If you are at all like me, you have always been puzzled by the references in the Old Testament to God being “jealous.” Early on in the Book of Deuteronomy, the reader is admonished:
13 Fear the LORD your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name. 14 Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you; 15 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. (Deut. 6:13-15)
God is also described as “jealous” three other times in Deuteronomy (Deut. 4:24 Deut. 5:9; Deut. 32:16). He is also so regarded in five other places in the Old Testament (Exod. 20:5; Exod. 34:14; Joshua 24:19; Ezek. 8:3; Nahum 1:2). Overall, the Old Testament—Deuteronomy perhaps being the most conspicuous—seems pretty consistent on this point: God (YHWH) is envious. But how could God be “jealous”? Isn’t that something for bitter people and materialists? How could the Almighty, the only God, be the equivalent of me when, in the fall of 1996, my best friend got a Nintendo 64?
In a previous post at Holey Books, I mentioned the perplexity that this description creates. Our current concept of God—at least most modern conceptions of God—doesn’t seem to allow for petty sort of (well, human) feelings. God should be considered above it all, free from emotions and passing fancies. To simplify all of the inquiries this leads to, let’s just post one first question: 1) How could God feel jealousy?
Another problem, of course, is establishing of whom God could be jealous. This leads to (again simplifying) a second question: 2) If God is the only God there is, then how could he be jealous of other Gods? (Put in other words: If Baal or Marduk were just figments of the imagination, how could Yahweh be jealous of them?)
It takes some mental gymnastics to answer these two questions. First, we could answer by suggesting that God is not really “feeling” such emotion, but that the author of the text is ascribing it to the divine character. This leads us to a problem of having to distort what scripture seems to plainly mean. Second, we could answer, assuming answer 1 was true, that God could feel “jealousy” toward other gods (emphatically with the lower case “g”) even though they did not exist. He is jealous that other things have his precious humans’ attention.
Neither of these answers, as is probably apparent, is particularly heartening. But if we stray a bit away from these theological assumptions, there is, in fact, a relatively simple answer to both questions. The answer—as many scholars have shown—is that, for a long time, the Ancient Israelites weren’t monotheistic, but monolatrous (“monolatry” is the belief that other Gods besides ons own exist; see a previous post for a more detailed explanation). This continued, despite the best efforts of rulers like Josiah to contain strains of monolatrous ideology. Thus, in the composers of the Bible’s worldview, God would have other gods of whom to be jealous, and the existence of these other gods was taken for granted by both God (as quoted in the Old Testament) and his chosen people.
Certainly, Christians, Jews, and Muslims do not believe there are any other extant gods. Islam and Judaism both developed important, religion-forming structural debates about this (for the former, this was where the “Satanic Verses” comes in). Christianity, of course, was partially predicated on monotheistic Judaism.
So how concerned should we be of the “jealous” God language? Not very, at least, even for devoted believers, as long as you are not terribly rigid. Of course, it’s definitely concerning if you hold that scripture is perfect: How can such a different conception of God show an unerring scripture? How can this not be an example of the imperfection of these books? Perhaps not even the best mental gymnasts can contort that far.