In Romans 11:11, Paul writes, “Have they [Israelites] stumbled so as to fall? Certainly not! But through their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make them jealous (παραζηλῶσαι αὐτούς; parazelosai autous).” It’s not uncommon to hear that, according to this verse, “Gentiles are supposed to provoke Jews to jealousy.” But how would a non-Jew do that?
According to a new, popular interpretation, this jealousy will come from the Gentiles observing Torah in the same way that Jews do; particularly by keeping the Sabbath, eating kosher, wearing ritual fringes, etc. Seeing this Gentile Torah observance, the argument goes, Jews will become “jealous” of Gentiles which, in turn, will lead to Jewish repentance. I would suggest this is not what the apostle had in mind when he envisioned Israel becoming jealous. In Paul’s thinking, the nations were not supposed to adopt a Jewish lifestyle, but rather learn how to reflect the values of love and forbearance that they themselves have experienced through Yeshua. It is this divine disposition that will make Israel jealous!
The word for “jealous” in Romans comes from the Greek ζῆλος (zelos), which can also mean “zealous.” Earlier in the letter, Paul had used this term to describe Israel’s “zeal (ζῆλος; zelos) for God, but not in accordance with knowledge” (10:2) — an enthusiasm for God, but not according to the knowledge (ἐπίγνωσις; epignosis) of Yeshua as “Messiah” (10:4). Then, the apostle asks if Israel did “not understand” the divine intention for Gentiles to worship God along with them (10:18), and he responds by citing verses about the nations making Israel jealous.
Paul writes, “Moses says [of Israel], ‘I will make you jealous (παραζηλώσω; parazeloso) by [those who are] no people; I will move you to anger by a foolish nation” (Rom 10:19). This quotation comes from Moses’ final words in Deuteronomy. God announces that the people “have made Me jealous (קָנָא; qana) with what is not God (לֹא־אֵל; lo-el)…. I will make them jealous (קָנָא; qana) by those who are no people (לֹא־עָם; lo-am); I will anger them with a foolish nation (גוֹי; goy)” (Deut 32:21). In Torah this poetic verse is not about kindness towards Gentiles but about Israel’s waywardness and God’s disappointment. Almighty laments that Israel, his children, have forgotten their Father and provoked to jealousy the Rock of their salvation (see Deut 32:15-18). So, the Lord responds in kind by arousing them to jealousy with a “foolish nation” (גוֹי נָבָל; goy naval). In Deuteronomy, non-Jews making Israel jealous is not a blessing for Israel—it’s a punishment!
But Paul adapts these verses for his positive message. For him, Moses’ reference to a “foolish nation” alludes to all the Gentiles who, unlike Israel, had no understanding of God before the gospel of Jesus. But now this knowledge has spread among the nations. As Shaul puts it, “Salvation has come to the Gentiles, in order to make Israel jealous.” Then comes the important twist on Deuteronomy: “Now if [Israel’s] trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fullness [of inclusion] mean?” (Rom 11:11-12). Paul answers this rhetorical question by saying that Israel’s reception of Yeshua will mean “life from the dead” (11:15). Paul wants to make his fellow Jews “jealous” in order to “save some of them” (11:14). This “jealousy” is supposed to lead to deliverance.
The “riches for the Gentiles” are not the Torah commandments. In the rest of Romans, the term for “riches” (πλοῦτος; ploutos) always refers to God’s own qualities and character, never to the Torah. The letter describes the “riches of [God’s] kindness and forbearance and patience” (2:4), the “riches of his glory” (9:23), and the “riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God” (11:33). Paul declares that God’s abundant kindness has come to the nations and this same divine love from Gentiles towards Jews is what will make Israel “jealous.” This is only something God can do through the salvation offered to Gentiles in Messiah.