Roger Ebert, in his review of The Prince of Egypt, expresses a notion common among moderns when he complains of God’s habit of choosing people (like Moses) and nations (like the Jews), “I have always rather thought God could have spared man a lot of trouble by casting his net more widely, emphasizing universality rather than tribalism.”
This thought comes as naturally as rain in spring to minds which have been conditioned to think in democratic terms. Just as it was natural for ancients who lived almost universally under monarchy to conceive of God as King, so it is equally natural for moderns to force the universe into a grid of uncompromising egalitarianism. We rankle at the thought that God “elects” people like Abraham. Like Ebert, we think this can only lead to “tribalism”, not universality.
And yet, today’s Old Testament reading points us to an amazing paradox. Namely, that in choosing Abraham, God was building the only real basis for universality in the world.
Note the promise given to Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves” (Gen. 12:2-3). Curiously, where the modern mind expects to see a “tribal” promise of conquest and prosperity for Abraham’s clan alone, Genesis announces that God intends to bless the whole world through Abraham. What we imagine is just ancient barbaric Israelite chest-thumping about “God on our side” turns out to portray Abraham as the waist of some mystical hourglass through which the blessing of God is to pour in ever-widening bounty. As C.S. Lewis notes in Miracles, “The ‘chosen’ people are chosen not for their own sake (certainly not for their own honour or pleasure) but for the sake of the unchosen.”
Moderns, who are used to thinking of “universality” as statisticians do, have difficulty here. That is because we think of “humanity” as an undifferentiated mass, but God thinks of persons. We think revelation should be accomplished by a vast divine laser show in the heavens which an audience of billions could see, but God knows revelation can only proceed in a personal way, through human persons.
And so, God chooses one human person–Abraham–and begins the process of revealing himself, one person at a time, to us.
This process leads to more highly undemocratic elections by God; to more widenings and more waists in the hourglass of Jewish history. It expands to the Hebrew people and contracts to the person of Moses. It expands to the nation of Israel, and contracts to the prophets and the remnant who survived the Babylonian exile. It expands to the Diaspora among the nations and finally narrows to a Jewish teenager named Mary and to one single solitary man named Jesus. The promise to Abraham, Moses, and the prophets is focused to a pinpoint here.
Naturally such elections are painful, especially for the Elect. People grow fond of their roots. We love our fathers and mothers and all they worked so hard and well to build. Nobody appreciates that more than the disciples in today’s gospel. When Moses, the embodiment of the Law, and Elijah, the embodiment of the Prophets, appear on the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter concludes that this is as good as it gets. No more painful election by God, thinks he. No more being separated out. We can have the new wine of the gospel in the old wineskin of a comfortable and familiar Judaism. And so he proposes they set up an eternal campground right here with Jesus, Moses and Elijah.
But the God of Abraham insists on election and separation anyway. He commands Peter to listen only to Jesus. And the text says simply, “When they looked up, they did not see anyone but Jesus.” For Moses and Elijah were not ends in themselves, just as the election of Abraham was not an end in itself. All were pointing to Jesus. And Peter, James and John, realizing this, have been elected (and separated) as surely as Abraham was. But again, their election is “certainly not for their own honour or pleasure”. It is for the sake, in the end, of the whole world; a world which is, to the last man, woman and child, chosen in the Beloved son of Abraham, the beloved Son of God.