In the classic play and movie, “Fiddler on the Roof,” based on the stories of famed Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, the main character, Tevye the Milkman, upon hearing from the local constable of an upcoming pogrom in their small Russian village, complains to God, saying: “Dear God, did you have to send me news like that today of all days? I know, I know, we are the chosen people. But once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?”
Through this fictional character Aleichem expresses a common Jewish angst over what amounts to be the biblical and theological concept of choseness. But for Jewish people, this is no mere concept. From generation to generation we have heard the stories of the patriarchs and Moses, of David and Esther – that there is something special about being part of the people of Israel. But often these ancient tales appear to be nothing more than backstory for so much rejection and suffering. The result is a deep seated ambivalence of the kind expressed by Tevye. If this is what it means to be chosen, then “once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?”
The story of the Jewish people hasn’t changed much in thousands of years. No people group has ever been through the kinds of persecutions, exiles, and attempted genocides that has haunted us since our earliest days. The struggles of European Jewry through the Holocaust, the ongoing threats upon the modern State of Israel, and the continued ugly specter of anti-Semitism are not all that different from the Bible stories. Pharaoh, Haman, and Hitler were possessed by a similar spirit. The agendas of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome were not all that different from the great powers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Yet we are still here. And while grateful for our continued place in the world, we tend to be quite confused as to our true identity, especially over what it means to be chosen, if we are chosen at all.
Many Jewish people (and a lot of Christians) would be surprised to learn that the New Testament effectively resolves this confusion. Paul, so misunderstood in the Jewish world (and in much of the Church for that matter), had a grasp of this issue in a way that Tevye did not. When Paul asks the question, “Then what advantage has the Jew?” (Romans 3:1), there is no confusion or angst in his answer. But before we look at his answer, Tevye’s response to Paul’s question, echoed in the hearts of so many Jews, Christians, and others, is just about “none.” For many Jewish people the negatives outweigh whatever positives there may be. And for many Christians, if there had at one time been an advantage, it’s over. Tevye’s prayer, according to them, has been answered, since choseness has been transferred to a new Israel, namely the Church.
But that’s not Paul’s understanding. His answer to: “What advantage has the Jew?” is: “Much in every way” (Romans 3:2). He then begins to unpack what that means, starting with the Jews being entrusted with the Scriptures. Note he is not talking about a metaphorical spiritual concept of Israel as a generic people of God, but about an actual national group, the Jewish people. He would have more to say about the advantage of being chosen, but first needs to deal with the implications of the Jewish majority’s weak spiritual state in order to demonstrate that any unfaithfulness toward God on their part in no way undermines his commitment to them. He then comes back to listing various benefits of choseness in chapter nine:
They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ (i.e. the Messiah”), who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. (Romans 9:4-5)
I don’t have time to get into Paul’s (and God’s) understanding that Israel in Romans, chapters 9-11, is really ethnic Israel, the Jewish people. I address that in my booklet “God Did Not Reject His People: The Identity of Israel in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Chapter 11” (http://alangilman.ca/resources/). What I want to discuss here is how the issue of choseness has been undermined in people’s minds through ongoing painful circumstances.
Tevye was willing to give up his people’s choseness if it meant having to continue facing the kind of trouble that had become all too common in their history. On one hand, who can blame him? On the other hand (If you know Fiddler on the Roof, I am sounding like Tevye now), coming to such a conclusion must mean that he had lost touch with the advantage Paul describes.
The Jewish advantage is due to their being chosen by God to be a blessing to the nations (see Genesis 12:3; Galatian 3:8). The curse under which the whole creation groans was doomed from the moment God pronounced it (see Genesis 3:15; Romans 8:19-22). The purpose of choosing the Jewish people was to confront that curse. From the time of Abraham until now that process has been a painful one. Going against the grain entails suffering. The patriarchs understood that as did Moses, and every faithful follower of the one true God ever since. While no one bore the brunt of choseness to the extent that the Messiah did, it is not as if his suffering lessoned its heavy burden. In fact, it opened the door to the nations to experience that which at one time was the exclusive calling of Israel.
The Jewish advantage of being set apart for God’s purposes in rescuing the creation from the effects of the curse is now shared by all those who trust in Yeshua. But that doesn’t mean the people of Israel no longer carry that burden. They may be unaware of it, like fictional Tevye and the very real sentiment he represents, but because of God’s commitment to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that burden is still very present.
A burden for sure, but still a great advantage nonetheless. In spite of the hardship which Tevye had become weary of, God continues to work out his purposes through the people of Israel. Whether conscious of it or not, God’s faithfulness to his word is evidenced by the endurance of the Jewish people and the existence of the modern state of Israel.
I wonder how much of the angst and confusion Tevye expressed is due to the Church’s tendency throughout the centuries to refuse to affirm the Jewish advantage as delineated by Paul. Robbing the Jewish people of their God-given advantage not only undermines biblical truth, but breaks the bridge of Jewish restoration upon which God so desires to walk. Followers of the Messiah, Jews and Gentile, have the responsibility to reflect the unchanging nature of the Scriptures of which they claim to adhere, including the place of ethnic Israel in God’s salvation plan.