I am reading Jon Levenson’s The Love of God.
Today I want to cover two points that derive from Levenson’s teaching experience. When a writer can bring real world experience–okay, sometimes it is a stretch to call universities the real world–to a book about theological ideas, I think that is helpful.
One of these points relates to the Hebrew Bible calling God a jealous God. This is a hard concept even after noting that some of the rabbis have explained that God, unlike people, is in control of his jealousy and not driven by it.
This is particularly a hard concept against the background of world religions and multiculturalism today. So Levenson mentions that a Hindu student asked this question of him: “Why is God so jealous?” This is a problem that probably mystifies many connected with Asian religion and culture. Often, in those cultures there is an openness to many expressions of religion and many gods. The first commandments of the Decalogue are counter-intuitive . In my contacts with Japanese Buddhists that is certainly the case.
Levenson’s best answer to this, it seems to me, is when he uses the analogy of identity theft. You could be a very tolerant person in many ways. You could think of yourself as not at all a jealous person. But if somebody stole your identity and created confusion about who you actually were, you would be justified in reacting. So it is with the God of the Hebrew Bible. Levenson does not think the issue with the jealousy of God is the defense of monotheism. The Bible often accepts or is neutral about the existence of other gods. But it also insists on the particular identity of the God of Israel. When that identity gets mixed up with alien concepts and practices, then the biblical God does react. This jealousy is in defense of the divine identity.
Also, the jealousy of God is more about loyalty than about correct doctrine. God’s jealousy is over against our tendency to dilute our loyalty to him with other loyalties.
The second point has to do with the meaning of love. Levenson says that most of his students are in their twenties. When he talks about love, they think of dating and romance. Their first thought is of erotic love. They do not think of parental love. Being a parent is often not something they have experienced.
But Levenson sees the expression of love called for in the Hebrew Bible as more about service than about feelings or romance. In the treaties where a lesser king is commanded to love the higher king, the expression of that love is in service. It is often military and economic service.. The treaty is not obliging the king to have warm feelings toward his overlord. (Although, I imagine it would not have been wise to express negative feelings.)
So Levenson tries to get his students to imagine and talk about parental love. Parents usually express their love through providing for and protecting their children. They may even express their love through discipline. This kind of love, more than the sentimental or romantic kind characterizes the love of God.
Now Levenson knows that the Bible uses erotic metaphors for God’s love in Hosea, for instance. He has a whole chapter about that later. But he believes that the dominant and first way to understand the love of God in the Bible is as covenant love that requires outward acts of devotion and service more than inner affections.
This is a major characteristic of Judaism, he says. In Judaism, the adherent has a whole system of obedience dealing with things like food and observing days on the calendar. This system of obedience cannot really be rationalized. It cannot be made to make sense in terms of benefits to people or society. The reason behind Torah observance is relational. It is about acting in loyalty to God. So detailed Torah observance is an act of love.
I am tempted to put it in terms of Gary Chapman’s popular relationship book, The Five Love Languages, God’s love language is “acts of service and devotion”. Other expressions of love, like “gift giving” or “words of affirmation” are also a part of biblical religion. But without acts of service and devotion, these other expressions of love become empty.