A “Jealous God”? How is that Good?

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A few years ago, in a conversation with a childhood friend of mind, he told me that the thing he can’t accept about the God of the Bible is that he is described as being “jealous.” My friend insinuated that he could never respect a God who had such a petty and insecure character trait.

Several times in the Bible, God refers to himself as a “jealous God.” For example, in the 10 Commandments, God tells his people not to worship other gods, because he is a jealous God.

What’s interesting, is that jealousy is listed in the New Testament as being one of a handful of sins which are called “the works of the flesh” and are contrasted with “the fruits of the Spirit” in Galatians 5.

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)

How can God have a characteristic which the Bible itself calls sinful?

There are two answers to this question:

1. Two Different Greek Words – With Two Different Meanings

The confusion over the word jealous being attributed to God is really a matter of the weakness of the English language. In Greek, two very distinct words, with distinct meanings, are used to describe these two attitudes:

In Galatians 5:21, where jealousy is listed as a sin, the word is: φθόνος (phthonos) – which is more akin to envy or covetousness: it connotes ill-will towards someone because of something they have which you want for yourself. [1]

In James 4:5, where God is described as jealous, the word is: ἐπιποθέω (epipotheo) – which means to dote upon or desire intensely. [2]

In other words, God is not described as having a sinful characteristic at all. The confusion comes from the deficiency of the English language, or perhaps of the translators to find better words to differentiate these two concepts.

2. Why It is Good that God is “Jealous” for His People

One definition of jealousy in the dictionary is: “fiercely protective or vigilant of one’s rights or possessions”

This is the essence of what the Bible is talking about when it describes God as a jealous God. It means that when it comes to his people, he desires our hearts to be fully his, and he desires exclusivity in that relationship —  hence the first commandment: You shall have no other gods beside me.

Throughout the Bible, God describes his relationship with his people as a marriage – a covenant relationship. God calls himself the husband of his people; in the Old Testament, Israel is referred to as the wife of Yahweh. In the New Testament, the church is called the Bride of Christ, and Jesus is called the Bridegroom. This is why idolatry is compared in the Bible to adultery against God.

It is appropriate for a spouse to be fiercely protective of the exclusivity of their marriage, and be opposed to anything which would try to come in and threaten it.

When we first moved to Colorado, my wife went to a dentist. After that first appointment, Dr. Brian began calling her on the phone and sending handwritten cards. Maybe he was just following protocol, but as a husband, I didn’t like Dr. Brian sending my wife cards and calling her on the phone!

The fact that God is jealous for his people is a wonderful thing. It means that God doesn’t just tolerate you, He doesn’t just put up with you — but He is fiercely passionate about His love for you! 

This kind of fierce, passionate love is described in the Song of Solomon:   Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. (Song of Solomon 8:6-7)

That is the kind of love that God has for you. It is the kind of love that moved the God of the Universe to leave his heavenly throne, and become one of us — to walk our dusty streets, and be despised by the very people he created — and ultimately to be nailed to a cross in order to redeem you. This love is at the very heart of the gospel.

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Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 3: Gender-Inclusive Language and the NIV

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In this mini-series on Making Sense of Different Bible Translations, in Part 1 we looked first at translation theory in general and some basic guidelines for choosing a translation, and in Part 2 we looked at the King James Version specifically. Here in Part 3, we will be looking at the question of gender inclusive language and how it relates to the New International Version.

The “Nearly Inspired Version”?

During my undergraduate studies, I had to learn Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, and our final project was to translate 1 John and then analyze other translations based on our reading and translation of the Greek text. For my analysis, I chose the NKJV, the NIV and the Message.

I had heard people joke that the NIV stood for “Nearly Inspired Version” or the “New Inferior Version,” so I was curious to see how it stood up under scrutiny. Much to my surprise, the NIV was much more literal and accurate than I had expected. The Message, however, does not qualify as a translation at all, in my opinion, but is rather a commentary – as in it, one person (Eugene Peterson) gives his interpretation of what he deems the text to mean, not what it says.

Side note: any translation that is made by one person should be suspect, especially when that person is pushing a particular agenda, as in the case of the Passion Translation.

A Case Study: Hebrews 11:6

Some of the main criticisms that are leveled at the NIV, are that it waters down the meaning of the text, and that it imposes gender inclusive language on the text. This week on Calvary Live, the call-in radio show that I host on Mondays, one caller pointed out Hebrews 11:6 as an example of this. Let’s take this as a case study to see if there’s any validity to it.

  • NIV: And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
  • KJV: But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.
  • Greek: χωρὶς δὲ πίστεως ἀδύνατον εὐαρεστῆσαι, πιστεῦσαι γὰρ δεῖ τὸν προσερχόμενον τῷ θεῷ ὅτι ἔστιν καὶ τοῖς ἐκζητοῦσιν αὐτὸν μισθαποδότης γίνεται.

Here’s my hyper-literal translation of the Greek text:

Without but faith impossible to please (a direct object), believe (a direct object) because must he who comes to God that (object) exists and those who seek him [he] rewards.

So, which translation is more accurate? Both are good translations which convey not only what the words say, but what they mean.

Gender-Inclusive Language

As can be seen in the example above, the NIV tries to use gender-inclusive language when possible. The word προσερχόμενον – means “he who comes” and is in the male singular accusative case. Yet the NIV translates this with the gender-neutral “anyone who comes.”

The question is whether this accurately reflects the meaning of the text or whether it is imposing a modern bias towards gender inclusivity upon the text.

In academic writing today, gender-inclusive language is required whenever possible, including moving away from terms like “mankind” in favor of “humankind,” and “every man” to “everyone.”

In some cases, this is warranted and more accurately reflects the author’s intent. For example: Colossians 1:28 in the NASB says: “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.”
Paul is clearly speaking about “every human being,” not only about males. So most modern translations translate it: “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.”
In this case, gender-inclusive language more clearly communicates what Paul was saying.

Another example worth considering is Leviticus 24:15. NASB: “If anyone curses his God, then he will bear his sin,” versus the NIV: “Anyone who curses their God will be held responsible.”
In this case, it is not only gender-inclusive language, but a removal of the concept of “bearing one’s sins” being rephrased as “being held responsible.” While the latter may justifiably be called a “watering down” of the text, since the word “sin” is in the original text, the gender-inclusive language could be justified in the sense that this law did not only apply to men but to men and women.

The NIV does not go as far as some other translations when it comes to gender-inclusive language, like the Holman Christian Standard Bible which replaces the often-used “Brethren” with “Brothers and sisters.” Again, it could be argued that this is still appropriate in that it conveys the fact that the people being addressed are both men and women.

However, there are other examples of gender-inclusive language which do actually have theological implications, and therefore are inappropriate impositions on the text. Examples of this would be replacing the masculine “Father” with “Parent”, or “sons of God” with “children of God.” In the case of “sons” versus “children,” there were very specific differences in the way that sons specifically were treated in ancient society regarding rights and inheritance. Whether this was fair or not, that understanding is built into the use of the term “son” as opposed to children in general, and therefore has direct theological implications. The same is true of the masculine pronouns and terms used consistently throughout the Bible for God. To change these is actually to change the meaning of God’s revelation of Himself in the Scriptures.

To those who may feel that it is odd for a female to consider herself a “son of God,” it should be noted that men are similarly included in the feminine term “bride of Christ.” These terms paint pictures by making allusions and parallels to things which are diminished by disregarding the gender-specificity of “son” and “bride”.

There and Back Again

The NIV has dabbled in varying levels of gender-inclusive language, including a 1997 Inclusive Language Edition, which was only released in the UK, but quickly discontinued.  In the early 2000’s, the TNIV (Today’s New International Version) was released, which included changes such as “children of God” instead of “sons of God.” However, the TNIV was also discontinued, and the most recent update to the NIV (2011) actually reinstated some of the gender-specific language which had been removed in the TNIV, because of recognition of the theological importance of the gender-specifity of those terms.

Conclusion

While I don’t think the NIV is the best translation available, I don’t think it’s the worst either. As we have seen, some gender-inclusive language may be justified and warranted. The question is whether gender-inclusive language is being introduced because of cultural pressure or by a desire to accurately translate and convey the meaning of a text.

Even the best translation, however, won’t benefit you if you don’t read it. So, go do that!