For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. — Deuteronomy 4:24
I’m continually drawn back to the Scriptures for many reasons. Chief among them is this: the God I find here routinely defies my expectations.
Jealousy is not a becoming trait. It connotes insecurity, hatred, fear, and pettiness. We speak of jealousy as “the green-eyed monster” because it consistently wrecks so many of our relationships. Jealousy stems from some sort of perceived inadequacy, a feeling of rejection, an experience of isolation and exclusion. Producers of reality television bank on jealousy to drive the conflict of their supposedly “unscripted” dramas. Jealousy inevitably leaves you feeling angry, small, spurned, and insignificant.
And what I find so surprising is the number of biblical references to God as a “jealous God.” Here is a sampling of such passages:
- Deut. 4:24, For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.
- Deut. 5:9, 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…
- Deut. 6:15, for the Lord your God, who is among you, is a jealous God…
- Deut. 32:16, They made him jealous with their foreign gods and angered him with their detestable idols.
- Deut. 32:21, They made me jealous by what is no god and angered me with their worthless idols.
- Joshua 24:19, “You are not able to serve the Lord. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God.
- Ezekiel 16:38, I will sentence you to the punishment of women who commit adultery and who shed blood; I will bring on you the blood vengeance of my wrath and jealous anger.
- Psalm 79:5, How long, Lord? Will you be angry forever? How long will your jealousy burn like fire?
- Exodus 20:5, You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God…
- Nahum 1:2, The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath.
- Zephaniah 3:8, The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger.
And perhaps the grandaddy of them all, Exodus 34:14: Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.
The Scriptures are pretty clear in communicating the truth that Israel’s God is a jealous God. But the Exodus passage puts an emphatic point on it: when it comes to His covenant people, God’s very name is Jealous.
How do we make sense of this? How do we reconcile this teaching with our understanding of the word? Does all of this imply that God is insecure, fearful, and operating out of some sense of deficiency?
In his book, Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture, R. W. L. Moberly makes an important distinction:
YHWH’s requirement for Israel to be faithful is regularly spoken of elsewhere in terms of His being jealous…precisely because jealousy is a corollary of love when it matters that the loved one, especially if covenantally committed (as in marriage), should return the love and not faithlessly go elsewhere.
We would do well to strip the term of all connotations of deficiency when referring to YHWH and instead adopt an understanding closely aligned with Moberly: an awareness of jealousy as a corollary of love. It matters to God when covenantal love is not reciprocated. We have emphasized our inability to match God’s gift to us — the theological point is not in question here. But perhaps we’ve let the pendulum swing too far from center. Perhaps we’ve emphasized God’s faithfulness and love to the exclusion of any mention of our reciprocal actions in covenantal relationship with Him. Is this not part and parcel to the understanding of covenant laid out in Deuteronomy 28 (blessings and curses)? Has God’s covenantal nature changed? Have his desires for relationship with his covenantal people been modified?
It should come as no surprise, then, that Scripture conveys the magnitude of God’s love in such stark terms. He is, indeed, a jealous God. It matters greatly to God when his covenant people engage in unfaithful dalliances with the competing and corrupting false gods of the world. James notes that such “friendship” with the world is adulterous, akin to enmity with God – the same God who jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us (James 4:5).
God’s jealousy is a corollary of God’s love. And today I’m giving thanks for yet another unexpected pearl from God’s Word: the reality of a God who loves me enough to be jealous. It’s just like God to bring Good News in the most unexpected places (words).