Recall Richard Dawkins’s put-down of God, claiming that he breaks into a “monumental rage whenever his chosen people flirted with a rival god.” Popular TV icon Oprah Winfrey said that she was turned off to the Christian faith when she heard a preacher affirm that God is jealous. Bill Maher of Religulous fame (or infamy) has said much the same thing—that being jealous about having other gods before you just isn’t “moral.” The New Atheists likewise consider Yahweh to be impatient, jealous, and easily provoked—a petty and insecure deity.
Good Jealousy and Bad Jealousy
As I said in the previous chapter, it’s important to define our terms. Jealousy can be a bad thing or a good thing. It’s bad to protect the petty; it’s good to fiercely guard the precious. If jealousy is rooted in self-centeredness, it is clearly the wrong kind of jealousy. A jealousy that springs from concern for another’s well-being, however, is appropriate. Yes, jealousy can be a vice (Gal. 5: 20—“ enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger”). Yet it can also be a virtue, a “godly jealousy,” as Paul put it: “For I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband, so that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin” (2 Cor. 11: 2). Paul was concerned for the well-being of the Corinthians. His jealousy didn’t spring from hurt pride or self-concern.
Throughout the Bible, we see a God who is a concerned lover. He’s full of anguish and dismay when his covenant people pursue non-gods. In the prophetic book of Hosea, God—the loving husband—gets choked up when his wife, Israel, continually cheats on him: “My heart is turned over within Me, all My compassions are kindled” (Hosea 11: 8).
When can jealousy be a good thing? In God’s case, it’s when we’re rummaging around in the garbage piles of life and avoiding the ultimate source of satisfaction. It reminds me of a comic strip I once saw of a dog who had been drinking out of a toilet bowl. With water dripping from his snout, Fido looks up to tell us, “It doesn’t get any better than this!”
Instead of enjoying fresh spring water, we look for stagnant, crummy-tasting substitutes that inevitably fail us. God laments over Israel: “For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer. 2: 13).
The Marriage Analogy
A friend of mine who worked in Christian ministry in Europe for many years told me about a Christian couple he had gotten to know. Somehow the subject of adultery came up in conversation. The seemingly unassuming Dutch wife said that if her husband ever cheated on her, “I vill shoot him!” He knew she wasn’t kidding.
A wife who doesn’t get jealous and angry when another woman is flirting with her husband isn’t really all that committed to the marriage relationship. A marriage without the potential for jealousy when an intruder threatens isn’t much of a marriage. Outrage, pain, anguish—these are the appropriate responses to such a deep violation. God isn’t some abstract entity or impersonal principle, as Dawkins seems to think he should be. He is an engaging, relational God who attaches himself to humans. He desires to be their loving Father and the wise ruler of their lives. In Israel’s case, God’s love is that of a passionate husband. We should be amazed that the Creator of the universe would so deeply connect himself to human beings that he would open himself to sorrow and anguish in the face of human betrayal and rejection.
God opened himself to repeated rejection from his people. He was continuously exasperated with and injured by his people: “How I have been hurt by their adulterous hearts which turned away from Me, and by their eyes which played the harlot after their idols” (Ezek. 6: 9). God endured much defiance, despite his loving concern for his people: “I have spread out My hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in the way which is not good, following their own thoughts, a people who continually provoke Me to My face” (Isa. 65: 2–3).
Spiritual adultery is no petty matter, as Dawkins seems to think. Notice God’s perspective of Israel’s unfaithfulness in Ezekiel 16 and 23. The scenarios described there aren’t exactly suitable for G-rated audiences! In chapter 16, intimate, marital language is used for God’s “marriage” to his people at Mount Sinai—the “time for love.” God entered into a covenant with Israel so that “you became Mine.” God provided lavishly for Israel, but she despised this privilege. Rather than trusting in God, she allied herself with other nations, trusting in their military might and foreign idols rather than in God. “But you trusted in your beauty and played the harlot because of your fame”; “you spread your legs to every passer-by to multiply your harlotry” (vv. 15, 25). This graphic language expresses the deep betrayal in Israel’s spiritual adultery and prostitution.
We shouldn’t be surprised that God wanted to wipe out Israel after the golden calf betrayal: “Let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you [Moses] a great nation” (Exod. 32: 10). This took place just after Israel had made “vows” to attach herself to Yahweh at Sinai: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” (Exod. 24: 7; cf. v. 3). Israel’s idolatry was like a husband finding his wife in bed with another man—on their honeymoon! The reason God is jealous is because he binds himself to his people in a kind of spousal intimacy. So worshiping idols and other gods is a rejection of who he is, just as adultery is a rejection of one’s spouse in marriage. 2 When the word jealous describes God in Scripture, it’s in the context of idolatry and false worship. 3 When we choose this-worldly pursuits over our relationship with God, we engage in spiritual adultery (James 4: 4; cf. 2 Cor. 11: 2), which provokes God’s righteous jealousy. Unfortunately, a lot of Yahweh-critics who dislike the notion of divine jealousy—especially the New Atheists—just don’t understand why idolatry’s such a problem. After all, what’s the big deal about bringing a hunk of meat to a statue, right? As has been said, ignorance may be bliss, but it isn’t a virtue!
Idolatry is—and always has been—a very seductive enterprise that can get the best of any of us. Idolatry in the ancient Near East involved manipulating reality (“ the gods”) through certain rituals and sacrifices to get more kids, crops, and cattle. Chanting to an idol would get people into immediate contact with a god’s very essence. And who wants to travel to Yahweh’s Jerusalem three times a year when you can conveniently go to the shrine of a personal or family god (like Dagon or Baal) at a nearby grove or high hill (Deut. 12: 2; 1 Kings 14: 22–24)? Idolatry in the ancient Near East also appealed to the sensual and the indulgent side. Rather than self-restraint in Yahweh worship, one could get drunk at idol feasts as well as engage in ritual sex, gluttony, and adultery, all in the name of “religion.” Furthermore, idolatry in the ancient Near East didn’t commit one to improved ethical behavior. As long as you kept your idol “fed,” you didn’t have to change your lifestyle. Contrast this with the moral behavior required by Yahweh’s people: “all the words which the Lord has spoken we will do!” (Exod. 24: 3).
So calling Israel a mere “flirt” in these idolatrous scenarios reflects Dawkins’s utter lack of awareness. We could perhaps ask Dawkins, “How strong should a spouse’s commitment to a marriage be? How seriously should one treat adultery in a marriage?” Whichever way he’d answer, it would no doubt be revealing.
Throughout the Old Testament, God is not only passionately concerned for Israel but also frequently in pain at her rebellion and longing for reconciliation. God is a wounded husband who continually attempts to woo his people back into harmony with him. Isaiah 5 portrays God as a vineyard owner who had busied himself with the task of “planting” his people Israel—“ the choicest vine”—on a fertile hill, digging all around it, removing its stones. Despite the legitimate expectation of Israel’s bearing “good” fruit after all he had done, God is exasperated at Israel’s “worthless” yield: “What more was there to do for My vineyard that I have not done in it?” (5: 4). Jeremiah similarly writes of God’s planting Israel as a “choice vine” and “faithful seed,” but Israel rejects God (Jer. 2: 21). The same theme of God’s legitimate expectation of repentance and righteousness from Israel is found in Zephaniah 3: 7: “I said, ‘Surely you will revere Me, accept instruction.’ So her dwelling will not be cut off according to all that I have appointed concerning her. But they were eager to corrupt all their deeds.”
The psalmist articulates something similar: “I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt; open your mouth wide and I will fill it. But My people did not listen to My voice, and Israel did not obey Me” (81: 10–11). Israel’s continual faithlessness exasperates God. In Amos 4: 6–11, God tries to get the attention of his people by sending plagues, famine, drought, and the like. But despite each divine attempt, the same line is uttered: “Yet you have not returned to Me.”
Likewise in Isaiah 66: 4, God says, “I called, but no one answered; I spoke, but they did not listen. And they did evil in My sight and chose that in which I did not delight.” Again, in Ezekiel 18: 23, 31–32, God asks, “Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked? . . . Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies. . . . Therefore, repent and live.” This theme of divine vulnerability5 runs throughout the Old Testament, where God is presented as a wounded lover who is reluctant to bring judgment.
Jealousy implies vulnerability and the capacity to experience pain—not the pettiness of a power-hungry deity obsessed with dominating people. Amazingly, the disappointed Husband of Israel only requires her repentance to restore the relationship.
An Anger That Cares
Most Americans are familiar with Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ painting. This picture is commonly found on nursing home walls or memorial cards given out at funeral homes. Sallman’s portrayal is one of an easily caricatured “meek and mild” Jesus. Though perhaps depicting his approachability and kindness toward children, such pictures can often leave us with a lopsided, sentimental impression of Jesus. No, the real Jesus was not only a friend of sinners and a welcomer of children; he was also a radical, a controversialist, a convicting and even frightening character. He is the Lion of the tribe of Judah (Rev. 5: 5). The Head of Christ is a far cry from the temple-clearing, storm-calming Jesus, who evokes sometimes troubled, sometimes terrified responses: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” (Mark 4: 41).
Speaking of the temple cleansing, we see genuine, justified anger when Jesus drives out moneychangers from the temple (Mark 11; John 2). They had turned a house of worship for God-fearing Gentiles into a place of noise, commercial gain, and nationalistic pride. In our age of pseudo-tolerant true-for-you-but-not-for-meism, we could use considerably more righteous anger—at the world’s injustices, the greed, the tyrannies, the lies, the spin . . . and our own proud, rationalizing hearts. And the various religious hucksters and exploiters of our day could stand to be driven out of the sphere of public influence.
If we’re not directly touched by any of the world’s many sufferings, sadnesses, and oppressions, our response may be indifferent and apathetic, and a person’s flare-up of anger will make us very uncomfortable. Yet anger is often the first indication that we care. The tragedy is that we’re not angered, not shocked enough.
Anger isn’t necessarily wrong (Eph. 4: 26)—indeed, at times it is virtuous. The never-angered person is morally deficient. The slow-to-anger person is the virtuous one. He’s better able to calm disputes or listen well (Prov. 15: 18; 16: 32; 19: 11; cf. James 1: 19), but he also opposes injustice and tyranny. Likewise, God is frequently described as being “slow to anger” (e.g., Exod. 34: 6). As with jealousy, so with anger: is the anger self-centered or other-centered? Does it reflect profound selfishness or concern for others? On closer inspection, God’s anger doesn’t reflect a self-centeredness.
God’s jealousy and anger spring from love and concern, not from hurt pride or immaturity. The New Atheists resist the notion of God’s rightful prerogatives over humans. The idea of divine judgment or anger or jealousy somehow makes them uncomfortable. But like Narnia’s Aslan, Yahweh, though gracious and compassionate, isn’t to be trifled with. God gets jealous or angry precisely because he cares.
Divine Jealousy to Protect and Benefit Humans
Those claiming that God’s jealousy is petty and constricting might liken God to a husband who won’t let his wife even talk to another man. A more appropriate analogy, however, is a husband who is concerned that his wife is being emotionally drawn toward another man. He wants to protect the preciousness of marital intimacy, which is in the best interests of his wife and their marriage.
Critics like the New Atheists tend to create a false dichotomy between God’s gracious rule and human well-being, as though these are opposed to each other. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647) begins with this question: “What is the chief end of man?” The famous response is: “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” For many in the West (including professing Christians), the chief goal of many individuals is “to further my interests and to enjoy myself forever.” Or if God exists, then the Catechism’s answer is subconsciously revised to this: “The chief end of God is to make me as comfortable and pain-free as possible.”
Philosopher Thomas Nagel has admitted that he doesn’t want there to be a God. He acknowledges that in academic circles today there exists a “cosmic authority problem.” If people like Nagel don’t want there to be a God (or they want a god who will let them do exactly what they want), then we’re back to the problem of denying reality in order to pursue our own agendas. But obviously, God’s ultimate role isn’t to advance my own (or human) interests and freedom. The existence of God is no mere abstraction or armchair topic. The living God’s existence and claim on our lives mean that something has to change!
On the other hand, God’s relationship with us isn’t a commander-commandee arrangement (similar to the “divine cop in the sky” notion). In that kind of relationship, God’s will merely coerces, overriding the choices of human agents. Rather, God seeks the interpersonal intimacy with us in the context of covenant-making. Critics typically paint the picture of two false alternatives: sovereign coercion or total human autonomy. However, if we see God’s activity and human nature as harmonious rather than in conflict, a new perspective dawns on us. When God’s intentions for us are realized and when we’re alert to the divinely given boundaries built into our nature and the world around us, we human beings flourish—that is, we enjoy loving, trusting relationships with God and one another because we’re living out the design-plan.
God’s jealousy isn’t capricious or petty. God is jealous for our best interests. His commands are given “for your good” (Deut. 10: 13; cf. 8: 16; 30: 9). In fact, we only harm ourselves when we live for ourselves and create our own idolatrous God-substitutes. So for God to block the possibility of our knowing him would actually be to deprive us of the greatest possible good. Author and pastor Tim Keller illustrates how this works for postmoderns:
Instead of telling them they are sinning because they are sleeping with their girlfriends or boyfriends, I tell them that they are sinning because they are looking to their romances to give their lives meaning, to justify and save them, to give them what they should be looking for from God. This idolatry leads to anxiety, obsessiveness, envy, and resentment. I have found that when you describe their lives in terms of idolatry, postmodern people do not give much resistance. Then Christ and his salvation can be presented not (at this point) so much as their only hope for forgiveness, but as their only hope for freedom.
When we apply this to God’s jealousy, we can say that it’s aroused not just to protect a relationship. God seeks to protect his creatures from profound self-harm. We can deeply damage ourselves by running after gods made in our own image. God’s jealousy is other-centered. As we saw with God’s humility, divine jealousy reacts to the human denial that God is God, to the false idea that a relationship with him isn’t really needed for ultimate human well-being (John 10: 10).
God is the all-good Creator and Life-giver. He desires that his creatures live life as it should be. When a person acts in life-denying ways (e.g., engaging in adultery, pornography, or promise breaking—or simply suppressing the truth about God), God’s jealousy surfaces so that the person might abandon his or her death-seeking goals and return to an abundant life found in a life abandoned to God. Divine jealousy should be seen as God’s willing the best for his creatures. C. S. Lewis’s insightful perspective puts divine jealousy and human idolatry into proper perspective:
If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
- Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? MAKING SENSE OF THE OLD TESTAMENT GOD, Chapter 4