Is God jealous? How we should really translate Exodus 34:14

One of the many misunderstandings of Judaism stems from how we view words translated by Christians from Greek and Latin, which themselves are often faulty translations from the Hebrew (which many think is deliberate).

On Shabbat we studied passages from Exodus 30:11 to chapter 34. These include the famous sin of the Golden Calf, G-d's anger, Moses smashing the first set of two tablets bearing the 10 sayings (not commandments) and the carving out by Moses of the second set of 10 sayings.


Once again Moses ascends Mount Sinai and G-d descends to meet him. G-d passes before Moses and reveals his 13 Attributes of Mercy, a salient moment in Jewish history.

G-d then reminds Moses to be particularly vigilant against committing commit the sin of idolatry, 'for the Lord whose name is "Jealous" is a jealous G-d.'

The idea of a 'jealous Jewish G-d' as opposed to the Christian deity who is all sweetness and light has had a devastating effect on Jewish communities throughout the ages, including today, when Christian leaders do not hesitate to attack the most visible contemporary sign of Jewishness, the State of Israel, at every opportunity.

But what did 'jealous' mean to the 16th and 17th century people who worked, with no Jewish input (how could they, as no Jews had been allowed in the country since 1290?) on the translations from Latin and Greek, with sometimes also a smattering of Hebrew, poorly understood.

So I did some research, and found that originally 'jealous' meant 'devotion' in the sense of what we would now term 'passionate commitment'.

In addition the Hebrew word 'k-n-a' is closely related to the word k-n, which means 'nest'.

So to me the whole concept of 'jealous G-d' actually means a G-d who cares like a mother for his people (and for the whole world, because the law against idolatry is an injunction for everyone) and also connotes his holding us tight and fiercely protecting us.

Is that jealousy, or total and utter commitment, I wonder?

As G-d is beyond male and female in Judaism, divinity encompasses both male and female and it is only convention that we use the term 'he' for the divine.

And quite by chance (although nothing is really by chance) I have just discovered an American author called Marilynne Robinson. Marilynne describes herself as a Christian thinker and hails from Idaho, with time in Iowa.

I researched the Jewish populations of Idaho and Iowa and found that Idaho is bereft of Jews: it comes 48th out of the 50 states of America for Jewishness. And Iowa comes 39th, and both states are rural, and not normally the sorts of places in diaspora where observant Jews 'hang out'.

So how on earth did Marilynne Robinson come to her amazing conclusions on Judaism in general (the most accurate I have come across in the English language) and on the 'jealous G-d' in particular?

This is what she says in her wonderful set of essays entitled When I Was a Child I Read Books, specifically on Moses and the 10 sayings: 'These are the laws of a passionate G-d. "Impassioned" is usually used by Jewish Publication Society to translate the word other English translations render as "jealous". The Hebrew stem apparently means "to grow red". "Jealous" comes from the same Greek root as "zealous," and the Greek words that derive from it are usually translated in the New Testament as "zeal" or "zealous".

'In its earliest English uses, for example in John Wycliffe's14th-century translation of the Old Testament, "jealous" often has that meaning, suggesting ardour and devotion. In modern translations the Hebrew word is usually translated as "zeal" when the subject is a human being (as in 1 Kings 19:10), which must indicate an awareness of the wider meaning of the word.

'But "jealousy" is virtually always imputed to G-d. Jealousy has evolved into a very simple and unattractive emotion, in our understanding of it, and G-d is much abused for the fact of his association with it. Since translations are forever being laundered to remove complexity and loveliness, and since tradition is not a legitimate plea in these matters, one cannot help wondering how this particular archaism manages to survive untouched.'

What Robinson seems to be asking is why so many academic scholars, Christians and atheists, insist on retaining an out-of-date vocabulary in describing the Old Testament G-d, when in other cases, more accurate translations (using Jewish translations into English) would yield up far more accurate and far more positive interpretations of the attributes of the Jewish G-d.

After all, if, as Christians think, Jesus was himself G-d, how is it that he does not at all resemble his own father in this respect?

I think we all know the answer to that one: vested interests always need a 'straw man', so vested interests, including in the officially recognised Christian-Jewish dialogue world, want to paint a pretty picture of what both Christianity and Judaism are about.

But Judaism and Christianity aren't pretty: they are raw in tooth and claw, and only a mother can understand the utter devotion that a divine being is capable of.

Mothers aren't jealous: mothers are committed – from day one and for always – and this is why the term so wrongly translated as 'jealous' is actually far more comparable to a mother bird guarding her nestlings – with the passionate devotion that G-d shows us by safeguarding us, like a mother bird, against all types of idolatry, and not only those of the ancient 'false gods' variety.

And Robinson appears to be one of a kind, because she reads, she thinks, she translates, she appreciates how Jewish values inform her own country and state, even without Jews, and she understands that her own religion of Christianity is completely impossible without Judaism and Jewish values – and that religion is not about sweetness and light but about passionate commitment – at all times.

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible.