God, whose name is Jealous

“The jealous husband.”  What picture does that bring to mind?  Someone who is possessive, paranoid, manipulative, abusive?  Whatever other adjectives the phrase might evoke, I’m willing to bet the following aren’t among them: compassionate, gracious, loving, forgiving.

Let’s just say that jealousy isn’t something we look for in a partner.  So it may be faintly disturbing to think that God is jealous, so much so that “jealous” is one of his names: “Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exod 34:14, NIV).  Or, as Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message: “God–his name is The-Jealous-One–is a jealous God.”

When the Hebrew word qanna is used for the jealousy of God for his people, the context is always a prohibition of idolatry, as in the verse above.  We see it in the Ten Commandments when graven images are forbidden (Exod 20:5; Deut 5:9).  Similarly, after Moses poignantly reminds the people that he will not be crossing the river Jordan with them into the Promised Land, he says this:

Be careful not to forget the covenant of the Lord your God that he made with you; do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the Lord your God has forbidden.  For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.  (Deut 4:23-24, NIV)

But what are we to make of this kind of jealousy?  We must remember that the Ten Commandments, for example, are an expression of God’s intimate covenant relationship with his people.  That covenant, in turn, is grounded upon what God has already done for them: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exod 20:2, NIV).

Similarly, consider the context of the verse in which God declares his name to be Jealous.  After the idolatrous debacle at Mount Sinai with the golden calf (Exod 32), God instructs Moses to continue leading the people into the Promised Land–but says that he will not go with them lest he destroy them for their continued rebellion along the way (Exod 33:1-3).  The people mourn, and Moses pleads with God for his Presence to stay with them (Exod 33:4, 15-16).  God agrees, and also grants Moses’ request to see God’s glory (Exod 33:18-23).

Then Moses goes back up Mount Sinai with two freshly chiseled stone tablets, to replace the ones he shattered in his fury over the golden calf.  It is in that context that God descends in a cloud and proclaims:

The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. …I am making a covenant with you.  Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world.  The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do for you.  (Exod 34:6b-7a, 10, NIV)

Against the backdrop of the people’s stunning faithlessness and idolatry, God declares and renews his covenant faithfulness.  He will go with them, continuing to demonstrate Exodus-like wonders as a witness to them and to their neighbors.

Thus, before God’s name is Jealousy, it is first Compassion.  Grace.  Forgiveness.  Love.

Again, that’s probably not what you think of when you hear “jealous husband.”

More and more these days, couples are writing their own wedding vows, framing their own promises.  These unique vows, because of their heartfelt and deeply personal nature, are often the most touching part of the ceremony.  But few, to my mind, rise to level of covenant-making expressed in the traditional vows.  The language may be dated, but the meaning is as relevant as it ever was: “Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?”

Marriage isn’t about sentimental attachments that last for “so long as ye both shall love.”  It’s a sturdy, lifelong covenant commitment, an exclusive union between two people that permits no third-party dalliances.

But what’s the basis of that marriage covenant, if not God’s own covenant with his people?  To use Paul’s language, it’s “a profound mystery” indeed to think of the church as the bride of Christ (Eph 5:32, NIV).  If we skim over that language too lightly, we lose the meaning context in which the jealousy of God makes sense.  We are betrothed to a Bridegroom whose loving faithfulness is the very essence of covenantal commitment.

Even at the level of fallible human vows, it’s hard to imagine a newlywed saying, “Listen, honey, I love you so much that I will give you complete freedom to be intimate with whomever you choose.  It doesn’t matter to me one bit.”  Hearing that, we’d think the person really didn’t get it, didn’t understand what marriage was supposed to be about.

So can we really be offended at God for being jealous if we are the ones who are stray?