Yet I Loved Jacob: Reclaiming the Biblical Concept of Election
Kaminsky, Joel S. Yet I Loved Jacob: Reclaiming the Biblical Concept of Election Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007.
Joel Kaminsky is Director of the Program in Jewish Studies at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. He teaches courses on the Hebrew Bible and on ancient Jewish Religion and Literature.
Kaminsky believes that the Christian and Jewish communities stand to learn something new about each other and themselves by seeing Scripture through each other’s eyes, and through separately and together revisiting the Bible as it illumines the foundations and development of election, a doctrine neither community can afford to ignore or jettison. As he demonstrates in the book’s introduction, the modern aversion to election is due to the twin legacies of Enlightenment- preference for the universal over the particular and the legacy of supersessionism. Unlike other books on election that begin with word studies, his work engages the text of Scripture itself, taking a canonical approach, with special attention given to narrative nuance and intertextuality.
In Part 1 (chapters one to four), he examines the four patriarchal sibling rivalry stories that lay a seedbed for the Bible’s doctrine of election. In chapter one, the case of Cain and Abel, we see one of four stories of God preferring the younger to the elder, and of the younger going into exile. God’s choices are mysterious. He chooses the elect not for their benefit alone; the non-elect are also blessed, but must learn not to resent the elect who are God’s chosen and a means of God’s blessing them. The story of Cain and Abel, non-elect and elect siblings, is embryonic of what will be more fully developed throughout Genesis, culminating in the Joseph saga.
The pattern continues in chapter two, with Ishmael and Isaac (and Hagar and Sarah) whose family/sibling rivalry stories demonstrate how human agency can impede divine intent. Yet, in Ishmael, we see the blessedness of the non-elect, a major theme in Kaminsky’s treatment.
In chapter three, on Jacob and Esau, he explores the ambiguities inherent in God’s election, especially the question of whether human choices, even devious choices, are necessary to or expeditious of the Divine program. Also covered are the themes of reconciliation between the chosen and the non-chosen siblings, and an excellent discussion of the varieties of reconciliation, and how these do not require a return to a status quo ante.
In chapter four, on Joseph, he examines the issue of the suffering of the elect who are tested, and, if they endure the test, purified by their suffering, through which they have the opportunity to glorify God.
In chapter five, Kaminsky looks at the interrelationship between promise, covenant, and commandment. He views covenants as “formalizations of promises made to Israel’s ancestors as well as of Israel’s self understanding that they are God’s chosen people” (p. 84). For Kaminsky, the full scope and meaning of Israel’s calling is not entirely spelled out in Scripture, nor can that calling be collapsed into service, as much Christian theologizing does. This chapter explores types of covenants (human/human; divine/human; conditional/unconditional), and demonstrates that the categories conditional/unconditional are not absolute.
In chapter six, he examines how notions of law and holiness, as enumerated in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, relate to election. For Kaminsky, these works highlight different facets of holiness.
In his introduction to chapters seven and eight, he provides an overview concerning “Israel and the Other,” surveying misguided negative opinions that postulate the Hebrew Bible’s stance on the matter, and its moral implications, as being fascist and genocidal. Kaminsky shows how a close reading of the text reveals that Israel was not called to exterminate all who are termed “other,” but rather only the Amalekites, Canaanites, and to some extent, Midianites. There was a modus vivendi for the other nations surrounding Israel. Many fail to note that the Hebrew Bible considers nations as elect, non-elect, or anti-elect. The elect nation is Israel, the non-elect nations are blessed with Israel and because of Israel, and only the anti-elect, who are enemies of Israel and of her God, face perdition and exclusion from blessedness. Scholars who reject the doctrine of Israel’s election on moral grounds generally misunderstand the text and demonstrate ignorance of these distinctions.
In chapter seven, Kaminsky examines the anti-elect as those who are enemies of God and of his people and thus are targeted for destruction. He says that although these passages remain problematic, those who equate the Hebrew and Nazi positions and who condemn these passages outright, fail to consider how the passages deserve a more sympathetic reading. Even if the more sympathetic reading fails to erase all the troubling aspects of the texts, the doctrine of election should not be jettisoned. As he notes, later Jewish tradition formulated a number of ways to mitigate the hard edges of the theology of the anti-elect. The first is to attempt to justify God’s delay in wiping out the Canaanites/Amalekites, while acknowledging their deep depravity and evil. The second way is to posit that only the determinedly wicked were slain (in the Canaanite campaign) after being given ample opportunity to accept terms of peace. The third way is to spiritualize annihilation by removing evil from the world and/or resisting evil impulses.
In chapter eight, “The Non-Elect in the Hebrew Bible,” Kaminsky reminds his readers that the Hebrew Bible is often surprisingly positive toward the non-Israelite, both individuals and groups, and that some groups whom one would imagine receiving harsh treatment are in fact slated for favor (as is the case for Egypt). This becomes especially explicit in narrative passages, so that foreign figures are treated with respect (e.g., Melchizedek, the Pharaoh of Joseph’s day, Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, Hiram, king of Tyre, the Queen of Sheba, the widow of Zarephath, Cyrus, King of Persia, and the non-Israelite sailors in Jonah’s boat). Sometimes foreign groups are merged with the people of Israel e.g., (Rahab and her family, Reuel/Hobab/Jethro, and Moses’ father in law). In treating the assimilation of foreigners, Kaminsky references Shaye Cohen who argues that Judaism was probably not even considered a religion until the Hellenistic period. Before then, it was an ethnic and tribal identification. “It is more accurate to speak of individuals or groups attaching themselves to God or God’s people rather than the term ‘conversion’ and all that it implies” (p. 126).
In chapter nine, “Prophecy and Election,” he explores further how modern authors consistently read their own concerns and presuppositions into the text. For example, scholars such as Walter Brueggemann and John Collins read Amos 9:7 as stating that Israel is no longer a unique nation, but just one like the others. Kaminsky states that the harsh language refers not to God suspending Israel’s covenant identity but rather to his calling Israel back to covenant faithfulness.
In his section on “The Purpose of Election: Instrumental or Intrinsic,” Kaminsky begins by discussing how supersessionism often underlies positions that view Israel’s election as purely instrumental. The standard argument is that Israel failed, Messiah succeeded, and the role of Israel passed to the Church. In Isaiah, the Servant Songs are especially the locus for this debate. Contrary to this, Kaminsky states that:
it is quite unlikely that these eschatologically charged texts found in 2nd Isaiah ever conceived of extending Israel’s elect status to the other nations of the world. … In fact, it is theologically incoherent that the very prophet who most stresses God’s deep, unbreakable love for his unique people would call on them to dissolve their uniqueness by extending their elect status to everyone in the world. Election by definition requires that distinctions be maintained between God’s people and those not elected. . . . The Hebrew Bible resists reducing the meaning of Israel’s special election to a matter of divine service (Deut 9:4-7; Jer 31:1-20). If one links election too strongly to service, it is impossible to understand why God restores Israel from exile. The answer, of course, is that in spite of Israel’s failures, she remains beloved by God (p. 154).
And of course, this is what we learn in Romans 11:28-29.
It is in his discussion of the relationship between Second Isaiah, the Servant Songs, and the Joseph story that things really begin to crackle with electric relevance for the Messianic Jewish context. In the servant passages and the Joseph narrative, there are three basic categories of people: the elect of the elect who receive special attention within each text, those belonging to the larger elect group but not specially chosen, and the other nations of the world. In the Joseph story, the elect of the elect is, of course, Joseph himself, while in Isaiah it is the Israelite person or group associated with the servant language [for the Messianic Jewish community, the Messiah himself and the Remnant of Israel]. In both texts, the especially elect brings about reconciliation between the especially elect one and the larger group as a whole. Thus, the bulk of the Joseph story focuses on how the divided sons of Israel are reunited again in a way that overcomes many of the family troubles that led to the original rift and gives theological meaning to Joseph’s suffering (Gen 45:5-8). Kaminsky avers that, while the image of the servant is notoriously difficult to pin down firmly, it is fair to say that there are indeed places in the latter chapters of Isaiah in which the servant person or group functions as the specially elect who brings about renewed national unity (Isa 42:6-7; 49:5) in a way that gives theological meaning to the suffering of the elect. Certainly, the suffering of this elect person or group brings about a national rejuvenation. Finally, in the Joseph story, while the focus is more immediately on Jacob’s extended family, the result is that Joseph, working under a benign Pharaoh, preserves the whole world and thus brings God’s blessing to the nations (Gen 41:57). Similarly, in Isaiah while the restoration of Israel as a people is the focus of the text, the specially elect, working under the benign Cyrus, foresee that the ultimate goal will be the recognition of God’s sovereignty throughout the world, which will result in a renewed cosmos in which God’s blessing will become fully manifest to the benefit of all (p. 157).
Extrapolating from Kaminsky’s model, I suggest that there are at least six postures the Church should take in relationship to the Jewish people:
- 1. Respect for Israel’s unique elect status. Kaminsky shows how Israel’s election is not simply for service, but out of the exercise of God’s freedom and his love for the seed of Jacob.
- 2. Acknowledgement of dependence. The Church has no relationship with God independent of Israel. Paul is at pains to emphasize this point in Romans 11. Many in the Church have nonetheless forgotten, disparaged, or disputed this. This is the legacy of supersessonism whereby the Church does not join with Israel but rather replaces her.
- 3. Gratitude to God. Failure of acknowledgement insults the people of Israel, while ingratitude insults God.
- 4. Co-laboring. The Church should seek every opportunity to work with the seed of Jacob and to understand her own vocation through respecting and understanding that of Israel.
- 5. Anticipation. Seeing her own identity rooted in that of Israel, the Church should also anticipate a consummation in which both Israel and the Church are involved, indeed, one in which the Church has become part of the commonwealth of Israel, with her destiny inseparably intertwined with that of Israel.
- 6. An attitude of humility in the presence of gradually unfolding mystery. Paul speaks of mystery with respect to the outworking of God’s purposes concerning Israel and the Church. He himself struggles to understand what God is doing, demonstrating awe, respect and humility before the gradually unfolding mystery. The Church should do no less.
In chapter ten, Kaminsky examines “Election in Psalms and the Wisdom Literature, ” finding in these sources echoes of the world view explored in Israel’s foundational election texts, the sibling narratives of Genesis and the rest of Torah
In chapter eleven, “New Testament and Rabbinic Views of Election,” he begins by affirming that particularistic election is as much a Christian category as a Jewish one and that the New Covenant appropriates this Jewish category and related language for its own use (as in 1 Peter 2:9-10; cf. Exod 19:5-6). It is especially fascinating that he sees the gospel story as a form of sibling rivalry story. He writes,
The master narrative of the New Testament-the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus-is itself a re-presentation of the central motif of the sibling rivalry stories from Genesis: the death and resurrection of the beloved son. Thus, the church saw Jesus, and by association those who believed in him, as the chosen son who was persecuted and ultimately exalted (p. 171).
This reading of the Joseph story can be easily related to a Messianic Jewish perspective. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. In fact, his brothers killed him by the hands of others. God brought him back, and he will be proven to be the best friend the children of Israel ever had.
Kaminsky represents Judaism as, in the main, following the lead of the Hebrew Bible, viewing the non-elect as still candidates for God’s blessing. He contrasts this with Christianity, which, in the main, thinks in binary categories of elect/saved vs. non-elect/lost. For Christianity, unlike the Hebrew Bible, there is no difference in soteriological status between the anti-elect and the non-elect. While Christianity is more open to others as potential converts, it is less able than Judaism to receive the “other” as “other”.
In his section “Grace and Works in Judaism and Christianity,” Kaminsky dismisses as simplistic and inaccurate generalizations portraying Christianity as a religion of faith apart from works, and Judaism as a religion of works as contrasted with faith. He shows that it is unhelpful and inaccurate to view Judaism through Christian categories. Unlike many forms of Christianity, Judaism does not view grace and law to be antithetical, viewing the giving of the law as a magnificent act of grace.
Kaminsky lends credence to the post-supersessionist perspective I favor, as he assumes that both the Christian and Jewish communities must hear the voice of the other in order not only to critique and expand their own self-understanding as well as learn about each other, but also that together they might be better able to discern the new things that God is doing that would not otherwise be anticipated, understood, or welcomed. Only by listening to each other will we develop ears to hear what God is saying to us separately and together at this time. Those who deafen their ears to the voice of their brother, even their estranged brother, cannot expect to rightly hear the voice of God. This book is crucial for the Messianic Jewish movement as a resource informing a deep repudiation of supersessionism and as a call to reclaim the elect status which belongs to the seed of Jacob because of God’s love toward them, a love proceeding not out of their deserving but out of his own freedom.
The book also challenges us to recognize how some hard-line binary categories may not be really “either/or” but rather “both/and.” Kaminsky’s discussion underscores that the non-elect are not necessarily lost under God’s judgment but may in fact be blessed with the elect. The lost/judged are rather “the wicked (who) will be turned to Sheol, all the nations that forget God” (Ps 9:18). Also of use is his discussion of how the elect of the elect bring blessing to the elect-which in New Covenant terms reminds us of what so many forget: that the Remnant of Israel are the guarantors and means of blessing to the rest of Israel, and thereby to the non-elect-the other nations. This book is crucial to the formation of a Messianic Jewish theology, missiology, and ecclesiology. We have yet to catch up to the level of Kaminsky’s thought.
Stuart Dauermann (Ph.D., Fuller Theological Seminary) is Senior Scholar at Messianic Jewish Theological Institute and President of Hashivenu, a Messianic Jewish think-tank. He serves as Rabbi of Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue in Beverly Hills, CA