Friday, January 01, 2010

The "jealousy" of God

"Zeal for your house consumes me" (Psalm 69:9).

In a now famous statement, Oprah Winfrey once spoke on her Baptist upbringing and how it was that she lost her faith in mainstream Christianity, ultimately in favor of New Age thought. She related about ten years ago:

"I was raised a Baptist and we were too hung up on traditional ways. I was sitting in church and heard that God is a jealous God. I asked 'Why?' Come on-let's get over it!" (source)

What Oprah eventually concluded was that a loving God could not possibly be jealous, since jealousy is a purely human affection, and a particularly petty one at that. Therefore God could not be a jealous God, as the Bible states. The god Oprah eventually settled on is a god that does not care what people think about him - he is aloof and all-embracing, and certainly not jealous by any stretch.

It certainly cannot be denied that God calls Himself "jealous" in the Old Testament; in fact, right in the Decalogue. The prohibitions against idol worship in the first commandment are concluded with the statement, "I am the Lord thy God, mighty, jealous." What is this jealousy that God attributes to Himself and which Oprah thinks so little of?

Let's begin by looking at this verse quoted above in Exodus 20:5, "I am the Lord thy God, mighty, jealous." (Lat. (ego sum Dominus Deus tuus fortis zelotes) .Notice two things here: first that the original Latin word is "zelotes", the same word that is used in the New Testament to describe one of the Apostles, Simon the Zealot. This shows a connection between the ideas of "jealousy" and "zeal" in the Scriptures; the connection is a semantic connection in meaning, as well as an etymological connection, as I will demonstrate.

Second, notice that the designation of God as "jealous" follows immediately upon the warnings against idolatry, suggesting that God wishes us to understand this attribute of His nature specifically against the backdrop of the sin of idolatry.

Regarding the first point, the connection between "jealousy" and "zeal", we need to first understand that both of these words come from the same source, the Latin word zelus, which itself comes from the Greek zelos, which sometimes means jealously in the negative sense but also emulation, rivalry or zeal. It is quite interesting that this one root can have two opposing derivations - a positive and a negative aspect of jealousy. We can be jealous "of" or jealous "for"; to be jealous of means to envy something we do not have; to be jealous for means to desire to retain something good one already has, as we shall see. On the great etymology website Etymology Online I found this interesting comment on Indo-European words origins for "envy" and "jealousy":

"Most of the words for 'envy' ... had from the outset a hostile force, based on 'look at' (with malice), 'not love,' etc. Conversely, most of those which became distinctive terms for 'jealousy' were originally used also in a good sense, 'zeal, emulation.' " [Buck, pp.1138-9, source]

We know of course as a theological truth that God cannot be "jealous" in the petty, human way. But Scripturally we see this to be the case as well if we understand God's "jealously" more in keeping with the root word than with the common English usage; that is, as "zeal." This is the type of zeal expressed by our Lord when He drove the money changers from the Temple, of which the Scriptures said, "Zeal for your house will consume me" (Ps. 68:9, John 2:17). See how God is said to be zealous/jealous "for" something?

Very well, so we can say that if God is jealous, it is not in the petty human way that we mean when we use the word jealously in the context of malice or envy, but rather more in the context of zeal. So we have a God. whose jealousy is understood in terms of zeal "for" us. What does this mean exactly? For this answer, we need to go back to our second point: that the designation of God as "jealous" follows immediately upon the warnings against idolatry.

This gets to what I said above about jealousy "for" something being a desire to retain a good already possessed. This type of jealousy flows from the possession of a true good and a consequent desire to see that good preserved. This desire for the well-being of the good puts one in conflict with anything that detracts from the goodness of the object/person, or which could deprive the lover of the object loved. The Scriptures use this phrase to describe the affections of a man for his wife when there is a suspicion of real (or imaginary) adultery, that is, when he feels he has "lost" his beloved to someone else:

Num. 5:11-15: Then the LORD said to Moses, "Speak to the Israelites and say to them: 'If a man's wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him by sleeping with another man, and this is hidden from her husband and her impurity is undetected (since there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act), and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure—or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure- then he is to take his wife to the priest.

Knowing that the Lord's covenant with His people is spoken of in marital terms, and that idolatry is spiritual adultery (see Hosea 1:2), we should not be surprised then if this language about God being "jealous" is used in connection with the worship of idols and false gods. This is in fact the case all throughout Scripture, beginning in the Decalogue with the first commandment and continuing on throughout the whole of the Old Testament. Consider the following verses, noting the connection between jealousy and idolatry:

Ex. 34:14: Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.

Deut. 4:23-24:
Be careful not to forget the covenant of the LORD your God that he made with you; do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the LORD your God has forbidden. For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. Deut. 6:14-16: Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you; for the LORD your God, who is among you, is a jealous God and his anger will burn against you, and he will destroy you from the face of the land. Do not test the LORD your God as you did at Massah.

Deut. 32:16-17:
They made him jealous with their foreign gods and angered him with their detestable idols.They sacrificed to demons, which are not God - gods they had not known, gods that recently appeared, gods your fathers did not fear.

Jos. 24:19-20:
Joshua said to the people, "You are not able to serve the LORD. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you."

Psalm 78:57-59:
Like their fathers they were disloyal and faithless, as unreliable as a faulty bow.They angered him with their high places; they aroused his jealousy with their idols. When God heard them, he was very angry; he rejected Israel completely.

Ezk. 8:2-4:
I looked, and I saw a figure like that of a man. From what appeared to be his waist down he was like fire, and from there up his appearance was as bright as glowing metal. He stretched out what looked like a hand and took me by the hair of my head. The Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and in visions of God he took me to Jerusalem, to the entrance to the north gate of the inner court, where the idol that provokes to jealousy stood. And there before me was the glory of the God of Israel, as in the vision I had seen in the plain.

Nahum 1:1-2,14: An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum the Elkoshite. The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The LORD takes vengeance on his foes and maintains his wrath against his enemies...The LORD has given a command concerning you, Nineveh : "You will have no descendants to bear your name. I will destroy the carved images and cast idols that are in the temple of your gods. I will prepare your grave, for you are vile."

The message here is undeniable: we can only understand the jealously of God for His people against the existence of competing loyalties that distract us from God and drive us from Him, in Israel's case literal false gods. God is passionately intent on possessing us and on not sharing us with other gods or rival loyalties. This is to be understood in the same way that a husband or wife is "jealous" of their spouse, insofar as they desire his/her highest good, are privy to a special, exclusive relationship with one another, and demand/expect this exclusivity to be respected and honored by the virtue of marital fidelity.

Is there anyone out there so foolish as to say that a man's jealousy to the exclusive marital relationship with his wife against other competitors is the same as the petty, vain jealously of, say, a man who covets his neighbor's new car? The latter seeks through envy to possess something lacking; the former seeks through charity to preserve a good from corruption or loss. It is in this second sense that we must understand God's jealously - a jealous zeal for His people, due to His great love, which is in hostility towards anything that would take us from Him, knowing that our true and highest good lies in communion with our Creator. This is the divine zeal with which God pursues souls.

Does Oprah care? Not really. The statement of hers listed above about her confusion over God's "jealously" is really no reason to disbelieve in God; it's a simple misunderstanding, a stumbling block, a block which she uses to justify her desire to seek not that which is true but that which is gratifying to the flesh. Her statement reflects not an argument against a Christian God, nor even a real doubt; just a difficulty - one that could have been cleared up with ten minutes of study.

Well, even if I doubt Oprah Winfrey will read this and repent, perhaps it will help someone else who has been deluded by Oprah's poison to see just a little more clearly.


Anonymous said...

Well, you have had other famous people (Scott Hahn) read your blog after you wrote about them, so Oprah could possibly stumble upon this--maybe with the help of the Holy Spirit. It's good--she should read it!

Suzanne from Oklahoma

Steve said...

Excellent, makes me feel good to know that God loves us so much!

Anonymous said...

I also remember a few years ago reading Oprah's quote that you cited. It has always stuck with me and I even thought about it again today, since my diaconate class recently covered the Pentateuch. I remember being stunned at how immature and poorly formed Oprah's Christian faith was, when she decided to chuck it over a misunderstanding on her part. I don't think she even asked her pastor about it, she just deserted her faith over this "irreconcilable" misunderstanding. Your point about her being able to clear it up with ten minutes of study says it all--there had to be something deeper going on with her.
But unfortunately, I think there are many Christians like her--poorly formed in their faith or embracing their faith in only a superficial way. The slightest misunderstanding or mood change can set them down another path and it is sad.

Boniface said...


Yes, there is definitely something deeper going on when someone loses faith over something like that...

Congratulations on your journey to the diaconate! What diocese?

Fr. Larry said...

Wonderfully said! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I'm in the 6 year deacon formation program in the Diocese of Tulsa. Bishop Slattery is doing many wonderful things here--brick by brick.
I'm a sporadic visitor here but enjoy your posts. I really was already thinking about Oprah's "jealously" story the day when I checked on your blog--quite the coincidence. Maybe things will change with her--who knows?

Randy McCracken said...

This is an excellent article on the biblical distinction between envy and jealousy. I attempt to show this in my Romans class (especially 10:19) and my NT Backgrounds class. Students are often surprised at the difference because in our modern world we often use the words interchangeably. Thanks again for this enlightening article!