Exodus and G-d's watchful care over his people

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Jewish academic and Hebrew scholar Irene Lancaster reflects on Exodus 18-20 and why God is described as being 'jealous'.

Recently we have been looking at Exodus Chapters 18-20, known in Hebrew as 'Yitro'. This very important part of the Exodus story is named after Moses' father-in-law, who is not Jewish, and comes to symbolize for the Jewish people the epitome of the person who may not be Jewish themselves, but supports what can be called 'the Jewish project'.

A whole section of the Torah is therefore named after a Midianite who is not Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or Moses, but is someone whose advice is seminal to the future of the Jewish people.

And it is this section of the Torah which also contains the portion known in English as 'The Ten Commandments', thus implying that these 10 Sayings are universal, and embrace everybody.

One of the most misunderstood statements made about G-d during the giving of the 10 Sayings is that we should not worship idols because 'I am the Lord your G-d - a jealous G-d.'

Often a word will have had a different meaning a few hundred years ago, and in fact this is the case with the word 'jealous', which now retains a much narrower sense than it did originally.

For instance, in the Christian translations of both John Wycliffe (1388) and Myles Coverdale (1549), both of which preceded the King James version of the early 1600s, the word 'jealous' is interpreted as 'watchful care for preservation.'

'Watchful care' denotes that G-d is looking out for us, which is why there is no need to worship idols. It is not that G-d Himself is 'jealous', nor that He needs to be. Rather, we human beings do not need to seek for alternatives to G-d, as G-d is always there for us.

A 'jealous' G-d, therefore, does not imply envy of idols, but rather that there is in fact no need to worship idols, as G-d is always looking out for us in any case. This is a very different interpretation of the word, and one that also explains the character of Yitro, a Midianite, who simply wanted the best for the Jewish people and acted accordingly.

From the Jewish perspective, a good way of describing G-d in modern terminology would be that He demonstrates 'passionate commitment' towards the Jewish people, and towards others who also commit to the well-being of the Jewish people.

This implies that we should also demonstrate passionate commitment to our fellow beings and to the environment in which we find ourselves, just as the Midianite, Yitro, offered support and wise advice to his son-in-law, Moses, which Moses took to heart and followed, always.

And that is why Yitro the Midianite is so crucial to the story of the Jewish people and even has a whole Torah Sedra named after him.