In today’s world, jealousy is rarely ever regarded in a positive light. It’s usually seen as a mark of immaturity, of greed or lust, or a sign of unchecked emotions and undeveloped character. Jealous people tend to be skeptical and untrusting and unable to develop meaningful relationships. Maybe that’s why it’s such a shock to see God claim that title so willingly:
“For you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:14).
A lot of people stop right there. The God of the Bible unabashedly proclaims Himself to be jealous. Why serve a God who’s childish and proud of it? Why have anything to do with Him at all?
But stopping there is a mistake. Stopping there means failing to ask the important questions—questions like why does God call Himself jealous and what exactly does that jealousy entail?
Let’s start with some context.
The verse we looked at a moment ago is actually a parenthetical in the middle of a much, much bigger statement. God was giving instructions to the people of Israel as they prepared to enter the land of Canaan—a country filled with wicked nations who worshipped their gods through acts of child sacrifice and ritual harlotry. Here’s the (lengthy) context:
“Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I am driving out from before you the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite. Take heed to yourself, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land where you are going, lest it be a snare in your midst. But you shall destroy their altars, break their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images (for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they play the harlot with their gods and make sacrifice to their gods, and one of them invites you and you eat of his sacrifice, and you take of his daughters for your sons, and his daughters play the harlot with their gods and make your sons play the harlot with their gods” (Exodus 34:11-16).
And just like that, some answers begin to emerge. God’s jealousy has nothing to do with some childish inferiority complex. He doesn’t need people worshipping Him in order to maintain His own sense of self-worth. He explains instead that if the Israelites failed to destroy the altars and idols of Canaan’s false gods, they would be tempted to accept those false gods—integrating them into their lives, worshipping them and adopting the same horrific customs as the nations around them. It’s why God later warned, “You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way; for every abomination to the Lord which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods” (Deuteronomy 12:31).
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. Israel ignored God’s warning, pursued the false gods of Canaan and, over the course of several centuries, eventually became just as corrupt as the Canaanites God had driven out before them (2 Kings 21:10-13).
Of course, the pagan gods of old are largely relics in our modern world. Chemosh, Dagon and Molech don’t have the followings they used to, and Balder and Hermes are simply passé. So are we still at risk of repeating Israel’s mistake? Is there any reason for God to remain a jealous God?
Yes. A huge, resounding yes.
Human beings are remarkably versatile creatures. We have the capacity to worship far more than the carved and chiseled statuettes of ancient history. Today we can worship at the altar of any number of modern false gods—money, possessions, friends, family, even ourselves—and in the pursuit of these gods, we can cause ourselves all manner of unnecessary pain.
Here’s the key to understanding God’s jealousy: When we put something else on an equal level with God, God doesn’t suffer.
Take money, for instance. The Bible warns, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (1 Timothy 6:10). Money isn’t the problem—but loving it is. When God isn’t first in our lives, we begin finding reasons to step outside the boundaries of His perfect way of life. And when we’re willing to do that, we open the door to all sorts of bad decisions—decisions that can hurt us and those around us.
So yes, God is jealous. He will not suffer a rival—because He knows how much damage that would do to us. Christ warned, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24).
As the self-existing God, our Creator doesn’t need anything from us. God doesn’t need us to put Him first in our lives—on the contrary, we need to put God first in our lives. Serving a false god will leave us empty and pierced through with many sorrows, and that’s not what the true God wants for us. He wants what’s best for us—and because of that, He is a jealous God.
And for that, we should be thankful.