December 19, 2004


God’s Beloved: A Defense of Chosenness (Meir Soloveichik, Winter 2005, Azure)

One of Judaism’s central premises is that God has a unique love for the Jewish people, in the merit of its ancestor Abraham, whom God loved millennia ago. This notion may make many readers uncomfortable, as they may feel that a righteous God would love all human beings, and therefore all peoples, equally and in the same way. Nevertheless, the notion of God’s special love for Israel must be stated and understood, for without it one cannot comprehend much that is unique about Judaism’s moral vision.

There is no question that to speak of the Jews as a “chosen nation” is to speak of their being charged with a universal mission: Communicating the monotheistic idea and a set of moral ideals to humanity. In designating Israel as a “nation of kingly priests” and a “light unto nations,” God, according to the medieval exegete Obadiah Seforno, commanded the Jews to “teach to the entire human race, so that they may call in the name of God, to serve him together.”

It is, however, often overlooked that the doctrine of Israel’s chosenness also contains a strongly particularistic idea: That God chose the Jewish people for this mission out of his love for their forefather Abraham. [...]

[A] powerful contrast emerges between the respective scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. The God of the Hebrew Bible, while a benevolent ruler of all nations, is described as bestowing a preferential love upon Israel. Or, as Rabbi Akiva explains inthe Ethics of the Fathers,every man is beloved, “for he was created in the image of God,” yet even more beloved is Israel, “for they are called the children of God, as it is written, ‘you are children to the Lord your God.’” The Gospels, on the other hand, do not focus on God’s love for Israel, and speak instead of a God whose love is universal: Jesus redeemed a sinful humanity, John informs us, “for God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” God’s loving election is now no longer focused on the children of Abraham, but on the world. Everyone, Jesus argued, may be counted among God’s elect: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Paul, in like manner, authors an epistle addressed to “all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints.” In God’s loving election, Paul argues, “there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek,” and all “are one in Christ Jesus.”

This, then, is the debate that has divided Jews and Christians for two thousand years: Is God’s covenantal devotion universal or exclusive? The question relates not only to how we understand humanity’s religious obligations. The quality of God’s covenantal love is inextricably intertwined with the most profound questions about the kind of love that human beings are supposed to feel. The difference between the Jewish and Christian views about divine love, it will emerge, reflects a no less profound disagreement about what, exactly, it means to love.

Perhaps the most influential theologian to reflect on the nature of divine love in the past century was the Swedish thinker Anders Nygren. Nygren’s central work, Agape and Eros (1953), begins by describing the different depictions of divine love found in Jewish and Christian Scripture; Nygren Notes that while “in Judaism love is exclusive and particularistic,” Christian love “overleaps all such limits; it is universal and all-embracing.” In explaining the Christian perspective, Nygren contrasts human love, which he refers to as eros, with agape, the Greek word used by the New Testament to refer to God’s love of man. A human being loves his beloved, according to Nygren, because he is drawn to some aspect of the beloved, something which he finds worth loving. God’s agape, however, is “unmotivated”-that is, it is bestowed regardless of the beloved’s worth and value. It is a love that demands nothing in response, no return on the emotional investment. Nor is it grounded in anything particular about the human being. Rather, God bestows love upon all humanity out of pure generosity. Unlike human love, Nygren concludes, God’s love “has nothing to do with desire and longing.”

God’s love is altogether spontaneous. It does not look for anything in man that could be adduced as motivation for it. In relation to man, divine love is “unmotivated.” It is this love, spontaneous and “unmotivated”-having no motive outside itself, in the personal worth of men-which characterizes also the action of Jesus in seeking out the lost and consorting with “publicans and sinners”…. In Christ there is revealed a divine love which breaks all bounds, refusing to be controlled by the value of its object, and being determined only by its own intrinsic nature. According to Christianity, “motivated” love is human; spontaneous and “unmotivated” love is divine.

In support of this assertion, Nygren points to the Christian obligation to love your enemies. In the Gospels, Jesus instructs his followers to love even the egregiously evil, for all human beings are equally loved by God:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.... Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

It is precisely because divine love is unmotivated, Nygren argues, that God’s agape is bestowed upon saint and sinner alike. Thus God’s love, as depicted by Jesus, makes no distinction between Hitler and Stalin, on the one hand, and Mother Teresa on the other. After all, Paul’s doctrine of original sin depicts a wretched humanity mired in moral depravity, from which only Christ’s death on the cross can extricate it. Paul argues that all human beings enter this world evil at heart, all are enemies of the Lord, and all are thoroughly unworthy of God’s love-yet all are recipients of God’s love, nevertheless.

It is wrong, Nygren insists, to say that God loves the righteous because they are righteous. For God loves no one because of who he is; rather, he loves all despite who they are:

When God’s love is shown to the righteous and godly, there is always the risk of our thinking that God loves the man on account of his righteousness and godliness. But this a denial of agape-as if God’s love for the “righteous” were not just as unmotivated and spontaneous as his love for the sinner! As if there were any other divine love than spontaneous and unmotivated agape! It is only when all thought of the worthiness of the object is abandoned that we can understand what agape is.

God, therefore, according to Nygren, cannotlove humanity as human beings love each other. His love could not possibly be grounded in a specific, love-worthy aspect of his beloved. It is instead an ethereal, un-human, unmotivated love that God bestows upon humanity. “To the question, ‘Why does God love?’ there is only one right answer,” Nygren concludes: “Because it is his nature to love.”

Judaism, in contrast, argues against such a sharp distinction between divine and human love. After all, man was created in the image of God; the way we love is a reflection of the way God loves. Thus, as with human love, God can desire to enter into a relationship with us; he can indeed be drawn to some aspect of our identity. [...]

It is not unreasonable to suggest that this, indeed, was the key to Jewish survival: The belief that the individual Jew must maintain his Jewishness because he is the beloved of God. This belief found expression not simply in creed but also in Jewish practice. The dedication of generations of Jews to Jewish law was not out of a blind sense of duty, but out of a firm belief that these laws were the expression of the Creator’s special love for the Jewish people, and their betrayal would be a betrayal of that love. It is this belief, perhaps above all else, which sustained Jewish communities through the hardships of exile, persecution, and pogrom. And it may still.

This is all so idea rich you barely know where to start, but one important corollary is that if each of us can be forgiven and saved through the intervention of Christ with God on our behalf--if there is no special group singled out by God--then by what right can we hate our fellow men? If the way we love is a reflection of the way God loves, must not the question of whether we hate depend too on whether He does? And if, as even Judaism has to concede, Man in general was Created in His Image, then what sense would it make for Him to hate us?

Is not Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn likely close to the mark when he says:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhlemed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.

Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: they struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 19, 2004 11:19 AM

"idea rich" indeed; thanks, great post

Posted by: JimGooding at December 19, 2004 12:42 PM

Well, Soloveichik over states his case, but that's not what I want to talk about:

Two weeks ago, in temple, we read the Torah portion having to do with Joseph and the coat of many colors. Being a college town, our temple pretends to a more contemplative Judaism, so we have brief discussions of the meaning of the Torah portion. One of the things we discussed was the trouble that is caused by Jacob's clear preference for Joseph over his other sons. The Talmud draws from this story the lesson that one shouldn't favor one child over the others and, in fact, sets down a rule that children should share equally in their parent's estate to avoid hurt feelings or one child being sold into slavery in Egypt.

The whole Torah portion is, as it happens, idea rich. (Why does Joseph make his preference so plain; does he understand what he is doing when he sends Joseph to spy on his brothers; what right does he have to be angered at Joseph's dream that his father and brothers would bow down to him, as prophetic dreams of future glory are the family business?) Because we had been discussing the "Chosen" issue here, I had the following thought I had not previously considered: The Torah, in this very portion, points out the danger of openly preferring one child to another, the anger that causes in the other children and the possibility of disasterous consequences for the preferred child. In short, the story neatly recapitulates the history of the Jews. On the one hand, here we have G-d warning us of a trap, into which He then seems to fall -- through the very act in which He gives us the warning. On the other hand, how often do we see prophecy, hardly veiled at all, so neatly carried out?

One might even suspect our Author of talent.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 19, 2004 4:13 PM

Ask a Philistine. He might have another take.

The Christian idea of loving, or at least not despising, everyone is appealing, but isn't theirs the same g-d who wanted to slaughter the Canaanites for no better reason than that they followed the rituals of their fathers?

Did monotheism really prevail? Can you tell me, with a straight face, we're dealing with the same g-d?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 19, 2004 4:23 PM


God didn't comprehend us until He lived as one of us.

Posted by: oj at December 19, 2004 4:30 PM

There you go again, Orrin, being heterodox.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 19, 2004 4:57 PM


You've read the Bible--what else could Christ have meant when He said: "Forgive them Lord, they know not what they do." That and the moment when He despairs: "My Lord, My Lord, why hast Thou forsaken me?" are the moments that reconciled God to our mortality.

Posted by: oj at December 19, 2004 5:04 PM

Has there ever been a religion whose dogma included the belief that God chose the other guys?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at December 19, 2004 5:30 PM

Your first quote does not support your position.

The second requires one to choose between homoousion and homoiousion, which as a faithless person I am not capable of doing.

I was taught, though, that g-d understood all things from the beginning.

It does not distress me that you are heterodox. I won't propose that you be burned.

But you ought to be more careful.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 19, 2004 5:34 PM

Why did God need Christ to explain that we didn't know what we were doing?

Posted by: oj at December 19, 2004 5:51 PM


Christianity does.

Posted by: oj at December 19, 2004 5:51 PM

Harry: If you insist on the lower case, "god" is perfectly acceptable (or, at least, no better than "g-d").

Posted by: David Cohen at December 19, 2004 5:57 PM

Harry: As a Christian who considers himself rather orthodox, I'm somewhat uncomfortable with OJ's views there. But if you read Hebrews, it becomes fairly clear that he's more right than you're letting on, and more right than I'd prefer.

Posted by: Timothy at December 19, 2004 6:34 PM


Individually, sure. Check out Job. And didn't God choose the Babylonians over the Israelites?

Posted by: Peter B at December 19, 2004 7:08 PM

God even loves people who don't know the difference between nominative and objective pronouns. "Who do you love?"

The way I learned the Bible, the particularist strictures of the Old Testament were needed at that time, to preserve the worship of the one, true God. At the coming of the Messiah, this view was SUPERCEDED by God's plan to reach all nations. The old plan was best in its time and the new time was best in its time. The new did not refute or denigrate the old, it SUPERCEDED it.

Now let us try to look at it from a neutral perspective, rather from that of a believer of either dispensation. Does anybody imagine that Judaism could have been sold to the Greeks or the Romans? It is asking too much of people to expect mass conversions to a religion which is so particularist that its adherents must run off and take a bath is they are seen talking to you. Is the world not now better off because the Jewish concepts of God and history was brought to the world by the heretical sect of the Christians? Would we have been better off if these contributions had perished in the ruin which the particularist fanatics brought down upon themselves in 70 A.D.?

Posted by: Lou Gots at December 19, 2004 10:34 PM

Best for whom? Not for us Philistines, Lou.

I'm way more orthodox than you, Timothy.

We were brought up that god's never wrong.

You guys are trying to have it both ways.

Orrin occasional statements about whether he believes in homoousion or homoiousion have been, the put it mildly, unclear. I think, though, he's the last of the Arians.

In that case, though, the OT god and the NT god are different guys.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 20, 2004 12:32 AM

Actually, Orrin is more or less an atheist, but we love him anyways.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 20, 2004 7:57 AM

If Christ wasn't God the story makes no sense. The whole point is that God could not comprehend what it is to be mortal without experiencing it Himself. That He learns is most obvious when he says "Forgive them..." What He learns is most obvious when even He despairs ("why hast Thou forsaken me?").

Posted by: oj at December 20, 2004 8:29 AM

Actually, that is one of the few things that Orrin has said that makes sense. Too bad it's not dogmatically correct.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at December 20, 2004 11:09 AM

Ever notice how much more dogmatic atheists think they are than believers?

Posted by: oj at December 20, 2004 11:23 AM

I'm still trying to figure out how Harry's more orthodox than me. I'm a fundie baptist. He's an athiest. I'm almost positive I should win that round.

Posted by: Timothy at December 20, 2004 12:18 PM


Because they can't wrap their minds around the miraculous, so are bothered by every difficult idea in the Bible.

Posted by: oj at December 20, 2004 12:38 PM

The orthodox Christian view is indeed somewhat different than Orrin's take. It holds first that insofar as either Jesus or the Father is ignorant, it's Jesus, God-become-man, who is ignorant. Secondly, Jesus's prayer for his persecutors no more assumes that God is ignorant of either their nature or his morally proper response to them than Abraham's prayer for Sodom assumed those things. Thirdly, the nature of Jesus's despair on the Cross is an interesting and deep question; what is certain is that he is there praying Psalm 22, in the tradition of the time that called for praying first and last lines alound and the rest in silence.

Interpretations of Jesus's passion can range from what the classical-Jewish-Messiah interpretation might be, which wouldn't require actual despair at all but rather could be interpreted as Jesus pointing out with his last words that his Passion precisely fulfilled the prophecy in Psalm 22, to a Pauline/Lutheran sense that Jesus experiences the greatest of despair because he is assuming the burden of the sins of all mankind over all time, and must bear that burden alone if God's plan is to be fulfilled. To really answer the question of what Jesus experienced would require understanding the Mystery of the Atonement, which orthodox Catholicism holds is beyond our comprehension (hence "mystery"). Was it necessary for Jesus to despair for the Atonement to work?

Posted by: pj at December 20, 2004 12:45 PM

Not God but God?

Posted by: oj at December 20, 2004 12:55 PM

Well, that's another mystery. Jesus himself says, "But of that day and hour knoweth no one, not even the angels of heaven, neither the Son, but the Father only." (Matthew 24:36) So it appears that God the Father can know things Jesus didn't.

Posted by: pj at December 20, 2004 1:15 PM

I might also point out that Jesus was "like us in all things but sin" (Hebrews 4: 15), which implies that Jesus took on all the cognitive limitations of humanity, and therefore could not possibly have known everything God knew.

Posted by: pj at December 20, 2004 1:19 PM

But He wouldn't have had to have been Jesus if He knew the things Jesus was going to. What's the point of the exercise if God learned nothing from it?

Posted by: oj at December 20, 2004 1:28 PM

Hebrews makes it surprisingly clear that, counterintuitive as it seems, the reason God understands us is because he was one of us. As for the technical questions of "what did God know and when did he know it?" I'm less concerned.

Posted by: Timothy at December 20, 2004 1:54 PM

So, back in the days when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, could a Jew say "I know the outcome of making this sacrifice at the Temple, so I'll just claim the outcome and forget about actually making the sacrifice" I think not. God knew the outcome, but the sacrifice had to be made none the less. The "exercise" of Jesus' death on the cross was essential for the salvation of his chosen ones and their everlasting relationship with each other.

Now one thing that God may not have been able to comprehend until he died on the cross was what it meant to feel and experience being completely cut off from himself (which is the ultimate wage of sin).

Posted by: Dave W. at December 20, 2004 2:26 PM

oj - It's not that God learned, but that Jesus did. In orthodox theology, the point of the exercise is that Jesus had to perform his duty perfectly, remaining sinless, to bring about the Atonement and carry the rest of humanity through the eye of the needle -- and do it while as bereft from God as sinful men are. None of this requires him to lack knowledge of his duty; the hard part, as St Paul points out, is not knowing what's right, but doing it.

Posted by: pj at December 20, 2004 3:24 PM


Jesus isn't God?

Posted by: oj at December 20, 2004 3:42 PM


Jews were God?

Posted by: oj at December 20, 2004 3:45 PM

Sorry if I implied that jews=God, that was not my intent.

Also, concerning your question to pj, Jesus was fully divine (God) and fully human (a Jewish male) while he dwelt among us.

Posted by: Dave W. at December 20, 2004 5:09 PM


Yes, so Jesus wasn't fully God and not God.

And Jews had to make sacrifices because God required it of them.

Posted by: oj at December 20, 2004 5:34 PM

Jesus is God, and man too. But being a man manifests itself in different ways at different times, e.g. before and after death, and being a God manifests itself in different ways at different times, e.g. during and not during incarnation.

Posted by: pj at December 20, 2004 8:22 PM

So He's only a man at certain points and only God at others?

Posted by: oj at December 20, 2004 10:16 PM

pj's version is what I was taught.

Timothy, I count myself 'more orthodox' in the sense that I memorized the Baltimore Catechism, and while I don't believe any of it, I know what's in it.

Most people have a tendency -- very pronounced on Orrin's part -- to rewrite the religion, but over the centuries there has been a central core.

No harm in going outside it, but you'd think a sincere Christian would do so carefully.

I too am a fundamentalist. Either every word in the Bible is god's certain word, or none of them.

No other position is intellectually defensible.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 20, 2004 10:27 PM

And thus, Harry, the paradox that is at the heart of civilization. Intellect cannot be reconciled with faith; yet intellect itself depends upon faith.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 20, 2004 11:03 PM

One of the real advantages of being a Jew is being able to avoid these types of theological discussions.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at December 21, 2004 12:54 AM

The dogma about why God became Man is pretty basic stuff, first year cathechism. Original Sin created an accounts receivable entry in God's ledger that had to be paid by Man. Man proved incapable of paying the debt, and wanting to get this bad debt off His books, but being the stickler for accounting details that He is, God, rather than just write it off as a bad debt, paid it Himself. But He had to do it as Man, as it was Man's debt, after all. This whole arrangement makes me think that God isn't the highest authority out there, since it seems He has to worry about His books being audited.

I heard a Protestant pundit argue against Islam once by saying Islam was all about accounting, but Christianity wasn't. Sure!

Posted by: Robert Duquette at December 21, 2004 10:07 AM


Yes, that answers none of these questions though.

Posted by: oj at December 21, 2004 10:10 AM

David, I don't see that intellect depends on faith.

It must have preceded it. At least, we have plenty of ancient evidences of intellect at work, but evidences of faith are all recent.

A materialist might say that faith was an emergent property of intellect, as it stretched its muscles and invented new stuff -- toasters, politics, gods. All the same, really.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 21, 2004 1:31 PM


You see it, you just have to deny it or become schizophrenic.

Posted by: oj at December 21, 2004 1:36 PM


If by that you mean that possessing and using intellect means having to make decisions in the face of imperfect, or absent, information, and that exercise constitutes faith, then you are correct.

But that is small-f faith, not Faith as religionists speak of it. It is no contradiction to possess intellect will not having Faith in the sense of finding all supernatural narratives empty exercises.

Perhaps you could explain why it is that Faith cannot be an emergent propery of intellect.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 22, 2004 6:35 AM


That's where you head of the rails, at the very beginning: all is Faith.

Posted by: oj at December 22, 2004 8:14 AM

I can't decide which is the greater act of Faith, going to bed at night or getting up in the morning.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 23, 2004 10:10 AM


Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world round me;
And tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?"

G.K. Chesterton

Posted by: oj at December 23, 2004 12:29 PM

You may not be allowed another one (and I might not either).

Posted by: Dave W. at December 23, 2004 11:43 PM