God’s Jealousy, Part 1

Having recently studied and spoken on God’s Jealousy, I thought I would take time to put down in written form some of what I shared with the good people who were willing to listen to me.

In James 4:4-5 we encounter some unusual language.

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us?”

Specifically, the words adulterous and jealously seem strangely out of place. The context makes it clear that physical adultery is not what James is currently addressing, and the idea of God as jealous is not a common one in the New Testament. So how do we make sense of this? What is James trying to say?

Interestingly, the only other place in the NT where adultery is used in a clearly non-physical way is in Matthew 12:39, where Jesus says “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” Even more tellingly, the parallel passage in Luke excludes the word adulterous from the same phrase. Luke 11:29: As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.”

This underlines the Old Testament roots of this language and metaphor. Because why, you say? Well because Matthew was written to a Jewish audience that would immediately have connected the adultery language to those scathing passages in Jeremiah and Hosea with which they were familiar. Luke’s audience, however, was primarily Gentile, and would not have made that connection (thus, I’m assuming, he left it out to avoid the confusion).

So to the Old Testament we must go! We begin all the way back in Exodus 20, in the smoke and thunder of Mount Sinai. In delivering the second commandment, God explains the prohibition of images by saying “for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.” Remember that these words, spoken by the Lord, are some of the very first revelations of himself to his people, who at this point did not have the written law, and were only now receiving the tablets of stone. God is explaining to them what kind of God he is, in contrast to the gods of Egypt or Canaan.

Follow the story to Exodus 32 and we find that the people, having waited 400 years for rescue in Egypt, couldn’t wait the full 40 days for Moses to finish up his business on the mountain. They violate the second commandment in creating and worshiping the golden calf, and then when Moses comes back down the mountain he is, as they say, not impressed, children. Kind of like when I stomp down the stairs and find the kids’ playroom looking like a tornado, a bomb, and a group of chimps had a rave, except very much more so.

So in Exodus 34:14 God says “Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” He has gone a step further from using jealous as an adjective to describe himself and has made it a proper noun – God’s very Name. Jealous. In the next verse, he describes the pagan worship of the Canaanites by saying “they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice for them.” This use of sexual language to describe religious practice begins a long theme winding through the whole of the Old Testament, even if at this point it isn’t clear what exactly is meant, but it is growing clear that there is a link between God’s jealousy, the covenant, and this language of sexual sin.

We find the same language used in Deuteronomy 31 to describe Israel’s future covenant unfaithfulness. “And the Lord said to Moses: ‘You are going to rest with your ancestors, and these people will soon prostitute themselves to the foreign gods of the land they are entering. They will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them.'” Here we see that this language of prostitution is clearly linked to breaking the covenant – an important clue as to the full meaning of this metaphor.

As with so many Biblical themes, what we find in seed form at the beginning of redemptive history grows and unfurls as that history progresses. At this point it would make sense to come away thinking what does this mean?; but further revelation, especially through the prophets Hosea and Jeremiah, will make it crystal clear.

And that’s what we’ll look at in Part 2.

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About Phil Cotnoir

I'm not so unlike you.
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