Did the Chosen Nation Start with Abraham?
Abraham is widely known as the first Jew—including in some excellent articles on our site. But Abraham (and all the forefathers) lived well before the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah at Sinai—the two defining events in Jewish history. Can he, then, really be considered a Jew? In other words, were there Jews before there was a “Jewish people”? When did the Jewish nation begin? And what does it mean to be Jewish?
To answer these questions, let’s begin by reviewing the story of Abraham’s life as it is recorded in scripture, Midrash and the commentaries.
Who Was Abraham?
Abraham was born in the year 1948 from creation (1813 BCE), during the reign of the mighty Nimrod, who ruled over almost all of civilization. Abraham’s father Terach was one of Nimrod’s noblemen. Abraham grew up in a society where everyone, including Abraham himself, worshiped idols.
As a mere child of three, Abraham began to think incessantly about the nature of the world, its origins and what power was behind it all. Abraham continued this search throughout his early years, gradually distancing himself from the idolatrous practices of his generation, as he began to formulate a pure monotheism.
At age 25 he married his niece Yiskah (also known as Sarai, and later, Sarah). Around this time Nimrod began building the Tower of Babel. The construction of the tower was a tremendous undertaking, in which most of humanity participated, and lasted many years. The Midrash explains that at its greatest height, the tower was so tall that it took a year to reach the top. At that point, a brick became more precious in the eyes of the builders than a human being. If a man fell down and met his death, no one took notice of it; but if a brick dropped, they wept, because it would take a year to replace it.
Abraham—who, according to some, participated in building the tower in its initial stages—turned vehemently against the project. He took it upon himself to repeatedly rebuke those involved.
Here’s how the Midrash tells the next part of the story: When Abraham was 48 years old, in the year 1996 (1765 BCE), G‑d gazed upon the great tower that was still under construction. Turning to the seventy angels that surround His throne (obviously this is meant in metaphorical terms), He said, “They are one people, and they all have one language . . . Let us go down, and there confound their language, that they will become seventy nations with seventy languages.”
The Midrash then tells how G‑d and the seventy angels cast lots to see which angel would be charged with which language and nation. When G‑d’s lot was Abraham, He proclaimed, “Portions have fallen to Me in pleasant places; even the lot pleases Me.”
This is the earliest instance in Abraham’s life in which he is described as being "chosen" by G‑d. (According to some opinions, it was in this year that the covenant between G‑d and Abraham took place.)
Later, we read of Abraham’s return to his father’s house, how he destroys his father’s idols, and is arrested for heresy. Holding steadfast to his faith even in the face of death, he is thrown into a fiery furnace, but G‑d performs a miracle and he survives.
Everything until this point is recorded in Talmudic and Midrashic sources. Only now do we finally meet Abraham in the text of the Bible, when G‑d commands him: “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”
After many further trials and tribulations that are recounted in the Bible, G‑d forms a covenant with Abraham and proclaims: “To your seed I have given this land, from the river of Egypt until the great river, the Euphrates River . . .”
When Abraham is 99, G‑d commands him to circumcise himself and his offspring, saying:
You shall keep My covenant, you and your seed after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall observe between Me and you and your seed after you: that every male among you be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be as the sign of a covenant between Me and you . . .
From all the above, we see clearly that:
a) Abraham was chosen by G‑d.
b) G‑d made a covenant between Himself and Abraham.
Additionally, according to our sages, the forefathers not only learned the Torah, but kept its commandments even though it had not yet been “given.” This does seem to be implied in the verse: “Because Abraham hearkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My instructions.”
To return to our original question, all of this would seem to point to the clear and unequivocal answer that, indeed, Abraham was chosen by G‑d, just as the entire Jewish nation was chosen at Mount Sinai, making him the first Jew.
But this conclusion is premature. At Sinai the Jews were chosen by G‑d, but they also assumed the obligation to observe the Torah’s 613 commandments. Non-Jews are obligated to keep only the seven Noahide laws. If Abraham was indeed Jewish, he would need to do more than fulfill all the commandments of the Torah. He would have to be bound and obligated to fulfill them. And it seems this was not the case.
Getting down to the details, there are varying opinions concerning Abraham’s status vis-à-vis mitzvah observance.
Some do indeed explain, as would seem logical, that Abraham initially did have the halachic status of a non-Jewish Noahide, but that once he entered the covenant with G‑d and was given the commandment to circumcise himself, he was considered a full-fledged Jew.
However, most disagree. Although it is true that our forefathers not only learned the Torah but kept its laws, even though it had not been given, they were never commanded to do so. Their fulfillment of these commandments was a personal and voluntary sign of their devotion to G‑d. They were not obligated in the way their descendants would be after Sinai.
Accordingly, when we refer to Abraham as the first Jew or convert, that is a true statement: When he was told to “go from your land,” he became distinguished by that mission from all others of his time. When we look back in time, we see here the first idea of a Jew. But it does not mean that he was Jewish in the sense that we are today, in the sense of a binding obligation. Rather, he had the technical status of a Noahide, just like any other person of the time (albeit one who was given additional unique commandments such as circumcision, in which he was indeed obligated). It was not until his descendants stood at Mount Sinai and G‑d proclaimed, “You shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples . . . and you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation” that we became the Jewish people.
There is a practical application in the distinction between voluntary and obligatory observance of the Torah commandments. As we said, a Noahide is obligated to keep the Seven Noahide Laws, but not the 613 Torah laws. If there were to be any conflict between keeping the future Torah laws and the Noahide laws, the obligation to keep the Noahide laws would supersede the Torah laws which they were not yet obligated to do. Based on this, the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson, resolves the question of how Jacob could marry two sisters.
But all this now leaves us with a glaring question: What is so special about the covenant at Mount Sinai that only then did we become the Jewish people, something not yet achieved in Abraham’s time? Wasn’t Abraham himself chosen by G‑d? Didn’t Abraham himself learn the Torah, keep its commandments, and make a covenant with G‑d? So what is the difference?
To get to the bottom of this, we have to ask some more fundamental questions—not about Jewishness, but about chosenness: What is choosing all about? And what does chosenness mean?
From taking out clothes to wear in the morning, to deciding what to have for dinner, we are constantly engaged in making choices. Most of these choices are made after weighing the specific factors and qualities associated of whatever’s being chosen. We choose our clothing based on the image we wish to project, our own self-identity, or perhaps job requirements. We choose our dinner based on health or taste. None of these choices are truly what we call free choices. In fact, it would probably be more accurate to call them compelled choice, for ultimately, the reason you chose what you did is because there is something about it which made you need or want it.
It is only when we are faced with two seemingly identical objects, and we nevertheless choose one over the other, that we can say that we have truly chosen.
Now, back to Abraham.
Already at age three, Abraham began his lifelong quest for the one true G‑d. Once he recognized the one true G‑d, he devoted the rest of his life to spreading this truth to a completely pagan world. Abraham’s lonely task often called on him to use all of his energies, often going even beyond the point of self-sacrifice. Nevertheless, he never shied away from it, and always persevered.
In light of this, it is no wonder that G‑d promises Abraham that “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your seed after you throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant, to be to you for a G‑d and to your seed after you . . .”
Thus, in a sense, G‑d did not choose Abraham. It was his inherent superiority, and the fact that he was ready to give everything up for the sake of G‑d, that compelled G‑d to choose him.
It was not until the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai that G‑d truly chose the Jewish nation. He chose them not because of any superior qualities they may have had. On the contrary, the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai celebrates G‑d choosing the Jews to be “a kingdom of princes and a holy nation,” in spite of their apparent similarity to the other nations of the world.
In other words, before Mount Sinai, G‑d’s choosing Abraham and his descendants was based on what can be termed a “reasoned choice.” At Mount Sinai it was a supra-rational, “true” choice.
The Mishnah states: “Any love that is dependent upon a specific consideration—when that consideration vanishes, the love ceases. If it is not dependent upon a specific consideration, it will never cease.”
We were chosen to become “a light upon the nations” not due to any unique qualities. On the contrary, Jewishness is based on G‑d choosing us despite our un-uniqueness. But it is precisely this type of choseness which makes our unique mission in the world the most humbling and inspiring. We are humble because of our un-uniqueness, and inspired because of the everlasting bond it entails.