Election within the Bible is the notion that God favors some individuals and groups over others, an idea that finds fullest expression in the Hebrew Bible’s affirmation, supported in the New Testament, that Israel is God’s chosen people. Election/chosenness is quite pervasive in the Hebrew Bible as evidenced by the recurring sibling rivalry stories in Genesis in which one sibling is specially favored. God’s granting Israel special status entailed both unmerited privilege as well as an expectation of a proper human response toward God. Genesis 18:19 states, “I have chosen him [Abraham], that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” Similarly, Exodus 19:5–6 proclaims: “Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall My treasured possession among all the peoples.” Election is related to Israel’s status as a “holy nation” (e.g., Deut 14:2, “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; it is you the Lord has chosen out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession”), and is grounded in an act of divine love and faithfulness to the divine promise (Deut 7:6–9). Despite severe castigation of Israel’s failings, the prophetic corpus appears to assume the permanence of Israel’s election even while the prophets proclaim that Israel’s privileged status carried with it heavier responsibility than other nations and stricter standards of judgment (Amos 3:2). Some of the most profound biblical meditations on the implications of chosenness can be found in Isaiah 40–66, a collection of postexilic oracles, sayings that time and again declare God’s enduring love for his beloved people and his intention to restore them once more to a flourishing life in the land of Israel. The belief that the Jews are God’s chosen people is a central theological axiom within post-biblical Jewish tradition. The New Testament, building on Hebrew Bible antecedents, depicts Jesus as the beloved, or specially chosen, son of God. Certain New Testament texts, like the Gospel of John and Revelation, at times appear to equate those chosen by God with those who will obtain ultimate salvation, a notion that becomes amplified within those forms of Protestantism influenced by Luther’s emphasis on being saved by grace (through faith) and especially Calvin’s theology of double predestination. Yet, within much of the biblical tradition the idea of election is neither dualistic nor directly linked with one’s salvation or damnation. One of the most central debates in New Testament studies is the question of the nascent church’s relationship to the historic people of Israel and whether Jewish resistance to the gospels meant they had forfeited their election, a topic discussed in great depth by Paul in Romans 9–11. Ultimately, Paul concludes that God’s election of Israel stands, even for those who have become “enemies of the gospel,” something he calls a “mystery” (Rom 11:25–28)
Entries covered in this section represent good starting places into the topic, though some of the works now show signs of their age or suffer from the deficiencies that more recent scholarship has noted occur within certain types of word studies. Among those listed, the entries of Patrick 1992, Wildberger 1997, and Kaminsky 2006 deserve special attention.
Bergman, J., H. Ringgren, and H. Seebass. “בחר.” In Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. Vol. 2. Edited by G. J. Botterweck and H. Ringgren, 73–87. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974.
Defines and traces out the uses of the Hebrew root regularly translated as “to choose” throughout the Hebrew Bible. Rightly notes that not every use of this root is linked to election (hence a section dedicated to so-called secular uses of the root) and that other roots like “to know” can carry election related connotations (e.g., Gen 18:19; Amos 3:2). Useful as a type of annotated concordance of this word’s relationship to Israel’s election theology.
Brueggemann, Walter. “Election.” In Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes. By Walter Brueggemann, 61–64. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002.
A short but broad-ranging survey of the biblical theme by a well-known Old Testament theologian. Probing and theological in focus.
Kaminsky, Joel S. “Chosen.” In New Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. 1. Rev. ed. Edited by Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, 594–600. Nashville: Abingdon, 2006.
Surveys major aspects of the topic through six key headings: Genesis, Covenant and Promise, The Anti-Elect, The Non-Elect, Election in Eschatological Prophecy, Election in the New Testament and Early Rabbinic texts. Rather than tracing the usage of a term, this treatment instead provides a thematic overview of central texts and topics related to election theology in the Bible.
Mendenhall, G. E. “Election.” In The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. 2. Edited by George Arthur Buttrick, 76–82. Nashville: Abingdon, 1962.
An older but still important survey of the theme, one that devotes considerable space to both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. The author explores four main areas: human choosing in the Bible, and then divine election of individuals, groups, and inanimate objects. Though tainted by somewhat outdated understandings of biblical sources, the essay is a significant contribution on the theme.
Nicole, Emile. “בחר.” In New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Vol. 1. Edited by Willem A. VanGemeren, 638–642. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994.
A workmanlike word study that explores Ancient Near East, Old Testament, and (so-called) intertestamental literature usage. The bulk of the entry focuses on Old Testament usage, only briefly (and somewhat superficially) exploring the divine election of Israel before examining priestly and monarchical election (especially that of Saul and David) as well as of “the place of worship” and Zion.
Patrick, Dale. “Election, Old Testament.” In Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 2. Edited by David Noel Freedman, 434–441. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Taking into account critiques of the biblical theology movement, Patrick begins with Hebrew Bible texts that explicitly employ election terminology and then moves on to texts that can be read in a productive fashion through the lens of election theology. Shows a discerning awareness of questions related to non-election at a time when few biblical scholars did. A useful overview of many of the texts and issues germane to the topic.
Shafer, B. E. “The Root bḥr and Pre-Exilic Concepts of Chosenness in the Hebrew Bible.” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 89 (1977): 20–42.
Reviews several dictionary articles on the root bḥr. Shafer takes Seebass (see Bergman, et al. 1974) to task for ignoring recent critiques of word studies and for leaving readers with “little sense of the historical dynamic behind Israel’s concepts of chosenness” (p. 22). Building on but also critiquing aspects of Wildberger 1997, Shafer traces the historical development of the notion of chosen king, people, and place relying on Frank Cross’ theoretical framework.
Shogren, Gary S. “Election, New Testament.” In Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 2. Edited by David Noel Freedman, 441–444. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Intended to summarize the concept of election in the New Testament, Shogren argues (with little supporting evidence) that through a “remnant theology” Israel’s corporate election (found in the Old Testament) is transformed into personal (or individual) election in the early Church, especially through the Apostle Paul in Romans, and touches upon Calvinist and Arminian debates. Unfortunately, shows little awareness of the new understandings of Paul wrought by recent scholarship that have emphasized much greater connection between the New Testament and its Jewish context.
Sohn, Seock-Tae. The Divine Election of Israel. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.
This monograph surveys a wide swath of election oriented terms and themes primarily in the Hebrew Bible (regularly utilizing biblical Hebrew) with one shorter chapter on the New Testament. While fairly comprehensive, the author presents the material in a list like manner failing to communicate the engaging nature of the topic. Useful as a type of concordance of election terminology and verses touching on the topic (hence our placement within this section).
Wildberger, Hans. “בחר.” In Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament. Vol. 1. Edited by Ernst Jenni and Claus Westermann, 209–226. Translated by Mark E. Biddle. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1997.
Examines the term under three categories based upon statistical usage within the Hebrew Bible: profane usage (22 percent); theological with God as subject (67 percent); theological with people as subject (11 percent). A careful exposition that avoids tidy conclusions. For example, although in Joshua 21:15 Israel is given a choice of whom to serve, never is Israel specifically told to choose YHWH; “rather it should acknowledge that it is chosen by him” (p. 225). Original German publication: Theologisches Handworterbuch zum Alten Testament. 2 vols. Munich: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1971–1976.
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