Chosen People

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The concept of divine election appears in a number of religious traditions that espouse belief in an omnipotent and personal God. Although not unknown among certain religious groups in ancient Greece and India, it has had particular significance in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In each of these faiths, one finds the claim that God, although universal, has freely elected or chosen a particular group of people for a particular destiny or relationship with him. While belief in the conditions and beneficiaries of election vary even within the traditions themselves, a common set of difficult, and in some cases, unanswered questions underlie this article. First, how can belief in the election of a particular group of people be reconciled with belief in a universal God? Second, does the concept of election necessarily imply belief in the superiority of the chosen? Third, what is the relationship between election, predestination, and free will? And finally, how, in the face of competing claims to election, can one know if one's own claim is true?

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Belief in God's having chosen Israel to be his ‘am segullah ("chosen people") has remained a central element of Jewish thought. Rooted in the biblical concept of covenant, it is developed further in the Talmud, in medieval philosophical and mystical writings, and in modern literary and theological texts. Although the concept of election is most closely associated with the Hebrew verb bahar ("chose"), reference to election is often implied in other words. Indeed, belief in the election of Israel predates the introduction of the technical term bahar in Deuteronomy (7:6, 14:2), a biblical text not written until the seventh century BCE. Underlying God's promises to Abraham and his descendants in Genesis 12, and those to Moses and the people of Israel in Exodus 19 as well, is the conviction that Yahveh has freely chosen a particular group of people to be "his people," thus making himself known as "their God." In the covenant that he establishes with Abraham, he promises to make of Abraham and his descendants a great nation, bringing them to a land that would be their own. The covenant that he establishes at Mount Sinai becomes a renewal and extension of the earlier, Abrahamic covenant. Establishing a special relationship with the Israelites as a whole, he here identifies himself not only as the "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" but also, more generally, as the "God of Israel."

The election of Israel, it seems, stems solely from God's love, not from any evidence of superiority or merit on Israel's behalf. Similarly, their election is one not of privilege but of obligation. "Let my people go," God repeatedly demands of Pharaoh, "that they may serve me" (Ex. 8:1ff.). In order to serve him, the Israelites are enjoined to refrain from worshiping or entering into a covenant with other gods (Ex. 20:3, 22:20, 23:32), and they are commanded to follow a clearly delineated code of moral and cultic behavior. Thus, by the eighth century BCE, the prophet Isaiah admonishes those who outwardly follow cultic prescriptions but fail to recognize either the proper intent with which sacrifices are to be offered or the kind of moral life that divine election entails. As a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, they, as the prophet Micah maintains, are to "do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [their] God" (Mi. 6:8). They alone, the prophet Amos reminds them, have been known by God (Am. 3:2). Consequently, they bear a greater responsibility for their actions than do other people and will be punished by God for their transgressions. Nevertheless, as the eighth-century prophet Hosea insists, punishment does not negate their election. Comparing Israel to Gomer, the "wife of harlotry" whom the Lord commanded him to marry, he tells his listeners that while they have been "adulterous" in worshiping other gods and, like Gomer, will be punished for their actions, God will later renew his vow of betrothal, promising them, as Hosea promised Gomer, that if they return to him, he will "heal their faithfulness," turn aside his anger, and "love them freely" forever (Hos. 14:4).

According to the biblical view, certain Israelites are further elected for a specific role or office. Included are priests (Dt. 18:5, 1 Sm. 2:28) as well as kings (2 Sm. 6:21, Kgs. 8:16). Emphasis is placed on the responsibilities that they are given. Here, as elsewhere, divine election clearly implies a setting apart for service.

In the sixth century BCE, following the capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadrezzar, the destruction of the Temple, and the exile into Babylonia, the concept of election took on new and greater importance. Bereft of their holy sanctuary, with many exiled from their Holy Land, Israel, the people of God's promise, now known as Jews, came to identify suffering as a mark of their election. Although belief in the universality of their God, as expressed in the writings of the sixth-century "Second Isaiah," might have led them to conclude that their God, as God of the universe, had chosen another group of his creations to be his treasured people, their continued insistence that it was they alone whom God had chosen helped to create and nourish the hope that they would be redeemed in the future. In order to reconcile the particularity of Israel's election with the universality of God, prophets like "Second Isaiah" maintained that Israel had been chosen as a "light to the nations" (Is. 42:6). God had entered into a covenant with the people of Israel so that they might bear testimony to his reality, bringing others to recognize his greatness and to acknowledge that "besides [him] there is no god" (Is. 44:6).

The theme of Israel's election is reiterated throughout Jewish Hellenistic literature. In the Apocrypha, for example, Ben Sira describes the Lord as distinguishing between his creations, blessing and exalting some (i.e., Israel), cursing others (Sir. 33:12), while the author of 2 Esdras specifically mentions Israel as the one people loved by God (2 Esd. 5:27). Philo Judaeus and Josephus similarly refer to the spiritual uniqueness of the Jews. As Philo writes in his Life of Moses, although "their bodies have been moulded from human seeds … their souls are sprung from Divine seeds, and therefore their stock is akin to God" (1.278–279).

A more exclusivist view of election appears in the writings of the Jewish schismatics living near the Dead Sea during the first centuries before and after the beginning of the common era. They alone, they claimed, were the true Israel. Pointing to the revelation of truth given by God to their Teacher of Righteousness, they saw themselves as the faithful remnant of Israel, the last in line of those whom God had chosen. They had been chosen, they believed, to receive both divine grace and eternal knowledge (Rule of Community 11). In return for these gifts and for the new covenant established with them, they were strictly to obey the teachings of Moses and the prophets and consciously to live their lives under the guidance of the spirit of truth. Members of the community identified themselves as sons of light, set apart and prepared for battle against the wicked sons of darkness. It was their contention that this battle would soon occur, in which they, as sons of light, would emerge victorious.

As Géza Vermès implies in his introduction to The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (1962), a predestinarian element seems to underlie the community's assertion that it was loved by God before creation, its members destined to become sons of light. Yet as Vermès further maintains, the Qumran community, like other Jewish groups, continually insisted that election was not an inherited privilege. Only through a freely taken oath of allegiance to God and to the teachings by which the community lived could one claim to be a member of the new covenant of grace that God had established. Only then could one claim to be a member of the elect, chosen by God "for an everlasting covenant" and for everlasting glory.

With the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE and a Diaspora existence that forced Jews to live as a minority among people who often sought to oppress them, the concept of election continued to serve as a source of pride, strength, and hope for a better future. As rabbinic Judaism developed concepts that were to become normative for Jewish life, election remained, as Solomon Schechter (1909) notes, an "unformulated dogma" running throughout rabbinic literature. Beginning in the late first century CE with the teachings of Yohanan ben Zakk’ai, emphasis was placed not only on the close relationship that continued to exist between God and Israel but also on the life of Torah, by which Jews, chosen for holiness by God, were to live. Holiness, as ben Zakk’ai maintained, depended on neither state nor sanctuary (Avot 2.8) but on the fulfillment of the Torah that alone constituted what ‘Aqiva’ ben Yosef identified as the essence of Jewish existence (Sifrei Dt. 11.22).

According to Benjamin Helfgott (1954), rabbinic emphasis on the election of Israel needs to be seen as part of a Jewish response to the Christian claim that Jews were no longer God's chosen people. While Helfgott admits that emphasis on Israel's election as a response to an anti-Jewish polemic predates the rise of Christianity and can be found as early as 300 BCE, one can justifiably argue that the Christian challenge to the Jewish concept of election was more severe than those that predated it because Christianity's identification of the church as the true Israel posed a direct challenge to the theological foundations of Judaism itself.

The rabbis of the Talmud met this challenge not by direct debate but by reasserting their own doctrine of election with renewed emphasis and vigor. They insisted that the bond between God and Israel was indissoluble (B.T., Yev. 102b, Qid. 36a). Moreover, they maintained that even the destruction of the Second Temple needed to be seen within the larger context of a universal divine plan that included the future fulfillment of those prophetic promises made to the people of Israel. Thus, even in the face of calamity, the rabbis retained an unqualified faith in God's continuing love for Israel and Israel's love for God. To underscore their contention that God's love for Israel was not arbitrary, the rabbis offered a number of explanations as to why Israel had been chosen. According to Numbers Rabbah 14.10, for example, Israel was chosen because no other nation, though offered God's Torah, was willing to accept its precepts, while according to Genesis Rabbah 1.4, Israel's election was predestined even before the world was created. Some rabbis pointed to the humility and meekness of the Israelites as making them worthy of election, while most remained silent as to the merits or attributes that might have led to Israel's becoming the treasured people of God. None, however, believed that merit alone was sufficient cause for election. Quoting scripture to support their claim, they attributed Israel's election to God's freely given act of love.

Faith in God's special love for Israel came to be expressed most clearly in daily prayer. Biblically based concepts of election were incorporated into the liturgy as expressions of gratitude to the God who had chosen Israel from all people, loved and exalted them above others, sanctified them by his commandments, and brought them "unto [his] service." One finds these ideas articulated further in the works of such medieval thinkers as Sa‘adyah Gaon, Avraham ibn Daud, Hasdai Crescas, and Isaac Abravanel. They receive greatest attention, however, in the twelfth-century Sefer ha-Kuzari by Yehudah ha-Levi, a work in which the concept of chosenness plays a central role. Written as a defense of Judaism, it identifies religious truth with that that was revealed at Sinai. Consequently, it declares that the Jews, chosen to bear that truth, are alone able to grasp what transcends the limits of reason. As Henry Slonimsky writes in his introduction to Judah Halevi: The Kuzari (1964), the concept of Israel's election leads ha-Levi to claim, for the Jewish people and their history, a unique and supernatural character. Yet, according to Slonimsky, it is because ha-Levi wishes to eliminate from his concept of chosenness either hatred or intolerance that he assigns other historical functions to Christianity and Islam, maintaining that in the future they will be converted to religious truth.

The assigning of supernatural uniqueness to the Jewish people finds further expression in Jewish mystical works of the Middle Ages. One finds in qabbalistic literature, for example, the claim that only the souls of Israel are from God while the souls of others are base material, or qellipot ("shells"). Given the precarious position of the Jew in medieval Europe, such claims, it seems, became a means of making bearable, if not intelligible, the continued oppression of the Jewish people.

Yet by the eighteenth century, with the growing acceptance of Jews into European society, the question of how one could become part of the modern world while retaining belief in a concept that clearly differentiated Jews from their non-Jewish neighbors, needed new answers. Even if one could demonstrate that the traditional concept of election was intended to imply a consecration for service rather than a claim to superiority, did not the claim serve to separate the Jews from the very people of whom they wanted to be part? Although some, like the eighteenth-century philosopher Moses Mendelssohn in his Jerusalem, assured his non-Jewish readers that the election of Israel did not entail privilege but obligations that could not be dismissed, nineteenth-century religious reformers in Germany, America, and later in England, emphasized the universal nature of Israel's election, reiterating that the spiritual mission with which they had been entrusted would benefit humanity as a whole.

While, as Arnold M. Eisen (1983) convincingly demonstrates, the concept of election remained a preoccupation among twentieth-century American Jewish thinkers, some, most notably Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionism, sought to eliminate the concept altogether. In his Judaism as a Civilization (1934), Kaplan suggested replacing the concept of election with that of vocation. Reflecting Kaplan's own rejection of belief in a supernatural God as well as his conviction that Jews could not hope to gain acceptance in American society as long as they maintained what, protestations notwithstanding, did seem to be a claim to superiority, his concept of vocation as the communal purpose that a specific group of people choose for themselves suggests that Jews are no more unique than others.

A number of theologians recently have sought to refute, either directly or indirectly, Kaplan's notion of Jewish "normalcy." Among them has been Michael Wyschogrod, who, in The Body of Faith: Judaism as Corporeal Election (New York, 1983), advances the provocative claim that in choosing Israel, God chose a biological rather than an ideological people. Thus, he maintains, both religious and secular Jews are exclusively loved by God and have been chosen to enter into a covenantal relationship with him. No matter what the Jew does or believes, the fact remains that he or she has been chosen to serve as the vehicle through which God acts in history.


The Christian concept of election is rooted in the self-identification of the early church as the true Israel. While acknowledging that the Jewish people had originally been the chosen of God, early Christian theologians insisted that those Jews refusing to acknowledge Jesus as their Messiah could no longer claim the status of divine privilege. Viewing Israel as a community of the faithful rather than as the biological descendants of Abraham, Paul declares that "not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel" (Rom. 9:6). His contention here, as elsewhere, is that the concept of election, though once referring solely to the Jewish people, the Israel of the flesh, had been superseded by a new concept referring to those Jews and Gentiles who, by accepting the church's teachings, can justifiably claim to be the true Israel of the spirit. Identifying the spiritual Israel with Isaiah's faithful remnant, Paul maintains that they alone are the heirs to God's promise of redemption.

Reinterpreting the biblical concept of covenant, Paul proclaims a new covenant of salvation, available to all who profess faith in the risen Christ. Given apart from the covenant with Abraham and his spiritual seed, it actually precedes the Mosaic covenant (obedience to the Torah), which, according to Paul, is a covenant of slavery (Gal. 4:2–31). Although Paul does not argue that Jews should no longer keep the Law, he does insist that the Law in and of itself cannot lead to salvation. Given to Israel as a means of curbing sin, the Law, Paul says, can only bring condemnation, while the new covenant of faith brings rebirth and freedom. Paul does not deny that the Jews remain chosen by God. Indeed, in Romans 11:29 he states that the "gifts and the call of God are irrevocable." Yet Paul equates the Mosaic covenant simply with Law, as opposed to spirit, and with privilege, as opposed to service. Given this understanding, he then distinguishes between the Law, which is irrevocable though ultimately ineffectual, and the privileged relationship between God and Israel, which, as John Gager argues in his The Origins of Anti-Semitism (New York, 1983), Paul believes to have been "momentarily suspended."

Paul's extension of the concept of election to include Jews and Gentiles served as both a stimulus to greater missionary effort and as a didactic vehicle through which the responsibilities and privileges of the Christian life were made clear. By the second half of the first century, however, as the rift between Judaism and Christianity deepened, giving way to a predominantly Gentile church, Christians focused their claim to election on the church (Gr., ekklēsia, "the chosen") alone, with some, like Stephen, insisting that the Israelites, in his view stiff-necked and resistant to the Holy Spirit, had actually never been God's chosen people (Acts 7:51). According to this view, the Mosaic covenant existed only to predict the true covenant of the future. In the Gospels and other New Testament texts, emphasis is placed not only on the elect, whose righteousness and faith reveal the workings of the Holy Spirit, but also on Christ as the elect one, the model of repentance and faith necessary to enter God's kingdom (Lk. 9:35, 23:35). Although election ultimately rests on an act of divine grace, proof of one's election lies in obedience to the call that Christ has issued. Indeed, as John maintains, using the image of Jesus as a shepherd gathering the elect of all nations, it is only through Christ, the "door of the sheepfold," that one gains access to the Father (Jn. 10:1ff.).

In the epistles of the first- and early second-century bishop Ignatius, emphasis is placed on the spiritual gifts, or privileges, that divine election entails. Although all people, he writes, enjoy such temporal blessings as food and drink, only baptism leads to the bestowal of both spiritual nourishment (i.e., the Eucharist) and eternal life. From the second through the sixth century, a number of works were written proclaiming the election of the church as a substitute for the election of Israel. Thus, for example, in his Three Books of Testimonies against the Jews, the third-century bishop Cyprian maintains that with the cessation of all tokens of the "old dispensation," a new law, leadership, prophecy, and election would occur, with Gentiles replacing Jews as God's chosen people. Rosemary Ruether, in her Faith and Fratricide (New York, 1974), views this literary tradition as part of an ongoing polemic against a Judaism that by its continued and active existence seemed to challenge many of the church's teachings. Moreover, she maintains, by establishing a number of contrasting images between the synagogue and the church—carnality versus spirituality, blindness versus sight, rejection versus election—the church was better able to affirm who it was and what it hoped to be. Although the church's anti-Judaism did not always lead to a position of anti-Semitism, the use of such biblical narratives as that of the older brother Esau's forfeiting his birthright to his younger twin brother, Jacob, to convey the relationship between Judaism and Christianity powerfully underscored the church's theological claim that it alone was the true "seed of Abraham," elected by God to enter the kingdom of heaven.

The schismatic Donatist church of North Africa, originating in the early fourth century and formally denounced as heretical in the year 405, advanced its own concept of election. Formed in opposition to those bishops who, in response to the Diocletian edict of May 303, surrendered their sacred books to the civil authorities, it began to consecrate its own bishops, beginning with Majorinus as bishop of Carthage in the year 312. Claiming that the traditores (surrenderers) and their successors did not possess the Holy Spirit and therefore could not validly administer the rite of baptism, it maintained that it alone represented the catholic (or universal) church of Peter. Those who developed Donatist teachings, and in particular Majorinus's successor Donatus, from whom the church took its name, viewed the world as the dominion of Satan represented by the wicked "sons of traditores." Forced to separate from a church that had polluted itself through its alliance with worldly powers, they insisted that only they were pure, "without spot or wrinkle." As such, they believed, they alone were the elect of God. While the opposition of Augustine and others eventually curbed its influence and growth, Donatism persisted in North Africa through the sixth century and quite probably into the seventh century and the arrival of Islam.

Between the tenth and fourteenth centuries, a number of neo-Manichaean Christian sects similarly laid claim to election. Identified by orthodox Christianity as "Manichaean" because of their dualist worldview, their identification of the God of the Hebrew Bible with Satan, and their strict asceticism—all characteristics of the Manichaean religion founded in the third century by the Persian Mani—such groups as the Armenian Paulicians, the Byzantine Bogomils, and the Latin Cathari denied that they were either heretics or Manichaeans; rather, they insisted, they alone represented true Christianity. While the label neo-Manichaean reflects the recognition by contemporary historians that Manichaean elements were present in each of these groups, scholars disagree as to whether or not a direct connection can be established between the Manichaeism of Mani and its later Christian manifestations. In either case, however, like the early Manichaeans, these medieval Christian sects divided their members into different grades or classes, including the two primary classes of the "elect" and the "hearers." Like the early gnostic pneumatics (also identified as the elect), those who were initiated into the class of the elect claimed to possess true knowledge of the self, the world, and God. Among the Cathari, the neo-Manichaean group about whom there exists greatest knowledge and whose influence seemed to be most widespread, members of the elect dressed in black, carried a copy of the New Testament in a leather bag, and embraced a rigorous asceticism that was intended to free them from contact with the material world. Bound to chastity, poverty, and abstention from meat, milk, eggs, cheese, and presumably wine, they ate only one meal (of vegetables) a day, fasted several days a week and at particular seasons, regularly engaged in prayer, and yearly accepted one new piece of clothing. Prohibited from owning property, accumulating wealth, and working in any occupation, they were cared for by the hearers, whose confessions they heard and in whose religious instruction they were engaged.

For the Cathari, as for other neo-Manichaean groups, election implied purity, perfection, and knowledge. The elect saw themselves as superior to others in having nearly achieved a state of pure spirit during their lifetime; they claimed that they alone had the privilege of entering the Paradise of Light immediately after death. According to Malcolm Lambert (1977), both religious and social considerations led many to Catharism and to preparation for their future initiation as one of the elect. While some became Cathari solely out of religious conviction, many, especially among the rural aristocracy and the lower classes, turned to Catharism as a result of their rejection of what they perceived to be the growing luxury and corruption of orthodox Christianity and as a positive affirmation of self-sacrifice and poverty. In addition, Lambert maintains, the initial equality of men and women within the class of the elect attracted a significant number of women to Catharism and to the high ritual status that it alone afforded.

Within the reformed tradition, and especially within Calvinism, the concept of election came to play a particularly prominent role. Identifying the elect as those individuals predestined for salvation, John Calvin asserted that election was rooted in a divine purpose that predated the creation of the world. According to Calvin, humanity existed in a state of total depravation. Although God had sent his son to atone for human sinfulness, the efficacy of this atonement extended only to those whom God already had chosen. Rooted solely in God's love and mercy, election, in Calvin's view, was completely gratuitous, bearing no relationship to human merit. While the few who were elected into the "covenant of life" would be redeemed, the majority of humanity, rejected by God, would be condemned to eternal damnation. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), Calvin describes the election of Israel as a first degree of election, superseded by a second degree in which God retains some of Israel as his children and freely adopts others. Through the preaching of the gospel and an accompanying "illumination of the spirit," the elect are called to membership in Christ, bound through their election to one another. Faith, Calvin maintains, is a seal of one's election that, together with the attaining of righteousness, becomes a confirmation to the individual that he or she indeed has been chosen.

English Puritans and their American descendants similarly placed the concept of election at the heart of their theology. Sharing Calvin's belief in a double predestination consisting of the election of the few and the condemnation of the many, they described in great detail the covenant of grace into which the elect had entered. Made possible through Christ's perfect obedience, this covenant held out both the assurance of forgiveness and the promise of salvation. According to the Puritans, this covenant needed to be appropriated in faith, with salvation subsequently mediated through established laws and institutions. Great emphasis was placed on the experience of regenerating grace as a sign of one's election. By the end of the seventeenth century, this experience became a necessary requirement for membership in both American and English Puritan churches. While the later institution of the halfway covenant enabled those who had been raised as Puritans but had not undergone the personal experience of conversion to retain their membership, Puritan churches in America continued to identify themselves as congregations of visible saints, called by God to a glorious future for which they had made elaborate preparation.

Greater awareness and appreciation of the religious beliefs of others has led a number of contemporary Catholic and Protestant theologians to reassess the traditional Christian concept of election. Ruether, for example, concludes her Faith and Fratricide by offering ways in which the Christian understanding of the new covenant as superseding the old might be relativized so as to acknowledge the legitimacy of ongoing Jewish claims. Similarly, Paul Van Buren, in his Discerning the Way (New York, 1980), suggests that Jewish and Christian concepts of election be seen as parallel claims that point toward a common hope for redemption. Sharing the concerns of both Ruether and Van Buren, Walter Bühlmann, in God's Chosen Peoples (Maryknoll, N.Y., 1982), suggests that chosenness be seen not as an exclusive privilege but as an inclusive model of human closeness to God. Distinguishing between a theology and an ideology of election, he warns against using religious convictions to generate and perpetuate a mentality of intolerance and supremacy.


Although the concept of election is not as fully articulated in Islam as it is in Judaism and Christianity, the Qur’ān frequently uses the word ‘ahd ("injunction, command") to convey the agreement or covenantal relationship existing between Allāh and his prophets and believers. Occasionally used as a synonym for ‘aqd ("contract"), ‘ahd implies the dynamic, religious engagement of the believer with Allāh, manifest through the obligations that the believer agrees to assume.

The Qur’ān affirms the election of both particular individuals, including Noah, Abraham, Moses, the Hebrew prophets, and Jesus, and their communities. It further affirms the election of God's last and greatest prophet, Muhammad, and his community of believers. This community (the ummah) is identified in the Qur’ān with the biblical saving remnant. For the Muslims, other nations have sought after God, but it is the Islamic community alone that has drawn close to him. This community is not to be identified with any ethnic or social group but consists of all believers. While, according to John Wansbrough (1977), specific doctrines identifying Muslims as superior did not develop until later, the Qur’ān distinguishes Allāh's servants from others by identifying Muslims as the "purified ones" (sūrah 37:40) or, more simply, as "the elect" (38:47).

It is in Sufism, however, that the concept of election receives greatest attention. Developed during the ninth and tenth centuries CE, Sufism proclaimed that nothing exists but Allāh. The Sūfīs arrived at this claim not through intellectual knowledge but through mystical insight, or gnosis. The Sūfīs identified this insight as the inward essence of islam, or submission to God, an essence that, they maintained, could be penetrated only by the elect. According to the Sūfīs, the elect were those who not only experienced the divine directly but also, as Martin Lings (1961) notes, could pass with no transition from thought to action, from the "next world" and its mysteries to this world and all that it contained.

Believing that gnosis led one to attain the highest rank of human perfection, second only to the prophets, Sūfīs laid claim to sainthood. They based this claim not on personal merit but on Allāh's love or grace. To be chosen, then, was to receive the gift of sainthood, a gift that enabled one to penetrate into mysteries that could not be grasped through rational comprehension. Quoting a Sūfī poet, Lings describes the mystical intelligence of the Sūfī as a flawless jewel, an exquisitely beautiful gift that enables the elect to lift the veil from the "light of Allāh" and recognize that there is nothing but God.

The concept of election as a gift given to special souls even before their creation has led a number of scholars to associate the Sūfī claim to election with that of predestination. While these concepts are not identical with one another, the sense of being not merely called by God but overwhelmed by him, led early Sūfīs in particular to view their decision to leave the world and devote themselves to Allāh as a decision dictated or suggested to them. As Annemarie Schimmel writes in her Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1975), the mystic has been chosen (istafā) by God for himself, not only to become a vessel of his love but also to participate in the primordial covenant established even before the creation of Adam and to remain pure through the meticulous observance of both Islamic law and Islamic tradition.

See also

Free Will Determinism Predestination


While most works on election have been narrowly focused, Steven T. Katz's Jewish Ideas and Concepts (New York, 1977) and the essay on "Chosen People" by Nelson Glueck and others in The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia (New York, 1941) provide good overviews of the appearance of this concept throughout Jewish history. Harold H. Rowley's The Biblical Doctrine of Election (London, 1950), although written from an explicitly Christian perspective, is useful in illuminating most of the major references to this concept in the Hebrew Bible, while Solomon Schechter's Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1909; New York, 1961) and Benjamin Helfgott's The Doctrine of Election in Tannaitic Literature (New York, 1954) remain important sources of information in discovering the development of this concept in early rabbinic literature. For a detailed description of the appearance of this concept in qabbalistic literature, see Gershom Scholem's Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941; New York, 1961). Eugene B. Borowitz's Choices in Modern Jewish Thought (New York, 1983) offers a clear, though brief, summary of the development or rejection of the concept of election in the works of such twentieth-century Jewish thinkers as Leo Baeck, Mordecai Kaplan, and Richard Rubenstein. Particularly noteworthy is Arnold M. Eisen's The Chosen People in America: A Study in Jewish Religious Ideology (Bloomington, Ind., 1983), which offers a penetrating analysis of what Israel's election has mean to American rabbis and theologians from 1930 to the present.

J. C. V. Durell, in his The Historic Church (1906; New York, 1969), gives an excellent summary of the concept of election in early Christianity. The Donatist claim to election is clearly detailed in W. H. C. Frend's The Donatist Church (1952; Oxford, 1971). Perhaps the most extensive study of neo-Manichaeanism to date is Steven Runciman's The Medieval Manichee: A Study of the Christian Dualist Heresy (Cambridge, 1947). Also of interest, especially in its examination of the social conditions leading to neo-Manichaean claims to election, is Malcolm D. Lambert's Medieval Heresy (New York, 1977). The concept of election in Calvinism and in Reformed theology as a whole is well summarized in Heinrich Heppe's Reformed Dogmatics (London, 1950). For a more detailed and exhaustive examination of this concept, especially in American Puritanism, see Edmund S. Morgan's Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea (New York, 1963).

John Wansbrough's Quranic Studies (Oxford, 1977) provides a fine overview of the Qur’anic concept of election, showing its relationship to themes of retribution, covenant, and exile. The development of this concept in Sufism is clearly traced by Robert C. Zaehner in his Hindu and Muslim Mysticism (London, 1960) and receives special attention in Martin Lings's A Moslem Saint of the Twentieth Century: Shaikh Ahmad al-Alawi (London, 1961).

New Sources

Abrahamov, Binyamin. Divine Love in Islamic Mysticism: The Teachings of al-Ghazâlî and al-Dabbâgh. Routledge Curzon Sufi Series. London and New York, 2003.

Bader-Saye, Scott. Church and Israel after Christendom: The Politics of Election. Boulder, Colo., 1999.

Cosgrove, Charles H. Elusive Israel: The Puzzle of Election in Romans. Louisville, Ky., 1997.

Jacobs, Louis. God, Torah, Israel: Traditionalism without Fundamentalism. Cincinnati, 1990.

Neusner, Jacob, Bruce Chilton, and William Graham. Three Faiths, One God: The Formative Faith and Practice of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Boston, 2002.

Novak, David. The Election of Israel: The Idea of the Chosen People. Cambridge and New York, 1995.

Peters, Francis E. The Monotheists: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Conflict and Competition. Princeton, N.J., 2003.

Wells, Jo Bailey. God's Holy People: A Theme in Bibical Theology. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. Supplement Series, no. 305. Sheffield, U.K., 2000.


Source Citation: Umansky, Ellen. "Election." Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. Vol. 4. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 2744-2749. 15 vols. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Gale. Madison County Public. 26 July 2009