Does God Play Favorites?
I don’t enjoy competition. By that, I’m not intending to reject anyone’s marketplace of skills or services. It’s just my sincere personal confession.
For example, I was a natural athlete as a child. But later, when events like foot races got more organized, with grownups setting them up and people cheering from the sidelines, it came over me that, when I won, the other kids had to lose. Without thinking about it, I slowed down and stopped winning.
One time, the rules of chess were explained to me. The moment came when I grasped the point: the game was a representation of war, by indirect means. Instinctively, I shrank back in horror and never tried to play chess.
More recently, someone taught me how to play some card game. In the middle of a practice hand, I had the sudden sense (correct or not) of knowing which card to draw. Maybe I was giving too much credit to my pictured psychic powers but, in any case, I stopped playing.
I have no principled objection to fair competition. On the contrary. When friends who rodeo told me that harder events were being dropped to spare the feelings of less skilled riders, I was appalled. (If you can’t trust rodeo, what can you trust?)
What I’m mentioning here are personal reactions to winning and losing. The situations that I find instinctively preferable are the ones where we can all have fun together and be friends.
Since anti-semitism brings with it a situation that’s the contrary of fun, and is remarkably hard to get rid of, from time to time I’ll read something that purports to get to the bottom of it. Oh good, I think. This time we can really get rid of it and have fun together.
With that hope in mind, I’ve just bought a book by Elaine Pagels, author of The Gnostic Gospels (1989). This book is titled The Origin of Satan (1996), with a subtitle that promises to explain the historical origin of anti-semitism – of which the demonization of the Jewish people would be the distilled essence.
Here’s the story as she tells it. At the period before and during the Jewish uprising against Rome that led to the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., Jewish opinion divided sharply over how to understand the pagan occupation of the very Land that God had Promised to the Jews.
The understanding they sought was not just political. It was also theological. What did God want Jews to do about this situation?
In retrospect, it all seems easy to read. It would have been a very good idea to pay the Roman tax (as Jesus advised) rather than try instead to take on the world’s greatest military power. (But even the quietist followers of Jesus expected him to return from heaven momentarily and overthrow all the powers of the world, Rome included.)
As Pagels narrates it, Jewish opinion divided roughly along four lines. The priests and more established citizens counseled maximal accommodation. The Pharisees tried to occupy a temporizing position in the middle. The rural population, with its city sympathizers, was for militant rebellion. At the outer edge were separatist sects like the Essenes, holding themselves apart from political struggle because they anticipated a cosmic combat between God’s few elect (themselves) and His many enemies.
Jesus and the apostle Paul predate the rebellion but the four gospels were written during and after it. Pagels traces a development, proceeding in chronological sequence from Paul’s letters through the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. In the threatening context of Roman repression, the conflict between mainstream Jewish leaders and the Jesus movement gradually took on the cosmic dimension that would have been recognizable to the Essenes. Over time, it got portrayed increasingly as a struggle between God’s people and the devil’s, with “the Jews” more and more assigned to the devil’s camp.
What a consequential misformulation and how dreadfully sad! Or could it be that the world-historical misunderstanding was itself providential?
Years back, I recall Jacob Taubes telling me how a friend of his, a Christian theologian, marveled at the divine grace permitting him, a Gentile, to be part of the branch grafted into the original Israelite Olive Tree. “Why,” remarked Taubes, “does this Viking [probably his friend Krister Stendahl] need to be grafted into the people of Israel?”
Last week, my Wednesday evening class at the local Chabad center discussed some verses in the Pentateuch concerning this very topic. God, said the Bible verses, chose Israel as His particular treasure out of all the nations of the earth. This is not, the rabbi explained to us, because Jews are necessarily more gifted or more righteous than nonJews!
Nor, according to a midrash he cited, were the Jews being favored unfairly in a global competition. According to the well-known midrash, all the other nations were offered the covenant, one by one, before the Jews were finally given their turn. Each nation asked first to read the terms of the covenant, spelled out in the ten commandments, and rejected it subsequently because each noticed a commandment that violated one of their customs.
By contrast (so goes the midrash), the Jews agreed to the covenant sight unseen. We will do God’s covenant, they said, and then we’ll read the terms.
But even that could not explain God’s role in this question of chosenness. After all, why did God inscribe in the Jewish heart this response to His offer of the covenant — a response so precise and so apt? By the same token, said the rabbis, God chose The Land of Israel as His special country — though surely The Land had no choice in the matter!
What then is God’s election? Does God play favorites? Are there winners and losers in a mysterious God competition? Can’t we all just get along — relax, stop sweating it, and have fun together?
The Chabad rabbi compared chosenness to what happens in courtship. A marriage broker might present a young man with a prospective bride who was the prettiest, the sweetest, the richest, and from the best family. Yet she still might not be the one for him.
Choice among comparable things,
does not require