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The Chosen People Become A Light To The Nations

Solveig Eggerz
Spring 1998

(Part I of this article, "God’s Elect: What Does It Mean To Be Chosen?," appeared in the Winter 1998 Issues. The Prophets’ interpretation of chosenness, it was pointed out, led to a change in the basic essence of Judaism. Under the covenant, which was modeled on a typical Middle Eastern treaty between ruler and ruled, God promised to protect and bless his faithful people. With the help of the Prophets, the Chosen People realized that their obligations might be weightier than their privileges. This change coincided with the transformation of the tribal God of the armies to a universal God of compassion. Thus, the covenant represented responsibilities, not privileges.)  

The concept of the Chosen People has been central to Judaism from the beginning. "Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you." Jer. 7:23.  

Over the centuries the concept of chosenness has been debated. And the outcome of that debate has a bearing on the Jews’ relationship with God. Chosen for what? Chosen for favoritism or for a mission? How does the concept of chosenness relate to the role ascribed to the Jews in the Bible of Light to the Nations? As a consequence of the prophets’ teachings, the concept of the Chosen People grew to incorporate Judaism’s mission as a Light to the Nations.  

"I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind." Isaiah 42: 6-7.  

According to the teachings of the prophets, Amos, Hosea and Isaiah, being chosen by God no longer meant privilege but responsibility. The unknown prophet, referred to as Deutero-Isaiah or Second Isaiah, to whom scholars attribute books 40-55 of Isaiah, marks the culmination of the new religious awareness which began with Amos. Denying the existence of all gods but Yahweh, yet stressing the importance of the Chosen People, this prophet succeeded in reconciling Jewish nationalism with a belief in a universal deity.  

God’s Instrument  

Writing probably between 547 and 539 BCE, Second Isaiah describes Israel as God’s instrument to accomplish His great revelation. As witness to God’s reality and law to other nations of the earth, Israel would help bring the rest of the human race to salvation. From Second Isaiah’s poetic language emerged the idea of Judaism’s world mission on God’s behalf But the Israelites had believed in an entirely different form of chosenness before the teachings of the prophets.  

The God of Deuteronomy who inspires Israel’s early nationalistic religion, exalts Israel above all other peoples. Here God chooses Israel as His very own people. They are to worship and obey Him and win wars against other peoples:  

"When the Lord your God brings you into the land which you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you . . . then you must utterly destroy them . . . For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth." Deut. 7:1-6.  

The prophets insisted that Israel was chosen for a purpose other than destroying its enemies. Karen Armstrong notes, in her book, The History of God that Yahweh, "had become the symbol of transcendent reality that made narrow interpretations of election seem petty and inadequate." With the expansion of the view of election came a greatly expanded role for Israel, one that was turned outward toward other peoples rather than inward toward the Israelites themselves.  

Being Chosen  

The significance in being chosen lay in the special understanding imparted from God to Israel. Speaking for God, the prophet Jeremiah tells us, "I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts." Jer 31:33. The larger question was then what to make of God’s law. Should the Jews hear it for themselves or share it with others? The answer developed slowly. It had its roots in the radical jolt to the monotheistic faith of the Israelites when they were sent into exile to Babylon. Out of this experience grew the sense of a universal God, a God for all nations. The survival of Judaism in exile further validated the sense of chosenness.  

Jeremiah wrote the exiles in Babylon, urging them to adjust to their new circumstances:  

"Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters . . . But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare." Jeremiah 29:5-7.  

The concept of the transportable God, the God who is everywhere, took root in the hearts of the Israelites.  

Babylonian Exile  

Ironically, it was the Babylonian exile that distilled the essence of Judaism. The belief in Yahweh had become strong enough to survive the exile. In fact, the Israelites’ discovery that they could live in any land and still worship God marked the birth of their sense of being Jews.  

The loss of Jerusalem marked the end of the national, tribal God, as well as of the temple cult. For the God who loves all people desires not temple sacrifice, but compassion and social justice. Keeping the temple rituals was no longer enough. Of course, after the exile in Babylon, worship in the Jerusalem temple was no longer possible. It was time for a reshaping of monotheism whereby the Israelites could worship God wherever they happened to be.  

"This marks the birth of true religion," notes Allan Tarshish in his book Not By Power: The Story of the Growth of Judaism. Describing the role of the prophets in this transformation, he states, "By setting down great concepts that changed religion from tribalism and nationalism to universalism, from ritual to moral action, they kept Judaism alive and laid down the foundation of all the modern religions."  

With the Jews’ changing view of their relationship to God came a different sense of chosenness: "The Babylonian captivity that started out as a great catastrophe ended with a new understanding of Judaism through the basic acceptance of the idea of the universal God, the democratic institution of the Synagogue, the surpassing beauty of the Psalms and later the sea of the Babylonian Talmud," Tarshish notes.  

In Any Land  

The exiles found that "by worshiping the one God and practicing His law among their fellowmen, they could be good Jews and observe Judaism in any land in the world."  

Once God, in the minds of the Jews, could exist outside of the temple in Jerusalem, the Jews began to perceive a new role for themselves. Just as the prophets had done, they too could bring God’s truth to others. Contrast this to the description of the ancient particularist view of the chosenness of the Jews in Elijah Benamozegh’s book Israel and Humanity:  

". . . the narrow geographical perspectives of these early ages, the prejudices and national antipathies, the pride which Israel’s privileged situation could inspire in her, all tended to limit the knowledge of the true God to Jews alone, and to instill in them the perception that whereas they had access to truth and the light of pure religion, for the gentiles there was nothing but idolatry or godlessness, accompanied by error and moral darkness."  

The prophets taught that the one God of the Israelites was God of all the world. "For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples." Isaiah 56:6. And the Jews were to bring this message to all the peoples of the world:  

"Behold, I made him [David] a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. Behold you shall call nations that you know not, and nations that knew you not shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you." Isaiah 55:1-5.  

Special Vocation  

David S. Ariel in his book What Do Jews Believe? points to the Aleinu prayer as revealing the special vocation of the chosen people. It begins by thanking God for choosing the people Israel for this special destiny and ends with the hope that one day all people will recognize the supremacy of the one, true God.  

But, according to the prophets, the Jews were to do more than "hope" that others might recognize God’s supremacy. They had a mission. They were to become God’s servants and spread his truth about justice and mercy. This is a divine election that goes far beyond narrow tribal theology:  

"Listen to me, my people, and give ear to me, my nation; for a law will go forth from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples." Isaiah 51:4.  

The new sense of chosenness involved almost a priestly mission. Tarshish describes this mission. It is "always to seek the high way and to work for the betterment of mankind. It is an extension of the original charge to Abraham ‘to be a blessing."’  

The new priestly mission of the Israelites whereby they would be a light to the rest of the world, was the successor to the old view that Israel alone was chosen to know God’s truth. In the old view Israel was in the privileged position of having access to the light of pure religion. Second Isaiah proclaims that the Jews are chosen to bring God’s truth to other peoples. Ariel explains how Isaiah came to his view of Israel as a light to the nations:  

"Until the sixth century BCE, Israel paid little attention to the religious life of other peoples. Then, growing military and political pressure and religious influences from the neighboring Assyrians and Babylonians provoked the prophets to denounce these forces and argue for the superiority of Israel’s moral and monotheistic teachings. The prophet Isaiah believed in the universality of the ethical and monotheistic teachings of Israel. If the Torah was true, why should it be limited to Israel? Isaiah broadened the covenantal responsibility to include a new obligation to reach out to other nations and disseminate God’s teachings. The Torah was the possession of Israel, but the message of God is universal."  

Message of Universalism  

In his message of universalism Second Isaiah creates a new identity for the Israelites. He stresses the specialness of the Israelites and how God loves them while, at the same time, spelling out God’s obligations to Him. They are to spread God’s message of morality, justice and kindness:  

"The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise." Isaiah 43: 20-21.  

Now that the Jews understand that there is only one God and that he is a universal God for all peoples, it is their duty, as God’s chosen, to bring this "light" to the rest of the world:  

"For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me. I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I gird you, though you do not know me, that men may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me. I am the Lord and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe, I the Lord do all these things." Isaiah 45:5-7.  

More Servitude Than Privilege  

The developing concept of chosenness entails servitude more than privilege. Second Isaiah describes Israel as God’s "suffering servant." This parallels the descriptions of the prophets as God’s servants:  

"Does a lion roar in the forest, when he has no prey? Does a young lion cry out from his den if he has taken nothing? Does a bird fall in a snare on the earth, when there is no trap for it? Does a snare spring up from the ground, when it has taken nothing? Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does evil befall a city, unless the Lord has done it? Surely the Lord God does nothing, without revealing His secret to his servants the prophets. The Lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?" Amos 3:4-8.  

Abraham Heschel, in his book The Prophets, presents a description of the prophets that is very similar to that of the Israelites as a light to the nations. While the prophets bring God’s message to the Israelites, the Israelites bring that same message to other peoples:  

"The ultimate purpose of a prophet is not to be inspired, but to inspire the people; not to be filled with a passion, but to impassion the people with understanding for God."  


Servant of God  

The term "servant of the Lord," in reference to the prophets, recurs in the Bible. In Second Isaiah it is applied to Israel. Israel describes its status to the world:  

"The Lord called me from the womb, and from the body of my mother he named my name . . . And he said to me, ’You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’" Isaiah 49: 1-3.  

The concepts of chosenness and servitude are closely linked:  

"But you, Israel, my servant Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, ‘You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off."’ Isaiah 41: 8-9.  

Heschel explains this concept of the suffering servant as it is applied to Israel: "In Israel’s agony, all nations are involved. Israel’s suffering is not a penalty, but a privilege, a sacrifice; its endurance is a ritual, its meaning is to be disclosed to all men in the hour of Israel’s redemption."  

God has in mind deliverance or redemption for Israel and, through Israel, for all men. Israel will suffer on behalf of others in the same manner that the prophets did. This is suffering as redemption because God has chosen Israel as His servant. It is part of Israel’s role as a light to the nations. Second Isaiah expresses an understanding of the difficulty of Israel’s position:  

"Hearken to me, you who know righteousness, the people in whose heart is my law, fear not the reproach of men, and be not dismayed at their revilings. For the moth will eat them up like a garment, and the worm will eat them like wool; but my deliverance will be forever, and my salvation to all generations." Isaiah 51:7-8.  

Suffering Servant  

Israel’s suffering as God’s servant is, unlike the suffering of the prophets, not experienced on behalf of Israel alone but on behalf of all the nations:  

"It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth." Isaiah 49:6.  

Before the exile, the prophets denounced Israel for her sins and urged her to practice God’s righteousness. After the exile, Israel is called to address the nations. Like the prophets, Israel is an instrument for expressing God’s purpose. "And they shall be called the holy people, the redeemed of the Lord." Isaiah 62:12.  

This is the mission of Israel, God’s servant:  

"Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations . . . He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth." Isaiah 42:1,4.  

From the beginning of the history of the Jews there was a belief in the sacred nature of the covenant relationship. It defines the destiny of the Jewish people, but it is a relationship that must be constantly redefined to suit contemporary circumstances. This describes the covenant relationship after the exile:  

"I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness." Isaiah 42:6-7.  

Covenant Relationship  

According to Ariel, the Israelites’ mission to be a light unto the nations was contained in the covenant relationship between God and Israel from the very beginning:  

"The sacred myth of the chosen people is born in the covenantal relationship between God and Israel. It is a pact that is eternally and reciprocally binding. In it, the people Israel collectively assume a calling to make God known to the world, to bear witness to the one God and His unity through adherence to His laws. In turn, the people are rewarded as God’s ‘treasured people’ (am segulah) connoting a relationship of special intimacy and knowledge of God."  

God explains how the Chosen People shall be a "light unto the nations":  

"Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. Behold, you shall call nations that you know not, and nations that knew you not shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you." Isaiah 55: 3-5.  

Rationalist criticism has frequently been leveled against the idea that God can be at one and the same time a universal God and a nationalist deity. Elijah Benamozegh, in his book Israel and Humanity, describes the conditions under which these concepts can harmonize. God, he says, has dominion over a priestly people, Israel, for whom, by reason of their priesthood, he is also the special God." It is the mission of this priestly people to bring God’s revelation to the rest of mankind. This phenomenon of a people which declares itself priest of mankind, he sees as "altogether unique in history, and one of the most startling evidences of the universal character of the biblical God." Jewish particularism, he feels, exists for the sake of "a universal purpose. It has no other ground than faith in the unique God, no other object than the establishment of His sway over all mankind."  

Priestly People  

The idea of a priestly people chosen by God is further reinforced by the fact that two pagan priests, Melchizedek and Jethro, bless and confer priestly investiture on two of God’s first chosen — Abraham and Moses. Jethro, Moses’ counselor and father in law, acknowledged the missionary role of the Chosen People:  

"Blessed be the Lord, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharaoh. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods because he delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians, when they dealt arrogantly with them." Exodus 18: 10-11.  

The Chosen People concept can coexist with the idea of a universal God as long as the specially favored nation sees its mission as that of Isaiah’s suffering servant, the priest to the rest of mankind, or the light to the nations. At different times in history the sense of chosenness has provided an odd combination of both superiority as well as consolation. Ariel notes that, "Judaism has viewed Israel’s responsibility as being ‘a light of nations,’ namely, an exemplary people who show their devotion to the one, living God by example. In fact, during much of the Middle Ages the belief in the superiority of the Jewish religion over others provided Jews with a significant measure of consolation. The hostility of Christianity and Islam was regarded by Jews as part of the price they had to pay for being the people of the covenant."  

Mission of Morality  

Early Reform thinkers introduced the "mission people" concept, whereby morality becomes the Jewish mission, while ethnic and ritual dimensions of Judaism are de-emphasized. The earlier term "light of nations," which described Jews leading an exemplary life of ritual observance, was changed to "light unto the nations" in order to emphasize the missionary aspect of Judaism. "The mission people concept places the responsibility on Israel both to live up to the ethical demands of the covenant and to disseminate these ethical teachings to the world," writes Ariel.  

However, these ideas are simply a revival of the teachings of the prophets. Second Isaiah, who preached about the universal God and de-emphasized temple worship, spoke of the Israelites as God’s specially selected treasure. Selected for what?  

"Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations." Isaiah 42: 1.  

Isaiah’s teachings were the culmination of the prophecies which made it possible for the Jews in exile to transform their Temple-bound cult of the national God, Yahweh, to a faith in a universal God who existed everywhere for all nations. The prophets expanded the concept of chosenness, inspiring the Chosen People to survive the adversity of the exile and much worse to come. The redefined covenant became the essence of Judaism.

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