CharacterGod_website-960x350Editor’s note: The purpose of this series is to help our readers think through what the character of God is and it’s importance to the Christian faith.

Exodus 20:1-5, “Then God said all these words: “I am ADONAI your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the abode of slavery. “You are to have no other gods before me. You are not to make for yourselves a carved image or any kind of representation of anything in heaven above, on the earth beneath or in the water below the shoreline. You are not to bow down to them or serve them; for I, ADONAI your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but displaying grace to the thousandth generation of those who love me and obey my mitzvot.”

These introductory verses to the well-known passage containing the Ten Commandments declare some important truths. We are presented with the fact that it was God who delivered His people from bondage in Egypt. Second, His people are commanded to have no other gods before Him, nor are they to create any representation of something in the created realm as a temptation to worship. After making those commands, God declares He is a jealous God, punishing those who reject, Him and demonstrating grace towards those who adhere to His mitzvoth (commands).

The fact that God describes Himself as a jealous God is arguably a name of God some may be tempted to gloss over when reading this passage. After all, isn’t jealousy considered a sin in passages such as Galatians 5:20 where the Apostle Paul notes jealousy as being a construct of the old sin nature? How then can a perfect God describe Himself as being jealous? These are both valid questions and ones we will address.

First, let’s address the word jealous as used in Exodus 20:5. It is the Hebrew adjective qanna meaning quite simply “jealousy”. It is a term only used of God and is used five times in Scripture, all in the Pentateuch. One fundamental element of this term is its relation to the holiness of God. Since there is no element of imperfection with God, the fact He is a jealous God requires this description of who He is to operate completely outside the framework of our understanding of jealousy as it operates within a fallen world.

The typically fallen world demonstration of jealousy involves desiring something or someone that is not ours to be had. For instance, I could be jealous of my neighbor purchasing that brand new truck with this attitude of jealousy even rising to the level of covetousness. I want what I cannot have which could in turn negatively impact my relationship with my neighbor. When we approach God being a jealous God, we have to understand that since all things belong to God, there is nothing that is not already His. This means His desire for something is not rooted in covetousness, but rather the element of ownership and more importantly, the desire for relationship. The Creator of the universe jealousy desires a relationship with His creation. As noted by John Hartley, qanna “captures the intensity of the divine love that emanates from holiness.”[1]

Second, it is vital to understand the context of Exodus 20:5 and how it relates to qanna. At Mt. Sinai, God was not just providing a set of rules and regulations. That certainly took place; however, what was also taking place was the provision of the terms of a contract, specifically a marriage contract or better yet, a marriage covenant known as a Ketubah. God’s people in Exodus 19:8 had affirmed they would abide by the terms of the covenant by declaring ““All that the LORD has spoken we will do.” (Exodus 19:8) At this point, God was betrothed to His people as the terms of the Ketubah has been read, understood, and agree upon by both parties.

The aspect of jealousy therefore as understood within the context of a loving marriage relationship brings this name of God to a more personal level. We are to have no other gods before us because to do so would break the terms of our marriage contact with God. As Creator and our deliverer, the One who has extended His great mercy towards an undeserving and sinful people, He deserves to be worshiped and loved with every fiber of our being. He deserves our full and undivided attention. He loves us with a perfect love. When we act in a manner unbecoming a betrothed bride, God being completely holy and deserving of all that He has created, is jealous. He is not jealous for something He cannot have. As Creator, all is His. His jealousy stems from His aforementioned perfect love and in keeping with One who is abiding by the terms of the marriage contract. His jealousy towards us, both in outpouring discipline and judgment on those who break the terms of the contract and also by showing grace and mercy on those who abide by the terms of the contract, is rooted in the call for relationship.

God is not some distant entity who created everything and then left His creation to its own devices, never to be involved in the affairs of man. God is a relational God. He loves us and demonstrated that love by sending His own Son to be the sacrifice for our sin in order to provide the means for the restoration of relationship between Creator and humanity. He paid the bride price through the blood of His Son. He is a jealous God because He loves us. He deserves your love and passion because He is jealous for you and passionately in love with you in keeping with His perfect holiness.


[1] Hartley, John. “Holy and Holiness, Clean and Unclean” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch. Edited by T. Desmond Alexander and David Baker. Downers Grove: IVP, 2003.

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