Review of J. Kaminsky, I Loved Jacob

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Joel Kaminsky, Yet I loved Jacob: Reclaiming the Biblical Concept of Election (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007). Pp. xii + 242. Paper, US$28.00, €15.99. ISBN 978-0-687-02534-3.

The subtitle describes the argument of the book exactly. The concept is unpopular among liberal Jews and Christians because it offends Enlightenment sensibility. The study proposes to clear away some misperceptions due to the Enlightenment and to Christian supersessionism.

Kaminsky starts, not with doctrinal statements of election, but with stories in Genesis depicting rivalry among brothers. His extraction of theology from narratives is an original contribution to the discussion of election. The stories of Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, and Joseph and his brothers all involve dynamics due to divine favor and election. The stories show how the non-elect handle exclusion as well as how the elect exemplify chosenness.

The rivalry between Ishmael and Isaac, however, is more between their mothers, Sarah and her slave Hagar. Sarah creates the crisis situation by seeking to further fulfillment of the divine promise of progeny. Unable to endure displacement, she persecutes the surrogate mother. Hagar's child, Ishmael is rewarded by God, but rejected as heir in favor of the miracle child, Isaac.

In the story of Esau and Jacob, we have competition fueled by the ambition of one child and the complicity of his mother. The theological question is whether Jacob earns the Lord's designation by stealing his brother's blessing.

The rivalry between Joseph and his brothers is within the elect family. His brothers ultimately demonstrate that they have matured while Joseph has learned humility. They are reconciled in the knowledge that God used their evil to bring about good for the whole family.

The concept of election pervades the Hebrew Bible. It is bound up with the patriarchal promise in Genesis. Abram and his progeny are part of the divine plan, an agent of blessing to the world. However, election should not be reduced to service to others; the relationship between God and people is an end in itself. Unconditional grace encompasses the obligations of covenant.

Election is expounded differently in the Priestly and Deuteronomic literature. In the Priestly literature, Israel is to be holy so that the holy God can reside in its midst. Breaches in holiness must be repaired by judicial and ritual means.

According to the Deuteronomic conceptual scheme, the people have holiness bestowed upon them by God; their challenge is to live according to the requirements of holiness. The law concerns national welfare and righteousness, and failure to live according to divine law endangers election.

Kaminsky believes the concept of election in the Hebrew Bible is really tri-polar rather bipolar. Beside the elect there are the “non-elect” and “anti-elect.” The non-elect reap benefits from the elect if they do not become envious. The anti-elect, by contrast, are the inhabitants of the holy land and some desert neighbors who are not only passed over, but are rejected, condemned to extermination. Interpreters often make the mistake of collapsing the non-elect into this small group of enemies of God.

According to Kaminsky, the prophets were commissioned to persuade “Israel to live up to her deepest calling;” their message is “suffused with elective ideas” (p. 137). Some scholars wrongly characterize prophetic thought as universalistic, either denying or leveling particularistic election. Amos deepens but does not abandon election, and the return and establishment of the Judean exiles is the core of Second Isaiah's message. There is little evidence of a mission to the Gentiles in Second or Third Isaiah, though they may participate in the worship of the one true God.

Communal psalms frequently mention Israel's elect status, but Kaminsky finds few contributions to the concept among them. As far as Wisdom literature, Israel's election is marginal, but it can be found. During the Second Temple period, wisdom tended to be identified with divine law—which marks off Israel as a uniquely wise people.

Kaminsky concludes with a comparison and contrast between Christian and Jewish appropriation of the election concept. Both religions have a concept of election. Christians wed it to universalism by means of missionary outreach—which actually absorbs the “other.” Those who do not belong to the elect are damned; the category of the “non-elect” has been reduced to the “anti-elect.”

The reader can access a digest of Kaminsky's book in the entry, “chosen,” in the New Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible (Vol. 1, pp. 594-600).

The book, like the dictionary entry, is aimed at general readers, not Biblical scholars. This is not to say that his argument cannot stand up to scholarly critique, but that we do not find detailed exegetical argument.

The Christian reader will find Kaminsky's writing irenic. Though the author speaks primarily to Jews, he grants Christian interpretation an honest hearing. If something is disputable, he leaves room for disagreement.

I do find Kaminsky weak on the rhetoric of election. This criticism applies to his treatment of passages explicitly about election. He is not concerned with how the language means—what it seeks to do. Deuteronomy, for example, appeals to Israel's unique status before the universal God in order to solidify the audience's identity with the people of God.

Kaminsky is also rather weak on prophecy. His chapter is basically defensive, that is, designed to show that nothing the prophets say upsets what has already been laid out.

Finally, Kaminsky articulates a Christian message virtually without Christ, i.e., without a saving event, which changes the human situation essentially and permanently. Christian interpretation of law, mission, and election certainly seems rather naked without the kerygma.

Dale Patrick