Beginning of Wisdom

Proverbs from the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East

The power of jealousy

Posted by jac/cdc on January 4, 2007

(Proverbs 27:4)אַכְזְרִיּוּת חֵמָה וְשֶׁטֶף אָף וּמִי יַעֲמֹד לִפְנֵי קִנְאָה׃

akh-z’-ri-YUT khay-MA v’-SHE-tef AF u-MEE ya-a-MOD lif-NAY kin-A

The cruelty of wrath and the flood of anger, but who can stand before jealousy?

A frequent comparison in Proverbs involves the argument a minore ad majus, i.e., if x is the case then much more y. In the preceding verse to this one such an argument additionally involves a metaphoric shift: A stone is heavy and sand is weighty, but the vexation of a fool is heavier than both . In this verse one is left to ponder why jealousy is so much worse than wrath or anger (essentially synonyms in Hebrew if not in English). Interestingly, the word קִנְאָה occurs just two other places in Proverbs: 6:37 admonishingly describes a husband’s jealousy turning to wrath against her partner in adultery; 14:30 contrasts tranquility of the mind with the rottenness of the bones that characterizes jealousy. The irresistibility of jealousy would appear to consist in that it is destructive in two directions: it eats away at the person who is jealous, and when it explodes and comes out into the open, it turns to wrath against the person who is the object of that jealousy.


2 Responses to “The power of jealousy”

  1. Hi,

    Your statement that ‘one is left to ponder why jealousy is so much worse than wrath or anger’ arises, I think, from a notion that wrath and anger are bad. Where does this notion originate? I cannot find it mentioned anywhere in the Bible. Sure, wrongly directing one’s anger is bad. And acting out of wrath is not the way for humans. But surely that doesn’t mean that anger and wrath are intrinsically bad. Likewise, jealously in itself is not bad either. After all, how could God be a jealous God if jealousy were bad? It is written in Exodus 34:14 that Jealous is even one of God’s attributes.

    The proverb indicates that wrath and anger are powerful forces, but that jealousy is even more powerful. The proverb, at least to me, does not make a value judgment on whether jealousy is bad (‘worse than…’).

    Regarding the other occurrence you mention of jealousy, in Proverbs 6:34, by writing that said Proverb ‘admonishingly describes…’ you again make a value judgment, this time about the husband’s jealousy. Jealousy arouses a husband’s fury (note it doesn’t say a man’s fury), why do you imply that is bad?

    Furthermore, Proverbs 14:30 does neither state nor imply that rottenness of the bones ‘characterizes jealousy’; the Proverb states that jealousy causes rottenness of the bones. These are different statements.

    It is interesting to do a search on the phrase ‘anger of the Lord’ or the ‘wrath of the Lord’ and see how many times these occur. Moreover, God is a jealous God; He is jealous for Zion and jealous for Jerusalem and Elijah is jealous for God. I would not call anger or wrath or jealousy bad. I do, however, acknowledge that they do not always conform to contemporary human emotions.

    Finally, I do agree with your conclusion that jealousy is destructive. But I think that is precisely the objective of jealousy rather than a negative attribute of it.


  2. jac/cdc said

    Let me state up front that we’re not interested in harmonizing everything the Bible says about jealousy, wrath, and anger. At the most we take into account other wisdom writings in clarifying particular proverbs and their vocabulary.

    That said, nothing positive is said about “jealousy” in Proverbs. My description of 6:34 as being written “admonishingly” is because it is directed at the young man who may be tempted to commit adultery, admonishing him not to be at the receiving end of a husband’s jealousy. I says nothing either way about whether the husband should be jealous.

    The other terms in this proverb, “cruelty,” “wrath,” and “anger” are also never positively spoken of in Proverbs. See e.g., 19:19 and 22:24. At the most they are neutral terms in some instances, negative traits in others.

    As for Proverbs 14:30, now you are splitting hairs: if jealousy causes rottenness to the bones then I think we can safely say that rottenness of the bones “characterizes jealousy.” We need not parse words so closely on a blog; I already have to do that all day at work!

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