by Jon Paul Sydnor

You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God. (Exodus 20.4-5a)

The Bible clearly states that God is a jealous God. I do not believe it. Here’s why.

In addition to being a college professor and professional theologian, I have also been a pastor with my wife, Abby, for fifteen years. During that time we have counseled people facing a multitude of different life challenges. We frequently counsel individuals who are sydnor-authorcaught in controlling relationships with jealous partners. Manipulative people seek out manipulable partners then use all kinds of manipulative techniques—guilt, shame, anger, fear, silence, triangulation—to control them. Sometimes, when it seems like the controlled partner might leave, a shallow repentance and brief reform occur, but this is usually followed by renewed manipulation.

The pain runs everywhere, and it runs deep. Friends are forced to take sides and children develop divided loyalties. The couple themselves are not truly a couple, not two persons joined into one whole by love. Instead they are separated, one object trying to control another like a puppeteer and puppet. A struggle ensues as the manipulator demands an impossibly perfect control while the manipulated seeks a denied freedom and real relationship.

“He’s the jealous type,” people say, when someone tends to be suspicious and controlling. It’s not a compliment. If they’re speaking to a friend, then they’re probably advising their friend to get out of the relationship.

Is God the jealous type? In the 21st century, terms like passive-aggressive, dependent, and narcissistic describe various personality disorders that characterize hurtful spouses, partners, boyfriends, girlfriends, et al. When we know people like this, we often suggest therapy or medication or both. It’s not helpful to think of God as a psychiatric patient, with torn interpersonal relationships, who needs an intervention.

Divinizing jealousy can hurt interreligious relationships as well as interpersonal relationships. Thinking of God as jealous produces the either/or interpretation of religious identification that characterizes Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In many parts of the world religious belonging is not exclusive. Taiwanese can be Confucian and Taoist. Nepalese can be Buddhist and Hindu. But traditionally, you can’t be Christian and Jewish or Jewish and Muslim. At times we worshipers of the one God have summoned murderous rage against each other for worshiping God differently, always in the confidence that our God is the true God and jealous too.

Some Christians may take offense at my disagreement with this famous and influential commandment, but Christ often disagrees with scripture—or at least with individual texts therein. When scripture demanded that the woman be stoned, he protected her. When scripture demanded that lepers be shunned, he dined with them. When scripture demanded no work on the Sabbath, he healed. When scripture demanded an eye for an eye, he preached turning the other cheek. Jesus re-interpreted scripture to be more loving and healing. We continue this tradition as present day Christians.

The New Testament’s most fundamental claim is that God is love. A loving Creator desires a flourishing creation, and flourishing demands freedom. Generous love is incompatible with a desire for control. It doesn’t trap people in a relationship. Generous love leaves people free to enter into relationship at their choosing and to leave relationship at their choosing, so that when they stay in the relationship it is a sign of their own commitment, not someone else’s power. As Paul writes, love is not jealous.

If love desires the flourishing of the beloved, then God wants us to embrace the worldview that promotes our greatest flourishing. This will differ for different people. My dad, a Presbyterian minister, had a friend who was a Southern Baptist minister. Fundamentalism did not suit him well, and he was never able to make peace with Christian claims about Jesus. Over time, he became attracted to the progressive, rational faith of Reform Judaism. This attraction culminated in his conversion. He was rejuvenated by his new faith. It made more sense to him, he felt more at home with his fellow congregants, he fell in love with the rituals.

Personally, I experience Jesus as a perfectly transparent window into our God of infinite light. For me, this makes Jesus the Christ. But my dad’s friend didn’t, or couldn’t, believe this. He found a new religious home that blessed him with more faith and peace. I think that his discovery of this home, and the way it helped him thrive, pleased God. I don’t think it made God jealous.

Tragically, some churches do preach a God who is jealous, wrathful, and hates gays. What if someone born gay is reared in a church like that? What does the God of Jesus Christ want for that person? In seminary, I knew a gay man who realized that he was gay when he was in the fifth grade, in rural Texas, in a family that attended a fundamentalist and homophobic church. Somehow, this gay man was able to salvage his faith and go on to become a progressive Christian pastor.

But what if he had been unable to work through his religious education and reconcile his sexual orientation with his faith? Would God prefer him to be a closeted Christian fundamentalist or a gay Buddhist? I think that God would prefer the latter. In my experience, openly gay Buddhists are happier, more authentic, and more at peace than closeted gay fundamentalists, especially those who are closeted from themselves. If someone finds spiritual solace in Buddhism, then this solace would please the God of human flourishing.

If God is jealous for anything, God is jealous for love—the open, relational love that fosters mutual commitment, meaningful relationship, and spiritual maturity. Such flourishing can occur within many different worldviews, so long as they are freely chosen and serve love.

7 thoughts on “God is Not the Jealous Type

  1. I have a few questions.

    1. Let’s say the “jealous” part of this passage is, in fact, wrong. That begs the question as to whether the “you shall not bow down” part is wrong as well. How should we determine which part(s) are to be believed?

    2. Your paragraph about Christ disagreeing with Scripture seems troubling. First, the woman caught in adultery was supposed to be accompanied by the man with whom she cheated. Condemning her alone would not have been the justice demanded by the law. Second, lepers weren’t shunned…they were isolated. Third, the law did not command ‘an eye for an eye’. It was a limitation, preventing escalation. Nobody was forced to take retribution, but they were limited in their pursuit of justice to commensurate acts. With respect, I wonder whether you’ve mistaken these passages and used them as license to reinterpret every other passage of Scripture. How would you respond?

    3. A number of NT passages indicate that Christians are to stick with the gospel ‘as it was handed down’. Strong language is used in Titus, for example, to explain how leaders should respond to those who promote other points of view. How should we reconcile your suggestion that “flourishing” might lead one to not consider Jesus the Christ with the idea that ‘Jesus is the Christ’ is the central point of the gospel?

    I’m sure we would agree on much. Where we begin to disagree is where you suggest that many worldviews might please God equally, rather than the one passed from Jesus to His disciples to us. I appreciate your time, and look forward to reading your response. Have a great day! =)

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  2. Tony,

    Great questions. I’ll let Jon Paul give them a shot. But as for #1, there are a number of interpretive strategies for deciding which passages to privilege and which need reinterpretation. My favorite is this Ascertain what seem to be the broad biblical themes and interpret the minority report in light of them. In my view, the broad themes witness to a nonmanipulative and uncontrolling God. I don’t see “bowing down” in opposition to God’s love, so long as “bowing down” is understood as worship and not self flagellation.

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    • Tom:

      It’s been a while since our undergrad hermeneutics class, but I’m not sure we need an interpretive strategy for a verse that doesn’t have translation issues. If someone doesn’t like the theological implications of a clear verse, hermeneutics isn’t going to solve their problem. In this case, I’ve not seen any evidence that the ‘jealous’ part of the verse is actually in interpretive doubt. If it is, can you point out why? Thanks!

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  3. So maybe you can help me out, since you also have a counseling background. I told my wife I was filing for a divorce because I’ve found a new woman who blesses me with more faith and peace. I tried to explain to her that if love desires the flourishing of the beloved, she should want me to embrace a worldview that promotes my greatest human flourishing. And certainly God would prefer me to be an open and happy divorcee with a new woman as opposed to a closeted faithful husband who is neither authentic nor at peace. Yes, I know the Bible says God hates divorce and Jesus strictly endorses marriage until death separates the married couple, but I don’t believe it.

    Needless to say, she didn’t take it too well. How can I approach the subject in a way that exposes she is simply the jealous type who is not interested in my human flourishing?

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    • Hi Danny,

      Honestly, to commit oneself to God, which is to commit oneself to love, would preclude such horribly egocentric behavior. Flourishing requires discernment and duty. It’s not total lawlessness or hedonism. Sometimes divorce is for the better, or one person is so beaten down that they can only heal outside of the marriage. The situation you describe is not that.

      Yours,

      Jon Paul

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