Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review
Joel N. Lohr's recent book Chosen and Unchosen: Conceptions of Election in the Pentateuch and Jewish-Christian Interpretation sets out to fill a lacuna in biblical scholarship concerning the unchosen (i.e., the non-elect). The book is divided into two sections, the first of which is a selected survey of relevant scholarly literature and the second a close examination of key texts from the Pentateuch. Lohr also includes two helpful appendices (The Tendency to View Balaam as Sinner and Ḥerem in the Old Testament: An Overview) which treat related matters that are not central to his arguments.
Lohr begins his first section by surveying a selective sampling (3) of Christian scholarship on OT election within the last 50 years. He acknowledges that his survey is not comprehensive but notes its benefit in being more detailed than it would be if that were the case. The survey is lengthy enough that this reviewer deems the lack of complete comprehensiveness a good decision.
Throughout his survey of Christian scholarship (theological dictionaries, lexicons, monographs and OT theologies), he observes that very little is ever said about the unchosen. What is more, invariably these Christian studies view election as culminating in the mission to all nations. Some studies emphasize that Israel is elected to service (Rowley) and that service is a channel for blessing to the nations. Others simply view the telos of election as including Gentiles in the covenant one day (e.g., Eichrodt).
Emphasis is placed on statements such as Israel being a light to the nations or on the Abrahamic Blessing of Gen 12:3b that all the nations will be blessed. On the latter verse Lohr takes the position of his supervisor (Moberly) that Gen 12:3b can be understood as emphasizing exclusivity rather than inclusivity. Yet even if Lohr is wrong on that point, it is clear that Christian scholars have emphasized inclusivism in their studies even though the OT itself does not appear to emphasize this aspect of election. While certain texts may lend themselves towards that emphasis, the bulk of the OT seems more concerned with the Torah-keeping aspects of Israel and their call to be separate from the nations, rather than seeking to win the nations to God. It appears that Christian interpreters have very little textual basis for their emphasis on election as mission to the nations.
Contrary to the Christian emphasis on inclusivism, in Lohr's survey of Jewish interpreters, he finds that Jewish studies emphasize exclusivism. Lohr is clearly attracted to several Jewish thinkers in this regard, specifically Joel Kaminski and Jon Levenson. Kaminski suggests that Christians reject exclusivist interpretations not as a result of their careful reading of the texts but of the pervasive influence of liberal democratic pluralistic ethic which views universalism as inherently good. Due to this ideal (which most scholars hold unreflectively), interpreters tend to devalue parts of the biblical text which appear exclusivistic—unless they can be manipulated to show some form of universalism (33). Exclusivistic texts are muted and texts that are more universalistic are emphasized. Lohr's survey of Christian scholarship lines up fairly well with Kaminsky's views of these studies.
Kaminsky laments tendencies to view election as salvation and nonelection as damnation, which misses the nuanced view of election in the OT/HB. To show the error in this approach Kaminsky proposes three different categories of election evident in the OT/HB: the elect, the nonelect and the anti-elect. Only the latter category refers to people who are deemed enemies of God. While some anti-elect are subject to a divine call for annihilation, Israel's election is not grounds for the destruction of the nonelect. Furthermore, the anti-elect texts are not central to Israel's theology of election and should not be seen as a justification for the eradication of a concept of election that is peculiaristic.
Lohr clearly values Levenson's work, especially Levenson's focus on the connection between election and testing. However, Lohr critiques Levenson's suggestions that the testing of the chosen actually vindicates God's choice as Lohr understands the thrust of the OT/HB to be that God's choices are not based on any qualities in the recipient.
Levenson also gives significant attention to the testing of the unchosen in the OT/HB, concluding that the unchosen must accept their subordinate role with due regard for the common good (90). Lohr lauds Levenson's focus on the testing of the unchosen, but disagrees with his conclusion that said testing emphasizes their subordinate role as some of the unchosen perform very significant roles (e.g., Pharaoh's daughter, etc.).
It is clear that Lohr has great appreciation for both Levenson and Kaminsky's contributions to election scholarship. However, in the second section of the book, Lohr sets out to test their conclusions (specifically, Levenson's ideas regarding the role of testing the unchosen and Kaminsky's categories of nonelect and anti-elect) through his examination of four texts from the Pentateuch which pays special attention to the unchosen.
Methodologically Lohr employs a narrative-critical reading of his chosen texts and does not ask questions of authorship, historicity and the like. However, in a couple of instances he departs from this method, though at such points he acknowledges these departures and admits his methodological flaw in such a way that you want to forgive him for it.
First Lohr exegetes the story of Abraham and Abimelech from Genesis 20. He views the pericope as a paradigm of the working out of the promises to Abraham. Furthermore, it shows how Israel will relate to the world and how the unchosen should act in relationship to the chosen. Lohr's exegesis indicates that Abimelech acts uprightly in contrast to the deceitful Abraham, yet Abimelech still must ask Abraham to pray for him to avoid divine curse. Lohr suggests that this is due to Abraham's status as God's chosen. When Abimelech cursed Abraham by threatening his progeny through Sarah, God cursed him. When Abimelech blessed Abraham (giving gifts etc.) God blessed Abimelech. The story therefore shows the outworking of the Abrahamic promises found in Gen 12:3.
Keeping an eye toward the unchosen, the story also shows that god-fearing nations exist, apart from Israel. Also Lohr observes that Abimelech's situation functions as a test for him, affirming Levenson's observation that God tests the unchosen. The story underscores the respective roles of the chosen and unchosen: Israel is to be an intercessor for the nations (as Abraham prays for Abimelech) and the nations are to bless Israel (as Abimelech does) in order to experience God's blessing themselves.
The next pericope Lohr examines is the story of Pharaoh's daughter saving Moses (Exod 2:1–10) and by extension, Israel. This story highlights the role of an unchosen woman in God's plan to deliver his people. The situation also functions to test how Pharaoh's daughter will respond to this life and death decision—again affirming Levenson's observation that God tests the unchosen, but this time contesting Levenson's assertion that the unchosen always play a subordinate role. This unchosen woman saves the elect from destruction—a role that is clearly more important than the term subordinate suggests. Lohr points out that the language used to describe her saving actions is the same as the language used to describe God's actions in delivering his people in the Exodus. She comes down (ירד), sees him and hears his cries (cf. Exod 3:7–9) and has compassion on him.
Lohr notes God's absence in Exod 2:1–10 and suggests that this absence functions to show how God works through the nonchosen in this text: the actions of God-fearers in times of turmoil reveal that God is at work in the world (124). He compares them to Rahab, Jethro and Uriah the Hittite—all nonchosen, but all positive figures who aid Israel. Lohr notes how Pharaoh's daughter blesses Israel, but surprisingly does not comment on the blessing or lack of blessing she receives for such actions.
Lohr then deals with the Book of Balaam (Num 22–24), which he supposes was originally an independent book, though his concern is in interpreting it as part of the book of Numbers. Contrary to many who would see Balaam as a negative character in these narratives, Lohr holds that Balaam acts as a faithful prophet of Yhwh. Lohr shows that Balaam provides an interesting perspective from a non-Israelite regarding Israel's chosen-ness when Balaam expresses his wish to be chosen (Num 23:10) despite the fact he remains unchosen. In the end even though Balaam is not chosen, he acts in an upright manner as a God-fearing non-Israelite.
Finally Lohr exegetes three chapters from Deuteronomy (4, 7, and 11), admittedly the most problematic texts dealing with the unchosen. In this section Kaminsky's category of anti-elect comes to the fore as the seven nations that Israel is commanded to destroy appear beyond recovery, [and] beyond a divine second chance (192). Though Deuteronomy alludes to this destruction being the judgment of the nations, Lohr finds that the main thrust of the book is that the nations simply dwell in the land God is giving to Israel and therefore must be removed. Also, their presence in the land would lead Israel astray. These nations truly appear to be anti-elect.
Lohr finds Kaminsky's tripartite division a useful heuristic model for reading Deuteronomy but cautions that we must use his categories carefully. For example, Lohr warns that it would be a mistake for us to assume that the nations in Deuteronomy are always anti-elect. Despite the clear programme for the destruction of the Canaanites when Israel enters the land, Lohr argues that in general Deuteronomy's stance on the nations is fairly neutral, observing that the aliens (outsiders) who will reside in Israel are to be treated well and may benefit from Israel's obedience to Torah. However, Lohr admits that this is secondary to the main point of Deuteronomy that Israel be obedient. Yet this tension between destruction of the nations and treating the outsider rightly implies that the destruction of nations was a one-time event with only those specific nations in view. Not all who are nonelect are anti-elect.
Regarding the question of the testing of the nonelect, Deuteronomy has little to say in this regard but Lohr offers up the character of Rahab (admittedly outside the Pentateuch), one of the anti-elect, who passes her test and comes to Israel's aid. Lohr sees Rahab's example as evincing that the Abrahamic promise (to bless those who bless Abraham) trumps even the command to ḥerem (196).
In conclusion Lohr asks Can Good Come from a God Who Favors? He suggests the benefit is found in the struggle that relationship with God evokes. Lohr asserts that both chosen and unchosen entail a relationship to God and a responsibility to the other (200). Being unchosen is not tantamount to damnation. While the chosen are the focus of the text, the unchosen are also responsible and may play significant roles in the divine economy.
Lohr's book is a welcome contribution to biblical-theological study. Lohr's exegesis is insightful, his critiques of scholarly positions are cogent and valuable and his conclusions largely compelling. Though I have a few quibbles here and there and am left with some nagging questions, I would say up front that I highly recommend this book as a work of high scholarship. Still, I think the book would have been strengthened with some sustained exegesis of the Abrahamic blessing itself (Gen 12 and perhaps later iterations, such as Gen 22:18 and Gen 26:4, which could be read as election benefitting other nations). Given the importance of this text for both Jewish and Christian interpretation this lacunae is unfortunate. In his conclusion he asserts that his study has made clear that reading mission into Gen 12 is not a responsible reading of the text (196) yet he does not actually deal with this text sufficiently. There are footnotes given to the issue and references made to other studies (like that of his supervisor), but in a book with this focus the lack of his own study is regrettable. Given that he includes appendices on related issues, at least a short appendix dealing with this foundational text would have been helpful.
In his final chapter Lohr concludes that Jewish interpretation makes better sense [than Christian interpretation] of the overall biblical picture (196). Obviously that depends on what Bible we are talking about. I suppose that what Lohr means by biblical here is the OT/HB, excluding the NT. However, Jewish views of the overall biblical picture are often different from Christian views at least partly due to the emphasis given to different sections of the OT/HB. Lohr acknowledges that Jewish scholars view the Pentateuch as a higher authority than Christian scholars (who would regard the prophets with equal clout) though he believes that the Pentateuch can and should serve as a foundation from which to read the rest of the OT, indeed the NT as well (91 n. 180). The import given to statements such as Israel being a light to the nations is inexorably linked to the level of weight given to Isaiah vis-à-vis the Torah. Given that Lohr's study is limited to the Pentateuch, expanding it into other sections of the OT/HB would doubtless facilitate such comparisons of Jewish and Christian interpretations by providing a broader textual base for the discussion. In the future, Lohr intends to continue this type of study into other areas of the canon (93), and this reader eagerly awaits that study.