R. Kendall Soulen sought to answer what he described as a seemingly simple yet surprisingly complex question in the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning’s annual John Paul II lecture.
“I’ve chosen a question that’s simple to state: Why did God choose the Jews?” Soulen said. “But I think it is difficult for Christians to answer in a way that is fully satisfactory. I’m going to talk about what sort of things make it difficult to answer.”
The Wednesday night event marks the 10th anniversary of the John Paul II lecture. Soulen, a professor of systematic theology at Emory University, started his talk explaining his response to the question would be two-pronged.
“Why did God choose the Jews rather than say the Babylonians or the Navajo or the Choctaw?” Soulen said. “Alternatively … why did God choose the Jews? In other words, for what purpose? For what end?”
According to Soulen, the Bible’s Book of Deuteronomy explicitly answers this first question.
“In Deuteronomy 7 we read the following: ‘For you, our people consecrated to the Lord your God, of all peoples on Earth, the Lord your God chose you to be his treasured people. It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the Lord set us hard on you and chose you; indeed, you are the smallest of peoples. But, it was because the Lord loved you and kept his oath he made to your fathers,’” Soulen said.
Soulen said people can turn to both the Christian and Jewish traditions to examine the second question, as each religions’ answers partially overlap.
“Both traditions connect God’s purpose in choosing the Jews to God’s redemptive purpose for the whole human family in a fallen and fractured world, but the two traditions make this connection in different ways,” Soulen said.
According to Soulen, Christianity and Judaism are distinct because of Israel’s “election”—the idea that Israelites are God’s chosen people.
“The Jewish tradition anchors the purpose of Israel’s election in God’s gift of Torah, and in the unique relationship between God and the Jewish people that the Torah makes possible,” Soulen said. “In contrast, the Christian tradition anchors the purpose of Israel’s election in God’s sending of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, and in the relationship between God and humanity that Jesus Christ makes possible.”
Soulen also discussed the views of scholar Christopher Wright, which contradict the view of God’s love as described in Deuteronomy, to answer the question of why God chose Israel.
“Christopher Wright says that God’s inexplicable love is the foundation of the election of Israel, but not that it was directed toward Israel,” Soulen said. “God’s love is love for the world. God elects Israel as an instrument to serve God’s love for the world.”
Soulen then highlighted some of the main criticisms around Wright’s views, concluding that Wright fails to provide a workable platform for understanding the church’s mission.
“According to Wright, Hashem [God] elected Israel to show the nations what kind of god Hashem is,” Soulens said. “Well, Wright never seems to reflect on the fact that a god who uses God’s chosen people in a purely instrumental way is unlikely to prove very attractive to anyone.”
To end his lecture, Soulen emphasized the importance of the unique relationship between God and the Jewish people.
“Both Christians and Jews have answered this question by pointing to God’s inexplicable love, but we can now deepen our understanding of this answer by recalling some basic features of the biblical story,” Soulen said. “It is not the case that Hashem’s love happened to lie on a people already born in the name Israel. Rather, Hashem’s love creates Israel by calling it by name.”