Is the Bible’s jealous god an accident of history?

God the Father, by Ludovico Mazzolino, via Wikimedia Commons

God the Father, by Ludovico Mazzolino, via Wikimedia Commons

In a previous post I wrote about the story of Noah and the Curse of Ham (which has nothing to do with the Old Testament prohibition against eating pork!). That a curse could determine a people’s fate for generations is part of the biblical notion that God shapes history. In fact, history shaped God to reflect the fears and political realities of ancient Israel. The result is the Bible’s “jealous” God… an idea that influences history to this day.

Noah’s curse fell on Ham’s son, Canaan, whose descendants had the misfortune of occupying the Promised Land without being God’s Chosen People, and were therefore slaughtered. It doesn’t change anything that this is mostly nationalistic fiction written centuries later. Simply read as a story, the tales of the conquest of Canaan are part of a sensibility that shapes the entire Old Testament and its portrayal of God. A few highlights show what I mean:

  • God ordered the slaughter of the Canaanite peoples because they worshipped other gods and tended to influence the Israelites to do the same. (Deuteronomy 20:16-18)
  • The golden calf incident that angered Moses was a case of the Israelites adopting Canaanite-style religion. God slaughtered a bunch of Israelites to punish the insult. (Exodus 32)
  • While God generously allowed Canaanite girls (namely, virgins) to be carried off as wives for Israelite men, Canaanite women “who have known man by lying with him” were to be murdered along with the men and boys—specifically because they might influence their new Israelite husbands to adopt Canaanite religion. (Numbers 31:15-18)
  • Many of the laws of Moses were apparently designed to make the Israelites distinctive from the Canaanites or to avoid their religious practices. For example, the first two of the Ten Commandment forbid other gods and “graven images.” (Exodus 20:3-4)
  • And of course the prophets throughout the Old Testament (OT) rail incessantly against idolatry and foreign religion. (Just pick a page at random; you’re likely to hit one within a few tries.)

There are many, many more, but you get the idea. The OT’s main narratives (the Exodus, the conquest, the kingdom and the ongoing struggles against powerful foreign nations, Israel’s eventual captivity, exile, and return from exile) are all the story of a small, inconsequential people struggling to maintain their culture and identity in a world in which they’re surrounded by outside influences and hostile nations.

Read the OT with that in mind and the arcane laws and prophetic denunciations make sense. There’s a persistent, overwhelming fear running throughout the OT, and it isn’t just fear of foreign conquest. It’s the fear of assimilation and loss of identity as a people. The Israelites are sort of like the Federation facing the Borg. (Sorry—couldn’t help it. Resistance was futile.)

And so the god they conjured up in their stories and traditions was a jealous god, a god who gave them an identity that could survive conquest and exile, an identity that included a promise of a homeland, but which wasn’t tied exclusively to the land. This identity, they were told, could survive slavery in Egypt and captivity in Babylon. But it required religious exclusivity—one god, no more, no less.

This raises an interesting question. Had Christianity and Judaism (and Islam, which borrows from them both) been rooted in other political circumstances, if Israel had been a larger and more stable nation, how would today’s religion be different? Would we see the emphasis on exclusivity that we see in the purer forms of the three desert religions? Would they have created a different kind of god?

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4 thoughts on “Is the Bible’s jealous god an accident of history?

  1. I think you need to look at the circumstances surounding the life of King Josiah (641–609 BCE). It was during his reign that the Pentateuch was ‘rediscovered’ during the renovations to the Temple It was nothing of the sort, it was wtitten under Josiah’s instruction.

    Monotheism had been learned by the Israelites in Egypt, wherre they were not slavs, but iengaged in the building of Akhenaten’s new religious city of Amarna, where the Aten, the sun-disc, was worshipped as the only god. This idea wasa deeply unpopular amongst Egyptians, hence the need for imported labour–and Amarna was built very quickly.

    Beforehand, the Israelites had worshippoed the same pantheon of Akkadian deities as everyone else in the region, like the Canaanites, including Ba’al. Josiah’s reign sees the point at which the earlier dominant polytheism becomes subject to monotheism. Interestingly, Josiah’s father was called Amon–an Egyptian name. Clearly, there were two politico-religious factions, and this is the moment when the monotheist one gained the upper hand. It’s comparable to Rome’s adoption of Christianity nearly a thousand years later, albeit on a smaller scale.

    Josiah was the first king to establish monotheism as the religion of the Israelites, and of course this god is jealous of the competition.

    Josiah was a vainglorious and foolhardy king, though he was militarily successful for a while–until he was foolish enough to confront the Pharoah Necho, who wished to peacefully pass through Israel. Josiah died and his nation was enslaved at the ensuing Battle of Megiddo, otherwise known as ‘Armageddon’.

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