When you hear the phrase, “God’s chosen nation,” what comes to mind? If you’ve read the story of the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament), you know that it tells the story of God’s interaction with one particular nation, Israel.
The Hebrew Scriptures are full of language about Israel’s special status as God’s chosen nation. For example, as the Israelites are about to enter the land, Moses declares to them, “For you [Israel] are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 7:6).
Later, when Yahweh establishes David as king, David reflects Yahweh’s special relationship with the nation of Israel by recounting their rescue from slavery.
“And who is like your people Israel—the one nation on earth that God went out to redeem as a people for himself… by driving out nations and their gods from before your people, whom you redeemed from Egypt? You have established your people Israel as your very own forever, and you, Yahweh, have become their God” (2 Samuel 7:23-24).
Clearly, Israel is God’s chosen nation in the Old Testament, but this raises a number of questions. Does God favor Israel over other people groups? Jesus extends his love to all nations in the New Testament—does that mean there’s a contradiction between Jesus and God in the Old Testament? Or is God’s love for all nations just plan B?
I find that all of these issues can be resolved by answering just one question: what was Israel chosen for? Let’s remember this question as we look at a few of the key moments when God chooses Israel in the biblical story.
God Chooses Abraham’s Family
First, let’s look at the story of God choosing the family of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3). God tells Abraham that he will make him into an entire nation that will prosper, grow, have a great reputation, and be secure (Genesis 12:2-3). This family later becomes the nation of Israel.
But let’s stop for a moment and ask ourselves: does the author say for what purpose God chose Abraham’s family? The answer is yes! The last line of God’s blessing to Abraham says, “And all families on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3). God chooses this one family to be the vehicle of his blessing to all families.
As the story continues, let’s look for a pattern. Does God repeatedly choose one for the benefit of many? If so, we can conclude this is something the author wants us to see.
God Chooses the Nation of Israel
After God rescues his people out of Egypt, he leads them to Mount Sinai to establish a covenant partnership with them. God again calls Israel his chosen nation. “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession” (Exodus 19:5).
In the very next sentence, God reveals why he has chosen Israel. He says, “Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). Consider that important phrase, “kingdom of priests.” The role of a priest is to mediate, or restore relationship, between two parties. In this example, who are the two parties? The only other characters in the story at this point are Yahweh and the nations. So Israel’s role is to reconcile all the nations to Yahweh. Again, God chooses one out of the many, so that the many would be blessed.
But how will they do this? In other words, what does it mean to be a holy nation (Exodus 19:6)? Israel is meant to faithfully represent God by how they live as a community of love, justice, and worship of Yahweh alone. This is what the law is all about.
Israel is not chosen for salvation but for a purpose. They are called to display who Yahweh is to all the nations, so that all would come to know and worship the one true God. Salvation to the nations was not plan B. It was God’s mission all along.
Israel is in the perfect position to reveal God to the nations. They have seen and experienced Yahweh’s power and rescue for themselves. Yet God’s people continually fail at their task by worshiping other gods and participating in injustice and oppression (e.g., Exodus 32; Isaiah 1-3).
Jesus as the Chosen One
The prophet Isaiah announces that God will raise up one individual from within the many—a chosen messiah—who will fulfill this role of revealing Yahweh to the world. This messiah will be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6) and “salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).
When Jesus comes onto the scene, he claims to be this chosen one, calling himself “the light of the world” (John 8:12) and commissioning his followers to spread the good news of his resurrection from the dead “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
God is Inclusive in His Choosing
God chooses Israel and ultimately Jesus, and this results in the exact opposite of God favoring one group to the exclusion of all others. Instead, God works out his plan to extend his love to all the world through one group or individual.
We can see this at play in the ministry of Jesus and his followers. For example, one of Jesus’ early followers was a non-Jewish, Samaritan woman who is not from the chosen nation of Israel (John 4). Jesus invites her into a conversation and reveals to her that he is the Messiah she and her people have been waiting for. This woman then goes on to invite many others into the story of Jesus (John 4:39-42).
The New Testament contains many other stories of Jesus and his followers extending this invitation to all people (e.g., Matthew 8:8-12, Matthew 8:28-34; Matthew 15:24-28; Luke 17:11-19; Acts 1:8; Acts 2:1-21; Acts 8:26-40; Acts 9:15; Acts 10:17-48; Acts 13:46-48; Acts 15:6-19; Acts 16:1-15; Acts 16:17; Acts 19:8-20).
This is why Peter, when he writes his letter to a mixed group of Jesus’ followers, applies the language of the chosen nation to them, calling them “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession” (1 Peter 1:9). He says that any of those who have received mercy from God now have the special role of “declaring the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
When we join these early followers of Jesus in inviting others into the story of God’s love for all people, we are also living out of our identity as God’s chosen people—those whose special purpose has always been to extend God’s inclusive love to many.
Carissa Quinn holds a PhD in Biblical Studies from Gateway Seminary in Los Angeles, CA. She also holds an MA in Teaching, and enjoys studying how people learn and grow. She combines her love for biblical studies and education as The Bible Project's Digital Learning Manager.