We continue with a final post from a chapter from Dan Jacobsen’s The Story of Stories where he explores the Scriptures to find how the Jews and the Jewish state became the chosen people. Although Mr. Jacobsen is not a believing Jew, his approach is quite readable (I think) for Christian or Jewish “cultic” believers (as he labels those of us who have drunk the Kool-Aid). Roger Scruton quoted him at one point and I took that as a recommendation.
As a Jew, Dan Jacobson has long been aware of the notion of a ‘people chosen by God’. In The Story of the Stories, he uses his Jewishness as a premise to discuss the contradictions of being thought of as ‘special’ – its opportunities and its deadly temptations. The result is a deeply profound and serious meditation that sheds an entirely new light on Biblical scholarship and orthodox theology. On first publication (1982), The Story of the Stories was hailed as a seminal work.
An anthropologist may declare, as Edmund Leach does in Genesis as Myth and Other Essays, that the reason for the choice is essentially that this line is the “purest” in blood, since Sarah, Isaac’s mother, is Abraham’s half-sister, which the mother of Ishmael is not; but from our point of view that merely puts the question back a stage further. We still have to ask: Why this line?
The “purity” of the line from Abraham and his family matters, after all, only because he has already been chosen. As for Jacob and Esau, who are not merely born of the same mother but are twins, the one is preferred above the other when they are still in the womb: “the elder shall serve the younger.” (A reversal of the primogenitive order is found in many biblical narratives; the case of David, which is mentioned below, is one of the most striking of these.)
It cannot be said that the patriarchs are chosen for their special virtues; if anything, the case is exactly the other way around: whatever virtues are ascribed to them appear to spring from the fact that they have been specially favored or elected — and that they know it.
Now, one might argue — as Thomas Mann does in Joseph and His Brothers, a series of ironic, avowedly fictional variations upon the legends of Genesis — that in this respect Yahweh’s actions are very much like those of life itself , which also “chooses” with apparent capriciousness those people whom it blesses (and curses) with gifts of any kind, and, which invariably lets them know that they have been so chosen. (In 1 Samuel 16, to take an example from much later in the story, David is described as a handsome youth, with particularly beautiful eyes; but the “Spirit of the Lord” comes “mightily upon him” only after Samuel has anointed him as the king-to-be: in other words, once he knows that he has been chosen.)
Alternatively, it could simply be said that the biblical story, like any myth about the genesis of any people, has to begin somewhere, and with someone: why· not with Abraham, in Ur of the Chaldees? Both these arguments are persuasive enough, and they are not incompatible with one another.
But they are incompatible with the claims that the Scriptures themselves make on Yahweh’s behalf: above all, with the design that is insistently imputed to him, from the beginning to the end of the biblical text. He is the active or (if you like) supremely responsible participant in the story of the patriarchs and of the people descended from them; he is the sole and exclusive source of moral order acknowledged in the book. Yet no explanation is given of his most crucial decision; no moral or any other justification is proffered of the most fateful of the choices he makes. At the same time, the book itself makes it clear that to enter into the realm of choices is to enter irrevocably into the realm of morality.
“The Lord sees not as man sees.” In some of the biographical narratives, there is a hint that the favored of God might be those who are scorned or overlooked by others. “When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren” (Genesis 29:31). Even David falls into this category; no one thinks to send for him, the youngest son of Jesse, when Samuel comes to the house in search of Saul’s successor to the throne. A preference by Yahweh for the downtrodden is more than hinted at in the account of the liberation of the entire people from their bondage in Egypt; while in the codes of law and conduct that are promulgated in Yahweh’s name in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, the weakest members of society-the poor,the fatherless, the widow, and the sojourner or stranger — are spoken of with great moral generosity, even with tenderness, as being under his special guardianship. (“Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” Another form of reciprocity, that must be called.)
Eventually, in a development already alluded to in discussing the fall of Jerusalem, the prophets who faced the catastrophes of national defeat and exile, and all the hardships of their own calling, were more and more to insist programmatically that God’s final election must fall upon the humiliated and the outcast. Yet in developing out of their owntragic situation this systematization or moralization of the way in which Yahweh makes his choices, the prophets, inevitably enough invoked as precedent his (belated) recollection of his promises to the patriarchs during an earlier period of exile and servitude. And that brings us back, as they intended it to, to the mystery of his initial choice.
It is not surprising that later rabbinical commentators were also to attempt to rationalize the initial choice of Abraham and (some of ) his descendants by inventing a series of what might be called justificatory legends about it. It was said, for instance, that Yahweh had offered the yoke of his Law to all the nations of the earth in turn; only Israel had been willing to accept it. It was also said that even as a boy Abraham had distinguished himself by his contempt for idolatry, and by breaking the idols of his father. There is no warrant in the text itself for these stories; in fact, what they betray is a certain unease about there being no warrant for them.
A rather more sophisticated, theological justification for the apparent arbitrariness — or “scandal” — of Yahweh’s · choice of the people of Israel has been urged with particular insistence by some Christian interpreters: Paul, the ex-Jew, being the very first among them (Romans 9:10-11). As I understand it, the argument goes that if we were to be given a reason for the choice, then the quality of grace it shows would inevitably be diminished or devalued; indeed, to seek for a reason is to attempt to do away with the very notion of God exercising his completely unconstrained will in the matter, which is the only true meaning the word “choice” should have.
This is ingenious, and in some ways it actually seems to me closer to what we find in the text than are the rabbinical stories just cited; at least it confronts the fact that we are dealing with an act of unexplained and dangerous favoritism — and one that was at a profound level recognized as such by the biblical writers themselves.
The freedom which Yahweh enjoys is in any case constrained in one most important respect: the one thing he is not free to do is to refrain from choosing. At a time when there are only four people on the entire earn — Adam, Eve, and their two sons — Yahweh is already engaged in the practice.
And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” The consequences of this, supposedly God’s very first act of favoritism, are at once shown to be disastrous for both brothers. First it produces envy, then murder, then a man forever on the run. But does Yahweh learn from this experience? Not at all!
Once he has begun in this way, he apparently cannot stop. “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious,” he says, with more grimness than grace in Exodus 33:19-20, “and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” (The passage is quoted in the Pauline Letter mentioned above.) Everything that follows can be understood as an illustration or elaboration of this ambiguous utterance.
Whole peoples are chosen and rejected; the land is chosen and later, in a sense, rejected; so are particular groups and tribes within Israel itself; so are particular places within the land. The record of these events obviously reflects in each case some greater or lesser vicissitude in the history of the nation or in the history of the cult; but it also reveals just how “natural” to the Israelites’ conceptions of God was the act of choosing and rejecting, in so many different contexts.
This activity is strongly associated, especially in Leviticus, with that ritualistic preoccupation with “holiness” and “separation” with “cleanness” and “uncleanness,” in terms of which everything, from the fish in the sea to the days of the calendar, was ultimately to be categorized. That preoccupation, I need hardly add, still looms large in rabbinic Judaism. “I am the Lord your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore make a distinction between the clean beast and the unclean” (Leviticus 20:24-25).
What makes this God such an inveterate or compulsive chooser? What is it about the act of choosing that reveals his very nature? The answer I am going to suggest shows clearly that in the creation of our fantasies, and hence in the development of our moral lives, “weaknesses” and “strengths” are as inextricably bound up with one another as are “good” impulses and “bad.” Yahweh comes into being as a choosing God because, unlike the gods· of Egypt or Assyria, say, or even those of Canaan, he is not autochthonous; that is, he is a God of a people whose primal historical memory appears to be one of enslavement and homelessness, of searching for a territory, of being without that which all other peoples apparently had. Like the people , he is a wanderer, a God looking for a land — therefore he has to “choose” the land from outside it, just as he had to originally to choose or form the people itself.
For ask now of the days that are past, which were before you, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other whether such a great thing as this has ever happened or was ever heard of . . . . Or has any god ever at tempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by great terrors, according to all that the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?
DEUTERONOMY 4:32, 34
In other words, if it had not been said of Yahweh that he had created heaven and earth, if he had not been given “extraterritorial” status from the very outset, he would not have been able to dispose of a land that was not “his ” and deal so effectively with the Egyptians, or choose as his own a nation which was still to become a nation.
Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, be my own kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
And if this was true for the Israelites when they began to keep the record of his deeds, during their time of national independence, it had to be no less true for the prophets when they contemplated the destruction of Jerusalem, the burning of his Temple, and the renewed enslavement of his people.
Out of the people’s weakness had come his power, including his power to choose; the wider the scope of that power was seen to be, the greater was he glory of those upon whom his choice had fallen — and also the more exposed and vulnerable they felt their position to be. Yahweh had been free to choose Israel, or not, as he wished. Israel, it seemed had no choice but to be chosen.