The Talmud traces Israel’s enslavement in Egypt to Jacob’s favoring Joseph over his brothers. The Talmud also teaches that God studies Talmud daily. I wonder how the God whom the Bible states “chose Israel from all other peoples” reacts to the Talmud’s dire warning against favoritism. Fortunately, the prophets could see beyond chosenness as the model of Israel’s relationship with God. “In that day, Israel shall be a third partner with Egypt and Assyria as a blessing on earth; for the Lord of Hosts will bless them saying, ‘Blessed be my people Egypt, my handiwork Assyria, and my very own Israel’” (Isaiah 19:24-25). I pray for the day when Jews will thank God for having chosen us with (im) rather than from (mi) all other peoples.*
To be chosen is to come to desire what God desires: the flourishing of all creation. It is a call to listen to the Divine and respond in the particularity of one’s life and religious tradition. For Christians, it is an invitation to walk in the Way of Jesus. To follow this Way summons us on a journey from death to life, from complicity in evil to a community of justice and mercy, from self-absorption to service to others, and from greed to generosity. To follow this Way asks us to be salt and light in the church and world.
The Qur’an stands for one God and one people. All people, irrespective of their race, religion, color and gender, are equal before God. The Qur’an says: ‘O men! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all knowing, all aware.”* Prophet Muhammad reiterated the same message again and again by saying that God looks not to your figures, not to your wealth, but he looks to your hearts and deeds.* In his last Pilgrimage message at Mecca before his death, the Prophet said, “There is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, or a white over a non-white and vice versa. All of you are children of Adam and Eve and the best among you near God are those who are conscious of the Almighty God.”
The Qur’an further explains that God made people differ in their beliefs and created different faiths in order to test them and make them compete in good deeds. “Unto every one of you have We appointed a [different] law and way of life. And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but [He willed it otherwise] in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto, you. Vie, then, with one another in doing good works! Unto God you all must return; and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ.”* While we differ in our relation to God, we shall stay respectful and cooperative. The Qur’an says: “Revile not ye those whom they call upon besides Allah, lest they out of spite revile Allah in their ignorance. Thus have We made alluring to each people its own doings. In the end will they return to their Lord, and We shall then tell them the truth of all that they did.”* Our job is to excel in goodness; God alone will decide who was right and who was wrong on the day of reckoning. The Qur’an says: “To every people [was sent] an apostle: when their apostle comes [before them], the matter will be judged between them with justice, and they will not be wronged.”*
If all people are equal in the eyes of God, why does the Qur’an use the word Faddala (preferred or favored) for Israelites: “O CHILDREN of Israel! Remember those blessings of Mine with which I graced you, and fulfill your promise unto Me, [whereupon] I shall fulfill My promise unto you; and of Me, of Me stand in awe!* Explaining his translation, Abdullah Yusuf Ali says that this appeal to Israelites is made subjectively in terms of their own tradition, that in their claim to be the favored nation, have they forgotten His favors? God tells them that He has fulfilled His part of the covenant by bringing them out of the land of bondage and giving them Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey.*
God also chose the Israelites for His Call and therefore sent many prophets among them. The Qur’an states in detail how the Israelites violated the covenant and disobeyed the call of the Prophets by neither standing for truth, nor establishing peace and justice for all.* The following verse summarizes God’s expectations of the Israelites: “AND LO! We accepted this solemn pledge from [you,] the children of Israel: “You shall worship none but God; and you shall do good unto your parents and kinsfolk, and the orphans, and the poor; and you shall speak unto all people in a kindly way; and you shall be constant in prayer; and you shall spend in charity.”And yet, save for a few of you, you turned away: for you are obstinate folk!”* The Qur’an also asked the Israelites to believe in the Qur’an as the revealed Book of God*.
As far the Muslim community is concerned, the Qur’an used the words Umma Wastan (the justly balanced community): “And thus have We willed you to be a community of the middle way, so that [with your lives] you might bear witness to the truth before all mankind, and that the Apostle might bear witness to it before you” (2:143). Yusuf Ali translates Ummatan Wasatan as an Ummah — justly balanced. “Balance” means a community that avoids extremes, whether material, spiritual or religious, and stays on middle ground.* Muhammad Asad says “justly balanced” refers to the “middlemost” community, one that keeps an equitable balance between extremes and is realistic in its appreciation of human nature and possibilities, rejecting both licentiousness and asceticism.* The word Khaira Umma (righteous community or the best or the human welfare community) in the Qur’an says: “YOU ARE indeed the best community that has ever been brought forth for [the good of] mankind: you enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong, and you believe in God.”* Abdullah Yusuf Ali explains that this verse refers to the religion of Islam as a non-sectarian, non-racial, non-doctrinal and universal religion and that the Muslim community will follow these principles. The verse uses the word Ma`ruf, meaning that Muslims will stand for all good things for the welfare of all humanity and will stand against all sorts of wrong things.* Yet the concept of the balanced community or the righteous community depends on how Muslims behave and what they do. One’s deeds and behavior make one chosen or rejected in the sight of God.
As the Qur’an praises the communities, similarly it praises the prophets and the scriptures. The Qur’an uses different words for prophets, such as calling Moses Kalleem Allah (to whom God spoke).* Jesus was strengthened with Holy Spirit (Ruh al Quddus)* and another verse called him a word from God (Kalimat Allah).* Abraham was called Khaleel Allah (friend of God) and Imam (religious leader) of all people,* while Muhammad was called a man spreading light (Sirajan Muneera).* There are smilar praises for the scriptures that were revealed from God.
Some Muslims claim that God’s preferential religion is Islam by quoting this verse: “The religion before Allah is Islam [submission to His Will].”* But this statement does not qualify Muslims as better people merely because they are followers of Islam. The Qur’anic criterion for status before God is excelling in good deeds benefiting humanity (istabiqul Khairaat).* Praising each community gives confidence and inspires it to stand for goodness. In the stories about the rise and fall of nations, the Qur’an makes it clear that God does not make people fall when they refuse to worship him, but rather when they commit injustices on earth: usurping people’s rights, accumulating wealth by false means, suppressing humanity and denying rights of the poor and needy. The Qur’an uses the word Zulm (literally, “when darkness prevails”) for suppression, oppression and injustices on earth as this verse explains: “For, never would thy Sustainer destroy a community for wrong [beliefs alone] so long as its people behave righteously [towards one another].”* Another verse says: “And such is thy Sustainer’s punishing grasp whenever He takes to task any community that is given to evildoing: verily, His punishing grasp is grievous, severe!”*
A look at the traditional Jewish prayer book highlights the importance of the notion that God chose Israel “from among all the nations.” The concept of chosenness comes up at critical liturgical moments: just before the daily morning recitation of the Sh’ma, among Judaism’s most sacred prayers; before reading the Torah; when sanctifying the Sabbath and festivals; when marking the end of the Sabbath; and in a special addition to the Eighteen Benedictions (a central prayer, recited thrice daily) for festivals.
The vicissitudes of Jewish history have likely contributed to endowing chosenness with such importance. In the face of suffering and Christianity’s claim to be the new Israel, emphasis on chosenness provided a measure of consolation: the Jewish people’s special relationship with God endured, which meant that redemption could not be far off.* Thus, the rabbinic period, which inspired so much of the liturgy stressing chosenness, unfolded in the shadow of the Temple’s destruction with all but a handful of Jews living in exile. Nonetheless, even the Sages occasionally adopted a more universalistic tone. One ancient midrash asserts that “God’s love for Israel was similarly directed toward the gentile nations.”* Another proclaims, “I call on heaven and earth to witness that whether it be a gentile or a Jew, a man or a woman, a manservant or a maidservant, the Holy Spirit will suffuse each of them in keeping with the deeds he or she performs.”*
In and of itself, the meaning of chosenness is ambiguous. What does it mean if a teacher chooses one student from among all others? There’s a big difference between being chosen to star in a play and being chosen to clean desktops. The danger arises when we equate chosenness with superiority, a position that many Jewish thinkers held in the Middle Ages, but which now is generally rejected. Instead, the emphasis falls on the idea that the Jewish people were chosen to receive the laws of Torah. And even here the story is not so simple because according to a common midrashic tradition, God first offered the Torah to other peoples who for various reasons rejected it. As one midrash explains, God chose Israel because Israel chose God and the Torah.*
What are the implications of election in this context? A contemporary scholar asserts that because chosenness is about accepting “duties, to fulfill a mission rather than to take on entitlements and privileges. . . . Within such a framework . . . it would be a perversion of the idea of election if it were turned into an argument in support of unequal treatment for the non-elect.”* In fact, an ancient prophetic tradition holds God’s election explains the Jewish people’s suffering. “You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth. That is why I will call you to account for all your iniquities” (Amos 3:2). Many likewise stress that rather than superiority, chosenness signifies the Jewish people’s special responsibility to be an ethical “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6).
Still, to assign one nation the task of providing ethical illumination to others only begs the question. Why choose us? To claim chosenness by God all too easily breeds arrogance and resentment. For these and other reasons, Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, our youngest and smallest denomination, completely rejected the concept of the chosen people. Kaplan’s 1941 Passover Haggadah, his first liturgical publication, omitted all references to it. Subsequent Reconstructionist liturgy has replaced references to chosenness with an expression of gratitude for having been being “brought near to God’s service.”* The phrase almost identical to one that appears in the standard Haggadah.
Christians typically think of themselves as “called” rather than “chosen.” Yet some texts use the latter term: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). Such texts can be misread as suggesting that Christians have replaced Jews as chosen people. Rather, to use the imagery of Paul, Christians are wild olive shoots, grafted to share the rich root of the olive tree (see Romans 11:17).
In both Old and New Testaments, we read of persons being called by God, beginning with Abraham. Some respond as does Abraham, “Here I am.” Others, like Jeremiah, are more reluctant: “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Jesus calls men and women to become disciples, and to participate in his movement for the Reign of God.
As the Gospels make plain, however, becoming a disciple does not magically bestow wisdom and goodness. The disciples are fallible and sometimes just dense. Like us, they tend to be self-absorbed and are often the last to understand the teachings of Jesus.
In every generation, the call is fundamentally the same: to be Christ in this world, to make flesh God’s desire for the flourishing of all creation, to incarnate God’s love. Or, in the words of Presbyterian minister and writer Frederick Buechner, “The place where God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.*
The Qur’an states that God favored (Faddala) the people of Israel by choosing them for His Call, and sent many prophets among them. [i. 2:40, 47, and 122] But their special status was conditioned upon obeying God, standing for truth and establishing peace and justice on earth. [ii. 2: 41-47 and 2:83.] Did the Muslim community replace the chosenness of the Christian or the Jewish community in the sight of God? Muslims debate this. But the Qur’anic criteria for any community to be chosen are that it must compete with other communities in the realm of good deeds, establishing justice, avoiding hate, neither following vain desires nor diverging from the Truth (5:48).
And unto thee [O Prophet] have We vouchsafed this divine writ, setting forth the truth, confirming the truth of whatever there still remains of earlier revelations and determining what is true therein. Judge, then, between the followers of earlier revelation in accordance with what God has bestowed from on high, and do not follow their errant views, forsaking the truth that has come unto thee. Unto every one of you have We appointed a [different] law and way of life. And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but [He willed it otherwise] in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto, you. Vie, then, with one another in doing good works! Unto God you all must return; and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ. Qur’an 5:48
O CHILDREN of Israel! Remember those blessings of Mine with which I graced you, and fulfill your promise unto Me, [whereupon] I shall fulfill My promise unto you; and of Me, of Me stand in awe! Qur’an 2:40
YOU ARE indeed the best community that has ever been brought forth for [the good of] mankind: you enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong, and you believe in God. Now if the followers of earlier revelation had attained to [this kind of] faith, it would have been for their own good; [but only few] among them are believers, while most of them are iniquitous. Qur’an 3:110