The rise of Israel-concluding panel

Hershel Shanks instigates a panel discussion at the end of The Rise of Ancient Israel.

I was amused that Shanks noticed disagreements among the Dever, Halpern and McCarter, but they all downplayed the disagreements and claimed that they mostly agreed.  However, they really did disagree.  When they said they agreed, I think they meant that over against Finkelstein and Gottwald they somewhat agreed.

The value of the panel discussion is that each of the three got a chance to clarify his views.

The first clarification I found interesting is what Dever thought about the Israel referenced in the Merneptah inscription.  This Israel consisted of the villages in the central hill country.  To the objection that those villages mostly developed in the next century, he says that “about 1200“ really is indefinite.  There is wiggle room in the chronology.  So the hill-country expansion could have begun some decades before -1200.

He calls the villagers “proto-Israel” because the full ethnic self-identity of Israel probably developed later.

It seems to me that he evaded the issue that the main expansion and strength of the hill country village culture clearly came after -1200, despite any chronological wiggle room.

One thing he said seems to me to count against his own theory here.  As the excavator of Gezer, he knows of a destruction layer there from about the time of Merneptah. There is also a layer like this at Ashkelon. These are the first two cities in Canaan that Merneptah claims to have defeated.  Dever said this gives credibility to the Merneptah campaign.  It was not just a boast, but a military struggle against real opposition.  Yet, on Dever’s theory, one of the targets was a handful of new villages in the uplands rather than anything on a par with Gezer and Ashkelon.

I was glad to see Kyle McCarter challenge the view that the word “Hebrew” has anything to do with the term “Apiru”.  Halpern responded to this with a clarification of his own view.  In his lecture, he very much identified Hebrew and Apiru.  Now he said that in saying that he was relying on older scholarship and that he has come to agree with McCarter.  However, he sort of took that back by arguing that, although Apiru does not mean an ethnic group, the Apiru could have developed into an ethnic group.

In passing, Halpern expressed a fascinating interpretation of the lines about Israel in the Merneptah Stele.  There is a line that says Hurru (Canaan) was “made a widow for Egypt.”  This line, he said, is a couplet with the line that says “Israel is laid waste, his seed is not”.

“With the loss of Israel’s insemination, Hurru has become a widow for Egypt. . . I suggest that  what we have is an image of the Israelites entering, in some number, the hill country of Canaan and thus fructifying it.”

“In some number”?  In the 13th century?  That seems to me to be a problem.  Of course, Hurru is much bigger than the central hill country.  So if the Egyptian army encountered Israel somewhere other than there, Halpern’s interpretation could still be valid.

McCarter makes an important clarification of his views when he says that he did not believe, as some misunderstood him to say, that the Israelites came into Canaan from the Edom/Midian/Arabia area.  What he meant by calling this is the cradle of Yahwism is that Israelite religion arose from contacts with people from that area.

As far as I can tell all three scholars believed that the hill country villages were Israel, even in the 13th century.  McCarter qualified this by pointing to connections with areas across the Jordan.  Dever was sort of open to this in that he said Canaan included the area east of the Jordan.  However, he said archeologists had not been able to find much settlement over there.  The others pointed out that we have pottery from Moab and Midian.  Dever said he was not talking about that far south, but that there still isn’t much to go on.  However, we now have more.  See here, for instance.

The recent finds in the lowlands of Edom also may be relevant to this, especially the cemetery at Wadi Fidan.  Thomas Levy has a pdf. article here that considers this.  His conclusions include

Israel, Edom, and Midian—interacted in meaningful

and profound ways in the cauldron of northwestern

Arabia and Jordan in the Late Bronze Age and early

Iron Age. Thus, competition, conflict, and resistance

between these three groups, for reasons not yet elucidated,

led to the process of fission so typical of tribal

societies, and sparked both Edomite and Israelite


I am not endorsing this scenario.  I just put it out there as one example of how new finds since the publication of The Rise of Ancient Israel may change the conversation.

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The rise of Israel-McCarter

As to the central question behind The Rise of Ancient Israel, the lecturers give different answers.  William Dever finds no distinction between the early Iron Age Israelites and the Canaanites in terms of things like pottery and house building.  So he says they must have been Canaanites who migrated to the hills.

The other scholars go beyond archeology.  How do we account for the texts about the exodus and the patriarch stories that have the Israelites coming from Mesopotamia and Egypt?  Baruch Halpern finds an explanation in what we know about migration out of Mesopotamia at the end of the Bronze Age and the fit between the exodus story and Semitic presence in Egypt in the 18th dynasty, which is also at the end of the Bronze Age.  While not denying some Canaanite connections, he sees the bulk of the early Israelites as recently displaced Arameans influenced by a new religious cult from Egypt (Levites?).

The third lecture is by P. Kyle McCarter and deals with the “Origins of Israelite Religion”.  McCarter looks more closely at the textual evidence.

Central to this textual evidence are several ancient poems embedded in the Hebrew Bible.  These all seem to point to the origin of Yahwism in the deserts and mountains southeast of Israel.  These poems include Exodus 15, Judges 5, Deuteronomy 33, Habakkuk 3, and Psalm 68.  They speak of Yahweh arising from Edom, Paran, Teman, Sier and Sinai.

To these McCarter adds a non-biblical plaster and ink inscription found at Kuntillet Ajrud, an old caravan stop in the desert between Israel and the Red Sea.  We can only read part of this inscription.  But it seems to be a poem about a divine manifestation or theopany.

This translation from here gives you an idea of what it says:

“… in earthquake. And when El shined forth on…

… and the mountains were melted and the highlands crushed…

… earth, Holy One over the gods (?)…

… to prepare for the Blessed of Baal on the day of battle…

… for the Name of El on the day of battle…”

McCarter thinks this poem is older than this 9th century inscription: between -1200 and -1000.

McCarter also thinks that Baal here simply means Lord, not the Phoenician god who became the enemy of Elijah.  This is probably right.  There is a lot of evidence that in the time of David, for instance, Baal was just another name for El or Yahweh.

(Other graffiti at the outpost refers to Yahweh of Teman, Yahweh of Samaria, and Yahweh and Asherah.  This last has created a rash of people asking if it means God had a wife or consort.  McCarter puts the question as “Was God a bachelor?”.  He thinks the question partly arises from a misunderstanding of ancient religion where there was a complimentary male and female pole to most deities.  But he wonders why anyone would be shocked that Israelites, as the Bible clearly states, worshiped Yahweh in ways the prophets disapproved of.)

The point about this inscription is that it sounds similar to ancient biblical poems about theopanies where God “shines forth” in the context of battles.  It also associates this God with the deserts in the south.

Combine this with the Midianite tradition about Moses marrying into a priestly family from this region and Egyptian references to the land of the Shasu of Yahweh and you get a strong case for Yahwism originating in the south.

McCarter agrees with Dever that people from the Canaanite valleys may have moved into the uplands between the Egyptian controlled Aijalon valley and the Egyptian controlled Jezreel valley.  But then he makes what I think is a very important point.

Israel existed before this settlement!

The Merneptah stele shows that a paleo or proto Israel existed in the late 13th century. But the hill country expansion did not come until the 12th century.  See here.

So McCarter makes an elaborate argument that in the 13th century Israel was already Yahwist and that then the hill country settlers joined them. He bases this argument on geography and political reality.  Egypt controlled the coast and the valleys.  The uplands of Ephraim and the Transjordanian deserts were isolated from the Egypto-Canaanite areas.

…what I am suggesting to you is that in that period, the Late Bronze Age, the earliest characteristic aspects of Israelite culture developed, most especially the worship of the God of Israel.  This is the only period in which the central hills of Palestine,where Yahwism took root, and the region northeast of the Gulf of Eilat, where Yahwism originated, were connected in a cultural continuum.  After the rise of the nation-states of Ammon, Moab and Edom early in the Iron Age this continuum was brought to an end.  Thus if Yahwism came to Israel from Midian, as it almost certainly did, it had to arise in the Late Bronze Age and not in the Iron Age.

My question about this is who destroyed Hazor in the Late Bronze Age and, if it was paleo Israel, had Yahwism already come north into Bashan?  Merneptah’s campaign makes the most sense to me as a response to a geopolitical event on the scale of the fall of Hazor.

At any rate, we have the options of

(1) the Israelites were Canaanites who came up from the lowlands, but mostly after Merneptah.

(2) the Israelites were Arameans who combined with some Egyptian exiles and came into Canaan from the north and west

(3) the Israelites were from Midian/Edom and came into Canaan from the southeast to find some Canaanites already beginning to settle in the highlands.

How does any of this account for Israel already being enough of an annoyance to Egypt in -1212 to justify sending the army?

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The rise of Israel-Halpern

Baruch Halpern contributes a chapter to The Rise of Ancient Israel.  He, however, does not see the Israelites as Dever’s migrants from Canaanite areas.   He tries to fit an Egyptian background into his theory.

The chronology you would assume from the Bible is that Israel spent 400 years in Egypt.  Then, toward the end of that time, were put to forced labor building mud brick structures for the Pharaoh in the Nile Delta.  After that came the exodus and a generation later came the entrance into Canaan.

Halpern sees something historical behind the Biblical story, but it is like the something behind the stories of Homer about Greek origins.  The stories, in both cases, are not meant to be historical.  They are meant to foster nationalist and religious feelings. One major function of the tales is that they are children’s stories.  They are stories that were told within the family on significant dates on the national calendar to pass on a heritage to children.

The settings of the exodus stories within Egyptian history fit with a lot of what we know about Egyptian history.  There are two focal points for this.  First there is the Hyksos period when Semitic people held power in Egypt, as Joseph is said to have done.  One of the Pharaohs or Viceroys in this period was even named Jacob.  Then about 400 years later came the Ramaside period.  Rameses II built new cities in the Delta and impressed Asiatics into forced labor.

A very significant thing here is that both of these periods were unusual in that the capital of Egypt was in the Delta.  This is what the Bible depicts in both the Joseph and Moses stories.  The capital was usually way to the south in Thebes.

Behind the Joseph stories, Halpern sees a defense of the Hyksos against the charge made in more than one Egyptian document that the Hyksos imposed heavy taxes and took grain at the expense of the Egyptian population.  The story of how Joseph did, indeed, impose harsh measures in Genesis 47:18-26 interprets these measures as needed to prevent a worse disaster.  So the Joseph saga is an interpretation of the Hyksos period from the Israelite point of view.

Several biblical claims for the Moses or exodus story match real details of the 18th dynasty.  Ramses II did build new cities in the delta.  The Egyptians at this time did use mud brick mixed with straw, something not done in Palestine.  The Midianite, Edomite, and Moabite kingdoms which played a part on the story all first appear in history just at the this time.

So Halpern believes that, although the narrative of the exodus has come about for a different purpose, it does show a memory of Egypt at two historically actual times.

Now scholars have often correlated an exodus in the 18th dynasty, say under Merneptah, with the entry of Israel into the land in the 12th centure BCE.  Halpern has a theory, which he has developed in his The Emergence of Israel in Canaan, that the 12th century settlers were part of a displaced Aramean people who came down into the Transjordan in the late 13th century.  A few of these crossed the Jordan and were the people Merneptah refers to in his famous stele.  Halpern’s desire here is to relate these people to an exodus from Egypt, which he thinks contains a real memory.

He thinks the exodus has to be scaled down from the event involving hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands of people according to the Bible or Manetho.

What he thinks we can imagine are small groups of pastoralists migrating legally or illegally out of the Wadi Tumalat (the dried up branch of the Nile that afforded the best pasture land in Egypt and is probably what the Bible calls the land of Goshen) to evade taxation and forced labor.

It is tempting to think that they brought with them the idea that they were linked to the old Hyksos figure, Jacob.  At any rate, they felt they had been touched by the desert God, YHWH. There may have been a series of incidents that are invisible to us archeologically.  Older Egyptian topographical lists had mentioned the land of the Shasu of YHWH.  So Yahwism must have already existed on the southern steppes of  Jordan.

So a group of exiles from Egypt who must have existed as a religious cult came into contact with the Aramaens who were exiles from the north.  They somehow found them a compatable group and imprinted their Egyptian experience upon them.

I find much that comes close to my own views in Halpern.  The Egyptian background cannot be proven, but meshes with Egyptian history in many ways.

However, I am an agnostic about his theory of Aramean refugees recently arrived from Mesopotamia. It is a better theory about Merneptah’s Israel than some.  But it seems unlikely to me that the group the Pharaoh bragged about defeating amounted to only a handful of newly arrived refugees in the mountains.  Maybe I will get to read Halpern’s book about it someday.

It seems possible to me that even people from Syrian regions could have traced their lineage back to the Hyksos.  It seems possible that people could have identified as a nation that had come out of Egypt even if they had not experienced the exodus under Moses.

For my own most recent article supporting the idea there there were several exodus-like event, see here.

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The Rise of Israel-Dever

In reading William Dever’s lecture in The Rise of Ancient Israel  about how you can’t tell the difference between Caananites and Israelites, I realized that much of his theory has to do with his excavations at Gezer.  He excavated that important site for 25 years. When he talks about Canaanites, he means people like those who lived at Gezer. So keep that in mind.

Dever proposes a different model than the traditional, peaceful settlement, or peasant revolt models. He calls it the symbiotic model. Apparently this means that some Canaanites vacated the city states which were breaking down at the end of the Bronze Age. Some of these Canaanites moved to the hill country and learned to use cisterns and terracing to make the land productive. They also were cattle breeders. There is little evidence that they were ever sheep herding nomads from east of the Jordan.

Pottery is a big part of this argument. While excavating Gezer he found a great deal of Canaanite pottery. He is very familiar with it. He says that he does not see the pottery found at sites that seem to be Israelite as significantly different. Israel Finkelstein excavated an Israelite site just eight miles from Gezer. Finkelstein thinks the Israelites had a nomadic background. Dever sees no evidence of this. In fact he says that the contemporary pottery found at the two sites could have been made by the same potter..

So Dever argues that there is no difference between Israelite and Canaanite material culture. Also he does not see the difference between the houses built at Israelite villages and most of the houses in Canaanite cities. Finkelstein, in his response, disagrees with this. I have no expertise that would let me judge the pottery and architecture wars.

What I suspect is that Dever is just setting a higher standard of evidence. He wants to be shown from what we have found in the material culture of the Israelite villages where we would get the idea that they came from the other side of the Jordan and had a nomadic background. He suspects that scholars who make these claims are either accepting late Judaic propaganda from the Bible or are influenced by modern studies of Bedouin tribes. He does not think either of these approaches is good science.

He also does not think that the sociological model behind the peasant revolt theory is good science. This becomes interesting because Norman Gottwald gets to respond in writing and defend an updated version of that theory.

It is kind of amusing because these two scholars, who publicly respect each other, were on opposite sides of the Cold War. Dever questions the notion that the Israelite villagers were “egalitarians”. He thinks Gottwald imposed a Marxist and utopian vision on them. Dever asks why anyone today (after the Soviet and eastern European collapse at the end of the 1980s) would want to be a Marxist. But Gottwald who dedicated his book, The Tribes of Yahweh, to the Viet Cong is unrepentant.

For all of their scholarly and political disagreement, though, Dever and Gottwald both think that the origin of the Israelites was in the Canaanite city states. Gottwald thinks they revolted and created a counter state with a new ideology. Dever thinks they lived along side the Canaanites and gradually migrated to the hills.

As to the ideological or religious distinction of the Israelites, Dever does not find evidence of that in early Israel either. He doubts the late Adam Zertal’s claim to have discovered a Yahwistic cult site near Shechem. (I am confused by Dever’s claim that the roe deer, whose bones are abundant at this site, were not clean. But Deuteronomy 14:5.  Perhaps he just means they were not acceptable sacrifices in later Judaism.  But this would have been around -1200 or so.  So later Judaism may not be relevant.) He does think that the site near Dothan, where Mazar found a four inch high bronze bull, was an Israelite cult site. This means that the only material evidence we have of ancient Israelite religion points to it being Baal worship.

Dever is good on the kinship dynamic in the hill country villages.  There you find households consisting of several generations of extended family.  This agrees with the portrayal in Judges, and 1 Samuel where individuals identify themselves as of the house of X, X being the name of the clan’s father.  This shows us a patriarchal social structure, not exactly egalitarian, but independent of the city-state or Egyptian hierarchies.

One of the problems with Dever is that he tends to overstate his case. Sometimes you get the feeling that he is being mean to the people he disagrees with. But Finkelstein takes it in good humor. In fact comic relief may be what Dever is going for in the lecture. Several times the transcript puts in parenthesis “laughter”. He tends to make fun of positions that do not have the strong archeological evidence he would like. Yet, at other times, he appears willing to speculate beyond the evidence as long as we are clear that it is just a consideration of possibilities.

I have another problem with the question of whether the Israelites were different than the Canaanites.  This has to do with how you define Canaanite. Israelite has an ethnic, cultural and religious connotation. The Egyptians, in the Merneptah stele characterized Israel as a people. In other words, Israel does not seem originally to have been a place name.

But Canaan always seems to have been a place. Most of the Bible’s references to the Canaanites as a single race come from the prophets and later, and really just make it a synonym for Phoenician. Early references refer to several races living in Canaan, the place. For instance I think there should be a colon after Canaanites in Judges 3:5

The Israelites lived among the Canaanites: Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites.

In the late Bronze Age the people, like those at Gezer, who lived within the bounds of Canaan, seem to have developed a common material culture.

But does common pottery and building styles mean anything deeper?  If they all avoided eating pigs, where did that quirk come from?  And even Dever doesn’t claim that all the Israelites had a Canaanite origin.

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The Rise of Israel

Today I begin a short series on The Rise of Ancient Israel, which includes transcripts of lectures from an early ‘90s symposium. The lectures are by William Dever, Baruch Halpern, and Kyle McCarter. The book includes later written responses from other scholars who get a chance to answer critiques of their work in the lectures.   At the end there is a transcript of a panel discussion.

There is an introduction by Hershel Shanks about where we are (or were) in the debate. It is a model for popular presentation of the problems involved in bringing together the Bible with the findings of archeology.

Shanks simplifies the problem down to the discrepancy between the impression given by the book of Joshua and that given by the Book of Judges. In Joshua we find Israel sweeping across the Jordan river and conquering Canaan in no more than about 5 years under the singular leadership of Joshua. In Judges (and some passages that seem to have gotten into Joshua too) we get the impression that the movement into Canaan took a lot longer and happened piecemeal under several leaders. The impression given by Judges seems to fit with archeological discoveries better than that given in Joshua.

But there have been several theories to account for this. The traditional conquest was widely supported by archeologists in the early 20th century who thought they had found a series of destruction layers in cities that the Israelites conquered about the same time. This has fallen apart as we now have to separate these destructions by decades or even centuries in the case of Jericho. Yet there are ways of imagining a violent conquest. Shanks mentions Abraham Malamat and Bryant Wood as two archeological scholars who support some kind of invasion theory.

There has been a peaceful infiltration model. Over a long period of time, former nomads from the desert homesteaded in Canaan without too much conflict with the Canaanites. Surveys enhanced this theory when they showed that the central hill country had close to zero settlement in the Late Bronze Age, but that more than 200 villages there sprang up at the beginning of the Iron Age.

There has been the peasant revolt or social revolution model. The Israelites were people whose origin was in Canaanite city states. They revolted against the feudal social structure and moved to the the hill country to set up a new, independent social structure, perhaps supported by a new religious ideology.

The archeological discussion has mostly assumed that we are talking about something that happened at the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age–about -1200–about the time of the Late Bronze Age collapse or decline of the great powers in the eastern Mediterranean..

Merneptah inscription complicates this.  This Egyptian king took pride in a military defeat of Israel in the closing years of the 13th century. So Shanks says,

If Israel was already such a force in Canaan in 1212 B.C.E., then Israel must have been established there for some time.

This is inconvenient for the minimalists who want to say Israel only began with the monarchy. It is also inconvenient, I think, for all those who want to make the explosion of villages in the central hill country that took place in the next century the first instance of Israel.

It has been 15 years since this symposium. There is some new data. But, surprisingly, the positions outlined here are the ones we still find scholars entrenched in. This little book still gives a good overview of the opinions and what is at stake (but see my discussion of Avraham Faust’s 2006 work here.)

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Levenson, Barclay-wrap up

I want to bring Jon Levenson’s The Love of God and John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift into some kind of relation.

Although both books talk about the love of God, they are different, not just because one is by someone with concern for Jewish theology and the other by someone whose concern is Christian theology.  Jon Levenson’s book is mostly about our response to God’s love as we take up the command to love God with heart, soul and might. Barclay’s book is mostly about God’s love for us expressed in the gift of Christ, which he says was incongruent and without regard for worth.

Barclay plans a future book about our response to the gift.  That one will probably more closely parallel Levenson’s.  It is worth noting that both authors see love as reciprocal. Levenson is not only concerned with legalistic obligation.  And Barclay is not advocating cheap grace free of obligation.

It might be well to think about each book as a kind of counter theory.

Levenson seems to write his book over against a modern attitude that sees love as mostly eros,  All the imagery that we have around Valentines Day and Cupid/Eros tend to make love a matter of attraction and chemistry.  Levenson is at pains to show that love was used in some ancient treaties to mean loyalty and service apart from attraction or sentiment. This treaty language then became the base for the biblical idea of covenant love.

God chooses and favors Israel.  This puts Israel in a position of obligation to serve and worship God.  This love is not devoid of sentiment.  The Psalms, for instance, certainly express love for God in an emotional way.  And the metaphor of marriage between God and Israel allows for some passion as part of this love.  However, the modern over-romanticizing of love tends to let obligation depend on the ebbs and flows of feeling. Levenson warns against this tendency.

Although Levenson would disagree with Barclay when he lumps Torah-keeping with other systems of human worth devalued by the Christ event, Levenson has some appreciation for Paul.

In the 16th chapter of his Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son is an interpretation of Paul.  There Levenson takes Romans 8:32 (“God who did not withhold his own son, but gave him up for us”) as a reference to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac.  Christians might object that Jesus was unique and so not like Isaac.  Levenson understands this Christian objection, but cautions Christians not to “overstate” it (DRBS p. 223).  After all, Paul seems to draw the parallel himself.

Levenson takes the New Testament imagery about God as a father giving up his son very seriously as a way of talking about the love of God.

So both Levenson and Barclay take the idea of God’s sacrificial gift as something powerfully drawing out a human response.

However, Barclay’s book is to counter a different trend.  Barclay sees some of the discussion about the New Perspective on Paul as shallow because it ignores the radical nature of the gift or charis Paul proclaims.  It is not just that Paul defended his converts against proselytism and the adoption of ethnic markers.  Paul’s gospel was about a superabundant, undeserved gift that challenged the assumptions of both Jewish and Gentile cultures.

I hope that in his next book (and the lectures from it that may end up on YouTube), Barclay takes up the question of just how this grace of God is effective in life.  Paul talked about the presence and gifts of the Spirit.  This is hard to pin down and will often lead to subjectivity.  Does law, biblical or natural, have a role?

Both Levenson and Barclay believe that the gift of God’s love causes us to change the way we live. But if it isn’t our emotional response to the gift, what is it that changes us?  And why can some people sing “Amazing Grace” and yet not seem to become changed people?

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Love and election, a detour

When I was listening to John Barclay talk about Paul’s notion that Abraham received grace without regard to his worth, I vaguely remembered something I had read in another book by Jon Levenson.

I found it. Levenson has been talking about various rabbinical interpretations of the near sacrifice of Isaac by his father, Abraham.  He says:

The larger theological point is that the trials of the righteous serve to demonstrate not God’s injustice, as many think to be the case, but quite the opposite, the fairness of his choices.  For those choices are not mere whims, evidence of the arbitrariness of providence, and the proof is that those chosen, like Abraham, for exaltation, are able to pass the brutal tests to which God subjects them and thus to vindicate the grace God has shown to them.  The trials that appear to be their humiliation are, in fact, the means of their exaltation, proof positive that their special destiny is based on other than caprice.  The trials of the righteous mediate that contradiction between God’s grace and his justice.  They also make sense of the combination of humiliations and exaltations in the lives of the chosen (The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, p.139).

This jibes with Barclay’s observation that many of the rabbis were reluctant to ascribe a gift to God without there being a reason for it.  They were afraid of making God seem arbitrary.  Paul did not seem to be so afraid of this and affirmed grace as based on the will of God without regard to human worth.

Still it is hard to put aside the logic that if God chooses Abraham or Paul without regard to worth, then God also rejects others without regard to worth (double predestination).

One of the values of Judaism is that Jewish people have thought about this longer than Christians have.  We can’t figure out why God acts graciously in one case and seems not to do so in another case.  But surely, Einstein was right when he denied that God plays dice with the universe.

It is a very complex and difficult subject.

Another modern Jewish theologian deals with the fear that election is unfair and capricious.  The late Michael Wychogrod, in his The Body of Faith, argued that God’s love is always directed toward actual, existing individuals.  He contrasts this with the humanist claim to love humanity or the Marxist claim to love the working class.  He says that these kinds of love fall under Martin Buber’s category of the I-It relationship. History shows that you can say that you love humanity or the working class and yet do harm to concrete individuals in those categories.

Only love for the concrete individual can rise to an I-Thou kind of love.  So to complain that Israel as the chosen people is offensive to God’s love for the human race, may misunderstand the way God loves.  God choosing a special people through Abraham or Jacob, a special priesthood through Levi, or a line of kings through David begins with God calling one actual, existing person.  Descendants may turn out to fit the original call, or not.

Wyschogrod said that God’s sovereignty means that he always could have done something different.  God always could have made a different choice.  Contingency follows from God’s freedom.  Jewish theology has not always come to terms with this.  (He calls out Christian theology also for implying that God could only save the world through the incarnation and sacrifice of Christ).

God could have chosen another people than Israel.  But he didn’t.

The favors of God elicit praise because praise is an act totally focused on God.  When we have praised God for his favor, we still have not justified God election of Israel.  We have done something more important. We have expressed our gratitude that God has visited us in the election of Israel.  (This is my summary of a Wyschogrod’s discussion of “Love and Election” on pages 58-65 of The Body of Faith).

It seems to me that Paul’s approach to the gift of God is more in line with praise than logic and speculation.

This post has been a bit of a detour.  I still want to deal with Levenson’s The Love of God in relation to Barclay’s Paul and the Gift.

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