One who is called to the Torah during synagogue services recites a blessing (b'rakhah) thanking God "who has chosen us from among all peoples by giving us His Torah" (BT Ber. 11b). This b'rakhah affirms two of Judaism's fundamental doctrines, both of which have had far-reaching implications for ancient Israel's political institutions and its religious worldview. These doctrines are the election of the people Israel, and its covenant with God. Both of these stem from Israel's origins, providing the rationale for its existence and the foundation on which its system of government was established. In fact, the belief in Israel's special relationship to God, as defined in the covenant at Sinai, is the central theme of the Torah (see Exod. 19:5,24:7-8; Deut. 26: 17ff., 29:9-14).

This is underlined by the covenant Joshua made with the Israelite tribes after he reviewed the early history of Israel at a public gathering of the tribes in Shechem(Josh. 24). As at the covenant of Sinai, the people affirmed three times that they would worship the Lord alone and obey Him. Unlike the first covenant between God and Israel, however, the gathering at Shechem was an occasion for reaffirming an existing covenant-not entering into a new one. This account differs from the one at Sinai, suggesting, as it does, that the people were free to reject the God of Israel (Josh. 24:15).  This led some to conjecture that it presents an alternate tradition to the Sinai account, describing, perhaps, the admission of additional tribes to the covenanted union. In any event, the Shechem story does contain the three basic elements found in Sinai narrative:

  • It is God who takes the initiative in choosing and delivering Israel (Josh. 24:3, 6; cf. Exod. 19:4).
  • Israel’s relati0nship with God is defined by a covenant (Josh. 24:25; cf. Exod. 19:5, 24:3ff.).
  • The covenant brings with it obligations (Josh. 24:25; cf. Exod. 19:5, 8, 20:1ff., 21:1ff.).

These elements may be summarized as: the election of Israel, the covenant between God and Israel, and Israel's covenanted obligations.

From the earliest period of its recorded history, Israel was conscious of its uniqueness as "the people of God." This claim was immortalized in the name "Israel," which, according to the biblical narrative, originated when Jacob wrested a special blessing from God, having "striven with beings divine and human, and. . . prevailed" (Gen. 32:29). Whatever the name meant originally, it could also be interpreted as "[the domain in which] God rules," as the ancient blessing of Moses suggests (Deut. 33:5). Genesis anticipates this special bond between God and Israel with the divine promises made to the patriarchs. These promises move to their dramatic fulfillment with the exodus from Egypt and the encampment at Sinai, where God enters into a solemn covenant Writ) with the people and provides them with instructions, statutes, and judgments. Deuteronomy spells out the implications of the covenant for future generations; and finally, Joshua marks the fulfillment of the promise to Israel's ancestors and the renewal of the covenant in the Promised Land.

Of all the peoples in the ancient Near East, only Israel seems to have viewed its relationship with a deity as covenanted. Since covenants generally played an important role in the political and social life of the ancient world, this may appear surprising. A covenant might serve as a treaty between nations, such as that between Israel and the Gibeonites (Josh. 9:15). It could solemnize a compact  between individuals, as in the case of Jacob and Laban (Gen. 31:44). It could assume the form of a land grant, as in the patriarchal stories (e.g., Gen. 15:18ff.). A covenant could also define relationships that were not primarily legal, such as the friendship of David and Jonathan (1 Sam. 18:3), or not exclusively so, such as marriage (Mal. 2: 14). In such cases, it formalized the relationship, lending it an enduring quality and adding a sense of commitment and obligation that had not been there before. Generally, a covenant clarified a relationship, spelled out the nature of the obligations that flowed from it, and sealed it with a religious rite or symbolic affirmation at a shrine (e.g., Exod. 24:4ff.; Josh. 24: I 9ff.; 2 Kings 23:1ff.).

Law codes sanctified by a covenant between a god and a "chosen" king existed in the earlier Sumerian and Old Babylonian traditions. What was new at Sinai was not the linkage of covenant with law giving, but the entry of disparate clans into a covenant with God, which welded them into a people united by a system of laws. Israel's God transcended the forces of nature and thus had no need for worshipers to wait in attendance or assist in preserving the order of a world constantly threatened by the forces of chaos. The function of the covenant, then, was to define the people's exclusive relationship to God and to institutionalize the paramount nature of God's rule. This is given expression in the first two statements of the Decalogue, which also define the relationship as personal, one in which God has a special interest. The Decalogue's use of the term "kana," which literally means "jealous," is an instructive characterization of God. The term clearly intends to convey that God considers it a personal betrayal for Israel to turn to other gods.

The Sinai covenant did not follow either the model of the Hittite treaties of the 14th century B.C.E. or the Assyrian treaties of the 8th or 7th centuries B.C.E., because it was not a treaty. It did not contain the language of the land grants associated with the Abrahamic or Davidic covenants, because it was not a land grant. The covenant was unique: an agreement entered into freely by a deity with a people to create a new relationship or, rather, to redefine an earlier one initiated by God through the gracious act of deliverance from bondage. It called for a response from the people, who were to be "a kingdom of priests," "a holy nation" (Exod. 19:6), and who were provided with specific directions to attain this goal. They accepted God's charge, participating in an elaborate rite to seal their agreement (Exod. 24:4ff.). God undertook to dwell among them and to give them the land promised to their ancestors, providing that they carried out their part of the agreement. This differed from the covenant entered into with Abraham (Gen. 15), which was modeled after the ancient land grant to a loyal servant for services rendered and in which no future acts were required.

The most detailed presentation of the covenant between God and Israel is found in the Book of Deuteronomy, which almost precisely follows the form of neo-Assyrian vassal treaties, such as the one of Esarhaddon (672 B.C.E.). Presumably, the authors of Deuteronomy spelled out God's original covenant with Israel in the explicit, carefully structured form devised by the Assyrians to emphasize that God-not the Assyrian king-is sovereign over IsraeL

The early belief that God had entered into a covenant with the Israelites' ancestors did not allow the establishment of the monarchy in the 11th century B.C.E. to displace the "kingship of God." This limited the king's authority and led to uprisings, on occasion, when he abused it. The people ultimately did accept the notion of a covenant between God and the house of David, but this covenant was limited by the requirements of the divine law (cf. Deut.17:14-20).

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the actions of the prophets. Samuel is depicted as remonstrating with Saul, the first king of Israel: "Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices / As much as in obedience to the LORD's command?" (1 Sam. 15:22). Prophets, viewed as the messengers of God, did not hesitate to speak the truth to reigning monarchs, who accepted their harsh pronouncements. This is indicated by the messages of doom pronounced against David by Nathan in the wake of the Bathsheba outrage (2 Sam. 11-12) and against Ahab's house by Elijah after Ahab had Naboth slain to expropriate his vineyard (1 Kings 21).

The prophets, however, did more than take kings and princes to task for violating the law of God. They insisted that the covenant was binding both on the people as a whole and on each individual Israelite as a responsible member of the community. Each of them shared equally in both the obligations and the privileges of the b'rit. This is stated dramatically in Deuteronomy (5:2-3) when Moses declares: "The LORD our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. It was not with our fathers that the LORD made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today." To be sure, some bore greater responsibility than others because of their power and wealth, but none could ultimately escape the divine judgment. People had to be at peace with others as well as with themselves and with God. The cult, the organized system of Israelite worship, enabled them to come into the presence of God and express their heartfelt emotions to the divine. Its efficacy, however, depended on their obedience to God, as the prophets insisted, on the proper response to the divine call for righteous living. If this was not forthcoming, God threatened to destroy the holy places and abandon the people….

God's justice was tempered by compassion. While making demands on people, God was "slow to anger," providing many opportunities for both individuals and societies to make amends. Beyond that, God provided the Israelites, and indeed all of humankind, instructions and guidance to enable them to live in peace with one another and to enjoy the bounties of the earth. Having created humankind in the divine image, God hoped people would walk in fellowship with Him and in obedience to His will.

The everlasting nature of the covenant was grounded in the divine promise to the Israelites' ancestors. Although it certainly was not considered arbitrary, the covenant was recognized as an unmerited expression of divine love (Deut. 4:37, 7:6-7). The "election" of Israel went hand in hand with the covenant and provided a theological explanation for it. This is most clearly crystallized in Exod. 19:3-6, where Israel is called on to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." As such, Israel was assigned a central role in God's purpose for all of humankind-a role that the great prophet of the exilic period defined as "a light unto the nations" (Isa. 49:6).

The conviction that God had entered into a covenant with its ancestors shaped Israel's entire worldview. It taught the Israelites that God cares about human beings, particularly for those who, like the people of ancient Israel, were helpless and oppressed. The covenant also made it plain that Israel's election was not for Israel's sake but to serve God's purpose for the rest of the world. It entailed obligation, not special privilege. As Amos, the first of the literary prophets (8th century B.c.E.), stated explicitly: "You alone have I singled out / Of all the families of the earth- / That is why I will call you to account / For all your iniquities" (Amos 3:2). The world required the example of a covenant community because it was unredeemed. This message was stated clearly by the anonymous prophet whose words appear in the second part of the Book of Isaiah: "My witnesses are you / . . . / My servant, whom I have chosen" (Isa. 43:10). These words were addressed to Babylonian exiles, calling on them to cast off their gloom and engage in a new exodus that they might be, as cited earlier, "a light unto the nations" and that God's salvation might reach the ends of the earth (49:6)….

The Bible recounts at least three instances when the covenant was renewed: at Shechem, before Joshua's death (Josh. 24); in Jerusalem, at the time of King Josiah's reformation (2 Kings 23); and in Jerusalem again, during the time of Ezra (Neh. 10). These renewals succeeded in consolidating the community and setting it on a new course, demonstrating the power of the covenant concept, both as an ideal to be aimed at and an obligation to be met, rather than as a final achievement….

The concept … has remained central to the Rabbinic view of the Jewish relationship to God. The covenant is celebrated annually in the three pilgrimage festivals that recall God's great acts on Israel's behalf, as well as weekly on Shabbat, which is seen as a sign of the covenant. It is re-enacted every weekday morning in the putting on of tefillin. The morning service itself reminds worshipers of the election of Israel and God's love for it, as expressed in the liberation from Egyptian bondage and the gift of Torah. The recitation of the Sh'ma is a daily reaffirmation of the sovereignty of God and the authority of the divine commandments….

With the spread of the Enlightenment and of the Emancipation in the 19th century, some western Jewish thinkers considered the doctrine of the election to be too exclusive. In an effort to universalize it, Reform leaders preferred to speak of "the mission of Israel," designed to spread ethical monotheism throughout the world. In the second quarter of the 20th century, Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, also suggested the abandonment of "the Chosen People doctrine," because it not only drew invidious distinctions between Jews and others but also lent itself to misinterpretation both by anti-Semites and Jewish chauvinists. In its place, he substituted the "doctrine of vocation," whereby Jews might acknowledge that God manifested His love to Israel. However, Kaplan considered the concept of the covenant valuable, calling on Jews worldwide to enter into a pact, as in the days of Ezra, to reconstitute themselves as a people dedicated to ethical nationhood and to the furtherance of their religious civilization.