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A jealous God

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 27 May 2016


In the ancient world gods were legion. The Greek pantheon was populated with gods whose identities shifted and whose family lives read like a modern day soap opera. Canaan, the context of much of Israel's history, knew Balim by the score. The gods had no real stake in being identified one from the other and were arranged by believers in order to suit various religious needs.

However, when Israel is asked "who is your God?" her answers points to an event in history. As a prologue to the Ten Commandments God says: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery: you shall have no other gods before me." (Exodus 20:1 NRSV)

This was the very specific way that Israel knew who their God was. He was the one who rescued them from slavery in Egypt. He had also given them His name "YHWE" the unpronounceable name that meant: "I am who I am." In other words this is not a God of human wishful thinking, this was a God of self-determination, one who can be for us or against us. This was a God who was not a product of human anxiety or wishful thinking, He is "wholly other".

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His identity is to be found in his acts and in his name.

The reading from Exodus goes on: "You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generations of those who love me and keep my commandments." (Exodus 20:4-6 NRSV)

This is not a God to be messed with; neither is He an answer to spiritual fulfilment, on our own terms of course. Rather, He describes himself as jealous, a human emotion that we think little of as in "petty jealousy".

But more! He promises to punish those who reject Him to the third and fourth generation. We wonder how this God fits with the cloying piety of the religious for whom God has been stripped of His wrath and exists only as a comforter.

Israel did not know her God from Philosophical reason or from the course of nature; they knew their God from an act of salvation.

Similarly, when Christians are asked whom their God is, they must answer in terms of what God does: "whoever raised Jesus from the dead." Both answers from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are deeply unfashionable because our naturalistic worldview prohibits God acting in the world.

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Christian liberalism has found it far easier to argue that Jesus was a "good teacher", a supremely good and selfless man whose emulation will bring the world to a better place.

It is exactly here that the Church sells out to the secular world. Both Judaism and Christianity cannot avoid the fact that the identity of God is to be found in unnatural events, the escape from Egypt by way of plagues and the dividing of the sea and of the resurrection of Jesus.

This is not a challenge to the modern naturalist view of the world but a challenge to interpret ancient texts in their contexts. Modernity has thrown the baby out with the bathwater when it rejects accounts of unnatural events as just plain mistaken and ignorant rather than looking for their symbolic meaning.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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