Does God Have Favorites?

March 28, 2019

Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies Michael Coogan

The Bible describes many individuals and groups as specially chosen by God. But does God choose at all? That is the question Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies Michael Coogan asks in new book God’s Favorites: Judaism, Christianity and the Myth of Divine Chosenness.

In the book, Coogan, a noted biblical scholar, notes that the claim of divine choice is in fact a form of tribalism based on religion, which has been used from ancient times to the present to justify territorial expansion and prejudice.

Furthermore, he explains the temporally layered and allusive storytelling of biblical texts and describes the world of the ancient Near East from which it emerged, laying bare the power struggles, the acts of vengeance, and persecutions made sacred by claims of chosenness. 

Jumping forward to more modern contexts, Coogan reminds us how the self-designation of the Puritan colonizers of New England as God's new Israel eventually morphed, in the United States, into the self-justifying doctrines of manifest destiny and American exceptionalism.

In contemporary Israel, both fundamentalist Zionists and their evangelical American partners cite the Jews' status as God's chosen people as justification for taking land—for very different ends.

Appropriated uncritically, Coogan argues, the Bible has thus been used to reinforce exclusivity and superiority, with new myths based on old myths.

Finally, in place of the pernicious idea of chosenness, he suggests we might instead focus on another key biblical concept: taking care of the immigrant and the refugee, reminding the reader of the unusual focus on the vulnerable in both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. As he writes:

“...gods do not choose people, either groups or individuals. Rather, people choose a god and then assert that that god has chosen them or their ancestors. The assertion enables them to identify themselves as superior to their neighbors, or their ancestors as superior to their neighbors’ ancestors. They project onto their god their own self-importance.”

Recipient of the College’s Distinguished Faculty Award in 2000, Coogan believes that the myth of divine chosenness should be abandoned. As he concludes:

“Fundamentally, we are all one tribe, one species, with no group, ancient or modern, specially chosen.”