Throughout history, many groups have thought of themselves as divinely chosen, exhibiting what has been called a “holy nationalism.” For the ancient Egyptians, the divine gift of the annual inundation of the Nile was proof they had been specially chosen; the Egyptians’ neighbors, whom they called “the vile Asiatics,” had clearly not been chosen, because their equivalent of the dependable Nile was unpredictable rain. Roman poets such as Virgil and Ovid celebrated the divine plan that had brought Aeneas from the burning ruins of Troy to Italy, from where eventually the emperor Augustus would rule the Mediterranean world. But one ancient people’s claim of divine chosenness has profoundly affected religious and political self-identification for thousands of years, especially in the West: the biblical view that God, the only God, has a favorite people, the Israelites. Beginning in the early chapters of the book of Genesis, chosenness is attached to individuals whom God supposedly preferred—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—and is inherited by their descendants, who have a special status because God chose their ancestors. Although in the pages of the Bible some of those originally chosen eventually became excluded, the concept of chosenness continued to be applied to subgroups within the original chosen people. Subsequently, still others applied the concept to themselves, asserting that those originally chosen had been divinely rejected because they had proven unworthy.
From antiquity to the present, the idea of being divinely chosen has had powerful and often pernicious effects. If only one group has been divinely chosen then others have not been, and that justifies subjugating them and taking their land. Such rationalization has been used repeatedly, in the most virulent forms of anti-Semitism, in the enslavement and even extermination of aboriginal peoples, and in the confiscation of land by force from those not chosen—be they Canaanites, Jews, Muslims, Africans, Native Americans, Palestinians, and too many others.
The concept of chosenness—often called election—is a difficult theological problem. Does God—the one god of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—have favorites? Does God really prefer some individuals and groups over others? Are not his love and his mercy universal? Does God in fact choose at all? Philosophers and theologians have wrestled with this issue since biblical times.
What is not always admitted by both Jewish and Christian biblical scholars is that historical-critical investigation of their respective scriptures is fraught with tension. Most were, and continue to be, drawn to their specialization because of their religious background. Many were, and continue to be, active participants in their respective religious traditions. Many were, and also continue to be, ordained rabbis, priests, and ministers. That in itself is not surprising, but it has consequences. One is that many—if not most—scholars who are also believers suffer from what I would diagnose as a kind of intellectual schizophrenia. Here is an example: for the biblical writers, monotheism was neither obvious nor present from the beginning. However, monotheism, the belief in only one god, the biblical god, still informs the perspective of most biblical scholars. Although most of them do not think that the world was created in six days, that millions of Hebrews escaped from Egypt under Moses’s leadership, or that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and although most of them do not think that God is the author of the Bible, many of these scholars—along with most members of the religious communities to which they belong— continue to believe that God made at least one people, the ancient Israelites, his chosen people. Thus, they accept, at least implicitly, the authoritative status of the Bible as a kind of record of divine revelation, despite their professed objectivity.
When I teach, I try to be careful not to promote my own views. My goal is not to get anyone to believe something or to stop believing something. I want to get students to think about what a text says, to consider what it meant when it was written, rather than what they presume it means. I also ask students to think about how the Bible is, or is not, relevant for today. At the end of one semester of teaching an introduction to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, a student asked me, “Are you Jewish or are you Christian?”—a question that to me at least indicated that I had succeeded in presenting the scriptures of ancient Israel and early Judaism objectively. In this sense, the study of the Bible is like the study of religion more generally. One does not need to be a Hindu to interpret the beliefs and practices of Hinduism, nor a Muslim or Jew or Christian to interpret Islam or Judaism or Christianity, respectively—although some believers in those traditions might disagree.
Complete objectivity, however, is an impossible ideal, for we are all influenced by our backgrounds. Here is my story. I was raised a Roman Catholic. In my childhood, we Catholics, attending parochial school, thought of ourselves as superior to our Protestant and Jewish neighbors who attended public school. We, after all, had the truth, by divine grace and divine choice. The others languished in partial knowledge or even in assured damnation.
The time was the 1950s, when the sense of being divinely chosen was a national, not just a denominational conviction. “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance to distinguish us Americans from our mortal enemies, the godless Communists of the Soviet Union. “Savior of the world, save Russia!” was a frequent prayer. I went to an all-boys Jesuit high school in New York City whose motto was Deo et patriae (“For God and the fatherland”). It had a very good Renaissance curriculum: four years of Latin, three of ancient Greek, two of German or French, plus English, theology, and some—not much—mathematics and science. It was very Catholic, with the smug intellectual superiority that Jesuits often display.
After high school, I joined those Jesuits, and over the course of the next ten years found my calling: the study of the Bible. I learned Hebrew and Aramaic, and with my superiors’ blessing began graduate school in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Literatures at Harvard University. I was swaddled in layers of chosenness and privilege, not a doubt in my mind.
All that changed, quickly, in May 1969. As a witness to and occasional participant in both the campus and the national opposition to what we call the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese call the American War), I lost my faith in the institutions that had reinforced my sense of chosenness—the United States, the Roman Catholic Church, the Jesuits, and the university. At the same time, in my own intellectual development I was retracing the development of the historical-critical method. I came to realize that the Bible was not God’s word but the words of men, mostly, and a few women who lived long ago, with assumptions often very different from ours. The Bible was not unique, and its claims of chosenness were also to be found in texts of its neighboring cultures. I stopped believing in the biblical god, or in any god. I left my swaddling clothes behind.
Let me digress briefly on the nature of the biblical god. In the Bible, God is in many respects a literary character, frequently described anthropomorphically. Like us—and like gods and goddesses in other ancient literatures—he can be angry, jealous, loving, vengeful, capricious, forgiving, and so on. He is only sometimes the more abstract god—the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good supreme being—of philosophers and theologians. Still, this more abstract god is at least partially derived from the Bible, in whose various layers the more congenial and more sublime character of God can also be found. As I discuss the biblical god’s choices of individuals and groups in the chapters that follow, I will focus mostly on how the Bible itself presents him, but I will also suggest that that presentation is not always consistent with how we would like God to be.
So, I wrote God’s Favorites as a biblical scholar, fairly confident that I have brushed away the cobwebs of dogmatism and set aside my own presuppositions. As we work our way chronologically through representative biblical passages and their appropriations by later groups, we will find that chosenness is a self-designation for political and personal aggrandizement: just because individuals or groups assert that they have been chosen by God does not make it so, and just because it is in the Bible does not make it true. But I will further suggest that some biblical ideas and ideals might continue to inform our thinking and our actions today.
I also wrote God’s Favorites in the perhaps naïve hope that just as many of us—scholars and students, believers and nonbelievers, Jews and Christians and others—have given up creationism, patriarchy, and homophobia (despite what the Bible says), so too (despite what the Bible says) might we abandon the tribalisms that lead one group to claim superiority over all others, tribalisms that are in effect unholy nationalisms that have had and continue to have lethal consequences. We should, I think, give up the myth of divine election, a myth that has caused so many walls to be built and wars to be waged between members of our human community rather than uniting it.
About the Author
Michael Coogan is Lecturer on Old Testament/Hebrew Bible at Harvard Divinity School and Director of Publications for the Harvard Semitic Museum. He is the author of The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction, and A Reader of Ancient Near Eastern Texts: Sources for the Study of the Old Testament. His most recent book is The Ten Commandments: A Short History of an Ancient Text. He is currently a professor of religious studies at Stonehill College.