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 caught 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.