The Bible describes various individuals as “chosen” by God: Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Saul, David, Solomon, Zerubbabel, and Jesus; Jesus, in turn, chose his disciples. These individuals are not chosen, so far as we know, for their previous virtue. All are depicted as fallible, except the shadowy Zerubbabel and the perfect Jesus. Election is usually linked with heredity; the chosen belongs to a dynasty, often as its founder. God may also choose a larger group, such as the tribe of Levi.

The most common function of this election motif is the legitimation of groups: the house of David, the Aaronic priests, the Levites, the apostles. But what does it mean to be “chosen”? There is no sign of being chosen; the election theme is primarily an assertion of God's favor.

Another body called “chosen” is Israel itself (Isa. 41.8–9; 44.1–2; cf. 14.1; Ps. 105.6 [= 1 Chron. 16.13; 106.5; 135.4; Rom. 9.11). Some consider this a later development; priestly and royal election are democratized, as all Israel becomes a “kingdom of priests” (Exod. 19.5).

The classic statement of Israel's election is Deuteronomy 7.6–9 (cf. 10.15; 14.2; 26.18; Mal. 3.17; Ps. 135.4): “The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. It was not because you were more numerous… it was because the Lord loved you, and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors.” Although the verb “choose” does not appear in Deuteronomy 32.8, according to that text God gave each nation its own god (thus the Septuagint and Qumran versions; cf. Judges 11.24), keeping Israel for himself. Ideally, this election elicits reciprocity from Israel, which in turn chooses God (Josh. 24.22).

Election entails responsibility and risk as well as privilege; Deuteronomy 7.10–11 threatens punishment should Israel violate the covenant; compare Amos 3.2. According to Amos 9:7–10, Israel's uniqueness lies in the fact that God will never utterly destroy it (cf. Lev. 26.44).

It is unclear when God chose Israel; one might cite the call of Abram (Gen. 12.1–3), Jacob's vision (Gen. 28.13–15), or the experience at Sinai (Exod. 19, 20, 24). Ezekiel 20.5 dates Israel's election to God's revelation in Egypt (cf. Exod. 6.2–8).

Second Isaiah's concept of chosenness poses special problems. Sometimes he explicitly calls Israel “chosen” (Isa. 41.8–9; 43.10; 44.1–2; 45.4; 48.10 [text uncertain]; 65.9, 15, 22), promising divine succor and numerous, pious offspring. But the prophet also describes one chosen to be a “light to the nations” (Isa. 42.1, 6; cf. 49.5–9), whose suffering atones for others' sins (Isa. 53). Scholars debate whether this is the nation of Israel, a segment thereof, or a particular member; Christianity traditionally applies these oracles to Jesus.

While the Bible does not associate Israel's election with its intrinsic merit, later Judaism reacted to its often dire circumstances by developing a belief in the spiritual superiority of all Jews, whether by birth or by choice. Thus, the Torah was offered to various peoples but accepted only by Israel; the eroticism of the Song of Solomon expresses God's unique love for Israel; only Israel's history is governed directly by God, other nations being subject to the laws of nature; Jewish souls derive directly from God, while the souls of gentiles are of lesser matter. Such theories, however, have never been central Jewish doctrines. The basic concept of “chosenness” has remained, as in biblical terms, that of covenant: God chose the Jews by imposing certain restrictions upon them and holding them to a higher ethical and ritual standard. Many contemporary Jewish thinkers reject even this more modest claim as irrelevant or harmful in today's pluralistic society.

The early church called its adherents “chosen,” implying that they succeeded Israel as God's favored. All who embrace Jesus, Jew and gentile alike, become “chosen” (Matt. 22.14; 24.22, 24, 31; Mark 13.20, 22, 27; Luke 18.7; Rom. 8.33; Eph. 1.4; 1 Thess. 1.4; 2 Tim. 2.10; Titus 1.1; 1 Pet. 1.10; 2 John 1.1; Rev. 17.14). Paul does not infer from the Christians' election any intrinsic greatness or virtue (1 Cor. 1.26–29; cf. James 2.5), and he insists that Israel retains its special status (Rom. 9–11). Ironically, while many liberal Jewish thinkers disavow “chosenness,” some Christian theologians today reaffirm the continuing election of the Jews.

William H. Propp