as the particular witness and agent of God. This election is not self-evident or self-sufficient, nor does Israel’s failure to fulfill this role cause Yahweh to abandon them.
* Ε. Tsalampouni,
"'Election' and the 'People of God': An Orthodox Theological Perspective"
[«Η 'Εκλογή' και ο 'Λαός του Θεού': Ορθόδοξη Θεολογική Προοπτική»],
Ecumenical Review 64:1 (2012): 14-26.