Hear the word “jealous” and images of an insecure, abusive husband easily come to mind. Indeed, jealousy has caused many difficulties and heartaches in human relationships. So it can be perplexing to come across a passage like Exodus 34:14-15 when reading the Bible: “For you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.”
How could a perfect, loving, patient God call himself jealous? Is God insecure? Does this passage just represent a primitive Old Testament idea of God that is thankfully done away with by the time we get to the New Testament? Maybe this is just a human way of talking about God that should not be taken seriously. Or perhaps “jealous” is a bad translation of a Hebrew word that could allow for a less troublesome English word.
To understand why God would call himself jealous — and even intensify this description by turning it into one of his divine names — we need to see Exodus 34:14-15 in its biblical context. This is also true for the hundreds of other times God declares or displays his jealousy in the Bible. While all human words are frail and limited in describing God, we need to allow God’s verbal revelation to hold the power and meaning he intends for it to have.
“Jealous” is an accurate English word to translate the Hebrew word kana in Exodus 34. Kana (as well as the Greek equivalent zelos) is translated “zeal” or “envy” in other places in the Bible. Zeal is a strong feeling to see something come about. Envy is a desire to gain possession of something that does not belong to you, and it is always sinful. Jealousy is a strong desire for relational faithfulness. Jealousy can be sinful if it is unwarranted or expressed in wrong ways, but it can also be an appropriate and righteous emotion. We don’t usually make a distinction between envy and jealousy, which contributes to the public relations problem jealousy has.
God is righteous and loving when he demands exclusive faithfulness from his covenant people. Because God rightly loves his own glory, and graciously loves us, he demands that we worship and serve him above all. In human history, God is most glorified by the undivided devotion of his redeemed people, and his ultimate jealousy for his glory demands this devotion. If he does not care when we love idols more than him, then he would allow himself to be dishonored and let us settle for less than we are intended to have from life. God’s jealous love demands the best of us and our relationships.
In Exodus 34, God gives Moses the central demands of relating to God as his covenant people — a covenant God compares repeatedly to a marriage. God is the husband of his people and we are his bride. This metaphor intensifies when we get to the New Testament. To worship any god but the true God is spiritual adultery, and any husband who does not care if his wife commits adultery most certainly does not love her.
Right at the heart of the laws of the covenant, God wants his people to know how permanent and exclusive is this covenant relationship. He wants them to realize that he is a personal God who is establishing a personal relationship with his people. As a result, He should be related to as he is — not as a more user-friendly god of their own making.
What a staggering and wonderful truth — that the God who is perfectly self-sufficient (Psalm 50:12; Acts 17:24-25) has chosen to enter into an intimate relationship with his people to the point where he feels jealous anger if we are unfaithful to him! And what a blessed joy to know that — by faith in Christ, the only perfect covenant keeper — we can rest assured that one day we will be presented to our Lord pure and conformed to his image (1 John 3:2-3). Until then, may the God whose name is Jealous be honored through the surprising faithfulness of his bride who is prone to wander.