In the Ten Commandments, God describes himself as a jealous God after giving the command to not make idols. Exodus 20:5-6 continues,
“You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
In describing himself as jealous, God contrasts his passion and love for his people to the iniquity of those who hate him by chasing after false gods and idols.
God’s description of himself as jealous is only given in the context of idolatry. In Exodus 34, God made a covenant with his people. The preferred meaning of an Old Testament covenant is a bond. A covenant refers to two or more parties bound together.
Breaking the bond also breaks the covenant. A covenant is similar to a legal contract today. In a contract, the parties are named, and their duties are explained.
This passage explains that God is a jealous God, and his name is Jealous, “for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:14).
God promised to be faithful to his covenant and he expected them to be faithful and to avoid making covenants with the Canaanites.
Forty years after giving the Ten Commandments, God renewed his covenant with the people of Israel. They were about to enter the Promised Land and their leader, Moses, warned them to avoid idols of any kind. Deuteronomy 4:23-24 reminds them,
“Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the LORD your God has forbidden you. For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.”
Deuteronomy 5 restates the Ten Commandments and reminds the people, again, that God is a jealous God. The next chapter of Deuteronomy connects God’s jealous anger in response to idolatry.
“You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you — for the LORD your God in your midst is a jealous God — lest the anger of the LORD your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 6:14-15).
In the New Testament, Paul explains a similar jealousy for the hearts of new believers. He does not want them to be led away from the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2).
What Does Jealous Mean in the Bible?
The Hebrew word translated “jealous” in the Ten Commandments is qanna (קַנָּא) It is only used to describe God and is related to another word that means “zeal.” Common synonyms for “zeal” are passion, enthusiasm, and fervor.
God passionately loves his people because he chose them. Deuteronomy 7:7-8 explains, “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you.”
God’s passion for his people is a result of his love. In the Ten Commandments, God contrasts his passionate love and zeal for his people to idolatry as evidence of their hate (Exodus 20:5-6).
What Is the Difference Between God’s Jealousy and Envy?
In English, we often use the words “jealous” and “envy” interchangeably. A quick search shows a common definition of “jealous” is “feeling or showing envy of someone or their achievements and advantages.”
The Oxford Languages definition of “envy” is “a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else’s possessions, qualities, or luck.”
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia explains how they are different: Envy “is an evil strongly condemned in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. It is to be distinguished from jealousy. ‘We are jealous of our own; we are envious of another man’s possessions. Jealousy fears to lose what it has; envy is pained at seeing another have.’”
Two Greek words are translated as jealousy and envy. Examining these words illustrates the difference between the biblical concepts of jealousy and envy.
“Phthónos (“ill-will”) conveys “displeasure at another’s good; . . . without longing to raise oneself to the level of him whom he envies, but only to depress the envied to his own level" (R. Trench, 90).”
This word is often seen in lists of sins to avoid. Romans 1:29 describes ungodly people, “They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips,”
Matthew 27:18 and Mark 15:10 both use this word to explain that it was because of envy that Jesus was handed over to Pilate before the crucifixion. The chief priests and elders were resentful of Jesus’ ministry and sought to diminish his influence.
A similar situation occurred in Genesis 37 when Joseph’s brothers were resentful of their father’s affection for Joseph, so they sold him into slavery. Acts 7:9 summarizes this, “And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him.”
The Greek word translated “jealous” in this passage is derived from the Greek word zelos. “The root (zē-, “zeal”) literally means “hot enough to boil.” It is metaphorically used of “burning anger, love, zeal” (A-S) — i.e. to burn (in spirit). It can refer to “boiling anger, love, zeal, for what is good or bad (J. Thayer)”
The brothers were jealous for their father’s affection. Since this word denotes both passionate anger and love, Bible translators often use the word “jealousy” when they translate it in a negative sense and “zeal” in a positive sense.
In John 2:13-21, Jesus drives the moneychangers and livestock merchants out of the temple. Jesus rebuked them saying, “Do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” Verse 17 explains, “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’”
In this verse, zeal is translated from the Greek word zelos. John is referencing Psalm 69:9, “For zeal for your house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me.”
The Hebrew word translated “zeal,” in this passage, is related to the qanna, the same word God used to describe himself in the Ten Commandments.
How Is God’s Jealousy Different Than Human Jealousy?
Human jealousy is often tainted by sin and quickly morphs into destructive anger and envy. In Proverbs 6:34, a father is warning his son to avoid having sex with a married woman because it would make her husband enraged, “For jealousy makes a man furious, and he will not spare when he takes revenge."
Because God is without sin, God’s jealousy in response to idolatry is righteous and holy. Idolatry is a cancer in our relationship with God. God’s desire to remove the sin of idolatry is for our good.
When surgeons remove cancer, they cause short-term pain by cutting into the cancerous flesh to remove that which is destroying the body for a long-term benefit.
God is jealous for his relationship with his people because he passionately loves them and does not want them to be destroyed by idolatry.
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