Various groups have considered themselves chosen by God for some purpose such as to act as God's agent on earth. This status may be viewed as a self-imposed higher standard to fulfill God's expectation.
Specifically, in the Hebrew Bible, called the Old Testament by Christians, and the Tanach by Jews, the phrase Chosen People refers to the ancient Hebrews/Israelites. As mentioned in the book of Exodus, the Hebrew people are God's chosen people and from them shall come the Messiah, or redeemer of the human race. The Israelites also possess the "Word of God" and/or "Law of God" in the form of the Torah as communicated by God to Moses. Jews and, by extension, Christians consider themselves to be the "chosen people." Adherents to Islam make, by the same extension as Christians, the same claim of chosenness by accepting what they see as the validity of the Law of God as told by Moses; as do other religions that are built on those same laws.
In some cases, the sense of chosenness can lead to the ethnocentric viewpoint that one's religion is superior since it, alone, follows the true path to salvation. The sense of being a chosen people occurs in both religious and nonreligious contexts.
The Jewish idea of being chosen is first found in the Torah (five books of Moses) and is elaborated on in later books of the Hebrew Bible. According to the Old Testament, God chose the descendants of Abraham through the line of Isaac and Jacob—the ancestors of today's Jews—as the people through whom he would reveal himself to the world. God therefore freed them from slavery in Egypt and led them into the Promised Land. Deuteronomy 7:6 states: "You are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession."
This status carries both responsibilities and blessings as described in the biblical covenants with God. In ancient times, the concept involved a tribal or ethnic element, as the Israelites were strictly forbidden to intermarry with other races and were even commanded to drive out the Canaanite tribes from the land they were chosen to inherit. However, in later Judaism, the idea of being chosen is not connected with ethnicity, as members of any race could become Jews for at least two thousand years or more.
According to the Torah, Israel's character as the chosen people is sometimes described as absolute, but at other times it is described as conditional. For example, 1 Chronicles 16:14-16 says: "His judgments are in all the earth. He remembers his covenant forever, the word he commanded, for a thousand generations, the covenant he made with Abraham, the oath he swore to Isaac." However, in the Book of Hosea, God commands: "Declare them no longer My nation because they are not Mine and I am not theirs" (1:9). Yet, the divorcement between God and His people is not permanent, for Hosea 2:16 states: "In that day," declares the Lord, "you will call me 'my husband'; you will no longer call me 'my master.'"
Other Torah verses about chosenness include:
- "For all the earth is mine: and you shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:5,6).
- "The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because you were more in number than any people; for you were the fewest of all people; but because the Lord loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your ancestors" (Deuteronomy 7:7,8).
- "You only have I singled out of all the families of the earth: therefore will I visit upon you all your iniquities" (Amos 3:2).
Rabbinic views of chosenness
The idea of chosenness has traditionally been interpreted by Jews in two ways: that God chose the Israelites, and that the Israelites chose God. Although collectively this choice was made freely, religious Jews believe that it created an individual obligation for the descendants of the Israelites. Another opinion is that the choice was free in a limited context; that is, although the Jews chose to follow precepts ordained by God, the "Jewish soul" was already chosen even prior to creation.
Crucial to the Jewish notion of chosenness is that it creates obligations exclusive to Jews, while non-Jews receive from God more limited covenants and other responsibilities. Generally, it does not entail exclusive rewards for Jews, except that it will be through them that the Messianic kingdom is established. Classical rabbinic literature in the Mishnah Avot 3:14 has this teaching:
Rabbi Akiva used to say, "Beloved is man, for he was created in God’s image; and the fact that God made it known that man was created in His image is indicative of an even greater love..." The Mishnah goes on to say, "Beloved are the people Israel, for they are called children of God... Beloved are the people Israel, for a precious article [the Torah] was given to them."
Jewish texts usually link being Chosen with a mission or purpose, such as proclaiming God's message among all the nations, even though Jews cannot become "unchosen" if they shirk their mission. This implies a special duty, which evolves from the belief that Jews have been pledged by the covenant which God concluded with the biblical patriarch Abraham, and again with the entire Jewish nation at Mount Sinai. In this view, Jews are charged with living a holy life as God's priest-people.
In the Jewish prayerbook (the Siddur), chosenness is referred to in a number of ways. For example, the blessing for reading the Torah reads "Praised are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has chosen us out of all the nations and bestowed upon us his Torah." In the Kiddush, a prayer of sanctification in which the Sabbath is inaugurated over a cup of wine, the text reads "For you have chosen us and sanctified us out of all the nations, and have given us the Sabbath as an inheritance in love and favor..." In the Kiddush recited on festivals it says, "Blessed are You ... who have chosen us from among all nations, raised us above all tongues, and made us holy through his commandments."
The Aleinu prayer also refers to the concept of Jews as a chosen people:
It is our duty to praise the Master of all, to exalt the Creator of the Universe, who has not made us like the nations of the world and has not placed us like the families of the earth; who has not designed our destiny to be like theirs, nor our lot like that of all their multitude. We bend the knee and bow and acknowledge before the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be he, that it is he who stretched forth the heavens and founded the earth. His seat of glory is in the heavens above; his abode of majesty is in the lofty heights.
Some Christians believe that they have come to share with Jews the status of Chosen People, while others believe that the Jews no longer hold that status as a result of rejecting Jesus. Supersessionism (or replacement theology) is the belief that Christian believers have replaced physical Israelites as God's Chosen People. In this view, Israel's chosenness found its ultimate fulfillment through the message of Jesus; Jews who remain non-Christian are no longer considered to be chosen, since they reject Jesus as the Messiah and son of God. Christians who ascribe to supersessionism rely on Biblical references such as Galatians 3:28-29 to support their position that followers of Jesus, not Jews, are the chosen of God and heirs to God's promises to Abraham today: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise." Also, some Christian denominations have considered themselves to be the "true" Christians, at some time or another, rejecting other believers as not belonging to God's chosen ones, also called the Elect.
The Book of Revelation refers to 144,000 who will be chosen from the tribes of Israel as the Elect. They are mentioned three times:
- Revelation 7:3-8—"Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until after we have sealed the servants of God on their foreheads. And I heard the number of the sealed, a hundred and forty-four thousand, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel."
- Revelation 14:1—"Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads."
- Revelation 14:3-5—"And they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. For it is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins. It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from mankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless."
These numbers are variously interpreted in traditional Christianity. Some, taking the numbers in Revelation to be symbolic, believe it represents all of God's people throughout history in the heavenly Church. Others insist the number 144,000 is literal. Some believe that they are literal descendants of Jacob who will have a distinct role at the time of the end of the world, while others believe they are a special group of Christians symbolically referred to as Jews. Some Calvinists believe the number, though not necessarily literal, refers to a finite number of Christians who have been predestined to salvation. Still others take the Book of Revelation to refer to the times in which it was written, and not to any current or future era.
"Say, 'People of the Book! come to a proposition which is the same for us and you—that we should worship none but God and not associate any partners with Him and not take one another as lords besides God.' If they turn away, say, 'Bear witness that we are Muslims.'"(Qur'an 3:64)
"...There is a community among the People of the Book who are upright. They recite God's Signs throughout the night, and they prostrate. They have iman (faith) in God and the Last Day, and enjoin the right and forbid the wrong, and compete in doing good. They are among the salihun [chosen]. You will not be denied the reward for any good thing you do. God knows those who have taqwa [abstained]." (Qur'an 3:113-115)
"Verily! Those who believe and those who are Jews and Christians, and Sabians [adherents of the Sabian religion], whoever believes in Allâh and the Last Day and does righteous good deeds shall have their reward with their Lord, on them shall be no fear, nor they grieve." (Qur'an 2:62)
Muslims who believe Islam is in an adversarial relationship with Christianity and Judaism, cite other verses such as:
"O you who believe! Do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them; surely God does not guide the unjust people." (Qur'an 5.51)
"You People of the Book! Why do you clothe Truth with falsehood and conceal the Truth while you have knowledge?" (Qur'an 3.71)
Some parts of the Qur'an attribute differences between Muslims and non-Muslims to tahri fi-manawi, a "corruption of the meaning" of the words. In this view, the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament are true, but the Jews and Christians misunderstood the meaning of their own Scriptures, and thus need the Qur'an to clearly understand the will of God. Other parts of the Qur'an teach that Jews and Christians deliberately altered their scriptures, and thus changed the sacred words of God in order to deceive their co-religionists. This belief was developed further in medieval Islamic polemics, and is a mainstream belief in much of Islam today.
Ethnocentrism and exclusivism
Views of being a Chosen People are sometimes connected with racial superiority and ethnocentrism. However, Christians and Jews alike argue that the chosen status by definition is a humbling one, as it carries responsibility and sacrifice, rather than simple privilege.
Throughout their history and into the present, monotheistic religions have displayed two attitudes toward other religions. One attitude censures other religions, especially those falling into the vague and negative category of paganism. This attitude—sometimes called religious exclusivism—may find pagan religions categorically inferior because of their associations with polytheism, their use of icons, their reverence for nature and, in many cases, for sexuality and feminine symbolism as well. In some cases, not only pagan religions but other monotheistic faiths, or even sub-sects within one of the monotheistic religions, are censured and evaluated as idolatrous and inadequate. Claims for a unique and universal truth, frequent among monotheists, can become quite specific and overwhelmingly exclusive.
Monotheistic religions have also put forth other evaluations of "foreign" religions, whether monotheistic or non-monotheistic. Judaism has long interpreted the covenant made with Noah after the flood as a universal covenant with all humanity, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, demanding only basic morality rather than complex legal codes of behavior or intellectual assent to abstract doctrines. Thus, Orthodox Jews have held to their own ways as mandatory for Jews, while declaring that "the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come."
One finds tendencies in that direction in Christianity and Islam as well. Islam, especially at the height of its power, gave preferential treatment to other "people of the Book," as compared to pagans. More recently, some Jewish and Christian theologians have talked of "multiple covenants" or "anonymous Christians," in an attempt to defuse the claim that the deity of monotheistic religion relates itself favorably only with adherents of one's own version of monotheism or religion. These ideas are attempts to discover ways of understanding that the one universal deity could have been discovered or could have revealed itself more than once. The documents on religious pluralism from the Second Vatican Council also make such an attempt. They include both special statements on Judaism and Islam, monotheistic neighbors, and a general statement on other religions, urging less divisive attitudes and encouraging Christians to recognize truth whenever found in other religions.
- Klein, William W. The New Chosen People. Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2001. ISBN 978-1579105730
- Kluger, Rivkah Scharf. Pysche in Scripture: The Idea of the Chosen People and Other Essays. Inner City Books, 1995. ISBN 978-0919123717
- Longley, Clifford. Chosen People: The Big Idea That Shapes England and America. Hodder Headline; New Ed edition, 2003. ISBN 978-0340786574
- Smith, Anthony D. Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources and National Identity. Oxford University Press, 2003. ISBN 978-0192100177
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