The book of Deuteronomy promises God’s love but also “foreshadows” God’s judgment, thus anticipating the history of the people on the land for the subsequent 600 or so years.
Deuteronomy 7:7-13 has a similar warning. Scholars note that Deuteronomy is a long farewell address from Moses as he reminds not only the Israelites about God’s blessings and covenant, but also to the people’s descendants into the indefinite future.
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!
The Phinehas story is a classic one that illustrates the danger of God’s jealousy. The scholar Alan N. Winkler notes 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.” The Hebrew word is qãnã’ and the Greek word is zêlos. 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” (3)
I agree, but that’s also what I’m struggling with! In human beings, jealousy is a cruel and obsessive fault. Abusive husbands do love their wives, in a sense, but those husbands are warped and destructive, no matter how much they profess love. The Torah has a long passage that deals with the consequences of human jealousy (Numbers 5:11-31). Just because jealousy is a biblical attribute of God, should we automatically assume it is thereby a good quality?
Another writer, Thomas B. Dozeman, writes 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” (5). He 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 (5).
Is God liable to become irrational, so to speak, and tremendously destructive until someone intervenes to calm him down?
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. Of course, we also have lovely passages in Isaiah 40 and following.
The Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann comments that God is jealous because God is faithful. An idol, or image, is a way to domesticate and control God, which cannot be done. But how we try! Brueggemann notes that we do live in a “world of options” which can and does lead us astray. But God is jealous because of God’s “massive fidelity (hesed) to those who are willing to live in covenant” (5). Hesed 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, at least—distressing because the word (and some of the biblical testimony) depict God as having qualities that we deplore in people---and which can even be criminal. 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. We should never, ever take the actions of Phinehas as normative! It is understood as an action acceptable only in its original, ancient context.
Since the Greek word for “jealousy” 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.
1.Have you thought of God as possessive? How is that different in your mind from being protective and committed?
2.As a country, we are in an interesting time right now, when statues and monuments are being removed or questioned, and when certain traditions are being held up for scrutiny. Do you think that Bible passages and ideas should be scrutinized and rethought in light of new circumstances? (Spoiler alert, we do so all the time!)