The general purpose of God in entering into the course of history was to bring about the reparation of man's primal revolt and to reestablish God's kingdom in this world; this He has done through a chosen people and certain chosen individuals. Their story makes up salvation history, which is initiated, directed, and brought to completion by God. The Biblical concept of divine choice or election (Heb. bāḥar; Gr. ἐκλογή ἐκλεκτός) is examined first in the OT, then in the NT.
In the Old Testament. Israel's awareness of being chosen by God goes back to its origins. At Sinai Moses was told by God that the people had been brought there by God Himself and that, "if you keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people …, a kingdom of priests, a holy nation" (Ex 19.5–6). The same awareness is shown in Dt 26.18: "Today the Lord is making this agreement with you, you are to be a people peculiarly his own …" (see also Jos 24.3–13). Election, covenant, and promise are three fundamental elements of Israel's faith.
The classic statement regarding Israel's election, however, is the late one found in Dt 7.7–10: "It was not because you are the largest of all nations that the Lord set his heart upon you and chose you, for you are really the smallest of nations. It was because the Lord loved you and because of his fidelity to the oath he had sworn to your fathers … the faithful God who keeps his merciful covenant down to the thousandth generation towards those who love him …, but repays with destruction the person who hates him." This election was no mystery to the Israelites, any more than focused or selective love is in general. The mystery would be why God loves man at all.
Election is a free act of God, and the OT writers, with their usual honesty and insight, never attribute it to any merit of Israel. J. L. McKenzie rightly says that the divine election confers worthiness rather than presupposes it. Just as the potter freely chooses his clay and forms it into an "object of whatever sort he pleases" (Jer 18.4), so the Lord can do with regard to the house of Israel (see also Is 29.16; 45.9–13). The freedom of God's choice is often shown by His choosing the lowly ones of the world, or the younger brother: "the elder shall serve the younger" (Gn 25.23). Election is also described as irrevocable and everlasting, "to the thousandth generation," though Israel's response is not compelled and can falter. On Israel's part it unfortunately led to self-righteousness and even to self-sufficiency. The Prophet Amos had to remind them sternly that election meant responsibility, not privilege (3.1–2), and because they had failed their responsibility, they would feel the divine judgment.
The choice of Israel does not mean the rejection of other nations. In the incomparable Servant of the Lord oracles of Deutero-Isaiah, Israel is said to have been chosen by Yahweh for the sake of all the nations (Is 42.1–9;49.1–6), and a further note is added that its punishment and suffering is even vicarious (52.13–53.12): "It was our infirmities he bore, our sufferings that he endured."
Besides the divine election of the people of Israel, many individuals were called and chosen by God. Abraham was blessed and set apart. The Judges, Saul, David, Isaiah, Jeremia, and Ezechiel were all called and chosen by the Lord, not for personal privilege, but to serve God and His people, just as the Israelites were God's instrument for the sake of all nations.
The response God wishes from the people He chooses is faith and fidelity along with service. "Abraham believed the Lord who credited the act to him as justice" (Gn 15.6; Rom 4.3). In many places God speaks of Abraham, Moses, Josue, and others as "my servant"(e.g., Gn 26.24); and service is seen to be the end for which the Servant of the Lord of Deutero-Isaiah is chosen.
In the New Testament. The chosen people in the NT are the Church of Christ. St. Peter addresses his first epistle to "the sojourners of the Dispersion … chosen unto the sanctification of the Spirit …" (1 Pt 1.1). They are the elect for whom the Lord will shorten the last days (Mt 24.22), and the "remnant left, selected out of grace" (λε[symbol omitted]μμα κατ' ἐκλογὴν χάριτος) of Rom 11.5. The Christian community is given names similar to those of OT Israel:"a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people" (1 Pt 2.9; cf. Ex 19.5–6). St. James asks, "Has not God chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith?" (Jas 2.5), and St. Paul exhorts: "Put on therefore as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, patience" (Col 3.12). The statement of our Lord at the end of the parable of the Marriage Feast, "For many are called, but few are chosen" (Mt 22.14), must be interpreted as referring to the Church in this world. The kingdom of heaven, which the parable illustrates, is a kingdom in two stages, here and hereafter. The "chosen" are those who belong to it in this world, the "many" are all the members of the human race. All are invited in the parable: those who respond to the divine call are chosen. Yet the NT use of the word chosen (ἐκλεκτός) always seems to carry with it the notion of favor and choice on the part of God.
All the Apostles are chosen (Mk 3.13), but individual election can be withdrawn, for Judas, like Saul (1 Sm 13.13–14), is finally rejected (Acts 1.25). Peter (Acts 15.7) and Paul (Acts 9.15) are especially chosen. But it is Christ whose election above all others is announced from the cloud at his baptism (Mk 1.9–11) and transfiguration (Mk 9.1–7). According to NT thought, Christ and His Church fulfill the role of the Suffering Servant.
Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 642–645. r. schnackenburg, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 3:1061–63. e. l. dietrich and j. schneider, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart 2:610–614. h. h. rowley, The Biblical Doctrine of Election (London 1950). k. galling, Die Erwählungstradition Israels (Giessen 1928). j. l. mckenzie, The Two-Edged Sword (Milwaukee 1956) 130–131. j. bright, A History of Israel (Philadelphia 1959). f. prat, Theology of St. Paul, 2 v. (London 1926–27) 1:436–437. a. jones, "God's Choice: Its Nature and Consequences," Scripture 13 (1961) 35–43. j. bonsirven, The Theology of the New Testament, tr. s. f. l. tye (Westminster, Md. 1963). e. sutcliffe, "Many Are Called But Few Are Chosen," Irish Theological Quarterly 28 (1961) 126–131. w. staerk, "Zum alttestamentlichen Erwählungsglauben," Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 55 (1937) 1–36.