Exodus 20:5, A Jealous God

[Y]ou shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God (rsv)

//Is God really jealous? Follow me on this one:

1 Corinthians 13:4, Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful.

1 John 4:8, for God is love.

One of these three verses is clearly in error, right? There are no trick phrases in these straight-forward claims. So, which verse do we discard?

For me, it’s an easy choice.


  1. So……One quote was (allegedly) spoken by God himself. One was written by some guy named Paul. And one was written by some guy who might have been named John. After giving it some thought, you decided that the latter two sources are too reputable to ignore, and discarded the first verse – I mean, what would God know about his own character? (maybe his self-appraisal would be too subjective anyway, right?)

    I don’t think you’re gonna win many conservatives over with that line of thought 😉 Though probably not many non-conservatives, either, since if you can so easily dismiss the authority of a verse that claims to be from God’s own lips, then surely the legitimacy of rest of the Bible looks even shakier. I mean, why should we believe that “God is love” just because some guy called John thought so, and just because it happens to seem more palatable to us than “God is jealous”?

    Sorry to sound combative – I don’t mean to. I actually agree with your conclusion – it seems dodgy and perhaps even blasphemous to take a trait like jealousy – a trait that is usually associated with the pettier and more self-absorbed of our species – and apply it to God. Though I still can’t see that your criteria of choosing which verse to discard (or what I can imagine of it – it was a very short blog post after all) was based on anything other than personal preference and wishful thinking. For someone who takes the Bible quite skeptically like me, I guess that’s ok. But for someone who demonstrates a great fondness and respect for it like you….I guess I just don’t quite get my head around your vantage point, that’s all.

  2. Hi Vol, thanks for replying!

    It’s a fun little conundrum, though, isn’t it? And I do, indeed, have a great fondness and respect for the Bible. Here we have three opinions by three different men that don’t seem to jibe, forcing us to interact with the Bible and consider our own experience.

    Conservatives will recognize that two of the three verses are from the “lips of God,” since John, in his Gospel, explains that God now dwells within (in the form of the Paraclete, or Holy Spirit) and “calls to remembrance” the words of Jesus. So, should Paul’s off-hand comment be the one we discard?

    The other approach is to consider one’s own experience with God. Most every Christian I know would describe the Spirit that guides their lives to be one of love, not jealousy. Liberals will latch onto this, and recognize that the age of polytheism for the Jews had long passed by the time the N.T. was written (so God has nobody to be jealous of anymore).

    Finally, anyone trying to reconcile John’s description of God with the Yahweh of old will shrug their shoulders and decide John was speaking creatively. God isn’t really love, it’s just one of his attributes, like jealousy. Hmmm, maybe we ARE made in the image of God!

  3. Yes, it is an interesting conundrum – and I’m enjoying thinking it through.

    Ah, I stand corrected about only one verse being “from the lips of God”. Though I still think that the Exodus one is the one that claims to be most directly from God, and thus should be the last to be discarded if we are to treat any of the verses as authoratitive.

    Though I think that, for all the Bible’s inherent incompatibilities, there needn’t be an incompatibility within these three verses, actually. For even if John did mean that “God really is love”, he never said that “God is only love”.

    For example, I can say accurately claim that “Thai food is spicy”, and I can define “spicy” as “bites the tongue, and is not mild”, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some Thai dishes that are mild; there are.

    Similarly, I can say that my wife is “flesh and bone”, and I can elsewhere define “flesh and bone” as “biological matter, comprised of cells, without inherent consciousness”. Even though those statements are true, they don’t discount the fact that my wife does actually possess consciousness.

    Or, to look at it from a different angle: I can accurately say that “love is an emotion that triggers an influx of serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin in the brain”. Does that mean that, since God is love, God is comprised largely of serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin? Of course not. Clearly, love for humans works differently than love for God.

    As for the subjective experience of God as a force of love but not jealousy, I wish I could join you in saying that most Christians I know have that experience. But if I think of the many Christians that I’ve read about, listened to and/or known personally, it seems clear that many of them experience God as jealous. And, despite the end of polytheism, there’s plenty that a jealous God would have reason to be jealous of: Buddhism, Hinduism, Allah, secular humanism, atheism, individualism, money, pop culture….basically anything that would take the focus away from God. After all, jealousy among humans isn’t limited to just those in polygamous relationships!

    I’ve known born-again converts who feel the need to discard their astrology books, neo-pagan knick-knacks, or secular philosophy books because they feel that these other areas must not distract them from [a jealous] God. I’ve known Christians who felt urged by God to discard all of their non-Christian music because they felt that God [jealously] only approved of music that explicitly acknowledged and praised him. There’s a prominent Australian Christian speaker who speaks excellently, but frequently makes little passive aggressive remarks aimed at Buddhism and/or the Dalai Lama; it’s clear that he resents the popularity and ‘street cred’ that Buddhism enjoys in this country and is a little jealous of it – presumably this jealousy is not ‘for himself’, but ‘in sympathy’ with God. I’ve even known someone who, while praying, heard a booming voice admonish him, saying “…for I am a jealous God”.

    Of course, whether these are real manifestations of God’s jealousy or simply something these Christians have imagined is not for me to say. But it’s clear to me that, in terms of *perceived experience*, a lot of Christians experience a jealous God. Given this, I don’t think it’s surprising that so much of Christianity’s interaction with the world has been centered around jealousy, whether it’s trying to take back Jerusalem ‘for God’ during the Crusades, beating paganism out of the natives during Colonialism, or the more recent trend of Islamophobia among some American Christians.

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