Today we are pleased to share the latest post in our weekly series, Beyond the Book. This month Matthew Schlimm will be discussing how we can approach the Old Testament as a friend in faith, in spite of its strangeness.
If I had more time and space, I would have tackled the scandal of election in This Strange and Sacred Scripture. Time and again, the Bible says that God chose Israel out of all the people of the earth. As God tells the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, “You shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:5-6 NRSV).
To many of us, that sounds unfair. Why didn’t God treat everyone equally? Aren’t we all treasured? Are we really supposed to believe that God plays favorites?
I’m not sure any answer to these questions will ever be completely satisfactory. There’s something scandalous about God’s giving Israel a special place among the nations. Nothing can change that. However, by studying election in the Old Testament more closely, several important points emerge.
First, God hasn’t forgotten the other nations of the earth. In fact, the reason that God chooses to work with Abraham’s family is to bless all the nations of the earth (Gen. 12:3). Today, people are elected to political office with the idea that these elected officials will work for the good of everyone. Similarly, Abraham’s family is elected for the good of the whole world.
Second, we don’t earn election. God didn’t choose Israel because Israel was the best nation on earth. To the contrary, Israel was a group of slaves. Here’s what we find in Deut. 7:6-8: “The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (NRSV). God loves picking the poor and weak over the rich and powerful.
Third, the elect are held to higher standards than the rest of the world. After God talks about choosing Israel in the passage just cited, God insists that they carefully obey the laws given specifically to them (Deut. 7:9-11). Later, when God judges Israel alongside other nations, the chosen people are held to much higher standards (see Amos 1-2).
Fourth, God doesn’t punish a nation like Egypt because it lacks election. God punishes them for pervasive and horrendous evils. Egypt gets its just deserts because it thought slavery was okay (Deut. 26:6-8).
Fifth, God promises that if Israelites sin like other nations, they will suffer the same fate. Election won’t protect them (see Lev. 18:24-30).
Finally, God repeatedly commands Israel to love those who aren’t among the elect (see Exod. 22:21; 23:9; Lev. 19:33-34; Deut. 10:17-19).
Much more could be said about this topic. (To see how I treat Israel’s wars—a topic often discussed alongside election—see chapter 5, especially pages 79-82 of This Strange and Sacred Scripture.) But even from the brief treatment here, it’s obvious that election doesn’t mean Israel gets a blank check to do whatever it wants. Election doesn’t mean God only cares about Israel. Election means that Israel has a special role to play in God blessing the entire earth.
Matthew Richard Schlimm (PhD, Duke University) is assistant professor of Old Testament at University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. He previously taught at Duke Divinity School and has held various ministry positions in United Methodist churches. He is the author of From Fratricide to Forgiveness: The Language and Ethics of Anger in Genesis and coeditor of the CEB Study Bible.