(Ex. 20:5) Is it wrong for God to be jealous?

CLAIM: The Bible condemns jealousy (Jas. 3:14; 1 Cor. 3:3; Gal. 5:19-21), but the Bible states that God is jealous. In Exodus, God says, “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me” (Ex. 20:5). How can God condemn us for something he does himself? Is this just rank hypocrisy?

RESPONSE: A number of observations can be made:

First, the term “jealous” (qannāʾ) can also be rendered “zealous.”[1] For instance, the psalmist writes, “Zeal for your house has consumed me” (Ps. 69:9). God has “zeal” for his people (Isa. 42:13) and his purposes (Isa. 9:7). Thus, the “term ‘zealous’ might be a better translation.”[2]

Second, there is a difference between sinful jealousy and godly jealousy. Paul writes, “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy” (2 Cor. 11:2). Paul’s care for these people was for their benefit—not his own. False teachers were trying to take advantage of the Corinthians in order to harm them (2 Cor. 11:20). While it’s an odd choice of words, Paul was “jealous” for these people—not for selfish reasons, but for sacrificial ones. Indeed, if Paul stood by idle and indifferent as the Corinthians fell away from Christ, this would’ve been wrong. Paul Copan writes,

A wife who doesn’t get jealous and angry when another woman is flirting with her husband isn’t really all that committed to the marriage relationship. A marriage without the potential for jealousy when an intruder threatens isn’t much of a marriage. Outrage, pain, anguish—these are the appropriate responses to such a deep violation.[3]

Indeed, how could we say that this wife loved her husband if she felt nothing at such a betrayal? At the very least, we would know that something was profoundly wrong in this marital relationship.

Third, God’s jealousy is based on the fact that he is the greatest conceivable good. Consequently, it is damaging to us when we love anything above him. In the context of Exodus 20, it is damaging for people to engage in idolatry because this ends in despair and pseudo-salvation. Thus, the jealousy here is not for God’s benefit—but for ours. Stuart comments,

God’s jealousy, including the demand that he be exclusively worshiped, does not arise from petty motives but from beneficent ones. The problem with idols is not that they make God feel bad but that they cannot save, thus keeping from salvation those he wants to see gain eternal life. His hatred of idols reflects his love for us, not any insecurity with regard to himself.[4]

In short, God doesn’t want us to worship false gods, because this will affect us and our offspring in the long run.

[1] Leonard J. Coppes, “2038 קָנָא,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 802.

[2] R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 2, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 164.

[3] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011), 35.

[4] See footnote. Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, vol. 2, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 724.