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How Odd of God to Choose the Jews

Notes by Andrew Wilson | Wednesday 30 March 2011

To many, the Old Testament seems a very strange text. No doubt there are many reasons for this – people sacrifice animals, swap sandals, lie on their side for months at a time, and go through elaborate rituals to cleanse their houses from rising damp – but in the public imagination, perhaps the biggest reason is very simple: the election of Israel.

It just seems so peculiar that one man, and through him one nation, should be particularly favoured by God. And for many, it is not just strange but indefensible that this nation is then commanded to conquer a piece of land by force, even though they are frequently no better than the people previously living there. How can the unconditional election of Israel possibly fit with the character of God?

Famously, this sentiment was expressed by the British journalist W. N. Ewer:

How odd Of God / To choose The Jews

Which pretty much sums up the way many see the story of the Old Testament. So I thought it might be worth considering a response, from a biblical point of view, but retaining the very strict form of Ewer’s original. Immediately I discovered that I was not the first to try. There was the anonymous response –    

How strange / Of man / To change / The plan.

   – but although a welcome response to the anti-Semitism that many see lurking beneath Ewer’s poem, this did not actually help theologically, because it gave no purpose for the election of Abraham. The same is true of a more widely-quoted response, which has been attributed to both Ogden Nash and Cecil Brown:   

But not so odd / As those who choose / A Jewish God / Yet spurn the Jews.

   Clever, but I was looking for rather more biblical insight than that, and the metre had been abandoned anyway. More speculatively, but even more amusingly, was Leo Rosten’s version:   

Not odd Of God; Goyim Annoy’im

(Goyim is the Hebrew word for ‘Gentiles’ or ‘nations’.) Again, however, this was more witty than accurate, because the Hebrew scriptures repeatedly affirm that God did not choose the Jews because they were more numerous, or powerful, or righteous than the Gentiles around them, but simply because he loved them (Deuteronomy 7:6-8 etc). It occurred to me that the strict metre, and the theological intricacies of the issue, presented pitfalls at every corner.
Nobody wrestled with the question of Israel’s election, both in terms of its purpose and its implications, more than the apostle Paul. For Paul, choosing Abraham and his family represented God’s sovereign capacity to choose whomever he wanted, irrespective of things that they had done to deserve it (Romans 9:6-29), and as such presented the world with a paradigm of free grace. More importantly, God made promises to Abraham and his ‘seed’ so that the Gentiles would be blessed, along with Abraham, the man of faith (Galatians 3:7-14). So the purpose of election was ultimately to bless all nations, through one seed of Abraham in particular – Jesus the Messiah – and to incorporate them into him, through faith, so that the Gentiles might also become ‘heirs according to promise’ (Galatians 3:1625-29). That’s why God chose Israel, and protected them from their enemies, and gave them promises, laws, and land. It was his rescue plan for all creation, his strategy for bringing hope, justice and fruitfulness to all nations.
So I think the appropriate biblical response is something like this:

Not odd Of God / To choose The Jews / If through One Jew / The rest Get blessed!

Andrew Wilson

Bio: Andrew is Teaching Pastor at King's Church London, and has degrees in history and theology from Cambridge (MA) and King's College London (PhD). He is a columnist for Christianity Today, and has written several award-winning books, most recently God of All Things. Andrew is married to Rachel and they have three children: Zeke, Anna and Samuel. Views he expresses here are his own, and do not represent those of Newfrontiers or any particular church. Twitter: @AJWTheology

Romans 9, 10, 11

God’s Election of Israel

9:1 I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— 2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. 4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; 5to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.

6 It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, 7 and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named after you.’ 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants. 9 For this is what the promise said, ‘About this time I will return and Sarah shall have a son.’ 10 Nor is that all; something similar happened to Rebecca when she had conceived children by one husband, our ancestor Isaac. 11 Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, 12 not by works but by his call) she was told, ‘The elder shall serve the younger.’ 13 As it is written,
‘I have loved Jacob,
but I have hated Esau.’
14 What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses,
‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
   and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ 
16 So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. 17 For the scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.’ 18 So then he has mercy on whomsoever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomsoever he chooses.

God’s Wrath and Mercy

19 You will say to me then, ‘Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ 20 But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is moulded say to the one who moulds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use? 22What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction; 23 and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? 25 As indeed he says in Hosea,
‘Those who were not my people I will call “my people”, and her who was not beloved I will call “beloved”. ’ 

26 ‘And in the very place where it was said to them,
“You are not my people”,  there they shall be called children of the living God.’

27 And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel, ‘Though the number of the children of Israel were like the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved; 28 for the Lord will execute his sentence on the earth quickly and decisively.’ 29 And as Isaiah predicted,
‘If the Lord of hosts had not left survivors to us,
   we would have fared like Sodom
   and been made like Gomorrah.’

Israel’s Unbelief

30 What then are we to say? Gentiles, who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; 31 but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law. 32 Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling-stone, 33 as it is written,
‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble, a rock that will make them fall,
   and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’
10:1 Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. 2 I can testify that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. 3 For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness. 4 For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

Salvation Is for Everyone

5 Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that ‘the person who does these things will live by them.’ 6 But the righteousness that comes from faith says, ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 ‘or “Who will descend into the abyss?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).8 But what does it say?
‘The word is near you,
   on your lips and in your heart’
(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11 The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13 For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

14 But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15 And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ 16 But not all have obeyed the good news; for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message?’ 17So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.

18 But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have; for
‘Their voice has gone out to all the earth,
and their words to the ends of the world.’ 
19 Again I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says,
‘I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation;
   with a foolish nation I will make you angry.’ 
20 Then Isaiah is so bold as to say,
‘I have been found by those who did not seek me;
   I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.’ 
21 But of Israel he says,
‘All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.’

Israel’s Rejection Is Not Final

11:1 I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? 3 ‘Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars; I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.’4 But what is the divine reply to him? ‘I have kept for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’ 5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

7 What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, 8 as it is written,
‘God gave them a sluggish spirit,
   eyes that would not see
   and ears that would not hear,
down to this very day.’ 
9 And David says,
‘Let their table become a snare and a trap,
   a stumbling-block and a retribution for them; 
10 let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see,
   and keep their backs for ever bent.’

The Salvation of the Gentiles

11 So I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means! But through their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. 12 Now if their stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!

13 Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify my ministry 14 in order to make my own people jealous, and thus save some of them. 15 For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead! 16 If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; and if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy. 17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree,18 do not vaunt yourselves over the branches. If you do vaunt yourselves, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. 19 You will say, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ 20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you. 22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity towards those who have fallen, but God’s kindness towards you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. 23 And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. 24 For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree.

All Israel Will Be Saved

25 So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written,
‘Out of Zion will come the Deliverer;
   he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.’ 
27 ‘And this is my covenant with them,
   when I take away their sins.’ 
28 As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; 29 for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. 32 For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.
33 O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 

34 ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord?
   Or who has been his counselor?’ 
35 ‘Or who has given a gift to him,
   to receive a gift in return?’ 
36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever. Amen. 

Messages by Ray Stedman

From Guilt to Glory -- Exhibited
Has God Failed? Romans 9:1-13
Let God be God Romans 9:14-33
How to be Saved Romans 10:1-13
Have they not Heard? Romans 10:14-21
There's Hope Ahead Romans 11:1-24
Our Great and Glorious God Romans 11:25 - 12:1

Ray Stedman said years ago, “God is saving everything that can possibly be saved.
After that He will destroy everything that can not be saved.”


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