The “Jealous” God

From my youth, I can recall a haunting tango called “Jealousy.” Harry James did a version of it. Many classical artists have done full orchestral performances. Something sultry and haunting always hovered about this music, especially when danced by an Argentine couple. Jealousy (from zelosus) was a vice that hovered about for something sacred. It was not just envy, itself a most spiritual vice. The love of a man and woman was not to be broken, even by themselves. Fidelity and jealousy are related.

The Breviary during the Third Week of Lent reads from Exodus. Here, Yahweh tells Moses that He has driven out the “Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites.” Whenever I see that passage, I think of Walker Percy’s question: “Why are there no Hittites in New York City?” At last count, though we have just about everything else, we find no Perizzites or Hivites either. But it is the same unspoken theological point.

In this passage, the Hebrews are warned about the worship of false gods. No covenants are to be made with such folks worshipping their alien gods: “Tear down their altars; smash their sacred pillars, and cut down their sacred poles.” This severe action probably could not be carried out today as these monuments would be protected by some historical trust ordinance. Little imagination, however, is needed to see why the Lord was annoyed by them.

Next the Lord says to Moses: “You shall not worship any other god, for the Lord is ‘the Jealous One.’ A jealous God is He.”

Writing on Othello in his Shakespeare’s Politics, Allan Bloom provocatively remarked that the jealousy portrayed in the plots of Shakespeare could never have happened in Greek drama. Why? For the Greeks, the suspicion of marital infidelity was treated as a comedy. In Shakespeare, however, even its suspicion, provoked by Iago’s machinations, leads to death.

Bloom remarks that love is a needy thing, a view that may be Jewish, but is not Christian in sentiment. Bloom invokes the notion of the Jealous God as the cause of a difference between the love in Christian times and that of the Greeks. The issue is Yahweh’s exclusiveness. Yahweh was like a young husband who expects his bride’s love to be directed only to him and vice versa. What is new in the Christian universe is that this marital love falls within the love found in the Trinity. It is not a needy love, but a complete love.

Certainly, the Old Testament reveals a purification of the idea of the gods in the light of the One God whom alone we shall worship. Indeed, one might say the same of Socrates and Plato who are both shocked with the foibles and sins of the many gods of Olympus. Socrates and Plato look to the Good. Both Yahweh and the Good are, in a way, “hidden” gods. Moses longs to see the face of Yahweh; Plato cannot stand what keeps changing.

But the “jealousy” of God teaches us much. Some loves are exclusive by nature. This is why they can come under the law. Other loves cannot be exclusive in the same way. C. S. Lewis and Benedict XVI, the pope in Deus Caritas Est, make the same distinctions between Eros, Agape, and Philia. Lewis adds Storge, the affection we have for animals. The only human institution in which the three forms of love are united is in the marriage of a man and a woman.

Benedict calls Agape the love that comes down from Him who is love. It is creative and freely given. Philia refers to the differing kinds of friendship. It is the being together in great and little causes, side by side. Eros is the love that results in babies. But Eros does not know that or even intend it other than knowing generally that this one activity is the only one in which love is productive in babies. What is loved is already a gift.

To confuse these loves is at the root of most tragedy in our confused time. To want Eros without babies, on the grounds that the couple can absorb each other, leads not to life but to death. This latter is what Tristan und Isolde and the tale of Aristophanes in the Symposium were about.

The point of the “jealous” God was that He alone was worthy of love, since He was its source. The point of the exclusiveness of marriage is that its love is only valid when it is open to babies, when it recognizes that each partner has origin not in him or herself but in the divine exemplar in which each was called to be. What is begotten of this love is a life itself open to the same one love, the Trinitarian love found within the Godhead.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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