At least seven times throughout the Bible, God says that He is a jealous God.1 Sadly, it’s easy to misunderstand and stumble over the idea of God’s jealousy as Oprah Winfrey did when she heard about it in church. She said:
“I happened to be sitting in church in my late twenties, and I was going to this church where you had to get there at 8:00 in the morning or you couldn’t get a seat. A very charismatic minister [preached] and everybody was into the sermon. This great minister was preaching about how great God was and how omniscient and omnipresent and God is everything. Then he said, “The LORD thy God is a jealous God.” I was caught up in the rapture of that moment until he said, “jealous.” Something struck me. I was like I think about twenty-seven or twenty-eight, I’m thinking God is all, God is omnipresent, and God’s also jealous? Jealous? God is jealous of me? Something about that didn’t feel right in my spirit because I believe that God is love and God is in all things. That’s when the search for something more than doctrine started to stir within me.”2
Although I can’t say this was the only factor in Oprah turning away from biblical Christianity, it certainly seared itself in her mind as a definitive moment. But, is that right? Is God jealous of Oprah or you or me? How can God be jealous when He is already so powerful and awesome? Doesn’t jealousy stem from an insecurity about the things you lack combined with a desire for what someone else has? How could God possibly stoop to such a puerile emotion?
May I suggest that at the heart of this issue is a simple misunderstanding of what jealousy means? In fact, the Hebrew word translated jealousy קנא “can occur both in a positive sense (advocate zealously for the benefit of someone else) and in a negative sense (bear a grudge against, resent). The various usages share the notion of an intense, energetic state of mind, urging towards action.”3 English dictionaries agree with this two-sided definition. For example, the Oxford Dictionary includes the definition, “feeling or showing envy of someone or their achievements and advantages” as well as “fiercely protective or vigilant of one’s rights or possession.”4
The problem is most of us have never heard of the positive definition of “jealous.” When we hear the word, we think of the green-eyed monster, a controlling boyfriend, or an employee who sulks when someone else gets promoted. We do not think of a covenant relationship with clear boundaries where both parties are jealous to protect their agreement. However, this second, positive sense is what we find applied to God
Although it would be a fascinating study, we won’t take the time here to go through each instance. Instead, I’d like to focus on just one from Deuteronomy 6. The section begins with some of the most famous and recognizable words in the entire Bible—
Deuteronomy 6:4–9. “Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one. You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.5
Here Moses is communicating God’s identity and role for his fellow Israelites: He is Yahweh; He is our God; He is one. Furthermore, Moses commands the people to love Yahweh with everything. This strikes me quite strange. When is the last time you commanded your spouse, your sibling, or your child to love you? That’s generally not how it works, right? Love gives of itself in a courageous yet vulnerable fashion, seeking reciprocation. This is why it’s so terrifying when you first tell that special someone those three little words, “I love you.” At that moment you’ve laid your cards on the table and become completely vulnerable. In this moment, a “thank you” will not do. Either they return your declaration with their own, or you feel crushed and humiliated. But, what about God? Has He already declared to Israel His love? Do they already know that He
God is a lover. He can’t help it. It’s how He’s wired. He showed love to Abraham centuries earlier (Gen 24:27), then again to Jacob (Gen 32:10), and Joseph (Gen 39:21). When the previous generation crossed the Red Sea, they sang, “You have led in your steadfast love the people you have redeemed” (Ex 15:13). When God spoke to Israel, forty years earlier, from the raging inferno atop Mount Sinai, He proclaimed His intention in “showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex 20:6). So, in short, the answer is a resounding “Yes.” God had made the first move. He had declared His intention to His people. Additionally, He had maintained His care of them over decades while they wandered in the desert. In fact, Moses reminded the Israelites, “Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years” (Deut 8:4). This doesn’t mean God was always “nice” to them. Love is so much deeper, more complex, and transformative than mere niceness. God did punish His people for their rebellions in the wilderness, but even those punishments came from a place of love. “Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the LORD your God disciplines you” (Deut 8:5). So, God has laid His heart bare to Israel. He’s declared them to be His “treasured possession among all peoples” (Ex 19:5). Now, God’s question goes forth, “Will you love me back?”
Yahweh is your God; Yahweh is one. Love Yahweh with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might. This is what God expects in return. He wants His people to treat Him the way He treats them with covenant love and faithfulness. To ensure they don’t wander off into worshipping other gods, He commands them to teach their children diligently, to talk about these instructions throughout the day, to bind them on their hands, to put them between their eyes, and to write them on their doorposts. God is a lover who has already had His heart broken by this same people a generation earlier when they insisted on worshipping a golden calf and refused to enter the Promised Land. He wants to make sure they and their children down through the generations will see the covenant relationship for what it is.
Deuteronomy 6:10–15. “And when the LORD your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—with great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full, then take care lest you forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. 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.
For some reason, I just love this passage. It’s so raw, so real. It really shows us God’s heart. He wants to make sure that His people realize the gift He is giving them: cities, houses, cisterns, vineyards, and olive trees. Once they are satisfied and secure, He doesn’t want them to forget Him or what He did for them in Egypt. He wants to occupy a central space in their thinking. He wants them fearing, serving, and swearing by His name instead of the gods of Egypt where they came from or of the Canaanites where they were going. Then, we arrive at the clincher of the whole section, the sentence that offended Oprah yet pulled me in—verse 15.
Deuteronomy 6:15. For Yahweh your God in your midst is a jealous God—lest the anger of Yahweh your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth.
Whew! What a conclusion! He begins by telling His name and how He wants the people to recognize Him as their only God—the one to whom they are wholly devoted (Deut 6:4-5). And He ends by threatening to wipe them off the face of the earth if they cheat on Him. At this point, it’s important to keep in mind that any family or clan was free to go. There was no fence around the camp, preventing people from leaving. However, if they were going to stay with Yahweh and His leaders and His priests, then He expected covenant loyalty. That’s the kind of committed relationship He’s interested in, not a consumer arrangement where each side stays in it only until either finds a better deal. If they stay around, they are agreeing to make Yahweh their God and to be His people.6
Having Yahweh as their God made Israel the most special nation on the planet—a people whose God was no mere local power or idol, but the very Creator of heaven and earth. He is the true and living God. And, yes, He is also a jealous God. But that’s actually a good thing. Can you imagine a spouse who isn’t angry when she or he gets cheated on? Real love means you can be truly hurt if the recipient of your love breaks faith. This is simply the nature of deep love. If someone hurts one of my children, I feel an instant surge of rage. That doesn’t mean I should sin, but it is a consequence of genuine love. God is jealous for His people. He is not jealous of His people, and He is not jealous of other gods. “Jealous for” means He already has them and is zealous to
I feel this way about my toothbrush. It is mine; I don’t loan it out—not to my friends, not to my kids, not even to my wife. I’m jealous for my toothbrush. God’s jealousy is not that He wishes He could be like His people. His jealousy is not that He envies the other gods and their shiny temples. No, His jealousy is for the people He had already committed Himself to all the way back in the time of Abraham. He’s hanging onto them tightly, and He wants them to do the same. He’s jealous for them, and He wants them to be jealous for Him as well.
Now, I recognize that much has changed between the Deuteronomy generation of Israelites and today. We, Christians, are under a new covenant mediated by Jesus, not Moses. It is a better covenant founded on better promises ratified by a better sacrifice. Nevertheless, has God changed? Is He now fine with His people dabbling in spirituality, worshipping at the altars of success and family, or relegating their interactions with God to transactions? He is still a lover longing for a people to reciprocate that love, and He is a jealous God who will not play second fiddle in our lives.
I, for one, am thankful for God’s jealousy. He doesn’t just let me walk out the door. He convicts me when I fall into sin. He speaks to me through Scripture, during prayer, through others, and in my circumstances. He doesn’t just leave me to my own fate when I’m straying. His jealousy fights for me. To think that the Creator, the most important individual in the entire universe, cares about me and vigilantly fights to keep me is both overwhelming and comforting. Yahweh is a jealous God, and I’m just fine with that.
For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. - Deuteronomy 4:24
1 Exodus 20:5; 34:14; Deuteronomy 4:24; 5:9; 6:15; Joshua 24:19; Zechariah 8:2
2 “Oprah Denies Christ,” posted September 14, 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2vd9DDH2A5o&t=190s
3 Willem A. VanGemeren, New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, vol 3 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), p. 938.
4 “jealous” in Lexico, powered by Oxford Dictionaries, https://www.lexico.com/definition/jealous
5 Although I’m citing from the ESV throughout, I’ve taken the liberty to restore God’s proper name to the text rather than the clumsy and inauthentic substitution, “the LORD.”
6 Deuteronomy 4:20; 7:6; 14:2; 26:18-19; 27:9; 28:9