For those who do not come from a Christian background – and thus are likely to have little if any familiarity with the Old Testament – Judaism and the Jewish people must seem very odd indeed. Only Jews have a word designating prejudice against them: anti-Semitism. Though we speak of bigotry against others (blacks, Latinos, Irish, etc.), there’s no equivalent term in our public lexicon. Jews comprise only about 2.4 percent of the United States population but are renowned for their successes in every major profession – medicine, academia, law, media, entertainment. Undoubtedly, Judaism, the Jewish people, and even the State of Israel play an outsized role in our public square.
That might lead a gentile unfamiliar with the Bible or Jewish history to ask: What’s so special about the Jews? The answer is not a what, but a Who: namely, their God. It was YHWH – whose name was considered so holy it couldn’t be spoken – who determined to make the Jews “a people for his own possession.” (Deuteronomy 26:18). French theologian Louis Bouyer, in his classic book The Bible and the Gospel, helps us appreciate how it was the Jewish God and His relation to men that forever differentiated them – and later Christians – from the other ancient Mediterranean cultures.
First, there’s the character of the religion, often manifested by prophecies. The oracle of Apollo at Delphi offered its visitors “very practical and down-to-earth consultations,” with “formulas flexible enough not to be flatly contradicted by the facts.” At Delphi “no continuous line of development, no overall view of the history of the people or of the destiny of man can be discerned from among this disparate conglomeration of predictions and warnings.”
The Delphic oracle was slowly supplanted by mystery religions, some of which were imported from cultures in what are now Iraq and Iran. These cults were defined by strange initiation rites and oracles that focused not on divination of daily events, but on increasingly obscure hermetic revelations that Bouyer calls “banal abstractions.” Their practitioners sought to enter into a transcendent if indecipherable world.
Elsewhere in the Mediterranean, e.g., among the Canaanites or the Assyro-Babylonians, the words of the gods – who were typically associated with fertility, the elements, or the stars – were communicated by a professional class of prophets via bizarre, often incomprehensible messages. Innumerable local divinities could be exploited through “the bond of a quasi-magical alliance.” These covenants had a magical quality to them, assuring an individual or people that their god would provide material payments (e.g. abundant harvests, fertile fields, victory over enemies), which “formed the entire substance of the transaction.” Through the transaction, the god effectively becomes the property of the people.
Contrast this with how the God of Israel communicates with His people. The great Jewish prophets were not professional seers like those in other Mediterranean cultures. One early prophet, Amos, was a simple shepherd. “He belongs in no way to the world of what might be called professional prophets, who were methodical practitioners of an ecstasy uniting them by confused processes with a divinity no less confused, like the Pythia on her tripod, chewing the Delphic laurel.” Amos describes himself as “no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees.” (Amos 7:15)
Nor did the prophets approach God looking for some sign. “It is not man who takes the initiative in consulting YHWH. Nor is there any question of snatching from Him an answer,” writes Bouyer. Rather, it is YHWH who intervenes, contrary to the “intention, the foresight, the natural aspirations of man.” Jonah, for example, is called by God to preach to the wicked people of Nineveh. There is autonomy in YHWH’s oracles, which “contradicts all the impulsive views of Israel and even the inclinations of those very Israelites who were chosen to transmit it.” The themes are typically the absolute requirements of justice, the demand for repentance, or God’s infinite mercy.
Unlike the garbled, obscure messages of the Mediterranean gods, the God of Israel communicates with a “singular clarity, marked by an incomparable grandeur and an unequaled purity.” In His prophecies, there is consistency, richness, and reference to a history He controls. If the Jewish people do not cooperate with Him, the God who governs the past and future “will crush them as a worthless obstacle.” He declares: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; Therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” (Amos 3:2)
Unlike the localized nature of the fickle, malleable divinities, YHWH is “Master of all things, free in relation to His creation.” He “inhabits no house built by human hands, since the heavens and the heaven of heavens cannot contain Him.” He is firmly sovereign over Himself and creation. It is Israel, not God, who is appropriated. He cannot be manipulated via repetitive incantations. “Do not trust in these deceptive words ‘This is the temple of the LORD! The temple of the LORD!’” (Jeremiah 7:4)
Israel’s God is not shackled to a quasi-magical contract, but exhibits “absolute freedom through an act of supreme generosity.” He declares: “If I were hungry, I would not tell you: For the world and all that is in it is mine: Do I eat the flesh of bulls? Or drink the blood of goats?” (Psalm 50:12-13) YHWH is no beggar. His eternal promises carry demands of an ethical and religious nature, transcending the materialist focus on fertility and power.
The result of all of this is a markedly different understanding of the divine. For the Jews, God is both fully transcendent and immanent. He cannot be controlled, but graciously descends to man and communicates in the intimate language of friend, father, and husband. His covenants are eternal. This, more than anything else, explains the Jewish difference: though the Jewish people have failed to recognize the fulfillment of God’s covenantal promises in the Incarnation, they remain a people peculiarly His own. Their survival and presence remind, us that whatever our own failings and disobedience, God’s promises remain secure.
*Image: God the Father by Pieter de Grebber, 1654 [Museum Catharijneconvent (St. Catherine’s Convent Museum) Utrecht, Netherlands]. This is the left section of Grebber’s God Inviting Christ to Sit on the Throne at His Right Hand:
You may also enjoy:
Ben Jonson’s A Hymn to God the Father
+James V. Schall, S.J.’s On Wrath and Anger