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The Jealous God

In Scripture, God enters the human drama wearing different masks (persona). To a confused audience he introduces himself by many names: the God of Israel, of Jacob, of Abraham; the Most High and the Mighty One; Yahweh; our Lord, our Master, our Banner. But one name which God takes is a rather curious one. In different occasions He calls Himself the "Jealous God."

One important instance he calls Himself such was when He gave Moses his commandments in Exodus 20:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
     You shall have no other gods before me.
     You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand [generations] of those who love me and keep my commandments. 
A jealous God? God instructs Moses to teach all peoples and nations first and above all that they must bow down to and worship Him alone. All other injunctions, such as keeping the Sabbath and the many prohibitions, all these follow after that first order. Idolatry, or the worship of false gods, was the first danger or sin God had wanted to eradicate (at least in order, not necessarily in importance, which cannot be determined by this initiate). And naturally so: this God was a god which people did not yet know, more so understand or yet believed in. The Israelites had previously worshiped many different gods, the gods of their fathers and ancestors, familiar gods that came before this God that "no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived" (1 Cor 2:9).

Thus the necessity for God to first of all not only to introduce who He is, and also what He will do to those who do not accept Him. Like a fearful king who puts to death those who commit treason, those who do not acknowledge God and serve him shall be meted out a punishment that will also be inherited by the children of their children. In other instances the penalty for the worship of other gods is more descriptive: God describes Himself to be "a consuming fire" (Deut 4:24), and his "anger will burn against [idolaters], and he will destroy [them] from the face of the land" (Deut 6:15).

At pain of annihilation, his fire and his wrath, one would be wise to not test the patience of this Jealous God.


What could God's jealousy mean?

It is easy (though instructive) to interpret the jealousy of God through our own experiences of jealousy. We can only think in human terms, and this because we can only experience human experiences. The instinctive charge of "anthropomorphism," or the warning against the reduction of what is not human (in this case, the divine) to the human, has to be admittedly accepted. To be sure, it is often held that to attribute to God such a banal and all-too-human trait like jealousy is to commit a gross error in thinking. But is not praising his glory, goodness, generosity, power, and unity--do not these words also come from our vocabulary, which being so can be traced back to our own experiences? Let us set aside such a charge which closes doors prematurely. We wish to understand slowly, and to do so at times means starting with what is at hand and available to everyday experience. This, at least in this instance, is a matter not of interpretation but of description. Perhaps, after all, one always has to begin from the banality of the human in order to ascend to the celestial heights.

So what do we experience when we experience jealousy?

For the most part jealousy is that rush of emotion that overcomes us when we are threatened by an other who may appear to be claiming what is properly (or what we think to be) ours. Jealousy requires a third which enters the fray from nowhere, disrupting the peace and clarity of understanding between two individuals who have mutually consented to being called one another's. No third, no threat, then no jealousy worth the name. Now the threat by no means has to be real, that is, the third does not have to in fact be claiming by explicit words or brave actions that the beloved is hers; a moment of doubt is all that is required for the majestic fall from happiness, the ugly comedy to ensue. A "green-eyed monster" (Shakespeare), jealousy transforms the hitherto secure world into one which threatens me from all corners. No small detail, however innocent or meaningless, escapes the precise gaze of jealousy. Jealousy usually begins with that suspicion of infidelity, that spark of doubt, a dangerous what if?: I fear that someone else loves you, or that you already love someone else; what if this means the end of our love? Infidelity breaks the law which I held and kept, and which I assumed my beloved also submitted himself to. I believe that it transgresses my right to love and be loved--alone. Thus any violation must be found out and the violator persecuted. All are summoned to the unjust court of doubt, where the judgment has been settled in advance, or at least all are assumed to be guilty until proven innocent. To a doubtful lover the world conspires against him.

Whence the questions, the interrogations, the trials and prosecutions love suddenly has to submit itself to. If love undergoes many tests one of the most trying is the test of fidelity sparked on by doubt and suspicion. An ugly sight: what had previously been believed in with pristine faith, here in this occasion is submerged in the thick mud of doubt. What had had the stability of a rock or the security of a fortress is now suddenly shook or under siege. From happiness to doubt; from outward gazes to solitary introspection; from lover  to a "green-eyed monster" (Shakespeare); and from love to its possible acquittal--jealousy redirects the gaze of the lover, reverses love's passions and inverts its charge. It is said everyday: The greater the love, the greater the jealousy--and the more bitter the hate. Also, says everyone: Where there is no jealousy there is no love. All of a sudden, in a cruel science, jealousy becomes the accurate barometer of the intensity of love's passions.

To think jealousy by reflecting it against love and its passions may still remain insufficient. For one, there are times that my beloved can in fact be pursued by another yet I may remain constant in my faith that my beloved loves me and I alone. There are loves that are not shaken by threats, as there are faiths that are invincible to doubt. Thus love can for the most pert be immune to jealousy. And in contrast to everyday opinion, the deeper the roots of love grow, the more it can withstand the storm of doubt. Whence the immobility and tranquility of some lovers, especially those of long-married couples who have seen many seasons together, enjoy.

Secondly, one can be jealous without having anything at stake, that is, without actually loving or being loved. Like being loved, jealousy must be earned. This kind of jealousy, however, is intensified by deep green hues of envy. I see a man I am envious of because he has the possible lover I desire: I am jealous of him because he is the one she chose and not I. One can experience the whole concert of emotions--from desire to love, from love to jealousy, from jealousy to hate--without really playing a tune. In a sense, as in watching melodramas, the distant lover participates in the game of emotions without affording to pay or without having to surrender anything of value. The spectacle I do seek because it sets into play all those emotions of desire and love and jealousy that are dormant within me and previously without an intentional object. Upon focusing on an apparent object of love, I train those emotions toward the beloved who is unaware of the whole exercise. But since I cannot claim her who does not even know my name, I know perfectly as well that this love is doomed from the start; and perhaps, that was what I wanted to experience all along. In this instance, at least, I am able to retain the colorful garment of emotions while discarding the very substance that gives shapes to it: I like to feel love and go through the train of emotions that follow it, while I do not have to even love the person as such. 

How then to proceed? If jealousy be both captive to and indifferent to love, what can jealousy on its own therefore mean and say? Setting aside questions about possession and security, its anticipation of hate and preparation of judgment, what does jealousy hide but nevertheless confess?

If jealousy is for the most part directed against the third, it must nevertheless be traced back to the second, that is, to the beloved. For all that fire and fury, jealousy is only possible because there is something valuable at stake, not only for me (not possession, my security, or own pleasure), but valuable for and in itself. What do we mean here? Only this: I am able to be jealous because I do not wish others to hurt--mishandle, betray--my beloved.

I know the beloved and his value, worth, and own beauty, I know her so much already, and this is a knowledge another person, this stranger or newcomer may not have. In other words, if I do mark my territory, it is not because I feel threatened, but because I feel that another may threaten my beloved. To be sure I want to protect my beloved out of love; but in certain cases the love here spoken of is no longer that kind which begins and returns to itself, or loves in order to be loved in return; it happens that we love with a love which looks out for the good of the other. Protecting its cubs, the lioness guards off danger by showing the very claws by which she grooms her young. The actions born from jealousy, while differing in intention and emotions, still look similar with protective love: at bottom the lover only wants (and wills!) that the beloved be kept safe from harm.

But by what right, it must be objected, do I have to ordain and judge what is best for my beloved? More so, with what prescience can I say that the third will not love my beloved as much as I do, or better than I can? Obviously, I cannot know these things with certainty without lying to myself. That is why the best way still, if ever there be a best way, is to finally ask the beloved herself what would she have of it, that is, who does she want to love. The dance of jealousy is quickly cut by an honest beloved. And before the beloved who freely chooses another, I lose all my claims, and ultimately I have to withdraw--but not without a fight.

The Hebrew word for "jealousy" used in the passage above was qana (or qanna, qina). And aside from this word referring to jealousy itself as we know it, the word also refers to its often forgotten etymological synonym "zeal,"or "zealousness." It is the same with the Greek zelos, closer to our Filipino selos, but it will be caricatured later as "rivalry" (after which they named a god). But Sappho originally took zelos to mean as being in "hot pursuit" of something. These other possible meanings of jealousy tell us that it was not originally meant to describe the lover's relationship to a third, but first of all indicates how he pursues the beloved--that is, with burning desire, spirited fervor, and rabid love. Through time zealousness and jealousy came to be divorced from each other. But before this fateful break, the jealous lover was nothing else than an aspirant who with all his might wanted to love even if that meant losing to a rival. And if we had eventually painted the jealous lover as a green-eyed monster, Sappho originally drew him as a weak victim to love's cruel game.

In fragment 31 Sappho describes the emotions of a woman as she sees her beloved with another man:

. . .


  1. Richard Kearney's 'The Wake of Imagination' is on my platter today. I'm amused that the prelude of Chapter One: The Hebraic Imagination is a lengthy slice of Thomas Mann's 'Joseph and His Brothers', and it's akin to the theme of your essay-in-the-works. Here it goes:

    ". . .He spoke of the garden eastwards in Eden and of the trees in it, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge; of the temptation and of God's first attack of jealousy: how he was alarmed lest man, who now indeed knew good and evil, might eat also of the tree of life and be entirely like 'us.' So He drove out the man and set the cherub with the flaming sword before the gate. And to the man he gave toil and death that he might be an image like to 'us', indeed, but not too like, only somewhat liker than the fishes, the birds and the beasts, and still with the privately assigned task of becoming against His jealous opposition ever as much more like as possible. . . The very creature which was nearer to the image of the Creator than any other brought evil with him into the world. Thus God created for Himself a mirror which was anything but flattering. Often and often in anger and chagrin He was moved to smash it to bits - though he never quite did, perhaps because he could not bring Himself to replunge into nothingness that which He had summoned forth and actually cared more about the failure of than He did about any success. Perhaps too He would not admit that anything could be a complete failure after He had created it so thoroughgoingly in His own image. Perhaps, finally, a mirror is a means of learning about oneself; Man, then, was a result of God's curiosity about himself."

    So what actually sweeps over the human narrative is the jealousy held against us by the terrible, temperamental God of the Old Testament. Interesting, isn't it? This may explain why even upon the presumption that Man has abandoned the desire of being like God after the Fall - and thus securing Him from any possibility of being dethroned by his best creation - any other erected idol or symbol that may approximate His imperial reflection will beget His ire. For perhaps, even weak and soiled little men can create new gods that may even be greater than the One Himself.

    Just something to think about.


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