How do we make sense of God’s jealousy?
Imagine the worst person you can fathom. Many people might rightly point to someone like Adolf Hitler. And when asked to describe what character traits turned Hitler into the verified monster he was, one might rightly point out his extreme jealousy, hatred, and wrath. A reputation like this meant he could operate from fear. He got a lot of people to do things they may not have done otherwise due to the fear of his jealousy, hatred, and wrath. While Hitler might have had these traits in extremes, they are not at all isolated to him. We tend to distance ourselves from anyone who experiences one or more of these traits in excess if we are able. However, when we really examine ourselves, we are horrified to see them manifest in our own lives.
So why, then, are we supposed to worship a God who is glowingly described with these very same traits?
You shall not bow down to [idols and/or other “gods”] or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.Exodus 20:5-6
The LORD examines the righteous,
but the wicked, those who love violence,
he hates with a passion.Psalm 11:5
The LORD is a jealous and avenging God;
the LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath.
The LORD takes vengeance on his foes
and vents his wrath against his enemies. …
Who can withstand his indignation?
Who can endure his fierce anger?
His wrath is poured out like fire;
the rocks are shattered before him.Nahum 1:2, 6
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
all who follow his precepts have good understanding.
To him belongs eternal praise.Psalm 111:10
The biblical authors seem to relish these descriptions of God, as does God Himself. And this may all seem a bit hypocritical, given that when these traits are discovered in human beings, they are condemned by the very same God. Is this a do as I say, not as I do situation? In the next four articles, we will investigate these traits where, I believe, there is quite a bit more there than meets the eye.
What is God’s Jealousy
Jealousy is probably one of the least attractive traits in a significant other. Along with this trait, one thinks of someone who is controlling and a little stalkerish. But when we consider the biblical understanding of jealousy, I think we might see it in a completely different light.
Let’s first make sure we have a good understanding of jealousy. One thing jealousy is not is envy. Often these two terms are considered synonymous, but they are quite different. Envy is the desire for something that is not yours and does not claim to be yours. So, for instance, if a man desires another man’s wife and has accompanying negative thoughts about her husband, that is envy. Jealousy on the other hand is when someone desires something where there is a perceived belonging that is threatened. So, for instance, if a young man saw his girlfriend flirting with someone else, or at least he thought that was what he saw, that’s jealousy. However, it is still of a type that may or may not be entirely justified: the belonging to each other is not quite final because they are dating instead of married.
Continuing with the relationship analogy, let’s look at another example. If a man is married to a woman who leaves him for another man, then he might rightly be jealous and be driven to gain back his wife’s affections. It might be that her rejection of him is justified based on his treatment of her, of course. Life is messy. But let’s suspend all the potential scenarios that could exist painting either the husband or the wife as the main culprits of this turn of events and focus only on the relationship itself. The husband and wife entered a relationship of belonging to one another. This relationship was built on love. If the wife leaves to be with someone else and the husband is not jealous, that means he has no desire of belonging to the wife, which is also a sign that the love has evaporated. Imagine that you leave the person you most love in the world and they are unfazed by it: is that the sort of response you would want because you are so opposed to jealousy? Jealousy signifies love.
The problem we face is that humans can turn any trait into something vile, which is what has happened with jealousy. However, in the case of God, He is jealous for His people just as a husband would be if his wife left him for another man (this is actually an extended analogy in Scripture itself, most vividly told in the Book of Hosea)—only in this case the other man is physically violent and emotionally and psychologically abusive. God’s jealousy is not arbitrary—leaving Him for another endangers you and others in your wake. And this is not a type of endangerment based on the retribution the wronged party might take. No, in this case, this is endangerment because of the type of things that one will be led to do when they are entirely severed from God.
In Exodus 20:5-6—“I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments”—we can start to see these principles take shape. First, this is said in the context of a people who had just escaped from Egypt and would be marching into Canaan. What would be the result of the Israelites abandoning God for another? Well, they might return to Egypt as chattel slaves or perhaps become people who practice and replicate the chattel slavery system on a large scale like Egypt did. They might be enticed by the Canaanites to sacrifice their own children to “gods” like Molech. When God talks about being jealous for His people, He is jealous for them when they enter into idolatry and worship other gods which, in this context, essentially means figments of the imagination that are amalgamations of the worst human traits or very real spiritual beings who have rebelled against God. These we also call demons. In this case, terrible human traits find their genesis in these creatures, which is why they look so much alike.
Jealousy then, in Exodus 20:5-6 and the rest of the Bible, is not God saying, “If you don’t love me, I will kill you,” but “If you don’t love me, you’ll kill yourselves and others, and I will have to punish you to stop your reign of terror because you will probably not listen to anything else.” This is why the same God who spoke in Exodus also says in the Book of Hosea to adulterous Israel,
How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I surrender you, Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? I have had a change of heart; my compassion is stirred! I will not vent the full fury of my anger; I will not turn back to destroy Ephraim. For I am God and not man, the Holy One among you; I will not come in rage.Hosea 11:8-9, CSB
Throughout the Bible, God gave warnings, often hundreds of years before He judged, so that people could repent. Very rarely did anyone take Him up on His offers, even after they were witnesses to His power. That is the thing about mercy sometimes: you have to establish you have the power to judge before you can extend mercy, for if you only start with mercy there will be some question as to the level of your power. It is because of God’s power that His incarnation as a humble and vulnerable child is so incredibly paradoxical.
Something else that makes God’s jealousy different, then, is the cause—why God is a jealous God in the first place. Human jealousy is often a result of pride. How dare so and so… But God’s jealousy is, because of not only His holiness and moral perfections but also His desire for our wellbeing. We belong to Him because He created us and, more specifically, He created us for a relationship with Him. This is not God frightened of being alone, but God unwilling to let us run headlong into the pit of destruction. He is jealous for us, not of us, when we do things that put an end to our flourishing and turn to the things in the world that seek to devour us while pretending they love us. God is jealous because God is love.
All articles in this series:
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Image: Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), “The Zeal or Jealousy of God,” ?.