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Power and Jealousy: Names of God Part 4

Image from skinnyartist.com
Here is a summary of the talk I gave in our faith community on Sunday, October 5.

Power and jealousy: these are not really popular concepts in our culture. We have seen too much abuse of power, I suspect, and jealousy (the green-eyed monster according to Shakespeare) is something we all want to avoid. But despite the fact that these two words leave us with negative or at least mixed feelings, we find them associated with the name of God in the Hebrew Bible, so let's take a little closer look at them.

Power (El Shaddai):
Edward Abbey says, "Power is always dangerous. Power attracts the worst and corrupts the best." That's a pretty negative view of power. Ghandi presented a more nuanced view. He said that, "Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective than the one derived from fear of punishment." Power in itself is not evil or corrupt; the motivation behind it determines whether the results will be good or bad. In Luke 6 we read that "Everyone wanted to touch Jesus because when they did, power emanated from Him and they were healed." Power can be used to accomplish great good and this is how we see Jesus using it: with considerable restaint politically but in great liberation for healing.

El Shaddai, which is usually translated God Almighty, is found 7 times in the Hebrew Bible. The word refers to someone who is powerful, has great might, and is able to do things which we cannot do for ourselves. The word, "Shaddai" can also mean one who is enough, who is sufficient, who is sustenance, who is nourishment. In its uses in the Bible, it is intimately related to the idea of covenant, meaning that El Shaddai is a God who is committed to carry through on his promises.

In Genesis 17, we find the first occurrence of El Shaddai and it is when God speaks to Abram, twenty-four years after he left Ur. The promise of a new land and fathering a great nation has seemingly had no traction for Abram is still a nomad, still childless, and has encountered more than his share of troubles. Here is what God says to Abram: "I am the God El Shaddai. Walk before me. Continue to trust and serve me faithfully. Be blameless and true. If you are true and trust me, then I will make certain the covenant with you that I promised. I will bless you with a throng of descendants." (adapted from The Voice)  God was giving Abram a reminder that not only was El Shaddai powerful enough to make the covenant promises happen, God Almighty was enough, El Shaddai was all that Abram needed. Abram had tried to make things happen for himself (those attempts turned out badly), but a covenant doesn't work that way. A covenant is based on trust, on faith.

Two generations later we find Jacob (Abraham's grandson) at a crossroads. Family troubles have plagued him for years. His father-in-law tricked him, his children have been involved in rape and violence, and now his fellow citizens are turning against him. God tells him to leave Shechem and return to Bethel, the place where Jacob had encountered God before. In Genesis 34 Jacob speaks to his household: "'Get rid of any foreign gods you have in your possession. Purify yourselves; bathe and change your clothes. Then come with me. We're going to Bethel so that I can build an altar there to God who answers me whenever I am in distress and who is with me wherever I go.' ... God appeared to him again at Bethel and blessed him. 'Your name is Jacob, but you will no longer be known as Jacob (supplanter).  Israel (he who prevails with God or God who prevails) will be your name. ... I am the God El Shaddai. Be fruitful and multiply, You will give rise to a great nation; indeed nation after nation will come from you. Kings and rulers shall be numbered among your descendants. Your children will one day possess the land I promised to Abraham and Isaac.'"

Here again, God's power is revealed within the context of covenant. El Shaddai has the power to change someone's name, to alter their identity and their destiny. El Shaddai has the power to fulfill the promises of a covenant. Note that it is an exclusive covenant; Jacob is asked to give up other gods. This power to accomplish all that was promised is fueled by passion, and that passion is sometimes described as jealousy.

Jealousy (Qanna):
Augustine says that, "He that is jealous is not in love." Not a very positive spin on jealousy, in fact, he excludes it from the arena of love. A more positive definition of jealousy is found in this passage penned by poet Alfred Lord Tennyson: "Guard your roving thoughts with a jealous care, for speech is but the dialer of thoughts, and every fool can plainly read in your words what is the hour of your thoughts." In this context, jealousy is seen as a protecting force and closer to the intent we see in the Hebrew Bible in relation to God.

Qanna is used 6 times in the Hebrew Bible in reference to God. Qanna means jealous or zealous. There is a bad kind of jealousy and a good kind of jealousy. The bad kind of jealousy concerns that which is not rightfully ours. Bad jealousy comes out of selfishness, insecurity, suspicion, greed, need, a desire to control, and to want what we do not have. In essence, it desires to drag someone down so that we can get ahead (see Genesis 37:11 where Joseph's brothers are jealous of him). Good jealousy, on the other hand, concerns something which is rightfully ours. It is grounded in covenant, commitment, relationship, concern for the protection and well-being of the other, and results in the blessing of the other. Good jealousy desires the best for someone and lifts the other up.

We find the first occurrence of Qanna in relation to God in Exodus 20 when God gives the commandments to the people of Israel, newly freed from slavery. In many ways, these guidelines were meant to show the Israelites what it looks like to live in freedom, to serve a good and generous God instead of a slave-driver. "I am the Eternal your God. I led you out of Egypt and liberated you from lives of slavery and oppression. You are not to serve any other gods before Me. You are not to make any idol or image of other gods. In fact, you are not to make an image of anything in the heavens above, on the earth below, or in the waters beneath. You are not to bow down and serve any image, for I, the Eternal your God, am a jealous God." Jealousy here is an indication that God wants to protect the people from falling back into a slave mentality and worshiping gods who displayed neither the power nor the generosity inherent in YHWH's covenant.

Before these directives were properly communicated, the people had already gone against them. The people got restless, perhaps a bit concerned with the absence of Moses and afraid of being leaderless, so they fashioned a golden calf to worship, a god small and powerless. This action reflected their state of mind: they were already stepping outside the protective and exclusive covenant of blessing offered to them by YHWH and reverting back to their slave mentality. Nevertheless, God was patient and merciful and reiterated the covenant with some added directives. In Exodus 34 we read God's words to the people of Israel: "Be careful. Do not make a covenant with the people who now live in the land where you are going. Any promises you make to these people could entrap you. Destroy their altars and pillars, and cut down their sacred poles because you must not worship any god except for me. My name is jealous and I am a jealous God."

The jealousy of God is a strong passion that reveals how much he loves the people of Israel. He desires to remain in an exclusive covenant with them, to bless them, to protect them from harm, to guard their well-being. Jealousy (motivated by love) lets someone know that you care. That what they do matters to you. That you are in active pursuit of an intimate relationship with them. A lover who does not care about the unfaithfulness of their beloved is a poor lover indeed. (Read Hosea on this theme).

Patrick D. Miller has this to say about the jealousy of God: "To speak of the Lord as a jealous God is to make a covenantal claim about God and to express a very positive word about the proper and inherent exclusiveness that belongs to the nature of the relationship between God and God's people, or to the nature of covenant. As a covenantal claim, the jealousy of God has a double force: 1) jealousy for Israel's full and exclusive worship of God and 2) jealousy or zeal for God's powerful commitment to and love for his people. The jealousy of God, therefore, is that dimension within the divine encounter with the Lord's people that brooks [tolerates] no other final loyalty and ensures no other recipient of such unbounding love and grace. It is God's way of saying: 'I will have nothing less than your full devotion and you will have nothing less than all my love.' It is the kind of attribute that belongs to a marriage relationship. There is a proper covenantal jealousy in marriage."

In summary, then, this is what power (El  Shaddai) and jealousy (Qanna) reveal about God.
1. This is a God who has the power to forgive sins, to heal us, to give us life, to lay down his life for us, to overcome evil, and to free us.
2. This is a God who is zealously, passionately invested in pursuing an exclusive relationship with us, who promises to be our God if we will be his people. (See Isaiah 54:5 and Revelation 19, God as husband.)
3. This is a God who says, "I have the power to change the course of your life. I can offer you a life that is full and free. I give you my love, faithfulness, goodness, justice, mercy, and grace. Will you give me your undivided love and loyalty? Will you be mine?"

"I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine." Song of Solomon 6:3

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