Is God really a jealous God? What does that mean?
By Christopher Jethro
Last Updated: Dec 13, 2017
Last Updated: Dec 13, 2017
The Bible clearly states that Yahweh is a jealous God in several places (Exodus 20:5, Exodus 34:14, Deuteronomy 4:24, Deuteronomy 5:9, Deuteronomy 6:15, Joshua 24:19, Nahum 1:2).
Some people are confused by this teaching because of the negative connotation they have with the word “jealous”. It is important that we understand that most words have different meanings depending on the context in which they are used. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines "jealous" as:
- 1a: intolerant of rivalry or unfaithfulness
- 1b: disposed to suspect rivalry or unfaithfulness
- 2: hostile toward a rival or one believed to enjoy an advantage
- 3: vigilant in guarding a possession
Most people think of definition 2) when they think of jealousy. For instance, you could have a mean co-worker who is very jealous of a promotion you received because they wanted that position for their self. As such, now they are bitter and resentful towards you and you feel uncomfortable around them. 1a) is the definition that captures God's jealousy, which is not a negative type of jealousy. For instance, definition 1a) would include a husband who is jealous for his wife. He loves her dearly and is zealous for her affection. If she were to cheat on him, it would hurt him deeply and probably arouse understandable anger.
When most people think of the jealousy of God, they have definition 2) in mind (a negative connotation). As such, it invokes a fearful concept of an angry God who is hostile and bitter towards people, but this is not the biblical understanding of God’s jealousy. When the Bible speaks of the jealous nature of God, it is understood in a positive sense of definition 1)a. The context of most of these passages is idol worship, meaning God's jealous nature simply means his intolerance of unfaithfulness when the Israelites worshipped false gods instead of Him.
Since the context is almost always in regards to not worshipping other [false] gods, we should understand that the jealousy of God simply means it is wholly unacceptable for His followers to worship a different God, just as much as it would be completely unacceptable for a spouse to cheat on their partner. Although modern-day Christians may not struggle with literally worshipping another god as the Israelites of old did, we can extrapolate a principle that we should not demonstrate any unfaithfulness towards the Lord (such as by sinning or by loving something more than Him).
It speaks of His zealous deep love for us. God immensely desires an intimate personal relationship with us. He loves us with an amazing infinite love, yearning for our companionship and commitment. In this sense, God is certainly jealous for our love, worship, and devotion. When God’s people, who are spiritually married to Him, rebel against Him, sin, and commit idolatry, it hurts Him because He is being rejected by His creation that He loves deeply. God wants us to be faithful to Him in the same way that He is faithful to us. Yahweh is not tolerant, or accepting, of unfaithfulness when we show love towards "idols" in our lives. God is not interested in sharing us with the world. We must not fool ourselves into thinking that God will accept our unfaithfulness towards Him, for He is a jealous God indeed.
The jealous nature of God is best understood through the story of Hosea. In the book of Hosea, God had told the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute. Hosea’s wife committed adultery multiple times, and each time God told Hosea to continue to forgive and love his wife despite her unfaithfulness. In Hosea 3:1, God then told Hosea, "Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites." This powerful story reveals that God's love is so strong for people (in that context Israel), and loving them is hurtful when they are unfaithful in return.
Doesn’t the Bible say love is not jealous? How can God be jealous then?
Additionally, some critics argue that since the Bible says that “God is love” (1 John 4:16) but also says that "love is not jealous" (1 Corinthians 13:4) there seems to be a contradiction if He is jealous.
The Greek word in 1 Corinthians 13:4 is zéloó. Zéloó can have different meanings ranging from zeal, earnest desire, jealousy, and envy, depending on the context. Most Bible translations actually translate this word as “envy” in this passage, not “jealous”. The context here is that Paul is describing the kind of love that Christians should exhibit. Paul is teaching that true love does not envy others. (Envy is an angry resentful desire for another person’s advantage, and should not be mistaken for the biblical jealousy which means intolerance of unfaithfulness.)
There is no contradiction between the jealous nature of God and 1 Corinthians 13:4 because 1 Corinthians 13:4 is not talking about jealousy in the sense of intolerance of faithfulness - which is a normal mindset among true lovers. God does not envy people. He is jealous for the love of His people (Christians and Jews) in the same way a normal husband is jealous for his wife. There is nothing wrong with this at all. The jealous nature of God is actually a reflection of His sincere deep love for us. When we understand the jealous nature of God, we should actually feel touched by how deeply God loves us, for a person that is not hurt by your unfaithfulness does not really love you.