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The Meaning(s) of James 4:5

When New Testament writers state that "the scripture says" something, it is usually clear which scripture the writer has in mind. There are exceptions, however. James 4:5, for instance, is a verse that poses a double challenge: the first is to identify the scripture to which James refers, and the second is to determine what he meant by referencing that particular text. Not surprisingly, scholars offer three main interpretations for James 4:5. What is pleasantly surprising is how each interpretation has something worthwhile to teach us.

In the fourth chapter of his epistle, James points to lust and covetousness as the underlying cause of most human problems. Our desires, left unchecked, 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).

He continues in 4:5, "Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, [....]". What follows is either a quotation or a paraphrase of scripture. The challenge for interpreters is that the text can be read in the following ways—referring to a spirit that God caused to dwell in people; or a strong desire, either longing or loathing; or jealousy or envy.

Translators of the ESV represent the current prevailing understanding of the text, "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 them at creation to be wholeheartedly 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. In it, we hear echoes of statements about God's jealousy—his zeal for his people's loyalty—in texts like Exod 20:5 and 34:14.

A possible objection to this interpretation is that the Greek word for jealousy (phthonos), is only used in scripture as jealousy in a negative sense, not the godly jealousy suggested by the ESV and similar translations.(1) For this reason, other translators propose that phthonos is indeed used here in a negative sense. For example, the CSB renders our text, "The spirit he made to dwell in us envies intensely." In other words, the human spirit tends toward lust and envy, which echoes scriptures like Gen 6:5 and 8:21. Contextually, James is urging Christians to resist this tendency and repent. For those willing to do so, God's grace is available and prevails powerfully (4:6).

An objection to this line of interpretation is that Second Temple Jewish literature speaks about human sinfulness as evil desires (see James 1:13-15) or as an evil inclination but not with the Greek word for spirit (pneuma) which is used here by James.(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 James has in mind in 4:5 is that of Numbers 11. Moses and the Israelites, after a year of preparation at Mount Sinai, embark on their journey toward the Promised Land. Their progress is interrupted 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 with characteristic humility, Moses expresses his 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 familiar to James and his original readers in a work popular among early Christians called, The Book of Eldad and Modad (either Medad or Modad in Greek). Though no copies of this book exist, we do find a fascinating quotation from it in a well-known Christian work from the second century called, The Shepherd of Hermas. "The Lord is near to those who turn to him," writes the author, "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.

Interestingly, this quotation from Eldad and Modad is very similar to James 4:8. While urging his readers to repent James says, "Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you." Moreover, 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 texts before Justin Martyr that use the Greek verb for made to dwell. Also, the Greek word for double-minded (dipsychos) appears in Hermas 19 times but is only used in the New Testament in James 1:8 and 4:8. Dipsychos, found only in Jewish and Christian sources, is rarely used in Christian literature before the work of Clement of Alexandria in the late second century.(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).

James 4:5 does not match any scripture we know of, that is the challenge to translators and interpreters. The proposal that James was thinking of Numbers 11, as retold in the (now lost) Book of Eldad and Modad, offers an interesting potential piece to the puzzle.

There is no need to see the ambiguity in James 4:5 as a problem. Rather, it is an invitation to study further in order to revere our Good Father and respond faithfully to him. The three readings we have considered all fit well in the context of James 4, and each one reminds us of important 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.


(1) See p. 424 of The Jewish World Around the New Testament by Richard Bauckham, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, 2010. (2) Bauckham, p. 426. (3) Bauckham, pp. 428-432. (4) Bauckham, p. 431


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