(What follows is a question from a student in our Bible Correspondence Courses. We post it here for anyone else who may have wondered the same thing.)
Why is God a jealous God when jealousy is a sin?
This is an excellent question which shows that you are looking deeper into God’s word. Let me try and offer a satisfying, biblical answer.
The word translated “jealous” occurs 19 times in the New American Standard Bible. All but one of those occasions comes in the Old Testament. The Lord describes himself as a jealous God in Exodus 20:5; Exodus 34:14; Deuteronomy 4:24, 5:9, 6:15; Ezekiel 35:25; Zechariah 1:14 and 8:2. In other cases God is described as jealous by a third party and sometimes the word is used regarding a man towards his wife. A similar word, “jealousy” is used even more often, 34 times. The word is defined in various ways but a general definition is an emotion or feeling that arises when someone is threatened with the loss of a precious loved one or relationship. Some experts believe the root of the word goes back to the root of the word for “zeal.”
God is Jealous
There is no question that God is jealous. He views his relationship with us as something precious. That should come as no surprise since he gave his son Jesus as the price for our salvation (John 3:16; Romans 5:8). In the Bible, when God is threatened by the loss of his precious people he is described as being jealous for them. We are the object of God’s great love and affection. When we begin to drift away and depart from him to pursue other interests, God is jealous. That is good news for us and should warm our hearts that God is so concerned about us.
The apostle Paul uses the word too to describe his feelings for the Christians in Corinth (2 Corinthians 11:2). But notice that Paul uses the phrase “godly jealousy” which suggests that jealousy can be and often is, acceptable.
Interestingly, the Bible never brands jealousy as a sin itself. True, jealousy may produce in some people sinful behaviors up to and including violence. However the feeling or emotion itself is not necessarily wrong. Similarly, anger can be righteous or sinful. Jesus demonstrated anger when he cleared the Temple of the moneychangers in Matthew 21:12 and Mark 11:15. Paul allows anger so long as it is not associated with sin (Ephesians 4:26). So jealousy, like anger, can be righteous or sinful.