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.
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. God is “intolerant” of our worship of false idols not because of any pettiness on His part or any need he experiences. Our turning away from him does cause damage, but not to him; the damage caused is to us. When we make idols of things, we substitute the proper worship of God with the worship of lesser things. This causes us to turn away from God, and from the redemptive work He has planned for us. We were meant to spend eternity with God, but in our rebellion we shake our fist at him and demand to have things our way. When we die in that rebellion, when we die with the worship of lesser things consuming our hearts and minds, we end up eternally separated from God.
Idol worship no longer involves figures made of gold. In its modern manifestation it involves love of career, success, wealth, possessions, power, sex… the list goes on and on. But the effect is always the same, to turn us away from the one true source of goodness and life. Idol worship points us back toward ourselves, and we grow increasingly selfish and separated from others, who we begin to view as means to our selfish ends, or perhaps as threats to what we have. God is not “intolerant” of this behavior because of some deficit in Him. Instead, this intolerance is reflective of what is necessary for us. Loving us, he wants us to choose wisely, but because love requires free will, he will not coerce our choice.
Satellites like the one pictured above can derive energy from the Sun. But to do so, the satellite must first deploy its solar panels fully and in a particular way, and then orient them so that they are completely facing the Sun’s rays. This is not to accommodate the Sun, or to meet some “need” that the Sun has. Instead, it is to allow the thing in need of the Sun’s energy to be in the proper position, relative to the Sun, to receive what it needs.
So too with people. Only by re-orienting ourselves toward the source of all life – the Son of God – can we hope to attain all the good that is promised to those who place their trust in Him.
Posted by Al Serrato