Joel N. Lohr’s Chosen and Unchosen: Conceptions of Election in the Pentateuch and Jewish-Christian Interpretation is the second volume in a new series published by Eisenbrauns, Siphrut: Literature and Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures. My own interests in the book, indeed in the series as a whole, centers largely around contributions to our common understanding of the theology of the Hebrew Bible. In this respect, Lohr proved to be an exciting yet challenging read. The concept of election is very clearly embedded in both the sacred canons and secondary literature of the Jewish and Christian faiths, and a book such as this one demonstrates how dialogue between faith traditions and dialogue between texts and traditions helps us to build a more coherent understanding of the theology contained in Scripture.
The book is divided into two sections, the first of which addresses the concepts of election and non-election as they are understood in both Christian and Jewish traditions. The first chapter, a selective survey of Christian conceptions, begins by surveying material from theological dictionaries, lexicons, and encyclopedias before moving on to monographs and ending with contributions gleaned from Old Testament (or Biblical) theologies. Material by individuals such as Walther Eichrodt, Walter Brueggemann, and Charles Scobie is analyzed and a fairly consistent “Christian” picture emerges of election and non-election in the Hebrew Bible, primarily regarding it’s inherent inclusiveness.
The Jewish picture that emerges in the second chapter is drastically different; Lohr survey’s four major Jewish thinkers (Joel Kaminsky, David Novak, Michael Wyschogrod, and Jon Levenson) who, though offering unique contributions to the discussion, interpret election as inherently exclusive. In this vein, the concept of election in the Hebrew Bible is not organically connected to a Pauline interpretation of the election passage in Genesis 12 (Gal 3:8). It becomes clear rather early in reading that Lohr, a Christian interpreter, finds more about which to commend the exclusive Jewish interpretation than the inclusive Christian one (particularly Kaminsky and Levenson). It is to reinforcing this concept of election that Lohr dedicates the second section of his book.
Since the Pentateuch introduces the concept of election, and since it is around these texts that the conversation typically receives the most attention, Lohr examines four “test cases” from the Pentateuch in which our understanding of the concept of election can be enhanced. Missing from these test cases is a separate treatment of Genesis 12:1-3. While Lohr, primarily following Levenson and R. W. L. Moberly, another “rouge” Christian interpreter when it comes to election, believes that there are many reasons to interpret Genesis 12:1-3 exclusively on its own terms, he argues that what the Hebrew Bible (and especially the Pentateuch) does with this concept will ultimately determine the best reading of Genesis 12:1-3. (For Moberly’s own views on this passage, see his Theology of the Book of Genesis which I have reviewed here). Because this text is not treated separately, the reader unfamiliar with this interpretation will have to assemble a lot of data scattered throughout the book, and potentially chase down a few references in the footnotes in order to fully appreciate what Lohr is doing with this foundational text. Nevertheless, Lohr’s readings of Abraham and Abimelech, Moses and Pharaoh’s daughter, Israel and Balaam, and Deuteronomy (Israel and the nations) is very helpful in illustrating Lohr’s understanding of the chosen and the unchosen. The two appendices, “The Tendency to View Balaam as Sinner” and “Ḥerem in the Old Testament: An Overview,” help to address questions that arise from his discussion but that are less central to the argument as a whole.
While the book is constructive in many ways, Christian readers who view election as primarily inclusive of the nations, especially those readers not already familiar with the Jewish interpretation, will find this an eminently deconstructive book. It is unfortunate that being a Christian interpreter, Lohr did not offer a constructive reading of election in the Hebrew Bible and election according to Paul (specifically his reading of Genesis 12 in Galatians). Obviously, this was outside the more narrow purview of his study and that of the series to which he is contributing, but his argument will seem incomplete to certain Christians who value Paul’s hermeneutical genius. One wonders why this could not have been addressed in an additional appendix, given that other less central but important topics were so addressed.
That being said, this book provides a helpful starting point for those interested in how understanding Israel as the primary recipients of the blessings (and challenges) of being God’s elect people factors into the larger theological framework of the Hebrew Bible.