A Jealous God

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Exodus 20:4-5 says, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God…”

Exodus 34:12-14 says, “Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you. Break down their alters, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles. Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.”

These two passages say that God becomes jealous when we worship other gods besides him. Exodus 34 even goes as far to say that his name is Jealous. A jealous God? To most people this is a very strange idea and even a horrible thing to think about. Using the word “jealous” to describe God has brought about some very emotional reactions from people. Richard Dawkins, the world’s most famous atheist, says that God breaks into a “monumental rage whenever his chosen people flirted with a rival god.” Oprah Winfrey stated that she rejected the Christian faith when she heard a preacher say that God was jealous, and Bill Maher said that God was not “moral” for being jealous about other gods.[1] These comments imply that God is evil for being jealous.

Author and former pastor Richard Strauss gives the reason why so many people do not like the word “jealous” being used about God:

“It has overtones of selfishness, suspicion, and distrust, and implies a hideous resentment or hostility toward other people because they enjoy some advantage. It is possessive, demanding, and overbearing; and that is repulsive. It stifles freedom and individuality, it degrades and demeans, it breeds tension and discord, it destroys friendships and marriages. We view jealousy as a horrible trait and we hate it.”[2]

Can a loving God be jealous? Many Christians tend to ignore the verses in Scripture that describe God as being jealous because they do not know how to reconcile them with the description of God being a loving Father who sent his Son to die for the world’s sins. However, as this article will show, it is actually a good thing that God is jealous.

What is Jealousy?

The American Heritage Dictionary defines jealousy as 1) “Fearful of losing affection or position;” 2) “Resentment or bitter in rivalry; envious;” 3) Arising from feelings of envy, apprehension, or bitterness;” and 4) “Vigilant in guarding something.”

Jealousy can be a good or a bad thing. Scholar Paul Copan says, “If jealousy is rooted in self-centeredness, it is clearly the wrong kind of jealousy. A jealousy that springs from concern for another’s well-being, however, is appropriate.” Notice that the first and fourth definitions given above can actually be good. There is nothing wrong with not wanting to lose something precious to you or guarding it so you do not lose it. But to have resentment or to be envious is clearly wrong (the second and third definitions). There is a bad kind of jealousy (Gal. 5:20), but also a “godly jealousy” (2 Cor. 11:2). In the latter passage, Paul says that he is jealous for the Corinthians; not because of some kind of self-centeredness, but for the well-being of the Corinthians.[3]

God and Jealousy

Is the kind of jealousy that the Bible describes as “godly jealousy” the kind associated with God in the Old Testament? When can jealousy be a good thing? In the case of God, it is when people are avoiding the true source of meaning and happiness – God himself.[4] God created us to have a relationship with him. In fact, the Bible presents God as a concerned lover. Think about it like this: a wife who does not get jealous and even angry when another woman pursues her husband is not very committed to the marriage. The same goes the other way around with the husband. A marriage without the possibility of jealousy when someone outside the marriage steps in is not really a marriage at all.

Pain and anguish are very appropriate feelings when your spouse cheats on you. This is the way God feels when we pursue something other than him. It is only in God that we find true meaning in life. The fact that God looks at mankind as his spouse and gets jealous when we worship false gods should amaze us. That the Creator of the universe would get so deeply distressed when humans (little dots on a tiny little speck of dust in this gigantic universe) search for happiness in places where there is none is astounding. To connect himself to human beings and to open himself up to sorrow and anguish in the face of human betrayal and rejection is also something that should make us praise God. God was continuously hurt and rejected by the Israelites throughout their history, even though he loved and cared for them. Their rebellion exasperated God and he continually looked to reconcile them.[5]

The very idea behind the Old Testament word for jealous is “to become intensely red.” This seems to be referring to the changing color of the face or even the rising heat of emotions that are associated with intense zeal or fervor over something that is dear to us. Both the Old and New Testament words for jealousy can be translated as “zeal.” Being “jealous” and “zealous” is essentially the same thing in the Bible. “God is zealous—eager about protecting what is precious to Him…He has a passionate, consuming zeal for our best interests, and He wants us to share that zeal by being jealous for one another.”[6]

God looked at his relationship with Israel as that of a husband and wife. In a sense, idolatry is spiritual adultery (Ezekiel 16 and 23 are excellent chapters to see this unfold). No wonder God almost wiped out the Israelites after they worshipped the golden calf (Exodus 32). Just a few chapters before the Israelites had sworn to worship God alone and then they almost immediately turn around and worship a piece of gold.

Copan puts it well when he says concerning Exodus 32, “Israel’s idolatry was like a husband finding his wife in bed with another man-on their honeymoon! The reason God is jealous is because he binds himself to his people in a kind of spousal intimacy. So worshipping idols and other gods is a rejection of who he is, just as adultery is a rejection of one’s spouse in marriage.”[7]

Whenever the word jealous is used for God, it is used in the context of idolatry and false worship (i.e. spiritual adultery). Using the word jealousy for God shows us that he has opened himself up to vulnerability and the ability to experience pain and “not the pettiness of a power-hungry deity obsessed with dominating people.” What makes this jealousy so amazing is that God (the husband) only requires the repentance of his wife (the Israelites) to restore their relationship.[8]

It is also interesting to note how the church is considered to be the bride of Christ (in Matthew 25:1-13, Christ calls himself the bridegroom).

(Another way to look at God’s jealousy is the relationship between parents and their children. What if your child went up to another person and called them “mom” or “dad.” How would you feel? You should feel jealous because you are the parent of your children. That is a good kind of jealousy. Only the person who raised and loved the child as a parent should receive the attention and affection a parent should get from a child. God is the only true Father of mankind. He created us and only he deserves to be worshipped as God. The other so-called gods are either made-up or are demons. They are not worthy of worship. No wonder God feels jealous when we worship a statue, money, or whatever else.)

A Good Anger

What about the anger God displays with his jealousy? Why did God get so angry with the Israelites when they worship other gods? Copan makes an excellent point concerning this:

“If we’re not directly touched by any of the world’s many sufferings, sadnesses, and oppressions, our response may be indifferent and apathetic, and a person’s flare-up of anger will make us very uncomfortable. Yet anger is often the first indication that we care. The tragedy is that we’re not angered, not shocked enough.”[9]

Anger, in fact, is not always wrong. Sometimes it is even virtuous. The person who is never angry is morally deficient. “The slow-to-anger person is the virtuous one.”[10] God gets angry with humans at times because he cares about our well-being. God seeks to protect his creation from self-harm because by worshipping something other than him will deprive us of the greatest possible thing – the very thing that we were created for.[11]

When people get jealous in the wrong way, they will often try to hurt others. Strauss summarizes the issue very well: “We pick at them, find fault with them, and gossip about them. Critical attitudes toward other people are often spawned by selfish jealousy. But there is not a trace of selfishness in God’s jealousy. It is perfectly pure, as its expressions reveal…His jealousy does not grow out of insecurity, anxiety, frustration, covetousness, pride, or spite, as ours usually does. It is the natural and necessary by-product of His absolute sovereignty and infinite holiness…God is jealous for those whom He loves and takes positive steps to help them, just as we are jealous for those whom we love when they are threatened, wronged, or abused. He wants only the best for us, and at this very moment He is planning things that will bring benefit and blessing to our lives.”[12]

Conclusion

It is a good thing for God to be jealous. If he did not, then we would all be going to hell. God’s jealousy gives us a second chance to obtain eternal life. Since he wants only the best for us he sent his only Son to die for us. Be thankful that God is jealous and cares for mankind. Be thankful that he gets angry at evil. They are the reason why Christ came.

What do you think? What did you think about God’s jealousy and anger before reading this article? Did you learn anything? Leave a comment below and visit us on Facebook.


[1] Quoted in Paul Copan. “Is God a Moral Monster?” (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011). Pg. 34.

[2] Richard Strauss. “A Jealous God.” https://bible.org/seriespage/jealous-god

[3] Copan, 34-35.

[4] Copan, 35. Also see Glenn Miller. “God the vengeful, Wrathful, and Jealous?!” http://christianthinktank.com/madgod.html

[5] Copan, 35, 37. Also see Miller.

[6] Strauss. Also see Miller.

[7] Copan, 36. Also see Strauss.

[8] Copan, 38.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Copan, 38-40. Also see Miller.

[12] Strauss. Also see Miller.

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