In simple and straightforward terms, the first letter of John captures the essence of one of the most important themes in all of Scripture. The author of this letter does not let us forget that God first loved us before we loved God in return. From the very start, Scripture represents this dynamic in the relationship between God and humanity. Whether it is Adam, Abram, Joseph or David, God makes the first move. God creates, calls, and chooses a people and that people, in response, commit their lives and their destinies to this God. In scripture, being chosen obliges the chosen people to put their trust in God. To contemporary readers of these stories, though, the idea of God selecting one person, one people, one nation over others seems off-putting at the very least and, at worse, a possible rationalization for violence/oppression on behalf of God. When these all the elements of these stories of election are considered, one can see that, far from justifying the basest desires of the elect, these stories emphasize the people’s experience of God’s own desire to liberate all people. The people, in their turn, are moved to place their trust in the Lord. Consequently, all of their actions are colored by their having placed their trust in this God who first loved them.
The Pentateuch’s stories of the election and formation of Israel feature quite a cast of hapless characters. These people are not superheroes—at least not at the beginning of their stories. Abram is old, childless, and deceitful. Moses has trouble speaking and seems noncommittal. David, like Joseph, is the youngest and therefore least qualified among his brothers. In the New Testament, the ones chosen directly by Jesus are portrayed at many times as a pitiful lot, bickering with one another and insensitive to the needs of the people who follow and need Jesus. Nonetheless, the Lord chooses these people, so the stories go.
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord came to him with a startling promise “and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty…You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations…I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you…And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien…” (Gen 17:1-8). One son or daughter would have been nice but impossible for a childless couple in their nineties, but the idea of nations and kings would have been outlandishly preposterous. Sarah laughs out loud at the prospect of motherhood. Comically, she wonders if such pleasure could be hers. As for the Lord’s promise of land, Abraham and Sarah should be thinking about finding a burial plot rather than a home for a great nation. The image of the two of them traipsing across Canaan is equally laughable. God would be better off making a deal with the much younger Lot.
The authors of the Pentateuch commonly use the literary device by which they play on the reader’s expectations. Unfortunately contemporary readers know how the story goes and are not all that surprised when a ninety-year old woman gives birth or a man with a stutter leads his people out of captivity. The full effect of reversing expectations is lost, and, consequently we lose some of the theological importance of the stories. However, re-reading these stories as stories rather than as documentary evidence of what actually happened to this guy named Abraham will allow us to recapture some of the surprise, comedy, tragedy, and intrigue with which original audiences may have heard these stories. Surprise, comedy, tragedy and the like are not incidental to the full import of the story of Abraham.
A full understanding, one that appreciates all of the literary elements of the story, will help us see that the Lord’s ‘election’ of Abraham is not about the Lord favoring one person, people, or nation over another. We aren’t to flip through the several chapters of Genesis only to take away that God chose certain ones over others. On the contrary, these stories highlight at least two key dynamics at work throughout scripture. God makes the first move, coming as he does with lavish promises of liberation. Secondly, God prefers the lowly, the poor, and the weakest. Understanding these two points, it is difficult to interpret election as a privileging of one race or ethnicity over another, or as permitting God’s chosen to lord it over those who were not chosen.
Likewise, this more robust understanding of election emphasizes the true nature of the response of the elect. Presented with outlandish promises from the Lord, the wandering, childless couple has a few options. With only a few exceptions (c.f. Sarai passed off as sister to Abram) Abraham trusts in Lord’s promise. But why? Readers sympathetic to Abram might suspect the Lord of making a promise he cannot fulfill. One might rightly question this Lord who brings the elderly out of their homeland into a land already inhabited by a powerful people. Likewise one might question Jesus, the wandering carpenter, upon hearing him proclaim, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” This is a promise too good to be true. Nonetheless, people trust these promises and, with some exceptions (c.f. the disciples’ abandonment of Jesus at the Passion), live their lives in a way that makes sense for a people who trust the Lord of outlandish promises.
Faith can look just as outlandish, then, as the promises that prompt such a response. Indeed, the actions grounded in faith can look might outlandish (cf. Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son) to the casual observer. To separate the hard-to-believe story of Abraham and Isaac from the even harder-to-believe story of the Lord’s promises allows one to imagine all sorts of wild things about the nature of a God who demands child sacrifices then devilishly(?) changes his mind at the last minute. Instead, perhaps, scripture wants us to see the connection between election and vocation: sublime outrageousness.