The Midrash first debates the chosenness of Noach. After all, Noach dutifully complied with God’s request to build an ark. Yet, he didn’t convince a single person (outside of his immediate family) to come aboard. The Torah certainly describes Noach as the one bright spot on the horizon after God’s decision to bring the flood:
…וַיֹּ֣אמֶר הֹ’ אֶמְחֶ֨ה אֶת־הָאָדָ֤ם אֲשֶׁר־בָּרָ֙אתִי֙
וְנֹ֕חַ מָ֥צָא חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֵ֥יהֹ’
“God said, ‘I will blot out humankind whom I created… and Noah found favor with God.’”
Most people read this verse to mean that God found favor in Noach. However some opinions in the Midrash see the verse as being more true to its literal meaning – “Noach found favor with God.” However, the opposite was not true – God did not find favor with Noach.
God’s criteria for choosing.
The Midrash sites three examples of chosenness. Avraham, King David, and the Jewish People. If we analyze how they came to be chosen, perhaps we can understand what it means to be a “Chosen People.”
In all three cases, God’s choosing was predicated on a divine assessment of spiritual growth and moral fortitude. God appeared to Avraham, King David and the Jewish People only at the precise moment when they were ready for their critical mission. A mission that would change Jewish history and world destiny.
The price to pay for chosenness
Although the candidates exercised free will, it is fair to say that God manipulated the parameters of the test. God prepared difficult challenges that would determine whether the candidates were ready. Only upon passing these tests did God introduce Himself. In the case of Avraham it was some of the earliest of his famous “10 tests” *- like being thrown in a fiery furnace. Avraham was willing to die for a God that he believed in without the powerful experience of God communicating directly with him. For David, his tests included a father in law, the king of Israel, trying to kill him. David’s confrontation with Goliath also took place before God communicated directly with him. For the Jewish People, the chosenness came after 210 years of slavery.
A clearer definition of being the Chosen People
One of the most prolific commentators to Midrash Rabbah, Yiffei Toar, provides three possible criteria for a person or a nation to merit being chosen. The first is that God seems to choose candidates who are imminently qualified but, to the rest of the world, God’s choice seems highly unlikely. Avraham’s father was an idol worshiper. (The Midrash says that his father had a cash and carry idol store). David seemed the most unlikely to be king because there were doubts about the legitimacy of his lineage. ** The Israelites were not only slaves in Egypt, they were mired in idolatry.
The second criteria of being chosen by God is that you have to share a characteristic with a ‘found object’. Namely, when you find a lost object you don’t have to pay to acquire it (a case of finders’ keepers). In the case of Avraham it means that he discovered God on his own. No one had to invest in his education. David also developed his love of God, his devotion to the Jewish People and fierce bravery – on his own. All of this character-building came before God communicated directly with him. The Jewish People came to Mount Sinai as former slaves who did not have adequate time to hone their spiritual acumen. Yet on their own, during 210 years of servitude, they were somehow groomed for greatness. No nation in the history of the world ever achieved such an intense and personal experience with God as the Jews did upon receiving the Torah.
The final criteria is the ability to receive without asking for something in return. Avraham didn’t leverage his relationship with God for personal gain. Nor did king David take advantage of God anointing him to be king. The Jewish People accepted the Torah (נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע – “we will preform and then we will learn (Shemot 24:7)).” They didn’t assume that being chosen by God means that they automatically have unlimited health, happiness and wealth.
Being chosen is an ongoing commitment
We have just learned why the Jewish People were chosen. God is a super natural talent scout that can see potential greatness, not obvious to anyone else. There is, however, a difficult part of being chosen. The commentary to Tanach, Malbim, says that God was monitoring Avraham throughout all of his 10 tests.* (Malbim on Nechemia 9:8). Which means that even after direct communication with God, Avraham was still under God’s scrutiny. If we apply this to the Jewish People, there is a whole new set of responsibilities to being “Chosen.” Namely, we must always to live up to God’s moral standard otherwise we will encounter gentle, or not so gentle reminders. This, of course, is the story of Jewish history in a nutshell.
There is a well known Midrash in which God approached other nations to accept the Torah before giving it to the Jews, Each nation asked what was in the Torah and subsequently declined. They did not want to curtail their ability to steal, murder or engage in sexual immorality. (Sifri Devarim 643) However, it could be that what they told God was not their primary objection. Based on the Malbim above, it seems more plausible that no other nation wanted to abide by the formidable conditions of ongoing chosenness.
* Avraham’s ten tests according to Rashi are:
- Nimrod tried to kill him
- He is thrown into a fiery furnace.
- God tells him to leave his homeland to be a stranger in the land of Canaan.
- Immediately after his arrival in the Promised Land, he encounters a famine.
- The Egyptians seize his wife, Sarah, and bring her to Pharaoh.
- His nephew Lot is captured in the battle of the four and five kings.
- He is told by God that his children will be subjugated by 4 dynasties
- God tells him to circumcise himself and his son.
- God tells him to send away Hagar and her son, Ishmael.
- Abraham is told by God to raise his son Isaac upon an altar.
** According to Rabbinic sources David was certainly born from the same parents as his brothers, however, David’s father, Yishai, harbored doubts about that.