Published January 12, 2021
“How odd of God,” the English journalist William Norman Ewer wrote, “to choose the Jews.” The oddity of the Almighty’s choice has impressed itself upon many peoples, but perhaps upon none so greatly as the chosen people itself, which has spent history explaining and understanding His choice and its consequences.
Michael Coogan, lecturer at Harvard Divinity School, director of publications at Harvard’s Museum of the Near East, and editor-in-chief of Oxford Biblical Studies Online, weighs into the conversation in his recent volume, God’s Favorites: Judaism, Christianity, and the Myth of Divine Chosenness. Coogan finds that the Jewish people’s “myth of divine chosenness,” as well as later myths found at the root of the Christian religion and the American nation, are used for political and personal gain, and have resulted in incalculable bloodshed and division of mankind. In short, Jewish chosenness has been a stain on the moral life of the West.
As a biblical scholar, Coogan believes that one must read Scripture free from assumptions supplied by faith that might blind a reader to the true meaning of the text. He not only sets himself apart from those who study the Bible wholly within the confines of religious tradition, but also from believing academic scholars who attempt to read the Bible critically; to Coogan, the latter suffer from “intellectual schizophrenia.” By contrast, Coogan deems himself capable of a truly unencumbered reading because he “left [his] swaddling clothes behind” when he abandoned the Catholic priesthood and the church in the late 1960s. In his view, one must be emancipated from tradition, faith, and the institutions that embody them in order to read the Bible properly.
Having laid this hermeneutic groundwork, Coogan uses the first half of the book to discuss the Hebrew Bible. In the second half, he turns his attention to Christianity’s claim as the “new chosen people” and assesses the doctrine of supersessionism before jumping to contemporary Christian Zionism and Jewish religious Zionism, as well as taking to task the state of Israel over its West Bank settlements and its treatment of Palestinians. Coogan splices in a critique of American exceptionalism, the country’s immigration policy, and its treatment of minorities. Throughout, Coogan aims to show that claims to chosenness undermine universal inclusion, which is, in Coogan’s view, the Bible’s true message.
Coogan packs much into the book’s 134 pages. But three of his textual readings can illustrate the nature of his argument: the story in Genesis of Jacob and Esau, the apostle Paul’s discussion of divine justice in the Epistle to the Romans, and Emma Lazarus’s treatment in her Epistle to the Hebrews of the problem of East European Jewish refugees coming to late-19th-century America.
Jacob and Esau
In analyzing the story of Jacob and Esau—the rival twin sons of the patriarch Isaac—Coogan begins with the claim of some scholars that large parts of the Bible were composed by ancient scribes crafting political propaganda for the kingdom of Israel. Thus the story’s purpose is to show the superiority of Jacob, Israel’s ancestor, to Esau, ancestor of the rival kingdom of Edom (located in what is now southern Jordan). When Jacob convinces Esau to sell him his birthright for a pot of lentils, the message, according to Coogan, is that “not only was Esau red and hairy; he was also stupid: [a] put-down of a rival group’s ancestor.” Esau’s descendants, the Edomites, were stupid as well.
Coogan concludes that biblical scribes chose to depict Jacob as the ancestor of the Israelites “not because of divine pronouncement but because of his own cleverness and especially because of his mother’s scheming.” In effect, Coogan reads the authors of Genesis as encouraging their readers to appreciate cheating and stealing, even when dealing with family members.
Even leaving aside the anti-Semitic undertones of a description of the descendants of Jacob as cheaters and schemers, and accepting Coogan’s commitment to reading the Bible without reference to religious canons of interpretations, the conclusions he draws from the story are unfounded. Far from seeing a dog-eat-dog world where a little deviousness is necessary to get by, more sophisticated readers of the text—Jewish and Christian, religious and secular, clerical and academic—have all found more in the tale in question. I myself read the story of Jacob, Esau, Isaac, and Rebecca to suggest that the chosen family’s mission to pass on God’s covenant can be in tension with individual family members, and moreover, that to transmit that covenant effectively requires educating the natural appetites of the chosen family, as well as allocating particular roles to members based on their natural gifts and shortcomings.
Of course, there are many ways to read this complex and textured story. But Coogan eschews finding any literary, let alone moral or religious, subtlety. Instead, he insists on a reductionist interpretation that begs the very question it asks. Proceeding from the assumption that the stories of the patriarchs are a form of royal propaganda, Coogan finds in them royal propaganda, which he then takes as evidence of his hypothesis.
Paul and the Romans
Left to conclude that God’s choice of Jacob over his twin brother is arbitrary, Coogan asks “What kind of a deity shows such favoritism”? For an answer, he turns to Paul, who, in Romans, “squarely faces the conundrum of apparently arbitrary divine choice.” In this epistle—addressed to the Christian congregation of the imperial capital—the apostle grapples with the role of Jewish election in the emergent new religion. Coogan directs us to Paul’s own exegesis of the Jacob and Esau story in Romans 9, concluding that “God is arbitrary, according even to Paul,” and therefore He is also unjust, “arbitrarily loving Jacob and hating Esau and hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that an insecure deity might show His power to the whole world.”
But what Paul actually says, as Coogan himself acknowledges, is this: “Is there injustice on God’s part? Of course not!” Yet to Coogan, this “emphatic denial that God can be unjust betrays his discomfort, but his answer is hardly satisfactory.” What would be a satisfactory answer? “Universality and inclusiveness,” extended “especially [to] the most vulnerable.” The only discomfort betrayed here belongs to our author, who, claiming to have freed himself from all preconceptions, assumes Paul must be uncomfortable with any non-universalist conclusions.
But Coogan seems to miss Paul’s argument, which is that although the Jews are God’s chosen people, Christianity gives Gentiles as well as Jews an opportunity to take part in divine salvation.
It is in this context that Paul introduces the example of Jacob and Esau as evidence that chosenness is not a biological category—otherwise it would be bestowed on both Jacob and his twin Esau, who is equally a descendent of Abraham. At the same time, Paul goes so far as to say that, regarding his Jewish brethren, “I could wish that I myself were accursed and separated from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kin according to the flesh” (emphasis added, 9:3). That is, he professes to maintain his ethnic loyalties despite his universalist impulses.
In this way, Paul and Coogan can be said to share a passion for universal inclusion. But what they mean by that is quite different. For God’s universal love is, in Coogan’s view, an expression of mankind’s highest ideals, according to which deviation from universality is due to the dangerous legacy of intolerance. The sole moral obligation is to love all people, “no matter” whether they pose a violent threat. For Paul, universal inclusion requires bringing his religious message to the ends of the earth that all might hear it. In a sense, Coogan seeks to do the same: to bring his message of the fraternity of mankind to all the earth, so that the very notion of national pride will fade away.
A Jewish Poet in America
While Coogan sees the Hebrew Bible’s doctrine of election as the progenitor of the idea, he is very much concerned about its inheritors, including modern-day Zionists, and, especially, benighted believers in the United States. In his own accounting, he lost his faith in both the United States and the Catholic Church during the Vietnam war. He begins his investigation of America with the Puritans of Massachusetts, who were “no less inconsistent” than the Zionist “refugees” from Europe and the Middle East who, convinced of their own chosenness, in turn supposedly made refugees of the Palestinians. Just as the Massachusetts Bay colony expelled the dissenter Roger Williams, and just as the colonists and later Americans uprooted Native Americans, so the founders of the state of Israel did to the Palestinians. Thus Coogan argues that his favorite enemies share not only their injustices, but also the same biblical inspiration.
According to Coogan, the great lie of America is that the country is founded on the principle of inclusion, which he identifies as the sole lesson to be drawn from the Bible; but, in fact, he argues, American history has often run counter to the principle of inclusion. America’s restrictionist immigration policy since its founding demonstrates that the country hates or avoids foreigners. American myths about the country’s unique role welcoming the world to its shores are themselves tools of exclusion. Especially in the last decade, he writes, the country’s immigration policy has “correctly been labeled ‘American apartheid.’” Beneath all of the myths and self-deluding fairy tales, xenophobia is the truth of America’s orientation to the world.
The primary symbol of America’s welcoming arms is the Statue of Liberty. The famous verses that adorn the base of the Statue were written by the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door! (“The New Colossus,” 1883)
Coogan devotes several pages to explaining why he finds all this unsatisfactory: “The lofty ideals of the sonnet are belied both by Lazarus’s views elsewhere and by American immigration policies since the founding of the republic.” Coogan directs our attention to the position Lazarus takes in a series of letters published in The American Hebrew in 1882 and 1883, where she urges her fellow American Jews to help a group of East European Jewish refugees find a home elsewhere rather than settle in the U.S. This is for Coogan proof that the Statue of Liberty and what it stands for is a lie—“so much for ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’”
But even a modestly closer look at Lazarus’s assessment of the problem of East European Jewish refugees finds a rather different sensibility in her thinking. After surveying the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe, and especially in Russia—which had recently faced a wave of pogroms—Lazarus asserts that American Jews possess “long and intimate familiarity with the blessings and delights of liberty” (Letter VIII). The religious and civil emancipation of American Jews means that they are in a position to work “towards the emancipation of our oppressed brethren” (VIII). Most importantly, the Jews of America are Americans, but this fact does not come at the expense of their Jewish identity—instead, it gives them the “strongest impelling motive” to help their brethren, “hapless victims of anti-Jewish cruelty” (VIII).
In Lazarus’s telling, a political life based on liberty emancipates the Jews, making it possible for them to lend a helping hand to the outsider who is oppressed in a foreign land. America, a polity conceived in liberty, welcomes the homeless and the huddled masses—and within a few generations, those huddled masses wonder how to bring the same blessings to those who, having remained in the old world, do not possess them.
It is true that Lazarus suggests that the massive influx of Russian Jews to the United States should find a home elsewhere. But she makes this suggestion so that the immigrants can “enter upon a free, secure, and dignified existence.” Her fear is that “no nation, however liberal its constitution” could absorb “so immense a heterogeneous body” as the Jewish immigrants coming to the shores of America. Rather than seeking to exclude or divide, she looks at the practical problem of whether such a massive influx will create a backlash of “anti-Semitic sophistry and bigotry” in America, a possible “calamity” she thinks it “our duty to anticipate.”
According to Lazarus, political life confers blessings. But the polity must be able to absorb the culture and character of those who would freely enter it. In the event that this prove impossible, Americans should be quick to offer a helping hand and to support the claim of the immigrants to their own freedom and security. American political life is not an occasion for exclusion but rather for hospitality, friendship, and recognition of the independence of neighbors.
While Coogan may certainly have reasons to disagree with Lazarus about American immigration policy, her discussions of the subject hardly betray the sentiments expressed in her most famous poem. But this dispassionate bible scholar who rejects orthodoxies of any kind cannot tolerate deviation from his own political orthodoxies. Indeed, after declaring himself emancipated from Christianity’s prejudices, he finds this Jewish poet too deeply mired in muddy particulars to embrace the universalistic message of the true faith of inclusion.
God’s Favorites goes on to make additional, predictable critiques of American exceptionalism, religious Zionism of both the Jewish and evangelical Christian varieties, and the state of Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians. These arguments, and their counterarguments, have been hashed out numerous times in numerous places, and there is little use in pointing out the weaknesses in reasoning, or the occasional factual errors. But the problem animating the book is deeper than that. It is not just that these critiques are easily refuted, or that Coogan’s readings of both the Bible and more modern texts are sloppy and unconvincing, or even that Coogan (perhaps unwittingly) makes arguments that echo classic anti-Semitic sentiments. The book’s real flaw is that it is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature.
Human beings are not atomized individuals to be welcomed into a universal brotherhood for no reason in particular. Instead, we learn to love all mankind through the shaping of our passions in family and social life, through guiding activities and structures such as law, liturgy and worship, civic ritual and custom, and relations of friendship, mentorship, childhood, fatherhood, and motherhood. Real “inclusion” means helping individuals access these domains in all their richness, not explaining them away as exclusionary.
While claiming to read the Bible free of preconceptions, Coogan’s preconceptions affect his reading at every turn, and with them comes a moralism as heavy-handed as that of the most simplistic preacher trawling Scripture for trite lessons. His own universalist doctrine distorts his understanding of the Bible and renders him blind to the crucial role of families, cities and nations, synagogues and churches—the very institutions that make use of the “myths” he decries—in securing the brotherhood of mankind that he seeks.
The Exodus used to be America’s national story, from the Pilgrims to the Founding to the civil-rights movement of the 20th century. Coogan’s book suggests that the Exodus story is needed now more than ever. After decades of dismantling the mediating social structures in which human beings are formed, America needs to understand what to expect in the desert of emancipation.
Freed from bondage to Pharaoh, the Israelites find themselves without food and water in the desert, and they say to Moses and Aaron, “Would that we had died at the LORD’s hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread! But you had to lead us into this desert to make the whole community die of famine” (Exodus 16:3)! The Israelites recognize they lack something but they miss the point, asking for the manna that immediately gratifies rather than communion with the source of food and drink. It takes the development of the mediating social structures that shape the physical and spiritual world of the Israelites eventually to raise their sights to God rather than manna. The Exodus is the story of rejuvenating out of the desert these mediating social structures, to the benefit of each individual who comes into contact with them.
God’s Favorites counsels readers to distrust institutions, faith, and tradition as so many obstacles to universal brotherhood. In truth, the book suggests to me that readers would do well to seek instead wisdom from the sources the book draws on and the traditions and institutions to which they have given rise.
Ian Lindquist is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and executive director of the Public Interest Fellowship.