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Reflections on Ethics 68
The Second Commandment
Jealousy: The Attribute of Primitive Gods

by: Joseph Lewis

Editor's note: Continuing with Joseph Lewis's analysis of the 10 Commandments, this is a look at the second commandment. The two sections extracted here are the opening sections of the chapter.

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"Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I, the Lord thy God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments." 

The Sadism of the Bible Deity

This Commandment reveals the brutality of the Bible Deity and makes the Decalogue an instrument of intolerance, persecution, fanaticism and oppression.

How can anyone worship a God who shamelessly expresses his malevolence in these words: "For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me"? What a monstrous God of the universe it must be who would make a special Commandment to emphasize his jealous and vindictive nature, and to stipulate the curse he would inflict upon his poor, helpless creatures who fail to worship him!

Since religion fashions its code of conduct upon the morality of its gods, are we to assume that the character of the Bible God is to be emulated?

Are hatred, jealousy and a vindictiveness that punishes the innocent for the wrongs of others the qualities of morality we want to inculcate in our children? Do we want our children to emulate this God, to demand continually supplication and adulation? And failing to receive this worship, are they to live in a state of continual hatred and malevolence, with the only purpose of their existence to vent their anger and punish those who refuse to pay homage to their vanity? Or do we want them to grow up into men and women worthy of our efforts to achieve a civilized society with high ethical standards of equality and justice?

We are concerned here not only with the truth of the words of this Commandment, but also with their value in the field of ethics and morals. These Commandments are supposed to be infallible moral guides, and since this one possesses no intrinsic value in the sphere of ethics or in the realm of morals, why was it made part of the Decalogue? The answer is simple. It contains four vital features which reveal the character of the Biblical God and follow in perfect continuity the egotistical declaration of the First Commandment. These four provisions are:

  1. The nature of the Bible Deity.
  2. Strict rules regarding the making and worshiping of images.
  3. The penalties provided for disobedience.
  4. The rewards to be conferred for observance.

These statements are definite and unequivocal. If the Bible Deity wrote them, did he mean them? And if he meant them, did he follow his instructions and execute his own decisions? If he wrote them and did not mean what he wrote, then he stands convicted of hypocrisy; if he wrote them and cannot fulfill the promises of his obligations and execute the provisions of his own laws, then he stands exposed as a false god!

The description that the God of the Decalogue gives of himself could not be different. His character is typical of the other primitive tribal gods that existed contemporaneously with him. If a god did not possess the ability to punish and reward, of what use was he? Primitive man wanted reward for his labor and punishment for his enemies.

The Hebrew God was created to be feared. If the wrath of a jealous person is feared, how much more terrifying must be the fear of a jealous god. Without this kind of god there could be no doctrine of special providence, and if prayers cannot be directed to a power superior to man, then the whole structure of religion must crumble. Without a god to pray to, and without prayers being "answered," religion would lose its commodity of trade.

A volume could be written quoting indisputable Biblical passages to testify to the jealous and vindictive nature of the Bible God, but few quotations and his own words incorporated in this Commandment should be sufficient to silence all doubt as to his reprehensible character. I quote Exodus, Chapter 34, verse 14:

14. For thou shalt worship no other god: for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.

Deuteronomy, Chapter 4, verses 23 and 24:

23. Take heed unto yourselves, lest ye forget the covenant of the Lord your God, which he made with you, and make you a graven image, or the likeness of any thing, which the Lord thy God hath forbidden thee.
24. For the Lord thy God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God.

And what more conclusive than the following from Deuteronomy, Chapter 6, verses 13 to 15?

13. Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, and serve him, and shalt swear by his name.
14. Ye shall not go after other gods, of the gods of the people which are round about you;
15. (For the Lord thy God is a jealous God among you) lest the anger of the Lord thy God be kindled against thee, and destroy thee from off the face of the earth.

Certainly no further testimony is needed to prove the character of the Bible God. Even today, clergymen defend this jealous and vindictive nature as part of the true character of the Bible Deity. The Rev. G. Campbell Morgan says: "The severity of the law of God is the necessary sequence of his infinite love." [1] The Rev. Frederick David Niedermeyer asks:

"Is God still jealous?" (and proceeds to answer by quoting him: "For I, the Lord thy God, am a jealous God"! He continues:) "Some Christians are ashamed of that declaration. They think it has an undesirable meaning and are sorry that it is included in the Scriptures. Therein they differ from God, for He has freely declared that He is jealous.... In the mind of the Creator there is no hesitancy whatever in proclaiming His jealousy, and He has no dislike for the word. Believers who are ashamed of it do not realize what it means...." [2]

As a result of this Commandment, man's heart has been hardened and his brain stultified. It has made him vicious and brutal. In his attempt to imitate this Bible God, every conceivable injustice has been perpetrated. The horrors and misery that have followed can never be adequately told. Language is incapable of expressing the tortures endured by the victims of the insanely pious followers of this primitive Bible Deity.

Jealousy: The Attribute of Primitive Gods

If the Bible Deity had not been subject to jealous fits and passions of rage as well as having periods of forgiveness and blessings, he could never have qualified as a god for so primitive a people as the nomadic Israelites. They needed a god suited to their mode of life, and the jealous, arrogant deity of this Commandment was eminently acceptable. Since gods are a reflection of the mentality of the people who worship them, the Bible God was a magnified reflection of the grossly superstitious Biblical Hebrew of that primitive age.

"Jealousy" is the last attribute one would expect to find in a God, and yet nearly all tribal gods in primitive societies boasted of their jealous and vindictive natures. Jealousy implies acts of propitiation.

The gods of the Gold Coast, says Major Ellis, are jealous and supersensitive, and nothing offends them so deeply as to be ignored, or to have their power questioned, or to be laughed at. Among the primitive Hebrews, it was sacrilegious to point to the heavens as the abode where God dwelt. [3] On the Slave Coast , insults to a god are always severely punished. [4]

The belief in a jealous god is born of a religious fear, based on ignorance of the forces of nature. The god who could inspire the greatest amount of fear had the greatest number of worshipers. An understanding and benevolent god does not require propitiation.

The more awe-inspiring the god, the greater the fear. To force a man to do your bidding, first frighten him. Under the spell of fear, you can rob him not only of his soul, but also of his possessions. Religions survive only through the ties of fear. Courage negates religion, and the person who has been freed from the thralldom of fear can never again become enslaved to the dogma of a creed. The more superstitious and ignorant the people, the more elaborate the ceremonies of worship.

The ancient Egyptians flattered their gods.

The Mohammedans worship a primitive conception of god. In their prayers to Allah they cry, "God is Great, God is merciful, God is he who seeth and heareth."

The Hindus believe that by praise, a person may obtain special favor from the gods. The first songs composed by primitive peoples are hymns of praise. [5]

The Maoris of New Zealand believed their deities were responsible for pain, misery and death, and one never thought of getting any aid from them. Their religious duty consisted in appeasing the wrath of their gods.

The Tahitians supposed their gods to be powerful, but they never expected them to exercise the simplest benevolence toward their most devoted followers. Their gods demanded homage and obedience, and were always ready to punish all who hesitated or refused to comply.

The Fijians looked upon their gods as positively wicked.

The people of New Hebrides believed that the air was filled with malignant beings, selfish and vindictive.

The Santals of India expect no favors from their god; on the contrary, they seek by supplication to avoid his displeasure and hate.

The Kamchasales do not expect anything good from their gods.

The gods of the Nenenots, or Indians of Hudson Bay, are of an evil nature and must be propitiated to secure their favor.

The only qualities which the Mulungu tribes attribute to their god are vindictiveness and cruelty.

To the Matabele, the idea of a benevolent deity is utterly foreign.

All the gods of the North American Indians possessed jealous natures, and the main object of the worship of these people was to appease their wrath.

Believers in the Bible and worshipers of the Bible God today cannot condemn the Hindus who still worship their god because of the fear of his jealous nature, or the present-day barbarians who likewise fear their god and who live in awe of his jealousy and wrath. Just as the Bible God demanded sacrifices, so we find this same trait among other primitive deities. Prayers were generally connected with offerings, as gods did not perform their deeds or bestow their favors gratuitously.

A Tanna priest, when he offers the first fruits to his deity, says: "Here is some food for you; eat it, and be kind to us on account of it."

Mithra also demanded worship and sacrifices. He complains: "If men would worship me with a sacrifice in which I were invoked ... then I would come to the faithful at the appointed time." [6]

In South Africa , the Zulus speak of Heaven as a person, ascribing to it the power of exercising a will, and they speak of a Lord of Heaven whose wrath they experience during a thunderstorm.

Zeus controlled the heavens. If it rained, thundered, snowed; if lightning flashed, if the winds howled, it was Zeus who was responsible. The months, the days, the years were ordained by his orders. [7]

It is a well-known fact that where the forces of nature take on a weird and unusual character, such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and the like, the people are more superstitious than in areas where such disturbances are fewer. Widespread superstition is particularly prevalent among nomadic tribes where the slightest change from normal conditions inspires fear.

Even today among so-called civilized people, many become terror-stricken when hearing an unexpected noise. Any unusual sound in the night causes fear. The superstitious person attributes to innocent and normal manifestations of nature a significance wholly foreign to them. For each one of these manifestations, he has some magic formula which he believes will prevent evil. This accounts for the multitude of superstitious rites found in many religious ceremonies.

Believers in the Bible certainly cannot be unaware of the nature of their God as revealed in this Commandment. Yet were this description used in reference to another god, both Christians and Hebrews would vigorously disavow it as a personification of their Deity. How little do religious believers realize the untenability of their beliefs when presented in an altogether different light from the one to which they are accustomed!


  1. Rev. G. Campbell Morgan, The Ten Commandments, p. 22.
  2. Niedermeyer, The Ten Commandments Today, pp. 36, 38.
  3. Westermarck, Morals, Vol. I, pp. 639, 641.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., Vol. II, p. 654.
  6. Westermarck, Morals, Vol. II, p. 656.
  7. Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture, Vol. II, p. 258.