An Undelivered Gift: Israel's Calling

When people think about the Bible and the religious traditions that come from it - especially Judaism and Christianity - one issue that comes up at times is the question of whether or not the Bible promotes a kind of exclusivity. Some people think that certain verses in the Bible promote ideas like segregation, isolation, and tribalism. Specifically, the Old Testament claim that the nation of Israel was God’s “chosen” people, and God’s command for them to follow certain law codes as his chosen people, has led many people to think that God endorses separating people on the basis of race or ethnicity - or even that God prefers certain people over others.

If there is a "chosen people" in the Bible, doesn't that mean that God plays favourites? Doesn't that make it seem like religion just promotes an "exclusive club" mentality, that people who see themselves as chosen just get to reject everyone else, or that there is no salvation for anyone but one group?

These are important questions, and we have dealt with some dimensions of them before. But what about Israel specifically? Why would a God who is supposedly the Lord of all creation only pick one group of people to be his "chosen ones" and reject everyone else?

As it turns out, the selection of a "chosen people" is not the same as the rejection of all other people. In fact, if you look carefully into the purpose and calling of Israel, you'll find that God chose them for the benefit of all other nations and families on earth.

When God and Israel make a covenant at Mount Sinai, and they agree to become his special people, God is simply expanding on an agreement that he had made with Abraham generations before.

“Now the Lord said to Abram, “[...] in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (ESV) and “[...] in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” (Genesis 22:18 ESV) God’s plan was for Abraham’s descendants - God’s chosen nation of Israel - to become a source of blessing for all the nations and families of the world. Rather than trying to win God’s approval or help them “get to heaven,” the laws of the Torah were meant to help Israel “display [their] wisdom and intelligence among the surrounding nations[...]” (Deuteronomy 4:6-7 NLT) They were meant to set an example that would attract other people to God.

So God chose to use one group of people as an example, as a way of leading other people to do the right thing. One of the big priorities of the Bible is the leadership and rulership role that humans are meant to play on earth (Genesis 1-2, Psalm 8) and how God wants to restore human beings to their responsibility to care for and rule the earth. This means that he has to give humans the opportunity to develop morally, to become the kind of people we were meant to be. In the Bible, we see God choosing people as partners to help restore the goodness of people.

But just like any group of people, the Israel that we see in the Bible is very imperfect, and they struggle to live up to the purpose they were chosen for. They regularly fall short of God’s plan, suffer for it, and need God’s grace to bring them back on track.

And so, as you read through the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, you will see the story of a group of people who are caught between the right choice and the wrong choice, between obeying God and his plans, or disobeying, between self-centeredness or openness to others. One question you should be asking when reading the story of Israel is "will they, at this moment, live up to their calling? Will they set a good example of what it is to follow God?"

And somewhere, as we look at Israel's ups and downs, failures and successes, we may see a reflection of our own selves. But more than that, we will see the heart of the God who walks with them through their failures and repeatedly demonstrates that his plan is big enough to make up for their flaws.

God chooses people for a purpose - to bless and redeem the world, not in order to treat them as better than everyone else. Ultimately, God’s plan to bless the whole world would be fulfilled when Abraham’s ultimate descendant and the true Israelite - Jesus - would come to teach righteousness, and die for the forgiveness of the world’s sins. God's love is not exclusive, and it doesn't segregate people out. His plan has always been for the whole world. Those who are lucky enough to be chosen will have to recognize that being special to God is both a privilege, but also an enormous responsibility. When God gives us a gift that is meant to be shared, the worst thing to do is to leave that gift undelivered.


  • Some Christians will express very strongly that the group they belong to is God's true chosen people, and that everyone else is either bad, or lost, or less important than them. Many times, they will have long lists of scriptures to back up this belief, or will appeal to the fact that they may seem "holier" or at least more strict in their lifestyle than other people. As we look at the following questions, consider this: Is sectarianism - or an exclusivistic attitude - holy or worldly?
  • Read Genesis 22:18, and then read Paul's argument in Romans 4.
    • As you read, keep in mind that circumcision was an important cultural practice for the Jews, and that a man being circumcized was essentially a symbol of him being a member of the chosen people, those who would trace their ancestry back to the early Israelites and Abraham.
    • What does Paul say about being ethnically an Israelite? What does he say about being a Gentile? Is Paul arguing for God being exclusively for Israel, or inclusively for all the non-Israelites (Gentiles)?
  • Deuteronomy 32 has some interesting discussion of how God thinks about Israel and their relationship to the Gentiles.
    • Read Deuteronomy 32:3-14. How does God describe his relationship with Israel?
      • What positive things does the passage describe God doing for Israel?
    • Read Deuteronomy 32:15-18 What negative things does it accuse Israel of doing? What problem does God find with Israel?
    • Read Deuteronomy 32:19-21. Who does God decide to turn to when his relationship with his chosen nation Israel goes sour? Does God have room to work with other people besides his "chosen ones"?
  • Read Romans 10:9-13. Does race or ethnicity make a difference in whether or not someone can be saved, according to this passage?
    • Read Romans 10:16-21. Do you notice a verse that we already read before, earlier?
    • Does it seem like God categorically reject groups of people, or only those who reject him first by refusing to follow along with his plan?
    • What is the most important factor determining someone's relationship with God? What determines whether we are "in" or "out" with him?
  • Read Romans 15:5-14. Notice that Romans 15:10 quotes from Deuteronomy 32:43.
    • How should people in the church from different backgrounds relate to each other?
    • Note the Psalms that are quoted by Paul in this section. Do they give you the impression that the Old Testament entirely rejects Gentile people (non-Israelites), or has there always been a sense that God is for all people?


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