The Meaning(s) of James 4:5

by Doug Ward

When one of the New Testament writers states that "the scripture says" something, it is usually clear which scripture the writer has in mind. There are exceptions, however. One fascinating example is James 4:5, a verse that poses a double challenge. The first challenge is to determine what idea James is attributing to scripture, and the second is to identify the scripture to which James is referring. Three main interpretations have been proposed for the verse, each of which has something worthwhile to teach us.


In the fourth chapter of his epistle, James points to covetousness or lust as the underlying cause of many human problems. Left unchecked, our desires lead to strife and even murder (4:1-3). James observes (as does Jesus in Matt 6:24) that we cannot serve two masters. He asks, "Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?" (4:4)


James 4:5 begins, "Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says ...." So in this verse, James is supporting his point with either a quotation or a paraphrase of scripture. His next statement, which has been interpreted in several different ways, includes (a) reference to a spirit that God caused to dwell in people; (b) a strong desire, either longing or loathing; and (c) jealousy or envy.


What is currently the most prevalent understanding of James' statement is represented by the ESV: "He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us." In other words, God strongly desires for the human spirit that he placed in mankind at creation to be totally devoted to him, not compromised by lusts for anything else. This reading fits well with the context, especially the language of spiritual adultery that James uses in 4:4. We are reminded of statements about God's jealousy-his zeal for his people's loyalty-in scriptures like Exod 20:5; 34:14.


A possible objection to this interpretation is that phthonos, the Greek word for "jealously," is elsewhere always used of jealousy is a negative sense, rather than of the godly jealousy suggested by the ESV and similar translations.1 For this reason, other translations have been proposed that take phthonos in a negative sense. One such translation is represented by the CSB: "The spirit he made to dwell in us envies intensely." In other words, the human spirit has a tendency toward lust and envy, as recorded in scriptures like Gen 6:5; 8:21. James urges Christians to resist this tendency and repent. For those willing to do so, God's grace is available and can prevail (4:6).


An objection to this second interpretation is that Second Temple Jewish literature tends to speak about human sinfulness in terms of evil desires (as in James 1:13-15) or an evil inclination rather than with the Greek word pneuma, the word for "spirit" in James 4:5.2 New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham proposes a third possibility for translating James 4:5: "The Spirit God made to dwell in us abhors envy."3 In this reading, pneuma in James 4:5 is the Holy Spirit rather than the human spirit, and James is urging Christians to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit and turn away from lust and envy.


Bauckham suggests that the scriptural background to which James 4:5 refers is in Num 11, where Moses and the Israelites, after a year of preparation at Mount Sinai, embark on their journey toward the Promised Land. Their progress is soon halted by complaints about the food available to them (vv. 4-6), an example of how covetousness leads to discord as described in James 4:2. To help Moses cope with the quarrelsome Israelites, God empowers seventy elders with the Holy Spirit to assist him (vv. 24-25). Two additional Spirit-led men, Eldad and Medad, prophesy to the people, leading Joshua to worry that they are undermining Moses' authority. But Moses, with characteristic humility, expresses the hope that all the people would be endowed with the Spirit (vv. 26-29).


One can picture a retelling of Num 11:29 in which Moses says, "Do not be jealous for my sake, Joshua. The Spirit God made to dwell in us abhors envy." Bauckham points out that such a retelling may have been known to James and his original readers in the Book of Eldad and Modad ("Medad" was also known in Greek as "Modad."), a work popular among early Christians. This work is no longer extant, but we do have one quotation from it. The Shepherd of Hermas, a well-known Christian work from the second century A.D., says, " `The Lord is near to those who turn to him,' as it is written in the book of Eldad and Modad, who prophesied to the people in the wilderness" (Hermas, Vision 2:3:4). We can imagine Eldad and Medad, while prophesying to the lustful Israelites, encouraging people to repent with such words.


It is interesting that this quotation from Eldad and Modad is very similar to James 4:8, where James, in urging his readers to repent, says, "Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you." Morever, there are some striking parallels in language between James and Hermas. One is that both books speak of the spirit that God made to dwell in humans. In fact, James and Hermas are the only two Christian works prior to Justin Martyr that use the Greek verb for "made to dwell." Another is that the Greek word dipsychos ("double-minded"), which appears in the New Testament only in James 1:8;4:8, also appears in Hermas 19 times; and this word, which has been found only in Jewish and Christian sources, is not often used in Christian literature before the work of Clement of Alexandria in the late second century A.D."4 These parallels suggest that both James and Hermas were using a common source, probably the Book of Eldad and Modad (the only source cited in Hermas).


The reason James 4:5 is challenging is that James' statement does not match any scripture we know about. The proposal that James was thinking of Numbers 11, as retold in the (now lost) Book of Eldad and Modad, gives a plausible answer to our puzzle.


Overall, the ambiguity in James 4:5 need not be seen as a problem, but rather can be taken as an invitation to further study. The three interpretations we have considered all fit well in the context of James 4, and all remind us of scriptural truths-God's zeal for our undivided loyalty, the depths to which human sinfulness can take us, and the importance of following the lead of the Holy Spirit.


1See p. 424 of The Jewish World Around the New Testament by Richard Bauckham, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, 2010.

2Bauckham, p. 426.

3Bauckham, pp. 428-432.

4Bauckham, p. 431.

Issue 32


File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.66.
On 28 May 2017, 13:12.