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God, Jealous? How Disturbing Is That?

Ann Spangler
Ann Spangler
2018 2 Oct

A blue sky with clouds that are lit up deep yellow by the sun.

The Bible contains descriptions of God that can be disturbing. Perhaps the two most difficult images have to do with God’s wrath and jealousy. How can we fully trust ourselves to a Divine Being who displays such characteristics?

Part of our difficulty stems from the fact that we want God to fit a certain mold. For many of us, the ideal god is nice, kind, powerful, affectionate, and safe. He’s someone we can easily understand and who doesn’t demand too much. But is such a god up to the task of being God? Can we trust our lives to him? Is he great enough to worship?

The God of the Bible is ultimately mysterious, someone altogether different, though we share his likeness in certain respects. As such, it makes sense that we approach him with fear, not daring to sit in judgment on his character.

The second problem is that we sometimes fail to understand that the Bible’s description of God as jealous is an anthropomorphism. God speaks to us using limited human words that can’t adequately describe him. God’s anger and jealousy differ from ours because, unlike us, God always acts in a way that reflects his goodness and justice.

In Hebrew the noun qin’â can be translated “jealousy, zeal, jealous anger, envy, or jealous.” The verb qānā is translated “jealous, envy, very zealous, envious, or suspects.”

The Greek noun zēlos is used in the New Testament and can be translated “jealousy, envy, zeal, passion, ardent concern, or enthusiasm.” The Greek verb zēloō can be translated “eagerly desire, zealous, covet, eager, envy, or jealous for.”

In both Old and New Testaments jealousy is often portrayed in negative terms. Human jealousy is dangerous and damaging as evidenced in the stories of Joseph and his brothers and Saul and David.

But God is rightly jealous for his honor, his glory, and his name. His jealousy extends to his people and is manifested by his watchful care lest they be led astray. To conclude that jealousy is beneath God would be to miss the nature of his holiness and his passionate love for us. Though the Bible doesn’t provide a definition of divine jealousy, neither does it portray jealousy as something that diminishes God in any way. If anything, it emphasizes his right to protect and pursue his honor and the people he loves. Even the New Testament emphasizes the exclusivity of God’s claim on our lives. Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” John 14:6.

It’s interesting that the Hebrew and Greek words for jealousy are the same words that are used for “zeal or zealous.” Though human beings can become overzealous, Scripture affirms godly zeal, which is a rightful concern for God’s honor and interests.