Q&A: A Jealous God? Exodus 20:5

A Jealous God? Exodus 20:5

Question

God is love (1 John 4:8), but love is not jealous (1 Cor. 13:4), so how can God ever be jealous (Ex. 20:5)? Isn't this contradictory?

Answer

Exodus 20:5 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 fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.

1 Corinthians 13:4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

1 John 4:8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

God indeed is love (1 John 4:8, 16). His nature is perfect, complete, just, and righteous, etc. So, how could such love ever be jealous?

Normally when we think of the term "jealous" we think of something negative. We think, for example, of being jealous of someone's wealth. However, when it is used of God in Exodus 20:5 (cf. Deut 4:24) it carries a positive and righteous connotation. The word jealous is translated in the Old Testament from the Hebrew word qinah. It means to be passionate in a good, justified sense. Even Paul uses it positively stating, "I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy" (2 Cor. 11:2; cf. compare 1 Cor. 12:31; 14:1,39).

God expressed his love for Israel in the Old Testament by proclaiming to be a jealous God. He was not envious of the Israelites' accomplishments or possessions. He already owns it all (Psa. 24:1; cf. 1 Chron. 29:14-16; Psa. 50:10-12). Here he was communicating his holy love for Israel, a love like that of a marriage, a cherished relationship (Deut. 7:6), a godly zeal (Song 8:6). Like an eagle that cares for its young (Deut. 32:11), God watched over the Israelites with righteous jealousy (Ex. 20:3-6; Josh. 24:14-20). Such godly jealousy (2 Cor. 11:2) is different from what Paul had in mind in 1 Corinthians 13:4.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).