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.
Continuing to work backward, as it were, we come to a question which is logically anterior to the issues raised by the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan; indeed, it is anterior to almost everything in the Scriptures. Why did Yahweh choose the children of Israel to be “his own possession among the peoples”?
The short answer to this question is that he chose them because they wanted to believe that they had been chosen. . They invented him, one can say, so that they might be chosen. They wanted to be exalted above other nations — “high above . . . in praise and in fame and in honor” (Deuteronomy 26:19) — and they ascribed precisely that ambition on their behalf to the most exalted being it was possible for them to conceive. From their belief in the intentions he nourished on their behalf , they derived a sense of inner strength and cohesion which they could not have got from any other source: a conviction of their own superiority over all the nations who had not been chosen.
All that, in terms of the general argument, may seem obvious enough. Motives and sentiments of the kind just described emerge clearly from the famous hymn of praise to Yahweh in Exodus, which celebrates not only the destruction of the Egyptian army that had been pursuing the fleeing Israelites, but also the forthcoming destruction of their enemies-to-be in the land of Canaan.
Who is like thee, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like thee, majestic in holiness,
terrible in glorious deeds, doing wonders?
Thou didst stretch out thy right hand,
the earth swallowed them.
Thou hast led in thy steadfast love the people whom
thou hast redeemed,
thou hast guided them by thy strength to thy holy abode.
The peoples have heard, they tremble;
pangs have seized on the inhabitants of Phifistia.
Now are the chiefs of Edom dismayed;
the leaders of Moab, trembling seizes them;
all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away.
Terror and dread fall upon them; because of the
greatness of thy arm, they are as still as a stone,
till thy people, O Lord, pass by,
till the people pass by whom thou hast purchased.
Thou wilt bring them in, and plant them on thy own mountain,
the place, O Lord, which thou hast made for thy abode,
the sanctuary, O Lord, which thy hands have established.
The claim to the territory made in that hymn has two aspects, one of them more encouraging to the Israelites than the other. On the one hand, it says that their title to the land resides in the fact that it has been given to them by a being supreme even “among the gods”; no one can have prior or more important rights to it than themselves, because no one has authority over God; certainly not the land’s original inhabitants and its neighbors, who are mentioned one by one merely in order to be disposed of. (For the time being, at least.)
Furthermore, God is expressly said to have chosen the land not only for the Israelites but also for himself : it is his own mountain, his abode, and the place where he has established his sanctuary.
On the other hand, the very fact that he is praised and thanked for giving the land to the people, and that praising and thanking him for this reason is to be a central feature of his cult, [The words "cult" and "cultic" are used throughout in their traditional sense: "in reference to external rites and ceremonies" (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary). That is, the words relate specifically and directly to the formal, public modes of worship adopted by the community of believers.] once they have been brought in and his sanctuary has been established, serve as a constant reminder to them that their possession for a certain strip of territory is not and never has been something “natural,” or self-evident, or to be taken for granted.
It is the result of a special intervention on their behalf by God into the processes of history; by its very nature such an intervention can be undone or can take a different form on another occasion, should the need arise. One such occasion when he intervened to the harm of the Israelites, has already been looked at. So have some of the consequences of the self-consciousness which the Israelites had about their relationship to the territory they inhabited. Others still wait to be examined.
In any event, we have moved almost imperceptibly from discussing the apparently unlimited power of an unlimited divinity to something much more modest in scope. After all, what has the power ascribed to Yahweh in that paean of praise from Exodus actually produced? What has he delivered? A measured answer is to be found in Spinoza’s A Theologico-Political Treatise:
Next I inquired, why the Hebrews were called God’s chosen people, and discover[ed] that it was only because God has chosen them for a certain strip of territory, where they might live peaceably and at ease.I learnt that the Law revealed by God to Moses was merely the law of the independent Hebrew state.
Their choice and vocation consisted only in temporary happiness and the advantages of independent rule…In the law no other reward is offered for obedience other than the continual happiness of an independent commonwealth and other goods of this life.
Spinoza comes to this conclusion only after considering and recoiling form another possibility, the very notion of chosenness with which I opened this post.
Every man’s true happiness and blessedness consist solely in the enjoyment of what is good, not in the pride that he alone is enjoying it, to the exclusion of others. He who thinks himself the more blessed because he is enjoying benefits which others are not, or because he is more blessed or more fortunate than his fellows, is ignorant of true happiness and blessedness and the joy which he feels is either childish or envious and malicious. For instance, a man’s true happiness consists only in wisdom, and the knowledge of the truth, not at all in the fact that he is wiser than others, or that others lack such knowledge.
When Scripture, therefore, in exhorting the Hebrews to obey the law, says that the Lord has chosen them for Himself before other nations (Deuteronomy 10:15); that He is near them but not near others (Deuteronomy 4:7); that to them alone He has given just laws (Deuteronomy 4:8); and lastly, that He has marked them out before others (Deuteronomy 4:32); it speaks only according to the understanding of its hearers, who…knew not true blessedness. For in good sooth they would have been no less blessed if God had called all men equally to salvation, nor would God have been less present to them for being equally present to others; their laws would have been no less just if they had been ordained for all, and they themselves would have been no less wise.
What Spinoza has done here is simply to exclude from serious consideration those passages in the biblical text which offend him. That is the effect of his saying that such passages were put there merely to appeal to “the under standing of its hearers.” The only evidence he can produce for this remark his own humane but unfalteringly rational estimation of where and how “true happiness and blessedness” are to be found.
The fact is, however, that the verses he cites from Deuteronomy speak of Israel’s special privileges before Yahweh with exactly the same degree of sincerity and fervor as they do of everything else they touch upon; and we can safely assume that those who composed them were as liberally endowed with the particular kinds of childishness, enviousness, and malice which Spinoza deplores as their “hearers” were. Or as we are today.