Q&R with Brad Jersak – “How can God be ‘jealous’?”
I have to say that the following verses about God’s jealousy trouble me. Isn’t jealousy a sin? How God describe himself as jealous, even Jealous as one of his names?
- “Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;”
Exodus 20:5, KJV
- “For thou shalt worship no other god: for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God:”
Exodus 34:14, KJV
- “For the LORD thy God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God.”
Deuteronomy 4:24, KJV
- “Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.”
Deuteronomy 5:9, KJV
- “(For the LORD thy God is a jealous God among you) lest the anger of the LORD thy God be kindled against thee, and destroy thee from off the face of the earth.” Deuteronomy 6:15, KJV
And it’s not just that he’s jealous. He threatens to punish those who make him jealous, and even says he’ll destroy them and ‘visit their iniquity’ on their great grandchildren! What’s so Christlike about that?
That’s a very difficult question. The last thing I’d want to do is spin God’s own words to suit my sentiments. And at the same time, how do we read these words through God’s ultimate self-revelation as perfect love in Jesus Christ? We’ll need to do so very carefully and in stages.
First, I suggest reading the word “jealous” in the context of God’s covenant with his people. And by covenant, we don’t mean a legal contract. Rather, the covenants of God are patterned after either patriarchal (divine care) or spousal (divine union) arrangements. In other words, covenants with God use the metaphors of (1) a family/tribal chieftain who protects and provides for his people or (2) the faithful love of husband and wife.
Throughout the Scriptures, God/Christ regularly casts himself as a Husband and his people has the Bride. When the people become unfaithful, when they worship competing gods, God describes it as adultery. His wife has taken other lovers. Indeed, when the people end up in exile, some of the prophets describe it as a divorce. But they also speak of the possibility of a New Covenant… where the Husband retrieves his wife and remarries her.
So when we read that God is ‘jealous,’ we’re to think within the context of his marriage. Here, jealousy is actually an expression of his love and should not be regarded as a sin. It helps to think of jealousy as the opposite of envy. That is, jealousy is wanting what belongs to you while envy is wanting something that doesn’t belong to you.
Now we might bristle a bit at the word ‘belonging’ in terms of ownership. It’s not that. Again, it’s the mutual belonging of a married couple. Imagine, for example, a woman who discovers someone else is zeroing in on her husband, hoping to seduce him. Imagine the combination of love and ire as she speaks to her would-be competitor: “Listen here, you @&#$!!, he belongs to me! Hands off!” And perhaps she turns to her husband and, eyes ablaze with glaring love, tells him, “Remember, Buster, you’re mine!” That’s jealousy. That’s not control. That’s not sin. It’s a reminder of their mutual vows to monogamy. And that’s apparently what God means when he says he’s jealous.
Further, we need remember that “jealousy” is an anthropomorphism, projecting human emotions onto God who is not actually subject to our raging passions. But God himself finds it appropriate to express his covenant love in analogies with which we can empathize.
Now if we can see God’s “jealousy” in scare-quotes as a metaphor consistent with the covenant marriage analogy, we’ve crossed the first hurdle. But what about the attending threats? Does God actually and directly destroy his unfaithful spouse? Does he honestly punish their great-grandchildren because of their flirtations with idolatry?
Here is where we MUST turn to Christ as our final authority on the character of God. Remember:
- 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known (John 1:17-18, NIV).
In other words, Jesus is the final Word. He is what God has to say about himself. The glory that Moses glimpsed as the backside of God, we have seen full-on in the face of Jesus Christ. Where the Law threatens destruction and retribution, the Gospel proclaims unfailing mercy, forgiveness and restoration. Jesus IS the divine Bridegroom, come in flesh to woo us back.
In fact, these same promises are already delivered through the mouths of the elder prophets–Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Hosea, for example–who tell us that God is SO jealous that he does NOT abandon his Bride to their own self-destruction. He will give his very life to redeem them from bondage and restore them to the safety of his household. That’s the New Covenant writ large.
And as it turns out, the “iniquity visited on the third and fourth generations” was not literally at God’s hands. Whatever suffering God’s people endure through our unfaithfulness is intrinsic to our own fateful defiance. God’s warnings are not to be literalized as if he personally inflicted their wounds. God always abhors spousal abuse. Rather, when his Bride leaves him, he consents to her willful choices and the attending consequences. But when she finds herself ensnared in the traps she and her lovers devised–when she finally cries out for Hubby–he hears and runs to rescue her. The problem, though, is that the process is often prolonged … yes, sometimes for three or four generations. But the jealous love of our faithful Spouse never stops waiting. Never stops loving. Never gives up hope that we will ultimately bottom out and turn our affections back home.
Now that’s a jealousy I can appreciate!