What Being ‘the Chosen People’ Really Means
Jewish faithful were selected by God for a specific mission
Jews are often referred to as the “Chosen People,” which has caused all manner of angst and vitriol throughout history.
Somehow, this description has gotten twisted to mean just about everything other than what it actually does mean, according to the Bible/Torah. It’s time to explain and understand what these two simple words actually mean, and why they are an essential part of Jewish tradition — and what these words do not mean.
“Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you.”
“Chosen People” does not refer to the Jews as being in any way morally or racially superior, or for that matter, superior to any other human being in any manner. Those who seek to vilify and slander the Jewish people, however, are quick to point to this description as “proof” that Jews somehow hold themselves in higher regard.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
“Chosenness” is nothing more than the belief that the Jewish people were specifically chosen to enter into a lasting covenant with God. That is, that God made a contract with the Jewish people, and did so with Abraham. In Chapter 12 of Genesis, “The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you.'”
Abraham is thus handed this extraordinary responsibility: to lead the people into a new land, start a new life, worship a single God, and abide by a whole set of societal obligations.
In exchange, God offers a whole set of obligations from His end. What’s particularly important here is the nature of this covenant, that Abraham is moved by conviction that God’s power will not be subject to whim, but rational and ethical, even dependable and predictable.
“You will not be able to serve the Lord, for He is a holy God … He will not forgive your transgressions and your sins.”
Moreover, the people of Israel did not enter into the covenant willy nilly. They did so of their own free will, knowing of serious downsides should they fail to keep their end of the bargain.
Joshua 24:19-20 makes this clear: “You will not be able to serve the Lord, for He is a holy God; He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgressions and your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve alien gods, He will turn and deal harshly with you and make an end of you.”
The point of the covenant wasn’t to subjugate Israel, but just the opposite — to offer a path to full and wholesome lives, to be enjoyed throughout history. If the Israelites follow God’s laws, all of which are designed to result in the best of all possible human behaviors, they will be rewarded with God’s love and protection.
There’s no explanation as to why Abraham is specifically selected to lead the Jewish people into this covenant; but Midrash (Jewish biblical interpretation) often points to Abraham’s actions all through his life that made him an apparently strong candidate.
This idea of being chosen, then, was utterly unique at that point in history. Prior to that point, the idea of monotheism was practically unheard of, given all the false idols and pagan idolatry in existence. Even after Abraham, multiple civilizations worshipped multiple gods. Thus, this covenant was indeed unique. God essentially decided to get things in order, and create a vital structure for the Jewish people, with the subtext being that this would establish a new order to the world.
If anything, this idea of “chosenness” is more likely to lead one to humility rather than arrogance. It means being tasked with obligations, the need for introspection, and the requirement to constantly seek self-improvement. It means giving of oneself to community and to God.
Imagine the opposite, if one were instead chosen by a mortal. That would be more likely to inflate one’s ego and lead to feelings of superiority. Yet when chosen by God, it’s far more likely to lead one to take one’s obligations and place in the world with the utmost seriousness.
Lawrence Meyers covers everything from faith and popular culture to public policy and finance.