A “Jealous God”? How is that Good?

bible black and white book close up

A few years ago, in a conversation with a childhood friend of mind, he told me that the thing he can’t accept about the God of the Bible is that he is described as being “jealous.” My friend insinuated that he could never respect a God who had such a petty and insecure character trait.

Several times in the Bible, God refers to himself as a “jealous God.” For example, in the 10 Commandments, God tells his people not to worship other gods, because he is a jealous God.

What’s interesting, is that jealousy is listed in the New Testament as being one of a handful of sins which are called “the works of the flesh” and are contrasted with “the fruits of the Spirit” in Galatians 5.

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)

How can God have a characteristic which the Bible itself calls sinful?

There are two answers to this question:

1. Two Different Greek Words – With Two Different Meanings

The confusion over the word jealous being attributed to God is really a matter of the weakness of the English language. In Greek, two very distinct words, with distinct meanings, are used to describe these two attitudes:

In Galatians 5:21, where jealousy is listed as a sin, the word is: φθόνος (phthonos) – which is more akin to envy or covetousness: it connotes ill-will towards someone because of something they have which you want for yourself. [1]

In James 4:5, where God is described as jealous, the word is: ἐπιποθέω (epipotheo) – which means to dote upon or desire intensely. [2]

In other words, God is not described as having a sinful characteristic at all. The confusion comes from the deficiency of the English language, or perhaps of the translators to find better words to differentiate these two concepts.

2. Why It is Good that God is “Jealous” for His People

One definition of jealousy in the dictionary is: “fiercely protective or vigilant of one’s rights or possessions”

This is the essence of what the Bible is talking about when it describes God as a jealous God. It means that when it comes to his people, he desires our hearts to be fully his, and he desires exclusivity in that relationship —  hence the first commandment: You shall have no other gods beside me.

Throughout the Bible, God describes his relationship with his people as a marriage – a covenant relationship. God calls himself the husband of his people; in the Old Testament, Israel is referred to as the wife of Yahweh. In the New Testament, the church is called the Bride of Christ, and Jesus is called the Bridegroom. This is why idolatry is compared in the Bible to adultery against God.

It is appropriate for a spouse to be fiercely protective of the exclusivity of their marriage, and be opposed to anything which would try to come in and threaten it.

When we first moved to Colorado, my wife went to a dentist. After that first appointment, Dr. Brian began calling her on the phone and sending handwritten cards. Maybe he was just following protocol, but as a husband, I didn’t like Dr. Brian sending my wife cards and calling her on the phone!

The fact that God is jealous for his people is a wonderful thing. It means that God doesn’t just tolerate you, He doesn’t just put up with you — but He is fiercely passionate about His love for you! 

This kind of fierce, passionate love is described in the Song of Solomon:   Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. (Song of Solomon 8:6-7)

That is the kind of love that God has for you. It is the kind of love that moved the God of the Universe to leave his heavenly throne, and become one of us — to walk our dusty streets, and be despised by the very people he created — and ultimately to be nailed to a cross in order to redeem you. This love is at the very heart of the gospel.

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The Etymology of God

I enjoy linguistics; I consider it a hobby. I speak only 2 languages fluently, and several others to varying degrees. Whereas some people find language learning tedious, I find it invigorating.

One of the areas of linguistics I enjoy most is etymology: the study of the origin of words.

Etymology gives you a window into the thinking of a culture or a people group.

For example: I have been teaching a church history class at White Fields, and last week we were talking about how Constantine, before his conversion to Christianity, had monotheistic leanings and had declared “the venerable day of the Sun” (Sunday) to be a free day, on which no one was to work. Until that time, Sunday had been a work day, and Christians gathered for worship and the taking of the sacrament (communion) before work and then again after work, in the evening. More on that here.

Someone in the class said: Oh, so that’s why it’s called SUNday?  Yes, and in English that’s why it’s called Monday (Moon) and Saturday (Saturn).

In fact, it is interesting to consider the etymology of the names of the week in other languages. In Russian, Sunday is called: Воскресенье, which is a close derivative of the word воскрешение, which means “Resurrection”.

In Hungarian, it’s not quite as cool: Sunday is “Vasárnap” – which no doubt derives from “vásár-nap”: “Market Day”… Definitely not as cool (or as Christian) as “Resurrection”. While Romans were all about honoring the Sun, Hungarians were all about shopping…

But if etymology gives insight into the way a culture thinks, then what can we learn from the etymology of “God”?

The English word God, does not derive from the word “good”, as one might think, but comes from the Germanic Gott, which derives from the Gothic Gheu, which is thought to derive from the Sanskrit: Hu – meaning: “the one who is invoked” or “the one who is sacrificed to.”  It refers to the supreme being.

The Latin Deus, along with the related Greek Theos comes from the Indo-Iranian Deva/Sanskrit Dyaus, which are related to the terms for “to give light”, “to implore”. It is from these roots that the Spanish Dios comes.

In Hungarian, the word for God is Isten.  I’ve been told that this modern form derives from:  Ős-tény – literally: “The ancient truth (or: ancient fact)”

One of the very interesting things to read about is how different missionaries tried to find a given culture’s word for God, sometimes with great success and sometimes without. For example, in Korea, Catholic missionaries believed that the Koreans had no good word for God – as in, the Supreme Being of the universe – so they used the Chinese word for God, a word which was foreign to the Koreans, and which caused the Koreans to think of Christianity as a foreign religion. It was only when Protestant Presbyterian missionaries came to Korea, that they got to know the Korean culture and language well enough to realize that they did in fact have a word (and therein a concept) for the God of the Bible: the creator and sustainer of all things, the righteous judge of all the Earth – 하나님 (Hananim).

It is as Paul the Apostle said: God has not left himself without witness in any culture, or amongst any group of people. (Acts 14:17)  Etymology gives us a window into this truth.