The Benefit of the Doubt

A blog about Dialogue, Doubts, and Christian Faith ~Travis Dickinson~

The (Morally Appropriate) Jealousy of God

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The Bible in no uncertain terms describes God as jealous. In fact, God himself proclaims:

You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God (Exodus 20:5)

This, it seems, is grist for the New Atheist hostility mill. What?! You think God is jealous? In the words of Bill Maher, in his not-so-much interesting movie Religulous, “Your God is jealous? That seems so un-godlike that God would have such a petty human emotion. I know people who have gotten over jealousy, let alone God.”

The problem with this response is the problem with much of the New Atheist content, which is it treats superficially a notion embedded in a very specific tradition and a context. Virtually absent from their critiques is any attempt to understand what Scripture or Christians mean by this sort of claim. If Scripture was predicating of God a petty human emotion, I too would react with disdain. But maybe, just maybe, there is a bit more subtlety here and if we dive into the context, we’d see something actually quite profound and interesting. Fingers crossed!

Is Jealousy Wrong?

Let’s first ask whether jealousy is always morally wrong. There’s certainly a way of being jealous that is morally inappropriate. In this case, one is strongly desiring something one lacks or to which one has no right to possess. So if you strongly desire your neighbor’s car, your co-worker’s house, or your friend’s good looks, then you are jealous of them in a way that seems overall inappropriate. The moral virtue is to be content with what we possess and to moderate our desires accordingly.

Is this what the Exodus passage is referring to? Well, no, of course not on the Christian view. For the Christian, God is without lack and so it’s suspect from the start to think that Scripture is picturing God as desiring something he lacks. Perhaps Christian theology gets the Bible wrong here…or (said with emphasis) perhaps we shouldn’t see this as God’s desiring something he lacks and there’s a better reading of what’s going on.

It’s also worth noting the Bible goes on to explicitly prohibit an attitude of jealousy in Galatians 5:20. This is (since it is prohibited) the morally inappropriate sense of jealousy. So perhaps Galatians is prohibiting something that Exodus is ascribing to God…or (said with emphasis) perhaps there are different senses of the term and there’s a morally appropriate sense of jealousy.

I want to suggest there is a morally appropriate sense of jealousy.

Appropriate Jealousy

What would be a morally appropriate sense of jealousy? The term seems to have enough flexibility to include strongly desiring something that is in fact rightfully ours. On the Christian view, the world is rightfully God’s. We, in particular, are his. So for him to desire us and our affections, for him to be jealous in this sense, is not morally inappropriate.

Perhaps an analogy is when someone’s spouse has, in a way, wandered from the marriage. It is completely appropriate for one to be jealous after one’s spouse in this scenario. In fact, if there’s any hope for the marriage, then one will desire and seek to win one’s spouse back.

For God to be a jealous God, he desires our affections and worship, not because he lacks in some way, but because he is the appropriate object of our affections and worship. Other gods, even if they existed, are not worthy of worship. They indeed, without fail, lack in various respects. The gods are to be appeased and placated, but not worshipped. We flourish best when we turn our affections and worship to God. It’s our telos, it’s our design. Being religiously plural–in giving our affections to other “gods”–is ultimately harmful to our wellbeing.

Rather than this being some expression of a petty emotion, this is a quite beautiful picture of God’s attitude towards us.

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