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The Evolution of Jealousy in the Torah

We think we know what jealousy and envy are. When we are envious, we want what someone else has, right?

But in the Torah, jealousy actually evolves. The first incidence of the word (K-N-H) is found when Isaac is successful. His neighbors, the Philistines, envied his flocks and herds and household, and so they acted in spite, filling his wells. This jealousy is basic: wanting something physical that belongs to someone else.

The next incidence is when Rachel is jealous that her sister, Leah, has had children while Rachel is barren. Rachel is worked up: she says that if she does not get children, she will die. In this case, Rachel is competing instead of coveting; she does not want her sister’s children, of course. Instead, she wants numerous children of her own (her first-born, Joseph, means “give me more”). This is a jealousy between siblings.

Similarly, when Joseph tells his brothers and father of his dreams, his brothers are jealous of him. They subsequently, as we know, take action to remove Joseph from the picture. Sibling jealousy is about status and rank, competing for favor.

Nevertheless, there is a transition in Genesis from the simplistic “I want what he has,” to, in the case of the siblings, “I want as much as she/he has.” Neither is a sentiment that we admire.

Here is the short form: envy within Genesis consistently divides people, causing discontentment, and destroying relationships.

Then the Torah changes tack. After Genesis, the word used for jealousy in the Torah never again refers to material envy or sibling rivalry! (The word for “covet” in the Ten Commandments is not the same Hebrew word at all.) The world had grown out of such relatively immature emotions, and moved on to a higher, more profound meaning of jealousy: the necessary guardrail for successful relationships.

You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I the LORD your God am a jealous God (Ex. 20:5 and Deut 5:9)

For you must not worship any other god, because the LORD, whose name is Jealousy, is a jealous God. (Ex. 34:14)

Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his jealousy for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My jealousy. (Num. 25:11)

And there is a very clear parallel between idolatry and adultery, because a man who feels neglected by his wife, and in his spirit of jealousy suspects her, can bring her to the priest to try to save the relationship:

… a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself; or if a fit of jealousy comes over one and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself (Num 5:14-30)

What follows is a lengthy and theatrical ritual, punctuated repeatedly by this word for jealousy. The husband is suspicious, and he seeks to reaffirm the fidelity of his wife, the sanctity and exclusive nature of their relationship.

The parallels to G-d’s own relationship to His people are undeniable. Marital fidelity is all-important in the Torah, and analogous to cheating on G-d.

But that religious marital exclusivity does not go both ways! Each person is commanded to not chase after other gods. But G-d Himself seeks that deep relationship with each person:

A youth ran out and told Moses, saying, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying acting the prophet in the camp!” And Joshua … spoke up and said, “My lord Moses, restrain them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous up on my account? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD put His spirit upon them!” (Num 11:27-29)

Moses speaks for G-d: the entire nation should be comprised of prophets, people who hear G-d, and can express those words to others.

The path this single word takes in the Torah is breathtaking: from materialistic envy to sibling rivalry all the way to marital fidelity and the idea that each and every person should be able to share the kind of relationship with the divine that Moses himself achieved.

[another @iwe and @susanquinn production]

Comments are welcome!