Election in the Old Testament, part 1

When discussing a contested issue — you know, like predestination — there’s often a tendency to say things like, “Let’s just go back to what the Bible says.” But it’s not always that simple. There are a couple reasons for this; but for now, let’s highlight one.

All of us read with a filter — a set of presuppositions that color what we read and how we interpret it.

For example, most people reading this are the product of a Western culture that prizes the individual above all else. We’ve drunk deeply from the font of individualism, without even realizing it.

If you grew up in America, you’ve gotten a double dose. The virtue of “rugged individualism” (it’s taken for granted that it’s a virtue) courses through our veins. It’s woven into our national mythology.

And so we tend to think of our faith, like everything else, in primarily individual terms. We read the Bible as if it were written to each of us personally. (There’s even a website selling personalized Bibles with your name inserted into over 7,000 verses.) We talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus. We invite others to accept him as their personal savior.

There’s just one problem. The Bible doesn’t talk like this, because it’s not a Western book.

It never characterizes Jesus as our “personal savior.” When it does speak of a relationship with God, it’s usually in the context of a community. To have a relationship with God is to be part of a redeemed community — the covenant people, the body of Christ, etc.

We sometimes talk about “walking with God” as if it’s just me and Jesus strolling down the beach. The Bible imagines it in very different terms:

I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people. (2 Corinthians 6, where Paul quotes several OT passages)

When we come across the pronoun “you” in our Bibles, we assume it means each of us individually. But more often than not, it’s plural, not singular. It’s you the community, not you the individual.

Here’s an example:

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? (1 Corinthians 3, NRSV)

Paul’s not describing each believer as their own little temple here. He’s saying you the community are God’s temple. God’s Spirit dwells in you as a community. (The NIV does a better job in this case by using the phrase “you yourselves.”)

So what does all this have to do with predestination? Everything.

Is it possible we’ve simply assumed the Bible has individuals in mind when it talks about predestination? In doing so, is it possible we’ve imported our Western cultural assumptions into the text, without even realizing it?

Next up, predestination in the Old Testament.

4 thoughts on “Election in the Old Testament, part 1

  1. When we come across the pronoun “you” in our Bibles, we assume it means each of us individually. But more often than not, it’s plural, not singular.

    My bible always means plural when it uses the word “you” and it uses a different word to reflect the singular instances of the Hebrew and Greek, such as “thy”, “thine”, “thee”, and “thou.”

    1Co 3:16 KJV
    (16) Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?

    The usage of “ye” and “you” show that the pronouns were plural in the Greek. It is a very handy feature if you are concerned with accuracy. Or in that same dialect I could also say, “if thou art concerned with accuracy” (since I am speaking to a single person.)

    If one can remember that the “T” stands alone like a single person, but the “Y” branches out with a split for two or more people like a wishbone, then you have mastered this reading proficiency and you can know whether any particular passage is speaking in the singular or plural.

    So in the King James quotation above, there would be no need to make it read “you yourselves” to indicate the plural. That would actually be redundant and add unnecessary words to the passage.

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    • Yes, that was one nice feature of Early Modern English – it had distinct singular and plural forms of the second person pronoun. But that’s not English as it’s spoken by anyone today, so we have to find other ways to convey the significance, where necessary.

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      • The thee and thou formats are sometimes used today. It is rare, but people understand the speech perfectly well when it is used. Just the other day I was watching a George Clooney movie called “O Brother, Where Art Thou” and no one seems to think that is incomprehensible. You could go into downtown Toronto ask ask someone “What art thou called?” and he may give you a funny look and wonder where your pilgrim hat is, but he would know to answer “My name is John Doe.”

        The fact is that “thee” and “thou” were never really a part of modern spoken English even when the Bishops bible was was first published with wet ink. That was a construct that was borrowed from Middle English for the technical requirements of translation. If you have ever read Middle English (like Wycliffe’s translation) it is quite a bit different.

        So even back in 1599, people could have also have complained that “no one speaks like that anymore” and they would have been right (but they didn’t.) It doesn’t matter if people don’t speak like that, it is acceptable to have a specialized written dialect for the purpose of biblical accuracy. We already have a method that works in every verse without requiring additional words.

        Frankly, it is easier to teach someone how to read “thee” and “thou” (60 seconds) than it is to teach my older brother how to access his email account (three months and counting…) Making the bible less accurate by removing vital words from its vocabulary (like 1984 Newspeak) does not make the scripture more understandable for the common man.

        As the case in point, you were discussing how singular vs. plural pronouns made a difference with understanding individual vs. corporate election. The NIV did not really improve the issue, rather they destroyed the existing distinctions and then added a patch on that verse in question. It would be like strip-mining a forest and then planting a dozen saplings in the wake of destruction.

        See? Corporations do care. They made it all better.

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  2. Be grateful that our God is sovereign, without it how could HE not allow us to remain in our sin. It is precisely that HE has chosen us, that HE will not leave us alone when we sin. That HIS Spirit bothers us in our sinful times to bring us back to HIM and welcome us back to HIM when we repent of our thoughts and deeds.

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