Is it true that God is a jealous God? Numerous Bible verses describe God as a jealous God, in the context of his people breaking their covenant with him and following idols. Although jealousy in humans typically means they are desiring things for selfish reasons, God’s jealousy means that he intensely desires people to return to the source of life and be saved.
God’s Jealousy: Deal Breaker for Some
In her late 20s, Oprah Winfrey was still happily participating in the Christianity of her upbringing when she had a notable “spiritual aha!” In the Sunday morning sermon, the preacher taught about how God is a jealous God, bringing condemnation on those who turn away. Winfrey heard this and immediately thought to herself, How can this God who is all loving and all powerful…why would God be jealous of me?
That theological quandary became a major spiritual turning point for her. “Something happened in that moment. And prior to that, I was just sort of by rote doing what I’d been trained to do in the church. And that’s when my spiritual path began.”
Does the Bible really teach that God is a jealous God? If so, how should we feel about it? Should that discovery be our cue to begin searching for a better God, a more agreeable spirituality? Or is it a cue to dig deeper and find out what the Bible actually means by describing God’s jealousy? This article will take us deeper into a topic that shocks some yet, just as shockingly, reassures others. Let’s figure this out.
A Healthy Starting Point for These Explorations
One word of caution as we set out tackling this question: Consider how it may be cool to be a fan of Jesus nowadays, but the religious leaders of his day had serious theological issues with him. Jesus rudely burst out of their well-ordered conceptions of what a person from God would be like.
He “worked” on the Sabbath. He befriended notorious sinners. As a rabbi, he taught women and allowed them to follow him as disciples. He targeted spiritual sins of religious leaders more than systemic sins of imperial oppressors. He claimed to forgive sins and accepted worship and used names for himself which belonged to God alone.
These and other theological issues were too much for many religious leaders. They couldn’t reconcile what they thought God was like with the person they saw in front of them claiming to be him. So, they rejected Jesus and looked for ways to get rid of him. As a believer in Jesus, I believe that, as convinced as they were, their theological reasoning was dead wrong—so wrong that it led them to reject and even take part in killing Jesus.
God is a jealous God? “As convinced as they were, their theological reasoning was dead wrong.”
If the biblical God calls himself a “jealous God,” we do well to pause and dig deeper. It would be foolish to say, “Oh, well, that certainly doesn’t fit my theological conception of what God must be like.” To give in to a quick visceral reaction like this is what the religious leaders did with Jesus. As easy as it is to play theological umpire in our own systems of thought, when I stand before God someday, I plan on doing what everybody in the Bible does when they see God: their face hits the dirt, and they say something overwhelmed like, “Holy, holy, holy!” In light of that, I’ve got to stay humble and acknowledge that there may be things about God that I have trouble understanding in this short life with my small mind, and that’s okay.
A Jealous God? The Short Answer in One Passage
The problem stated simply is this: Jealousy is depicted as a sin in the Bible, and we’ve all seen people do terrible things because of jealousy. So, if God is a “jealous God,” then that seems to be a problem. And it’s not really that much comfort to say, “Well, he’s God, so it’s fine.” The biblical God isn’t supposed to be a human on steroids like so many of the pagan gods who seem to turn human vices of lust, greed, and pride into Olympic events. As God put it in Hosea 11:9, “I am God, and not a man—the Holy One among you.”
The truth is that the Bible describes both 1) jealousy as sinful and destructive, and 2) God as having jealousy. And both of these truths are found in both testaments. Here is a passage in the New Testament which describes both of these truths side-by-side:
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” (James 4:1–6)
God is a jealous God? “He jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us.”
Here we see, in a single passage of Scripture, human jealousy and its destructive effects (“you kill…you quarrel and fight”) and divine jealousy (“he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us”). There’s more than one way to interpret the verse about God’s jealousy, but the quandary is more about how to interpret the word “spirit” here (is this the lower-cased human spirit or the upper-cased Holy Spirit?). What’s not up for debate is that God jealously longs for it in us.
How to reconcile the badness of human jealousy here with the apparent goodness of divine jealousy? Here’s the basic truth James 4:1–6 is teaching us: As a sinful human,
- I want what I want (selfish ambition: “You desire but do not have”)
- I want what you have (jealousy: “You covet but you cannot get what you want.”).
All the while, God wants us. And he wants us to want him. He “jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us.”
In short, while we’re off really wanting stuff, God’s really wanting us.
A Jealous God? The Longer Answer in Multiple Passages
There are verses in the Bible, mainly in the Old Testament, which come right out and call God a jealous God. Moreover, many of the times it is God calling himself this, one time even saying that his “name” is jealous.
God Calling Himself Jealous
Here are some of the times God calls himself jealous. You might recognize the first as coming from the Ten Commandments:
“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them 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.” (Ex. 20:4–5)
“Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” (Ex. 34:14)
God is a jealous God? “The Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.”
“They made me jealous by what is no god and angered me with their worthless idols. I will make them envious by those who are not a people; I will make them angry by a nation that has no understanding.” (Deut. 32:21)
“In my zeal and fiery wrath I declare that at that time there shall be a great earthquake in the land of Israel.” (Ez. 38:19)
God’s Jealousy Connected with Idolatry
Want to see God jealous? Where there are idols among his people, his jealousy is sure to follow (with wrath on its way after that):
“Do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the Lord your God has forbidden. For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.” (Deut. 4:23b–24)
“Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you; for the Lord your God, who is among you, is a jealous God and his anger will burn against you, and he will destroy you from the face of the land.” (Deut. 6:14–15)
“They made him jealous with their foreign gods and angered him with their detestable idols.” (Deut. 32:16)
“By the sins they committed they stirred up his jealous anger more than those who were before them had done.” (1 Kings 14:22b)
“They angered him with their high places; they aroused his jealousy with their idols.” (Ps. 78:58)
God is a jealous God? “They aroused his jealousy with their idols.”
He stretched out what looked like a hand and took me by the hair of my head. The Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and in visions of God he took me to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the north gate of the inner court, where the idol that provokes to jealousy stood….Then he said to me, “Son of man, look toward the north.” So I looked, and in the entrance north of the gate of the altar I saw this idol of jealousy. (Ez. 8:3, 5)
God’s jealousy can have downright fearsome effects but is fueled by zeal for people:
Then the Lord was jealous for his land and took pity on his people. The Lord replied to them: “I am sending you grain, new wine and olive oil, enough to satisfy you fully; never again will I make you an object of scorn to the nations.” (Joel 2:18–19)
Godly Jealousy in the New Testament
The theme of God’s jealousy isn’t as prominent in the New Testament as in the Old, but it’s still there (including some from the apostle Paul as well):
“The sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons. Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” (1 Cor. 10:20-22)
“I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:2–3)
What Jealousy Means in Us
Jealousy amounts to being aroused to anger because you’re not getting something you want. Sometimes it’s a matter of losing what you had to someone else, and sometimes it’s a matter of someone else having what you’ve always wanted.
As for losing what you had to someone else: All that King Saul felt made him somebody who was slipping away and attaching to the good-looking warrior and inevitable future king: David. Saul’s jaw clinched and eyes narrowed when he heard the women greeting the returned soldiers by singing, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands” (1 Sam. 18:7). That’s the fame he used to have.
As for someone else having what you’ve always wanted: As exhibit A of why polygamy is a train wreck, we see Rachel jealous of her sister-wife Leah because Leah bore children to Jacob while Rachel couldn’t. Then, when Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel finally bore a son, Jacob’s other sons were insanely jealous of the favor their father showed him, not them. They eventually found the opportunity to sell him him into slavery.
God is a jealous God? “In us, jealousy actually proves to be one of the scariest vices.”
In us, jealousy actually proves to be one of the scariest vices. Why? It’s because it pours gasoline on the other vices. Jealousy makes stealing seem like the right thing to do. Jealousy makes murder seem justifiable. Jealousy makes adultery seem like compensation. History’s most horrifying episodes were carried out by proletariat jealous of the bourgeoise, Nazis jealous of the Jews, French peasants jealous of the aristocracy. To them, mass murder felt like justice, thanks to jealousy.
Proverbs 27:4 confirms what we’ve seen from this scheming sin: “Anger is cruel and fury overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?”
What Jealousy Means in God
So, if jealousy turns us into monsters, what might it do to God? After all, God’s jealousy is often discussed in the context of some fearsome judgment God is about to pour out on idolaters who once followed him. If not for his jealousy, would God be a lot less prone to wrath?
Actually, not. For those raised on what a theologian friend of mine calls “K-Love Christianity,” it may be a rude surprise to hear that God is something other than just a glowing marshmallow of positivity and encouragement. But he is. The God of the Bible is a God of holiness. Of justice. Of perfection. An entire book in the Old Testament (Leviticus) is there to remind us that neither sin nor sinner can’t stand in God’s holy presence, so that an entire system of blood sacrifice needed to be in place to atone for the people’s sins. This was needed so that God could dwell among them without obliterating them (and that was God’s chosen people!)
So, yes, his jealousy is a surprise. But it’s not because his jealousy tells us that God must destroy sin and punish the sinner. We already knew that from his holiness. His jealousy surprises us by showing us how seriously he takes relationships. Jealousy tells us that our rebellion doesn’t just provoke him; it wounds him. It rouses his anger because he is losing something precious to him.
God is a jealous God? “His jealousy surprises us by showing us how seriously he takes relationships.”
I don’t like that, you might think. But I’m guessing you’ll be able to at least get it. God’s jealousy follows from a couple truths about God which are well-established in the Bible:
- Idolatry is adultery.
- God is good.
1. Idolatry is adultery.
Most references to God’s jealousy come in the context of the covenant which ancient Israel had made with God which they were breaking by following other gods. In our twenty-first century world, our point of reference for covenants is entering a marriage, where we promise to be faithful until death. The marriage relationship is precisely what God had in mind when entering into a covenant with ancient Israel. How else can we explain such phenomena as God telling the prophet Hosea to “Go, marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her, for like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord” (Hos. 1:2). Idolatry was taken by God to be adultery.
2. God is good.
God is always working toward redemption for those who have gone astray. Even wrath was used as a last resort to finally get his people’s attention so that they might humble themselves, forsake their idols, and return to him. And this is where God’s jealousy differs so noticeably from our own jealousies. Most of the time, we’re jealous because of what we feel we’re losing out on. Yet God is always going to be God. He will always be the source of life and love and joy. He won’t lose any of his radiant Godness when we trade him for idols. It’s we who will lose out. He has so wrapped his heart around his covenant people that when his covenant people pull away and divorce him, he feels pain. Because he is good, and the source of all goodness, the jealousy that follows is meant to bring us back to the only thing that can save us.
God is a jealous God? “He won’t lose any of his radiant Godness when we trade him for idols. It’s we who will lose out.”
An upshot of this is that the biblical God would make an awful Buddhist. Buddhism cultivates a pleasant equanimity toward all states of events by not tying one’s heart to anything. The Buddha himself, while setting out to find enlightenment, left his wife and child because he knew strong attachments were unconducive to the path. Buddha named his own child “Rahula,” meaning “chain” or “fetter.”
Yet God proves his love to be so attached that it feels intense, inflamed, and even embarrassing to the person who wants a more professional relationship with boundaries. His love goes way beyond positive and uplifting. It’s intent on saving us and never letting us go without a fight. In this life we are free to reject God, but, while in this life, we are not free from his pursuit of us. Not yet. While we’re off really wanting stuff, God’s really, really wanting us.
What all this means is that, if someone leaves God behind because they don’t like the idea of a jealous God, to be fair, they’ve got to also leave behind the illusion that they prefer a loving God. That’s precisely what they’re leaving.
God is a jealous God? “If someone leaves God behind because they don’t like the idea of a jealous God, to be fair, they’ve got to also leave behind the illusion that they prefer a loving God.”
Is Idolatry Worth God’s Jealousy?
No offense meant to anybody, but leaving God for idols is presented in the Bible as the most brainless trade possible. Consider what happens to those who trade the one God for idols:
This is what the Lord says: “What fault did your ancestors find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves….My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jer. 2:5, 13)
If you are thinking of leaving God behind for something else, it’s going to be what the Bible calls an idol. This is because all things that exist are either Creator or creation. Leaving God for our own customized spirituality is as clear an example of idolatry as you could ask for. Anytime you trade God for an idol, a dark consequence follow this trade you’ll want to be aware of:
When you walk away from God, your faith becomes worthless. Faith is only as intelligent as its object, and placing faith in “worthless idols” amounts to worthless faith. When you leave God, the real God, the God who has revealed himself for something else, then whatever spirituality you get into or religious beliefs you experiment with, it’s going to leave you empty.
God is a jealous God? “They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.”
If you’re married, it’s good to regularly ask yourself how the marriage is going. It’s good to ask yourself the tough questions: Am I keeping my eyes pure for my spouse? Am I keeping my heart pure for my spouse? Am I keeping my imagination pure? Am I keeping my relationships with coworkers pure? So that my eyes, my heart, my imagination, my relationships all honor my spouse? Am I loving and serving my spouse? Tough questions, but the stakes are really, really high.
If we don’t want our faith to turn out worthless, we also ought to be asking ourselves the same type of questions when it comes to God. Who really is God in my heart? Who really calls the shots? Whom do I most want to please? The stakes are really, really high. Trading God for something else means a worthless faith.
Yet that somehow doesn’t stop God from seeing worth in us.
Isn’t it beautiful that, even after all the adulteries with other gods and the jealousy they provoked in him, God in Hosea 11:8 is still lovesick regarding his covenant people:
“How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboyim? My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused.” (Hos. 11:8)
Is God jealous for us? For some reason, yes. Actually, we know the reason, even if it makes us uncomfortable: He deeply and intensely loves us and wants the best for us.
 Oprah Winfrey, in “Finding Your Spiritual Path Webcast Transcript,” Oprah.com, January 14, 2009, https://www.oprah.com/spirit/finding-your-spiritual-path-webcast-transcript/6.