Why God is Jealous?
by Al Serrato
The Old Testament contains passages in which God is described as “jealous.” For instance, in Exodus 20, God’s Ten Commandments to the Israelites include the admonition not to worship false idols, with God explaining that “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.” Similar passages can be found elsewhere in the Bible. On first glance, this may seem a rather odd term to use, and make little sense to us, as we do not view jealousy to be an attractive, or appropriate, character trait. Atheists often use these passages to make the case that a “jealous” God is petty and not worthy of our love or respect, let alone our worship.
But let’s take a closer look at what is at play. When we hear the word “jealousy,” it usually carries the connotation of a feeling of envious resentment, often brought on by another person’s rivalry or success. We are jealous of people whose accomplishments are well-respected, or who have found the means to acquire things that we too wish to possess. In some instances, it suggests a desire to possess exclusively, as in completely controlling a romantic partner. But even here, the underlying dynamic is that the person feeling jealous fears the loss of the loved one, or fears being made to look foolish if their loved one is unfaithful.
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How do such feelings apply to God? Our understanding of God is of necessity limited. We cannot fully know him. Our observations of the universe support the belief that he is immensely powerful and intelligent, that he is a personal being, and that he transcends space-time. Reason tells us that such a being must embody perfection – as St. Anselm once formulated, God must be that being a greater than which cannot possibly be conceived. He is the ultimate, the supreme; the creator of all there is, was or ever will be. If this is indeed the case, then reason also tells us that there is nothing –simply nothing – that God wants or needs, for there is nothing that he does not already possess.
But there is another definition of “jealous” that makes a bit more sense in context, and interestingly the dictionary lists it as the “biblical” definition: “intolerant of unfaithfulness or rivalry.” But, the atheist may challenge, why should God be “intolerant?” This too seems to suggest that He is injured or diminished when his creatures turn away from Him to worship idols, when they reject him. But how can a perfect being experience injury, hurt… or even, for that matter, sad feelings?
I would suggest that there is another perspective from which to view these passages…
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