Review of Chosen and Unchosen by Joel N. Lohr

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.

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2 thoughts on “Review of Chosen and Unchosen by Joel N. Lohr

  1. I am always puzzled at why it can’t be a both/and. My understanding of election in the text is very Levenson-esque. Put simply, Jewish universality lies in Jewish particularity (i.e., election). Or put another way, the purpose of Israel’s particular election is cosmic in scope. But I don’t think such a view necessitates seeing Israel as not reaping great benefit from this chosenness. It’s called covenant, folks.

    This, indeed, is my understanding of the ancestral promise in Gen 12:1-3. And I firmly believe this promise has resonances throughout the canon, well into the NT.

  2. Levenson, Moberly, Lohr, etc. argue that Genesis 12:3b should be read, “By your name, all the nations of the earth will bless themselves,” suggesting that this promise to Abraham is about Abraham and how abundantly he will be blessed, not about the nations and how they get blessed because Abraham gets elected. Now naturally, “I will bless those who bless you,” in 12:3aα suggests that Abraham’s blessing extends beyond Abraham (and there was very little talk of 12:3a in both Lohr and Moberly), but it does not suggest the universal blessing that 12:3b is often understood as suggesting (cf. 12:3aβ).

    I am by no means settled on this issue, but I wonder if the more universal understanding of this passage couldn’t be more characteristic of a latter biblical interpretation. The LXX, for one, clearly betrays this understanding, as it translates the hitpael’s of ברך in Genesis into future passives. Paul is no doubt interacting with the LXX, so his reading of the text combined with his encounter with Jesus leads him to interpret the blessing as having profound universal implications, implications which do not actually seem to be as prominent in Genesis (although Gen 50, which none of the above discussed in relation to Gen 12:3, could be understood to support the universal interpretation).

    So John, would you prefer “be blessed” over “bless themselves”? If the former, then what about the hitpael’s? Should they be construed passively too, as the LXX (and many English translations)? Most importantly, does this have the potential to be the πιστις χριστου debate of the Hebrew Bible?

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