In the ancient Near East there wasn’t much of a difference between a tribal community and a religious community. Every ethnic community had its own ethnic god.
Thus, argues Reuven Firestone in his lecture Who Are the Real Chosen People? The Meaning of Chosenness in Judaism Christianity and Islam (website, iTunes, YouTube), the ancient Israelites were well within the cultural mainstream in claiming a special relationship with their own god.
All of their neighbors, had a national tribal god with a proper name. The Moabites had Kemosh, the Babylonians had Marduk, and the Israelites had YHWH, a name Jews no longer pronounce but that scholars render “Yahweh.” Each of these peoples saw themselves as the chosen people of their god.
In Firestone’s telling, as the Israelites moved from polytheism to monotheism, they began to see Yahweh as the creator of the universe, and the only real God. And they continued to see themselves as the chosen people of this God. Thus the idea of “chosenness” became embedded in the idea of monotheism, something Firestone calls “an accident of history.”
When Christianity and Islam came upon the scene and adopted monotheistic ideas from Judaism, they adopted the notion of chosenness also, that they were God’s true favorite people.
Firestone, a rabbi and a professor of Medieval Jewish and Islamic Studies at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, gave this lecture in May 2009 at the University of California Santa Barbara as part of Herman P. and Sophia Taubman Foundation Endowed Symposia in Jewish Studies. He is author of the book Who are the real chosen people? : the meaning of chosenness in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
For more from Rueven Firestone see: You don’t have to be Jewish….