In terms of trying to break down what the emotion is about, jealousy is an interesting emotion. It usually isn’t a good thing, to be sure, but jealousy is interesting because it an emotion that is highly specific. Most emotions, such as sadness, grief, anger, happiness, etc. can arise for a variety of reasons. Jealousy, however, happens in a very specific condition: where a person feels they are entitled to something that should be only be their privilege. It is most common in social relationships, where one person (a) wants the attention, recognition affection, sex, etc. of another person but (b) goes further than simply desire and includes some some belief that they should have this relationship rather than another. What makes jealousy jealousy, and where it can become such a problem, is that some of the reasons people have for believing they should have the exclusive privilege amounts to nothing more than they want something, without regard for having any sort of commitment for establishing that relationship.
It is this nature of jealousy that I want to bring to the table when looking at what Paul says in Romans 11.11-16 about Israel and his hope regarding them. While Paul did not have such an analytic analysis of jealousy in mind, this framework can be useful for provoking further questions in seeking to understand why Paul thinks Israel might be moved to jealousy, specifically, because of the Gentiles.
Robert Jewett describes some problems with translated παραζηλόω, including the traditional translation as jealousy:
If the traditional translation “jealousy” is elected, the “fantastic” improbability in believing that envy could lead to salvation along with the inherent unworthiness of envy as a motivation for conversion are hard to deny. In view of the fact that Jewish legalists viewed the early Christian proclamation as heretical, no satisfactory explanation has ever been given to explain why they would have been “jealous” when Gentiles accepted this allegedly mistaken doctrine. Moreover, the links with the earlier argument of Romans are weakened by the traditional translation, because ζηλόω has the sense of religious zeal and rage rather than jealousy in 10:2, as generally acknowledged, and also in 10:19, as argued above on contextual and poetic grounds. If “emulation” is selected, Bell has a hard time explaining how “jealous anger,” preferred translation for 10:19, could have been thought to shift into the positive desire to emulate the behavior of the previously hated Gentiles. If one selects “provoke to zealous rage” or “make make zealous,” thus providing the best continuity with the probable connotation of παραζηλόω in 10:19 and the certain meaning of ζηλόω in 10:2, it remains puzzling that such religious hostility could be thought to lead to their salvation, for which Paul hopes in 11:14. Perhaps he as the model of his own conversion in mind, namely, that when his zeal reached its violent climax in the persecution of the believers in Damascus, the risen Christ was revealed to him and his desire to destroy alleged evildoers turned into its opposite, a desire for coexistence with those whom the Messiah had chosen to accept. Zeal to exclude hated Gentiles turned into a comparable zeal to include them as part of the people of God. It appears that Paul hoped for some similar process of conversion for current Jewish critics of the Gospel.1
There are two problems with Jewett’s analysis. Firstly, Paul does not seem to be arriving to a belief that Israel will be provoked to παραζηλόω because he has developed some specific strategy in mind that he thinks will work. Rather, as the language recalls back to Paul’s quotation of Deuteronomy 32.21 back in Romans 10.19, it is more reasonable to think that Paul thinks God is the one who is going to move Israel to jealousy and that Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles will be instrumental in that.
Secondly, Jewett’s comments focus more on the feelings of hatred that some Israelites held towards the Gentiles. As such, it might seem hard to imagine how an object of hatred and contempt could motivate jealousy, if you are looking at things only through a sociological lens of relationships between social groups.
This is where a theological interpretation provides an extra dimension to the reading: it isn’t that the Gentiles as an object of derision will magically change the mind of the hardened Israelites, EXCEPT on the grounds that the belief that God was blessed the Gentiles would spur hardened Israel to think their special relationship with God had been encroached upon if not even broken by God. As a nationalist brand of Judaism could have strongly established the belief that Israel has a special privileged relationship in God in virtue of birth, circumcision, and Torah, the very thought that God was blessing the Gentiles would poke a whole in this false preconception.
Put more specifically, the hardened Israelites could be moved to jealousy in virtue of the belief that corporate Israel had an exclusive, privileged relationship with the God of the patriarchs. At stake here is a belief that stands at the intersection of social identity and theology: as Jewish identity is tied up with beliefs about the nation of Israel’s special relationship with God, the blessing of the Gentiles would light a fire under the hardened Israel. In Paul’s view, their belief about their privileged relationship is false, but nevertheless, this false belief can be used to bring them to God.
As an analogy, imagine a long lasting dating relationship where the relationship had grown stale, partly due to the complacency of the male, taking his relationship granted. Say the female decides to ask for some space to figure things out. The male interprets this not as breaking up the relationship, but simply a time apart. However, the female means this more that she wants to explore other relationships and decides to go out with another guy. The male has a mistaken belief about the nature of the relationship. Then, news arrives to him that she is seeing another guy. How would he respond? There are many ways he could respond, such as recognizing the relationship is over and moving on. But, one potential response would be to think she moved on because he didn’t show here enough affection, spend enough time, etc. and so he offers to step up his game. In the midst of the breaking thorough the illusion of what he thought was the continuing of the relationship, he realizes if he doesn’t change he will lose who he cared for. What is going on here? The male receives news that shows him that he view of the relationship is mistaken. Now, he realizes that he needs to be more engaged and involved if he wants to keep the relationship.
I would suggest this is much closer to what Paul is envisioning here, with a few caveats. The first caveat is that Israel’s perceived relationship to God is not framed in Romans in terms of romance and marriage, but rather in terms of social status and hierarchy. For some Jews, Israel is supposed to be on the top of the food-chain in God’s economy. God’s rich blessing of the Gentiles would show that Gentiles are occupying the favored position that they as Israelites believed that themselves should have had for themselves. Secondly, whereas exclusive monogamy remains the social norms and conventions for dating and marital relationships, Paul’s conviction is that God does not have an an exclusive, special relationship with one people.
With these two caveats in mind, we can perhaps have a way for understanding what Paul is saying in provoking Israel to jealousy. In their religious activities, many Israelites were not properly engaged in seeking God’s righteousness, but they had established their own righteousness by reducing righteousness down to matters of obeying Torah (Rom. 9.30-10.3). As a result, they could not embraced Jesus as revelation of God’s righteousness. Jesus didn’t fit into their religious praxis. So, while they may believe that God has special favor for them as Second Temple literature such as Wisdom of Solomon would express, Paul’s argument is that they are self-deceived about their relationship with God in seeking God’s righteousness. There has never been a special, exclusive relationship between God and Israel *as a corporate body,* but membership in God’s special people has always been a matter of God’s grace to elect descendants of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Rom. 9.6-13; 11.1-10). Additionally, the political mythology that would develop from the Maccabean rebellion that God rewards Israel political victory by its exclusive, zealous devotion to circumcision and Torah as the heritage of Israel is also mistaken as God was never concerned about the circumcision of the flesh, but that of the heart as reflective of their life (Rom 2.25-29).
However, for Paul, what can happen upon realization of God’s inclusion and blessing to the Gentiles is that Israel can realize that they have been living under false pretenses about their relationship to God. God is going to make the Gentiles become a people who spur Israel to renew their relationship with God by realizing that they were not being truly faithful to God in the first place. It would spur them to a new sense of zeal/ζῆλος, but one with knowledge (cf. Romans 10.2) that is in actual accordance to the truth about God and His relationships with humanity through faith rather than believe that Israel’s had a more or less automatic and exclusively privileged relationship with God that puts the halakhic traditions, which would focus more or less exclusively on Torah, at the center of Israel’s response to God.
However, to be clear, it isn’t that this new zeal would suddenly make the harden Israel included again in God’s chosen people. Paul maintains it is God’s gracious election. Paul doesn’t explore the relationship of God’s mercy and hardening of Israel and the jealousy they would experience, but Paul simply implies and assumes that Israel’s being provoked to jealousy would lead to their inclusion because God has a special love for the descendants of the patriarchs that will culminate in Israel’s full inclusion and salvation (Rom. 11.25-32). What this suggests is that God’s hardening is not intended as an eternal condemnation as per double predestination, as if salvation history is simply the manifestation of God’s salvation to all of the personally elected and judgment to all the personally condemned. Instead, Paul believes what happens salvation history of God’s work among His elect has an actual on the non-elect such that they may be included at a later point. Paul does not further expand upon this point, as Paul is not trying to address modern theological metaphysics about the relationship of God’s action to individual salvation, but rather is trying to address questions of Jewish social identity and their future, even as much of Israel had rejected Jesus as their Lord. This becomes evident in Paul’s understanding of his own ministry. He believes by letting the world know about his ministry to the Gentiles, his own apostleship would be instrumental in salvation history to bringing forth the partial inclusion of corporate Israel into God’s elect people (Rom. 11.13-14).
In summary, what is at stake in Paul’s beliefs about provoking Israel to jealousy is that the visible blessing and inclusion of the Gentiles into God’s people would poke a hole in the mistaken notions about corporate Israel’s exclusive, privileged relationship with God. Paul hopes that they would be woken from their stupor and that they will realize they have been mistaken about God and His righteousness, so that they will rightly come to know Jesus as their Lord as the Gentile inclusion shows that their beliefs about God were not from God, but from themselves.