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An early Sunday school teacher of mine maintained it would be a good idea for us little ones to learn the Dutch language as quickly as possible, for it was certain that this rough guttural tongue would be Heaven’s official language. I expect Bible scholar Michael Coogan, author of God’s Favorites: Judaism, Christianity, and the Myth of Divine Chosenness (Beacon Press, April 2019), would say there would have been no particular religious reason for my teacher to consider herself out of line in expressing certainty on this point. He would say that’s just how religion always works: We shape it to serve our parochial ends.
The weaponization of belief is especially acute in cultures like ours that believe themselves to be the recipients of special divine protection. The damage done readily spreads outward from offenses rooted directly in a misplaced sense of chosenness (e.g., the genocidal treatment of indigenous peoples) to closely adjacent outrages like the idea that women, when thought by believers to have been created as mere vessels for reproduction, may be treated in the manner of brood cattle. Author Coogan doesn’t explore all these vile ramifications of the special election concept—he only touches briefly on the concept’s role in fomenting anti-immigrant sentiment—but his exposition nevertheless helps to illuminate many other forms of religiously tinged culture warfare.
Coogan, who directs publications for the Harvard Semitic Museum and who adapted his compact book from a course he has taught at Harvard Divinity School, is one of the rare academics who know how to tell a good story with dry wit backed by immense learning. It’s easy to see why HDS students flocked to Coogan’s course: He throws brilliant light on complex and often contradictory Bible texts while reminding us that how these documents appear in their final form always reflects the exercise of social and political power. The unchanging and inerrant Word of God? Not so much. More like propaganda for the winners in bitter internecine power struggles. In this respect, they’re not much different from canonical works produced within other ancient cultures, as in the writings of Virgil, for example, which suggest a divine hand in the foundation of imperial Rome.
In his book’s preface, Coogan marks the “intellectual schizophrenia” affecting biblical study over the past couple of centuries: the confusing blur created by scholars who have apprehended the problems in texts that touch on the election concept but who have nonetheless allowed their religious sensibilities to prevail in giving a kind of pass to the concept.
Coogan will have none of this blurriness. After dropping a minor bombshell about how some characters whom the Bible treats as un-chosen and dis-favored (e.g., Ishmael and Ham) were smeared through imputation of sexual impropriety, he plunges right into the many bizarre and contradictory texts touching on God’s supposed favor for various tribes and tribal leaders. He starts with the central figure of Jacob (aka Israel, hence “Israelites”), one of many second sons in the Bible who manipulate their way to power. Is Jacob actually chosen, or is he just ambitious? We’ll never know, but we will see in various texts (e.g., in Ps. 137, Isa. 63, and Mal. 1) an astonishing outpouring of insults directed at firstborn son Esau’s descendants living in the territory of Edom.
And so it goes. Yahweh commences His illustrious recorded career as a desert deity in remote and desolate Midian on the Arabian Peninsula. There, He reveals Himself somewhat randomly to Moses, a displaced great-great-grandson of Jacob. Citing telltale evidence, Coogan posits that the people who eventually identified as Israelites were far from monotheistic at the beginning; they chose to follow their possessive parochial deity out of a position of relative weakness. And really, who would not love a god who loves you so much that He invites you to destroy your enemies—including all of their women, children, and livestock—in pursuit of a heaven-ordained good life on stolen land?
Coogan is especially terrific on the problematic reigns of David and Solomon, neither of whom would have been able to rule without first usurping and liquidating others in line for power. As Saul’s son-in-law David should have been succeeded by his firstborn, Adonijah; in the event, an enterprising young Solomon made sure to have David’s rightful heir executed as a first order of imperial business.
But nevermind the Borgia-like murders and intrigues. Coogan views David as a brilliant operator who stakes out a then-tribally unclaimed Jerusalem as his royal capital, parks the previously peripatetic Ark of the Covenant there to seal the deal, and then even creates a whole new myth of election in which he, David, supplants Jacob as God’s special beloved.
A further tasty bit in Coogan’s account concerns the prolonged and bitter conflict between the Babylonian exiles and Judeans who remained in Jerusalem following that city’s sacking in 586 BCE. Over time, the Babylonian faction propagates the false notion that the Promised Land is empty and thus ripe for re-conquest. Coogan treats Nehemiah and Ezra—two figures viewed by the devout as heroic restorers of Zion—as (effectively) Persian agents who engage in ethnic cleansing against fellow Jews who married “out” while remaining in Judea during the time of exile.
When he turns his attention to the New Testament, Coogan usefully contrasts the viewpoint of Saul/Paul, whose writings precede Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem in CE 70 and who argues powerfully that God’s covenant with Israel remains unbroken, with the much harsher viewpoint taken by the later gospel writers who are prepared to say, in the wake of Rome’s devastating attack, that Christ’s followers have completely supplanted the “stubborn” Jews as the rightful inheritors of the covenantal blessings.
Coogan’s later chapters consider how God-endorsed tribalism found its way into English colonial discourse. His narrative here is garnished with chilling quotations from notable Puritan divines and statesmen on the theme of America as the New Israel. Coogan observes how early hortatory uses of biblical texts concerning the Righteous Remnant morphed into a triumphalist application of these same texts: morphed, that is, from John Winthrop’s “God will preserve and bless us if we uphold public justice,” to John L. O’Sullivan’s “God intends white men to take possession of this whole continent” (i.e. Manifest Destiny). As a scrupulous historian, Coogan would have us note that there were always also people of conscience who demurred and who even denounced white Christian triumphalism, from Roger Williams in the early 17th century to Abraham Lincoln, who tartly referred to the United States as the “almost chosen” nation.
In addressing contemporary matters like our current immigration wars and the State of Israel’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians, Coogan laments how the many biblical teachings mandating extra care and protection for the most vulnerable—especially for immigrants and refugees—have been honored mainly in the breach by countries that nevertheless still claim to be living in alignment with God’s law.
This is a short but bracing book. One wishes that Coogan would have said something about the particular affinity between Calvinism and special election claims, as it wasn’t only English Puritans who took hold of the biblical concept of a special providence and ran with it. Ours is a settler-colonial society, but so is (or was) apartheid South Africa. These two Calvinist-formed juggernauts of racial violence and displacement were both self-anointed New Israels where, as in “old” Israel itself, a sense of divine chosenness and murderous force unleashed against indigenes have been linked inextricably.
For that matter, one might wish that Coogan had specifically invoked the term “settler colonialism,” especially as his publisher—the estimable Beacon Press—also happens to have published the single best book on this fraught subject: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.
Notwithstanding these minor omissions, Coogan has produced an extremely valuable book. Read it, and you will never read the Bible in quite the same way again.