Questions & AnswersBible Answers to your Questions | Vol. 28 No. 6 | Sep-Oct 2018
Q: In the Ten Commandments and other Bible passages, why does God portray Himself as a “jealous God”? How can a holy God also be jealous?
When I think of the word “jealous,” what first pops into my mind is the image of a jealous husband. Controlling and selfish, he wants to keep his wife only to himself, and if she as much as glances at another man, he flies into a monumental rage that shakes the peace of the home. But God is not a man. He says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts… For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways.” Isa. 55:8–9. God’s nature, character, and concerns are infinitely higher than ours. We do well to steer away from pressing God into human stereotypes and from picturing Him in limited human terms.
Whether jealousy is good or bad is determined by the root of the sentiment. If jealousy springs from self-centeredness, a desire to reserve a person only to oneself for egotistical reasons, then jealousy is bad. But if jealousy stems from concern for the well-being of the loved one, it is commendable. Notice the two ways in which the apostle Paul uses the term. In Galatians 5:20, he lists jealousy along with “hatred,” “contentions,” “outbursts of wrath,” and “selfish ambitions.” In this context, jealousy is clearly a vice. Yet in 2 Corinthians 11:2, Paul presents jealousy as a virtue: “For I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.”
In this last passage, the apostle used the marriage analogy to illustrate the relationship between Christ and His church. A man who is not disturbed when another man is flirting with his wife is not truly committed to his marriage. God is not an abstract force, but a personal Being, and as such engages with humans in relationships. He has bound Himself with ties of love and care to the beings He has created. He yearns for an intimate relationship of trust with His children.
In ancient times, Israel was constantly tempted by the idolatry of surrounding nations. Idol worship presupposed engaging in destructive behavior, such as ritual sex, drunkenness, and gluttony, which appealed to the baser human nature and held a strong attraction. God knew the immense harm this unethical lifestyle would bring. He offered Israel lasting and deep fulfillment in a life of holiness and service to the Lord. God’s commands were not given to inhibit human freedom, but “for your good.” Deut. 10:13.
Today, God is still yearning for us with a holy jealousy. He wants for us the best kind of life, now and for eternity. C.S. Lewis remarked, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”1 When we content ourselves with drinking out of the dirty puddles of life, while He is providing pure, living water which will truly satisfy our thirst, He suffers deeply. God’s jealousy is simply an expression of divine love when disappointed by human foolishness and indifference towards Him and the abundant life He designed for us.
- C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. New York: Harper One, 2001, p. 26.
For further reading, see Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011, chapter 4.
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