Cover image for The Unfavored: Judah and Saul in the Narratives of Genesis and 1 Samuel By Josef Sykora

The Unfavored

Judah and Saul in the Narratives of Genesis and 1 Samuel

Josef Sykora


$80.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-1-57506-958-6

264 pages
6" × 9"

Siphrut: Literature and Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures

The Unfavored

Judah and Saul in the Narratives of Genesis and 1 Samuel

Josef Sykora

“In his probing study, Josef Sykora explores the complicated dynamics of election in a nuanced manner, demonstrating that the elect and the disfavored are not static categories. Sykora sheds new light on Israel’s election theology by attending to the frequently overlooked fact that even within Israel some are chosen and others are unchosen. Jews and Christians, scholars and lay readers alike will learn much from this thought-provoking book.”


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Following the work of scholars who have attempted to rehabilitate the notion of “chosenness” in the Hebrew Bible and others who have focused more narrowly on the fate of non-Israelites in the Old Testament, The Unfavored centers on the role of two “unfavored” characters within Israel—Judah and Saul.

Josef Sykora examines two narratives with seemingly opposite trajectories: the Joseph cycle in Genesis 37–50 and the Saul episode in 1 Samuel 13–15. Both contain passages that feel intrusive—Genesis 38 and 49 and 1 Samuel 13:7b–15a—and that coincide with Judah’s and Saul’s rise or fall in God’s favor. Taking seriously the redaction-critical proposals suggesting that these puzzling segments may stem from a later editorial hand, Sykora reorients them for theological purposes. He reads the two narratives first without and then with these intrusive parts in order to indicate what their message and content might mean for the idea of election in the Old Testament in general and for the fate of unfavored characters in particular.

A freshly insightful exploration of chosenness in the Old Testament, The Unfavored guides us to new and deeper interpretations of these biblical texts.

“In his probing study, Josef Sykora explores the complicated dynamics of election in a nuanced manner, demonstrating that the elect and the disfavored are not static categories. Sykora sheds new light on Israel’s election theology by attending to the frequently overlooked fact that even within Israel some are chosen and others are unchosen. Jews and Christians, scholars and lay readers alike will learn much from this thought-provoking book.”
“Sykora’s treatment of these texts is thorough and admirable, and his observations concerning the dynamic nature of chosenness is helpful.”

Josef Sykora is Assistant Professor of Biblical Interpretation and the director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Northeastern Seminary, Rochester, New York.

From the Introduction

The Troubling Concept of Election

The biblical notion of election sits rather uncomfortably within current philosophical and theological discourse. How can one believe in a God who chooses some and rejects others, when the dominating intellectual framework stresses the equality of all persons? The force of the contemporary critical stance towards monotheism in general, and divine favoritism in particular, has been felt across the scholarly literature. The works of Cott, Lüdemann, and Schwartz, 1 for example – from different perspectives but with a common agenda – challenge the notion of election by pointing out its dominance within the Bible (particularly in the Old Testament) – and by arguing that election is, in some situations, connected with the rejection or obliteration of those who are portrayed as standing in the way of God’s chosen people. Election, with its corresponding disfavor towards the unchosen, remains a troubling notion in our contemporary understanding.

Nevertheless, it remains to be asked whether this is all that can be said about the concept of chosenness, and whether the idea itself does not contain some positive aspects that might prove valuable for the life of faith in our modern age. In recent years, a number of scholars have attempted to approach the thorny issue of God’s election and its troubling legacy from this direction.

First, two Jewish scholars in particular, Levenson and Kaminsky, have done much to illuminate the notion of God’s election in the Hebrew Bible. Levenson investigates Israel’s chosenness in the foundational stories of the book of Genesis, since in the Hebrew Bible Israel functions as God’s first-born – the one upon whom God has an absolute claim. This allows Levenson to argue that the life of the elect is marked not only by their dominance, but also by the undergoing of a certain humiliation – an integral part of the chosen’s maturing process – in order that the one who experiences God’s favor uses it not to rule over others harshly, but rather for their benefit. Similarly, as Levenson points out, the unchosen faces a comparable challenge: one must accept this subordinate role and use it for the common good. Kaminsky’s most innovative idea consists in developing the heuristic categories of elect, non-elect, and anti-elect. While the elect are favored by God, it is only the anti-elect that are, for various reasons, annihilated by God’s command. Although such cases and the texts dealing with them remain disquieting both for Jews and Christians, Kaminsky observes that they represent only a limited number of people or situations in the Hebrew Scripture. The non-elect, on the other hand, cover a vast range of foreigners in the Bible, who, while remaining a separate group of people not needing to be converted to Israel’s faith, occupy a significant place in the divine logic of election; they often receive their blessing in the course of working out their relation to the elect.

Second, a number of other scholars have focused more specifically on how the unchosen are portrayed in the Old Testament, and have offered studies that probe more deeply this neglected aspect of its narrative. While admitting that in some limited cases election does involve the mistreatment of non-Israelites, these scholars have argued that a majority of the less favored persons or nations in the Old Testament enjoy some level of relationship with God, and have certain duties and requirements that follow from this relationship. Furthermore, those unchosen characters in the Old Testament who demonstrate their faith in YHWH often surpass their counterparts from Israel.

The present study, then, tries to situate itself within this framework, as it attempts to elucidate the concept of election from yet another angle.

Approaching the Unchosen in IsraelGeneral Focus: The Unchosen within Israel

The above-mentioned studies illustrate a growing interest in the biblical grounding of the doctrine of election, particularly as it concerns the fate of those who are not favored by God. Nevertheless, this has been undertaken primarily from the vantage point of individuals outside of Israel. This approach is understandable, since non-Israelites present a prime example of those who are not elected by YHWH. I would contend, however, that approaching the topic of election from this viewpoint does not exhaust the manner in which it is portrayed in the Old Testament. The dynamic of unchosenness can also be seen in the stories of those within Israel who did not receive God’s favor in the way it was bestowed on their more fortunate brothers or neighbors. A good example of this phenomenon can be found in the case of Joseph’s brothers, who are portrayed as not favored in the story and yet are part of Israel. Kaminsky calls them the “unchosen chosen” and reasons that the act of God’s choosing remains operative even within the tribes of Israel.

Two examples of the “unchosen chosen” will be the focus of my study. This approach has, I think, one advantage over those works that deal specifically with non-Israelites. The Old Testament is mainly interested in the story of the people of Israel. The nations and individuals outside of Abraham’s seed receive only scant attention in the biblical text. Therefore, looking at the unchosen within Israel provides a greater volume of material to be examined, which, in turn, could lead to a more rounded portrayal of the dynamics of God’s favoritism, thus perhaps supplementing what has been accomplished in this field so far.

Specific Focus: Joseph and Judah; David and Saul

Furthermore, I hope that my study can supply an extension of the work of Levenson and Kaminsky, who provided me with the impetus to pursue my own interest in the wider topic of election. Specifically, my study begins in a region that also occupied their attention: the story of Joseph and his brothers.

Joseph and JudahBoth Levenson and Kaminsky, who ground their assessment of the theological significance of chosenness in the brotherly rivalry found in the patriarchal stories, view the Joseph cycle in Gen 37–50 as the culmination of the topic of election in the book of Genesis. This extended narrative, painting a picture of the family tension between Joseph and his brothers, is thus a good candidate for trying to see more clearly the contours of election in Genesis and for this reason it will be the focus of the first half of my discussion. Although I will also pay attention to Joseph’s development in the story, in particular I am interested in the manner in which the biblical story portrays Judah, who is not favored by his father or by the deity at the beginning of the narrative, but who rises to a place of prominence among his brothers later in the story, eventually occupying a position rivaling even that of Joseph. In what ways does this story portray the role of the one not favored by the deity?

David and SaulMy second study focuses on David and Saul in 1 Samuel. The rise of Israel’s monarchy brought to the throne a young man from the tribe of Benjamin, who concentrated in his person Israel’s hopes, but who also experienced the empowering and blessing of YHWH. However, Saul is rejected by the deity and his prophet shortly into his reign because he was considered unfaithful to God’s commands in his battles with the Philistines and Amalekites (1 Sam 13–15). Saul’s rejection then led to a search for a leader who would in a more suitable way represented God’s ideal for a monarch. Eventually, David replaced Saul as Israel’s new king. The stories of Israel’s first kings can be seen as connected with the narratives about Joseph and Judah. The fatherly blessing, which both Judah and Joseph receive at the end of the Joseph cycle (Gen 49:8–12 and 22–26), logically points beyond itself. It seems that the tension between Israel’s first two monarchs, Saul and David, may thus present a natural extension of the rivalry between Joseph and Judah. While David comes from the tribe of Judah (1 Sam 17:12), Saul is a Benjamite (1 Sam 9:1–2). Benjamin, Jacob’s last son and the second son of his beloved wife Rachel, functions in the Joseph cycle as the son on whom Jacob’s special affection and favor focus, especially during the period when Benjamin’s older sibling Joseph is lost (Gen 44:27–31). Saul, a descendant of Benjamin who inherits the privileged position of Rachel’s sons, thus stands in contrast to David, who comes from the tribe of Judah, unfavored in the Joseph cycle.

Nevertheless, the way the topic of election is narrated in these stories of Saul and David is in a sense opposite to how it is narrated in the story of Judah and Joseph. Although both complex narratives defy simplification, it could be said that Judah began his journey as unfavored, both by his own father and by God, but his character at the end of the book of Genesis, especially when viewed towards the future, bears the marks of chosenness. Saul, on the other hand, starts as a chosen king, selected by the people and by the deity. However, he is rejected by the deity in the course of two episodes involving his military endeavors in 1 Sam 13–15. As a consequence, a king better suited to the task, namely David, is chosen by YHWH as Saul’s successor. Saul’s failure and his later replacement by David raise questions corresponding to those asked above regarding the Joseph narrative.

The characters of Judah and Saul (in Gen 37–50 and 1 Sam 13–15) will thus serve as two examples from within Israel which will reveal something about the nature of, and the relationship between, chosenness and unchosenness, and which consequently might deepen our understanding of the issue of election in general.

Purpose: Theological and Hermeneutical Concerns

My study has two overreaching concerns: a theological and hermeneutical one. Even though the theological interest remains an ultimate goal of this book, the hermeneutical concern will provide the crucial backbone, so to say, for the structure of the following chapters.

Hermeneutical Concern: Conducting a Thought-experiment

In the following study, my effort is to understand the received text in its canonical form. In aiming to achieve this, however, I do not wish to disregard the findings of historical criticism, but rather to employ them in order to read theologically. As Brevard Childs remarks: “To work with the final stage of the text is not to lose the historical dimension, but it is rather to make a critical, theological judgment regarding the process. The depth dimension aids in understanding the interpreted text, and does not function independently of it.” A canonical reading thus builds on the results of historical criticism and reconceives the various tentative layers of the text as “a kind of commentary on the text’s prehistory.” Historical-critical work, therefore, is a necessary but provisional step in interpretation; it serves as a prerequisite for further theological assessment.

My own reading of the biblical narratives suggests that the texts in question illustrate well something of the issues at stake. Certain portions of the Joseph cycle (Gen 37–50) and the narratives of Saul’s failure (1 Sam 13–15) have long been puzzling to readers. The segments comprising Gen 38 and 1 Sam 13:7b–15a, and to a lesser degree also Gen 49, feel awkward and/or intrusive in the narratives in which they are placed. Interestingly, these passages play an important role in developing the portrayal of the unchosen. Genesis 38 and 49 (more precisely Gen 49:8–12) focus on Judah, the former describing his failure within his own family and the latter narrating his blessing, which rivals even that bestowed on the chosen Joseph. These two chapters, then, could be saying something valuable about the personal growth of Judah and the potential effects of this development on a possible change in his unchosen status. On the other hand, the account of Saul’s first rejection in 1 Sam 13:7b–15a presents an important step in his transition from a person privileged both by the people and by God, to a character rejected by the deity. The remainder of the narratives of Saul’s failure lies in the shadow of this episode, which strengthens the impression that these textual units, if seen as additions both to the Joseph cycle and the Saul narrative, cohere with the crucial stages of the progress (or regress) of those persons, who at some point in their life do not enjoy God’s favor.

[Excerpt ends here.]

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