This is the second installment in a book I am writing here on Messianic Jewish Musings. The tentative title is The Hebrew Bible Speaks. In short chapters I will explore the theology of the Hebrew Bible.
The ways of God are often strange to man. A point difficult to grasp and to really sustain and yet central to the Hebrew Bible is the carnal election of Israel. By carnal election, I mean that God did not choose based on merit or prerequisite faith or any of the categories that make sense to the realm of religion. God loved one man and chose his descendants in the flesh.
How strange is God’s self-questioning in Genesis 18:17-18, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is about to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him?” Who is Abraham and who is this nation from Abraham to whom God has made himself known and through whom God has become a blessing to all the peoples of the world?
Michael Wyschogrod, a Modern Orthodox philosopher of religion, says, “The election of the people of Israel as the people of God constitutes the sanctification of a natural family.” The implications are surprising: God did not have a spiritual or merit-based criterion for his central act of electing Israel, mere descent is the only qualification necessary, and though Israel is held accountable it is nonetheless true that a Jew cannot leave the service of God regardless of beliefs or actions. Wyschogrod sums it up: “the Jewish body as well as the Jewish soul is holy” (xxxiii). The election of Israel, then, is carnal.
This is a fact difficult for the Christian theologians of the centuries to grasp. Surely God’s choosing is either based on legalism, merit through obedience, or fideism, merit through belief. Carnal election makes little sense when the presupposition is that election must be earned. Thus, the legacy of supersessionism in Christian theology — the idea that Christendom has replaced Israel — is based on a refusal to accept carnal election. Surely the Church is more worthy, being based on faith, than Jewry, which is based on mere descent.
God foretold that the nations would misunderstand Israel’s chosen-ness. The nations would look at Israel and say, “Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people” (Deut. 4:6). Yet God reminded them greatness lies not in being chosen but in keeping the wisdom of Torah: “What great nation has laws and rules as perfect as all this Teaching that I set before you this day?” (4:8).
Carnal election is not about the merit of the ones elected, but the greatness of the one electing. Those elected are not chosen for personal greatness, but to be bearers of something greater than themselves. Israel is elected to carry Torah, perfectly or imperfectly, into the future destiny of humankind as a whole.
Wyschogrod’s principle is that “Israel is Hashem’s abode in the created world” (212). Israel is to the world as the stones of the Western Wall are to regular stones. Nothing is inherently greater about the stones of the Western Wall and yet they are indued with holiness because of their proximity to the place of God’s choosing. So Israel is “the people who carry Hashem’s presence into history” (212). Jewry cannot be equated with God, but Jewry is the carrier of God, perfectly and imperfectly.
Israel’s election has been called unconditional. It is not something subject to human sabotage or failure. Israel’s election is a fact that has been working itself out in history as God ordained. Israel’s election has given the world a calendar of seven day weeks. Israel’s election has given the world a notion of monotheism. Israel’s election has given the world a hope in messianism. All this in spite of the majority of Israel’s history of choosing idols over God, of widespread apostasy and faithlessness. The mission of Israel could not fail to succeed.
“You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Levit. 19:6) is a calling fulfilled and being fulfilled in history. “All the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him” (Gen. 18:18) is a reality in our present world. And why does carnal election work?
Wyschogrod observes the crux of Israel’s election: “Israel is Hashem’s abode” (212). Israel is the temple and the priesthood, carrying generation after generation the knowledge and being of God wherever Israel goes. Israel is a living Torah and the people of Israel and the nations are the readers.
Carnal election is only scandalous if we presuppose that election is about merit. Instead we find that Israel’s election is about a task, an occupation in the midst of the world’s bustling activity. Carnal election means that “good” and “bad” Jews as a whole fulfill God’s design.
The very nature of a Jewish community brings the God of the Hebrew Bible into view. If the Jews of a certain place or time are “bad,” they nonetheless represent God. It may be said of secular Israelis that their neighbors look at them and think of the God of the Hebrew Bible, even if negatively. By virtue of carnal election, even non-observant secular Zionists whose heroes have more to do with socialism than Torah, bring to mind thoughts like, “How these Jews have fallen away from their God.” It is natural to think of God when observing any Jewish community.
And Christendom owes its existence to Israel’s carnal election. Messiah, of necessity, is a descendant of Abraham. The Christian scriptures agree rather than refute the idea of Israel’s carnal election: “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). And Christians are asked to take up an identical priesthood: “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).
The power of the Hebrew Bible’s insistence on carnal election is that God has taken a foothold within humanity. It is not that a Jew has more of the image of God or that God loves a Jew more than any other people. It is that God has brought one people near so that they become known as the people of God. Israel is like the stones of the Western Wall, intrinsically ordinary but exceptional by association.
2. Michael Wyschogrod, The Body of Faith. (Northvale: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1996) xxxiii.