This issue of Tomorrow's World presents you the answer to the difficult question "How can God be jealous?"
Question: In Exodus 20:5, God states that He is a jealous God, but in Galatians 5:20, jealousies are mentioned among the sinful works of the flesh. Is this a contradiction?
Answer: God cannot sin, nor can He be tempted with evil (James 1:13; 1 John 3:5). The “jealousy” mentioned in Exodus 20 refers, in this case, not to a sin, but to a quality of God’s righteousness. We are told to “worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:14). “Jealous” is not only an attribute of God, but also one of His names, describing His character.
When describing God, the Bible uses this term in the context of His laws against idolatry (cf. Deuteronomy 4:23–24; 5:8–9; 6:14–15). Idolatry is a breach of the covenant God made with Israel—a covenant that promised the nation great prosperity and a role as God’s special people. Shortly before giving the Ten Commandments, God explained, “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5–6).
In giving the Ten Commandments, God then said, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2). In making this statement, He is describing His unique relationship with Israel—a relationship they shared with no other “god.” They were not brought out of Egypt by the Canaanite “gods” Ba’al or any of the “deities” of Egyptian mythology. They were brought out by “the Lord.”
The all-capitalized name “Lord” appearing in many English translations of the Bible indicates the presence of the unique Hebrew name for God: YHVH, which means “the Eternal, the Immutable One, He Who WAS, and IS, and IS TO COME” (The Companion Bible, appendix 4, section II). In making clear to Israel that it was specifically “the Lord your God,” He highlighted that their faithfulness and worship is owed to Him alone in this covenant He was establishing with them—a covenant relationship pictured by human marriage (Jeremiah 3:14, 20; cf. Ephesians 5:31–32). From God’s perspective, idolatry is spiritual adultery. As a husband or wife must be lovingly faithful to his or her spouse and may be understandably jealous when confronted with actual infidelity, God requires the same faithfulness from His people. He expects us to love Him as He loves us (1 John 4:19; Matthew 22:37–38).
On the other hand, there is a sinful envy and hatred toward one’s neighbor that is fueled by covetousness and called jealousies in the New King James Version. That state of mind is one of the works of the flesh listed in Galatians 5:20. God neither envies anyone nor covets anything. After all, He is the Creator of all things and has absolute authority over all His creation: “‘To whom then will you liken Me, or to whom shall I be equal?’ says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high, and see who has created these things, who brings out their host by number; He calls them all by name, by the greatness of His might and the strength of His power; not one is missing” (Isaiah 40:25–26). Indeed, before God, the nations “are as nothing, and they are counted by Him less than nothing and worthless” (v. 17). So, it should not surprise us that God commands, “You shall have no other gods before Me” and insists that we neither attempt to make pictures of God, nor direct our worship toward any idols, pictures, or religious objects (Exodus 20:3–6)—which divert or dilute the worship we owe directly to God, alone.
The meaning, therefore, is plain. Divine jealousy describes God’s greatness as the one and only true God and Creator—His absolute power to save, His tender mercies, His watchful care, His eternal love, and His zeal to keep His promises. He alone possesses the absolute right of worship—exclusively. Anyone who desires a covenant relationship with Him must recognize that He tolerates no competitors. God’s “jealousy” indicates His unique divine right and godly justice, not the sinful feelings of covetousness, envy, or competition that human beings sometimes experience.