Why Is God Called A “Jealous” God? (Exodus 34)

“But rather, you are to tear down their altars and smash their sacred pillars and cut down their Asherim —for you shall not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God—” (Exodus 34:13-14)

There are two statements in Exodus 34 which absolutely delight the skeptic and the Bible critic. The first of these I would like to address is God’s self-description as a “Jealous” God in Verse 14. In his documentary “Religulous“, a tirade against Christianity and organized religion in general, outspoken agnostic Bill Maher tells a Christian:

“But 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”

But is the Bible really saying that God possesses a “petty human emotion” and is given to emotional outbursts of envy? First of all, let us consider if it is really even possible for God to be jealous in the way that we understand jealousy.

“Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:

‘I am the first and I am the last,
And there is no God besides Me.” (Isaiah 44:6)

The website “Dictionary.reference.com” gives 5 definitions for the adjective jealous.  Four of those pertain to a feeling of resentment because of the success or advantages of another. It is in this context that we normally think of jealousy and all of the “pettiness” that it entails. But how can a God Who has no equal be jealous of anyone in that sense? Is there anyone who has more success or advantage than the Creator of the Universe? Of course not. Anyone or anything else which might be called a “god” or idol is but a very poor substitution for the Living God. In fact, the idols worshipped by the pagans neighboring the Hebrews were nothing more than representations of fictitious deities dreamed up in man’s imagination. Would the true God really be jealous of these?

The fifth definition from the above mentioned website gives us a better idea of what Scripture is really telling us here:

“Solicitous or vigilant in maintaining or guarding something: The American people are jealous of their freedom.”

God is jealous of His people, not because “competing” deities are a threat to Him, but rather because He does not want His people to follow after imaginary idols. He is jealous because He loves His people and does not wish for them to be deceived. Verse 12 of Exodus 34 warns that making a covenant with the pagans living in Canaan would prove to be a snare to the Israelites. Part of making a covenant with them would involve recognizing and accepting their idols and worshipping them as their own. Anything which takes a person’s focus away from the true and living God and places it on an idol inevitably leads to that person’s destruction.

The Hebrew term rendered jealous can also mean excited, heated, or zealous.  In other words, God is passionate in His love for His people and desires for them to live and not be destroyed by their own idolatry. I, for one, am grateful that God is a “jealous” God.

Visiting Iniquity On Succeeding Generations

“[The Lord] keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 34:7)

The second verse I would like to look at is Verse 7. For many skeptics, the phrase about God visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and grandchildren screams of injustice and tyranny. The image of God ruthlessly punishing little children for their parent’s and grandparent’s sins seems so unfair! But is that what the Scripture is actually saying?

First of all, let us consider that there are many verses which completely contradict the notion that God will punish anyone for someone else’s sin. Specifically, both Deuteronomy 24:16 and Ezekiel 18:20 plainly state that a son will not bear the punishment for his father’s sins. Ezekiel 18:4 says that it is the soul who sins that will die.

It is the guilty soul that will not be left unpunished, not the innocent. So then why is God visiting iniquity on the children and grandchildren? Because they’re guilty of the same sins! When a parent delves into idolatry, they will raise their children to be idolaters either through their direct teachings or their example. The succeeding generations will grow up and commit the very same sins that their parents were guilty of. And God will hold them accountable for their own actions just as He held their parents.

A contemporary example can be found in the tragedy of alcoholism. So often, children of alcoholics will grow up and become alcoholics themselves. Through a combination of genetic predisposition and poor behavior models, many children will grow up and become captive to the very same addictions which bound their parents. And even though their parents bear much of the blame, they are in no way innocent of the choices they themselves make which lead them down the path of destruction.

God will deal fairly and justly with every individual and no one will be condemned for the sins of others; though we often suffer consequences for the bad decisions others make. Even so, we should never entertain the idea that any of us are innocent and guiltless before a just and holy God. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and we are all in need of a Savior.

To God goes all glory. In service to Him,



**Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible  (NASB) © The Lockman Foundation and are used by permission.

[If you do not know the Lord Jesus Christ or you are not certain where you are headed when this life ends, I invite you to read the article “Am I Going To Heaven?”]


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