Saturday, May 27, 2017

Bible in a Year: "God's name is Jealous"

This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages. 

This post is my going off on a tangent, so to speak, where I make several connections to the exile, back to some Torah texts, and ahead to the Prophets and the New Testament. 

As we've seen in these recent posts, the biblical exile----more broadly, the conquest of the northern kingdom Israel by the Assyrians in about 722 BC, the conquest of the southern kingdom Judah by the Babylonians in about 586 BC, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple at that time, and the long period of exile in Babylon before many of God's people were allowed to return to the Land following the Persian defeat of Babylon---is a story that shapes the Bible both explicitly and implicitly.

The exile happened because (in the prophetic and deuteronomistic interpretation) God executed judgment against his people for faithlessness. But in spite of the vivid and immediate threats of the writing prophets (which I'll get to by late summer/early fall), the exile does show the extraordinary patience and love of God. After all, over six hundred years separate the death of Moses/beginning of Joshua’s conquest, with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in about 586 BC. Imagine a history beginning in the mid or late 13th century–St. Thomas Aquinas, the Mongol conquest of Russia, the completion of Dante’s Divine Comedy, etc.—and ending in the present day. So this long history shows how committed God is to “hang in” with people; God, too, forgives seventy times seven and more.

The book of Deuteronomy (with its "deuteronomistic" outlook, after all) promises God’s love but also “foreshadows” God’s judgment in the exile:  

For the Lord your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God. When you have had children and children’s children… act corruptly by making an idol in the form of anything, thus doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, and provoking him to anger, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to occupy; you will not live long on it, but will be utterly destroyed. The Lord will scatter you among the peoples; only a few of you will be left among the nations where the Lord will lead you. …From there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul (Deut. 4:24-29).

Here is another passage:

When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you… and when you have eaten your fill take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear. Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you, because the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a jealous God. The anger of the Lord your God would be kindled against you and he would destroy you from the face of the earth (Deut. 6:10-15).

And another:

It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and who repays in their own person those who reject him. He does not delay but repays in their own person those who reject him. Therefore, observe diligently the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that I am commanding you today… (Deut. 7:7-13).

Earlier in the Torah, in the second commandment, God is identified as a “jealous God.” Later, in Exodus 34:14, God’s name is Jealous!

That word (or that name) makes me wonder about the nature of God's love and raises questions that go beyond the stereotype of "the Old Testament God" as an angry God. What does it mean for God to be “jealous”? 

Alan N. Winkler, writing in the Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible (Baker Academic, 2001), argues that when jealousy is named as one of God’s qualities, “it is obviously used in a positive sense” and, although an anthropomorphic term for God, it does reflect “the relationship of husband and wife and is frequently associated with Israel’s unfaithfulness to God.” (This and the following references are from that book, p. 388).

Winkler notes that the Hebrew word is qãnã’ and the Greek word is zêlos. In addition to Exodus 34:14 and Deuteronomy 4:24, Winkler points out other passages: Joshua 24:19-22, where Joshua challenges the people to serve God, who is holy and jealous. God’s jealousy is also referred to in Ezekiel 8:3, 1 Kings 14:22, and Psalm 78:58 as a threatening quality.

God’s jealousy and pity are two connected aspects of God’s nature in Joel 2:18, where God displays mercy for the people. Winkler also calls attention to Zechariah 1:14-16, which links God’s jealousy for Jerusalem and Zion, and the divine anger against the goyim, the nations. All the while, “jealousy” is also a human quality, as in Numbers 5: 14-30, Prov. 6:34, Song of Songs 8:6 (“jealousy is cruel as the grave,” RSV).

Winkler also finds the word used in Romans 10:19 (a quotation of Deut. 32:12), Romans 11:11 (where Paul hopes to reach more of his fellow Jews through his ministry), 1 Cor. 10:22 (referring to God’s reaction to Christians attending idol feasts), and 2 Cor. 11:2 (Paul’s possessiveness for the Corinthians, who are listening to the “super apostles” more than him).

Winkler concludes “[T]o arouse the jealousy of God is a very dangerous action on our part. On the other hand, God’s jealousy is based on his love and concern for us” (p. 389).

I agree---but that’s also what I’m struggling with! Those passages from Deuteronomy above are scary, and for us human beings, jealousy is a cruel and obsessive character flaw. At my university, on the bulletin board of the criminal justice department, I noticed the title of an article about abused women: ” ‘He Said If She Left, He’d Kill Her.’” Doesn’t God sound like that in some of the biblical passages? Abusive husbands do love their wives, in a sense, but those husbands are warped and destructive, no matter how much they profess love. 

Since jealousy is a biblical attribute of God, how shall we think about this quality in God? 


In “The Book of Numbers” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Volume 2, Abingdon Press, 1998), Thomas B. Dozeman writes that God’s jealousy is the theme of the speech Num. 25:10-13. God’s qãnã’, in this context, “conveys qualities of vigilance, intolerance, and absolute devotion.” (p. 199). This speech is preceded by the story of an Israelite man, Zimri, who brought a Midianite woman, Cozbi, into the group of Israelites, against God’s desire that the people not have relationships with foreign peoples. (This is one of “those” Bible stories that isn’t taught to children!) Phinehas killed both Zimri and Cozbi with a single spear thrust, perhaps while they're having sex, which in turn halted the plague (sent because of God’s wrath at the Israelites) which had already killed 24,000. Interestingly, as Dozeman points out (p. 200), Phinehas and his family are recipients of an “unconditional and permanent” covenant similar to the one made to David.

Dozeman notes that “Jealousy is about divine passion. It stresses that Yahweh is not indifferent to Israel or to their relationships in this world. It conveys strong imagery of intolerance for any allegiance outside of the relationship to God. Commentators tend to water down the violent and suspicious characteristics that accompany a description of God as being jealous. But the content of the stories in Numbers 25 suggest just the opposite. God is fanatical in demanding exclusive allegiance—so fanatical, in fact, that punishment is enacted indiscriminately. The jealousy of God is an important message to preach. God is not casual about our commitments” (p. 201).

But Dozeman goes on to say that the Phinehas story shows that God’s desire to limit “punishment to the guilty.” God had been wrathful and wanted to “destroy indiscriminately,” but the intercession of Phinehas (as well as Moses in the preceding section) cut short the divine wrath (p. 201).

This is an “interesting” side to God, to say the least! Is God liable to become irrational, so to speak, and tremendously destructive until someone intervenes to calm him down? (That’s a question I’ll look at below). Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” sometimes criticized for its harsh and scary portrayal of God, is nevertheless faithful to some biblical passages like these (His text is from Deuteronomy---32:35--and also Amos 9:2,3.)

God’s jealousy is depicted in other ways that are disturbing. Two of the most horrifying come from Ezekiel. Ezekiel 16 depicts Judah’s relationships with other Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon, as well as the people’s idol worship, as harlotries committed by a wife in betrayal of her husband. But the sins of the “wife” Jerusalem ends in her mutilation and murder, so that God can “satisfy my fury on you, and my jealousy shall turn away from you; I will be calm, and will be angry no longer” (16:42). But this violence “returned your deeds upon your head” (vs. 43), that is, the people are culpable for their punishment: the conquest of the land by Babylon. (See, for instance, the failed efforts of Zedekiah to mediate between Egypt and Babylon, against Jeremiah’s advice and also depreciated in the next chapter, Ez. 17.)

Ezekiel 23 is an even more violent and vulgar text, presenting Samaria and Jerusalem as two nymphomaniac women, Oholah and Oholibah. Oholah is stripped and killed. Oholibah, lusting for foreign men with huge penises and generous orgasms (verse 20), is punished for her lust by being stripped and mutilated. Again, the punishments are described as being fitting to Judah’s sins: i.e., the kingdom’s political and religious relationships with foreign nations, depicted here as adultery and harlotry, and thus are contrary to a relationship of trust and worship to Yahweh.

My div school classmate Dr. Julie Galambush, in her study Jerusalem in the Book of Ezekiel: The City as Yahweh's Wife (Scholar’s Press, 1992), also notes the strangeness that, for all of the language and metaphors of savage judgment against Jerusalem, the idea of the city as God’s wife subsequently falls away in Ezekiel. On one hand, this prophet is one of the Bible’s most complex and perplexing writings, ranging from crude parables like these, to strange “performance art,” to the unforgettable parable of hope in chapter 37, apocalyptic images, and deep moral theology which challenges other biblical writings. It's not a simple book! On the other hand, you might think that the intensity of the "unfaithfulness" passages warrant some kind of redemption. 

Conjugal and sexual language to describe the relationship of God and Israel—along with the metaphors of God as a furious, vengeful husband punishing his unfaithful wife with violence—isn’t new or limited to these terrible Ezekiel passages. Read several chapters of Hosea, who lived in the 8th century (Ezekiel was 6th century), and you see how Hosea’s experience of marriage to a prostitute informs God’s pronouncements of judgment and mercy upon Israel. Also read Isaiah 3:16-4:1 and you get a similar (and to us, misogynistic) image of God’s people as a lewd woman, showing off her “bling,” who will eventually be punished, afflicted and humiliated. (Interestingly, this section is next to God’s condemnation of Israel for neglecting the poor, another sin which evokes God’s furious judgment.)

We see some of this language as well in Jeremiah chapters 2 through 10, in the prophetic oracles against the people—God’s threats of punishment and exile—in which God’s people are portrayed as an unfaithful wife. Interestingly, Jeremiah himself complains that God has been to him like a predator–a sexual predator at that; “enticing” and “overpowering” connote seduction and rape—forcing him into the humiliation and derision of the prophetic role (20:7-12). God’s faithful prophet suffers, along with his people, the violence of an angry deity.

But God also struggles with tenderness, as in Hosea 11, although here the language changes from conjugal to parental. Still, God seems horrified at his own wrath and his own need to display wrath.

How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.

Of course, we have many beautiful passages in 2 Isaiah; after the divine fury that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the people, God is now calm (to echo Ezekiel 16:42 above), and speaks tenderly and comfortingly to the people. Language of conjugal relationship is there, and God also addresses the people as a people and a suffering servant. God promises that the divine glory shall not be removed again from among his people.

For my name’s sake I defer my anger,
for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you,
so that I may not cut you off.
See, I have refined you, but not like silver;
I have tested you in the furnace of adversity.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it,
for why should my name be profaned?
My glory I will not give to another (Isaiah 48:9-11).


The prolific scholar Walter Brueggemann comments (in his Theology of the Old Testament) that our theological reflection would be easier if passages like Ezekiel 16 and 23 were not in the Bible! But they’re there. What kind of love does this God show? Does John 3:16 have an ominous quality in light of God’s possessive rage? Brueggemann writes: ‘This is no “sweet” love, but a fierce love that demands much both from God and God’s people.’

Brueggemann quotes Deuteronomy 7:7-8a and 10:15, and comments, “This is no casual, formal, or juridical commitment [to Israel]. This is a passion that lives in the ‘loins’ of Yahweh, who will risk everything for Israel and, having risked everything, will expect everything and will be vigilant not to share the beloved with any other. This is no open marriage. The outcome of a passion so intensely initiated has within it the seeds of intolerance, culminating in violence. There is indeed a profound awkwardness in this presentation of Yahweh, but Israel does not finish in its testimony. The God who has been madly in love becomes insanely jealous, which is Israel’s deepest threat and most profound hope… This is [the God] who goes wholly overboard in passion, to Israel’s great gain and then to Israel’s greatest loss… It is worth nothing that in the Johannine witness in the New Testament, there are those familiar words, ‘God so loved the world…’ So loved! How loved? In what way? To what extent? So loved….to give all…and demand all.”(Walter Brueggemann,Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), pp. 384-385.This quote is from the section “Yahweh’s Capacity for Violence,” one of the three of Israel’s “countertestimonies” about God’s nature. Brueggemann writes, “In the end, a student of the Old Testament cannot answer for or justify the violence [of God], but must concede that it belongs to the very fabric of this faith” [p. 381].)

One is the violence of sovereignty. Any government has to use a certain amount of force, and this is true of the Lord as well. We see it in the pre-exilic prophets and the destruction of Jerusalem in 587, as Brueggemann points out (p. 381). He notes that God uses force against other nations: Egypt in Exodus, Assyria (Isaiah 10 and 37), Babylon (Isaiah 47 and Daniel 4), as well as other nations (Amos 1)(p. 381-382).

There is also the violence of the conquest of the land, wherein Israel is blessed, loved, and protected while the inhabitants of the land (in God's judgment) get what's coming to them because of their idolatry and evil. Brueggeman calls this a countertestimony in distinction to the testimony of God’s goodness and compassion: his example is Ps. 145:9. In the stories of the conquest, God is “good to Israel at the expense of others” (p. 382).

Brueggemann sees a third countertestimony, “Yahweh’s profound irrationality,” which we see in images of God as an “authoritarian husband and Israel as “the easily blamed, readily dismissed, vulnerable wife” (p. 383; see his footnote there). The stories of Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel depict “a Yahweh who is out of control with the violent, sexual rage of a husband who assaults his own beloved” (p. 383). We do see that return of tenderness and restoration in the poetry of Second Isaiah; but the damage has been done. Brueggemann notes “There is indeed a profound awkwardness in this presentation of Yahweh, but Israel does not flinch in its testimony. The God who has been madly in love becomes insanely jealous, which is Israel’s deepest threat and most profound hope” (p. 384).

As I still thought about this issue, I found another Brueggemann piece, this time in “The Book of Exodus” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Volume 1, Abingdon Press, 1994). There, he notes that God is jealous because God is faithful. An idol, or image, is a way to domesticate and control God, which cannot be done (p. 842). But how we try! Brueggemann notes that we do live in a “world of options” which can and does lead us astray: “In pursuit of joy, we may choose Bacchus; in pursuit of security, we may choose Mars; in pursuit of genuine love, we may choose Eros. It is clear that these choices are not Yahweh, that these are not Gods who have ever wrought an Exodus or offered a covenant” (p. 843).

The reason for God’s jealousy, is God’s “deep moral seriousness who takes affront at violations of commandments.” But God is jealous because of God’s “massive fidelity (hesed) to those who are willing to live in covenant” (p. 842). Hesed, of course, translates as “fidelity,” or “steadfast love” or “lovingkindness”: the kind of love that is faithful and (ultimately) tender, that which reaches into human existence, becomes involved in our pain and struggles, and remains more committed to us than us to God.


The theme of God’s jealousy is to me very distressing, because the word (and some of the biblical testimony) depict God as having qualities that we deplore and despise in people---and in some cases are criminal. We long for God to be “God and no mortal” (Hos. 11:9). 

But on the other hand, the word denotes God’s desire to keep his people as his own, and includes the protectiveness and commitment that we show for our own families. Since the Greek word is zêlos, we can think about meanings of the word “zealous” as pertaining to God: an online dictionary lists several definitions and synonyms, like ardently active, devoted, diligent,  eager, passionate, warm, intense, and fervent.

Two more writings are worth noting as I finish this subject for now. One is a Jew and another from a Christian. At the beginning of Rosh Hashanah a few years ago, I noticed a fascinating article tweeted from Huffington Post, “G-d’s Struggle to Repent” by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald (  His thoughts dovetail well with the Hosea 11 passage and others.

“The Talmud, in Brachot 7a, reports two similar stories about prayer. Rabbi Yohanan asks in the name of Rabbi Yosi: How do we know that the Holy One Blessed Be He says prayers? He answers: because the verse in Isaiah 56:7 states: ‘I will bring them to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer.’ It does not say ‘their house of prayer,’ but ‘My house of prayer.’ Hence, we learn that the Holy One Blessed Be He prays.

“The Talmud then asks: What exactly does G-d pray? Rav Zutra the son of Tobia said in the name of Rav: G-d’s prayer is, ‘May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger and that My mercy prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice.’”

Rabbi Buchwald gives further Talmudic stories of this type. God “reveals His inner desire that His mercy suppress His anger, even though the anger may be justified. We are told that it is the Almighty’s fervent wish that His mercy prevail over His other attributes, which usually mete out justice on the basis of strict retribution that fits the offense and give His people the benefit of the doubt, rather than accord strict justice.” After discussing traditional interpretations, Rabbi Buchwald says that, in his opinion, “the Talmud here informs us through these intriguing tales, that G-d needs help as well. It is through such anthropomorphic tales that the Talmud and the Aggadot teach us that G-d ‘struggles,’ so to speak, to overcome His anger against those who betray Him and break His trust. It is as if the Immortal truly needs the blessing of the mortal, which, of course, is unfathomable.

“The message, then, is directed to us, to humans of flesh and blood. We mortals must be humbled and inspired by G-d’s behavior. Just as G-d seeks out others to help Him and bless Him, so should we seek out others who may help us and bless us. Just as G-d prays that His quality of mercy should overcome His anger, so too must we pray that our quality of mercy should overcome our anger. “That the most powerful Being in the world is depicted in the Talmud as needing help, is a message of hope, rather than despair. Just as G-d needs to work on His qualities so that He can overcome His anger, so too must we, mortals, struggle to do the same.”

He goes on to discuss these passages with reference to the High Holy Days, that our human mercy, too, may prevail over our anger and other qualities, and that we may be inscribed in the Book of Life.

The Talmudic passages and Rabbi Buchwald’s comments give us some clues–and comfort—concerning God’s jealousy when we’re looking specifically at the Old Testament passages. As Brueggemann puts it, we have testimonies and countertestimonies concerning God’s lovingkindness and God’s sometimes irrational jealousy: but thinking of God’s characteristics as not only being toward us but also engaging and including us in fellowship, we can feel positive and hopeful—and, indeed, more loving—toward God who shares with us, through the biblical testimony, God’s longing to show mercy rather than anger.

Then I turned to a book I purchased quite a while ago but currently have on my iPad (and thus I’ll have to locate the following references in the printed book): Jack Miles’ Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God (Vintage, 2002). Miles notes how interesting it is that God easily won the battle against Egypt at the exodus, but he seemed to be defeated against his people’s enemies the Assyrians and Babylonians. These defeats were, however, judgments against the people’s sins. And yet his people were eventually conquered by the Romans in 63 BCE. Did God suffer defeat this time? As Miles put it at the end of the last chapter (before the epilogue), this time God “joined them, suffering in advance all that they would suffer, and creating out of his agony a way for them to rise from the death with him and return to paradise, bringing all nations with them.”

In the epilogue, Miles makes an interesting comment that since Jesus is God Incarnate, “all of God’s earlier words were Jesus’ words as well and may–indeed, must–be taken into account as evidence about his character.” But this implies a “transformation of the divine character” which happens by the time of the Incarnation. “God’s power was such that, in his prime, he annihilated in minutes the mightiest army in the world. More than once, he compared himself to a great marauding beast. Why does he become a defenseless peasant who, when the authorities sentence him to death, offers no resistance and ends his life as a convicted criminal?” God is a jealous God and uses divine power to hold his people accountable and to punish them. Now, Miles notes that “God the Son is not at all the kind of man one would expect God the Father to become.”

“The Lord of All the Earth, to use the grandest of all his Old Testament titles, arranges to have himself put to death as the King of the Jews not to destroy hope as he destroys himself but only to replace a vain hope [a military victory against the people's oppressors, or a mighty salvation similar to the exodus] with one that can still be realized…Defeated by Rome, God thus accomplishes what he tried and failed to accomplish when defeated by Babylonia: He turns the defeat into a triumph, the humiliation into an exaltation….God, shattered, can descend to death; and when he rises to eternal life, he can lift his human creatures up with him.”

(This post is edited from another post:

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