How Odd of God image

How Odd of God

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To many, the Old Testament seems a very strange text. No doubt there are many reasons for this – people sacrifice animals, swap sandals, lie on their side for months at a time, and go through elaborate rituals to cleanse their houses from rising damp – but in the public imagination, perhaps the biggest reason is very simple: the election of Israel. It just seems so peculiar that one man, and through him one nation, should be particularly favoured by God. And for many, it is not just strange but indefensible that this nation is then commanded to conquer a piece of land by force, even though they are frequently no better than the people previously living there. How can the unconditional election of Israel possibly fit with the character of God?

Famously, this sentiment was expressed by the British journalist W. N. Ewer:
 
How odd
Of God
To choose
The Jews.
 
Which pretty much sums up the way many see the story of the Old Testament.
 
So I thought it might be worth considering a response, from a biblical point of view, but retaining the very strict form of Ewer’s original. Immediately I discovered that I was not the first to try. There was the anonymous response –
 
How strange
Of man
To change
The plan.
 
– but although a welcome response to the anti-Semitism that many see lurking beneath Ewer’s poem, this did not actually help theologically, because it gave no purpose for the election of Abraham. The same is true of a more widely-quoted response, which has been attributed to both Ogden Nash and Cecil Brown:
 
But not so odd
As those who choose
A Jewish God
Yet spurn the Jews.
 
Clever, but I was looking for rather more biblical insight than that, and the metre had been abandoned anyway. More speculatively, but even more amusingly, was Leo Rosten’s version:
 
Not odd
Of God;
Goyim
Annoy’im.
 
(Goyim is the Hebrew word for ‘Gentiles’ or ‘nations’.) Again, however, this was more witty than accurate, because the Hebrew scriptures repeatedly affirm that God did not choose the Jews because they were more numerous, or powerful, or righteous than the Gentiles around them, but simply because he loved them (Deut 7:6-8 etc). It occurred to me that the strict metre, and the theological intricacies of the issue, presented pitfalls at every corner.
 
Nobody wrestled with the question of Israel’s election, both in terms of its purpose and its implications, more than the apostle Paul. For Paul, choosing Abraham and his family represented God’s sovereign capacity to choose whomever he wanted, irrespective of things that they had done to deserve it (Rom 9:6-29), and as such presented the world with a paradigm of free grace. More importantly, God made promises to Abraham and his ‘seed’ so that the Gentiles would be blessed, along with Abraham, the man of faith (Gal 3:7-14). So the purpose of election was ultimately to bless all nations, through one seed of Abraham in particular – Jesus the Messiah – and to incorporate them into him, through faith, so that the Gentiles might also become ‘heirs according to promise’ (Gal 3:16, 25-29). That’s why God chose Israel, and protected them from their enemies, and gave them promises, laws, and land. It was his rescue plan for all creation, his strategy for bringing hope, justice and fruitfulness to all nations.
 
So I think the appropriate biblical response is something like this:
 
Not odd
Of God
To choose
The Jews,
If through
One Jew
The rest
Get blessed!

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