Speaking of the false gods of their neighbors, God told Israel:
You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,”Exodus 20:5 ESV
There are at least 35 references to God’s jealousy in the Old Testament, seven of which associate God’s jealousy with a fire. For example:
For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.Deuteronomy. 4:24 ESV
This anthropomorphic figure of jealousy has confused many. In fact, the second century heretic Marcion could not accept that the jealous God of the Old Testament was the same as the loving God revealed in the New Testament.
Let’s explore this concept of a jealous God in depth. We’ll keep in mind the concept of Divine Pedagogy, i.e. that God revealed himself gradually to Israel over time, culminating in His full revelation in the Person of Jesus. And we’ll also remember the teaching of St. Augustine:
…the New Testament lies hidden in the Old Testament and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.Catechism of the Catholic Church, 129
With those principles in mind, let’s explore what the Old Testament prophets had to say.
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea all considered God’s covenant with Israel to be an espousal or marriage. The prophet Hosea, whose own marriage to a prostitute depicts God’s relationship to Israel, provides these words of God:
“Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. And there I will give her her vineyards and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. “And in that day, declares the Lord, you will call me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer will you call me ‘My Baal.’Hosea 2:14-16 ESV
Isaiah and Jeremiah also prophesy a renewal of God’s marriage to Israel:
No more shall you be called “Forsaken,” nor your land called “Desolate,” but you shall be called “My Delight is in her,” and your land “Espoused.” For the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be espoused. For as a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you; And as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice in you.Isaiah 62:4-5 NABRE
“Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the Lord, “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.Jeremiah 2:2 ESV
In what is one of the most graphic and explicit chapters in the Bible, the sixteenth chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, the prophet relates God’s words:
“When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord God, and you became mine.Ezekiel 16:8 ESV
This figure of “spreading the corner of my garment over you” is the very same way that Boaz betrothed Ruth in the Book of Ruth [Ruth 3:9]!
In that very same chapter, however, Ezekiel uses the word “harlot” (pronounced zaw-NAW in Hebrew) eleven times and the word fornication (pronounced taz-NOOTH) nine times. You see, if covenant with God is a marriage, then disobedience and idolatry are fornication or prostitution.
Ezekiel, as I mentioned, is very graphic, and in a verse that one only hears at Mass on Friday in the nineteenth week of Ordinary Time in year II, we read:
At every intersection you built yourself a dais so that you could degrade your beauty by spreading your legs for every passerby, multiplying your prostitutions.Ezekiel 16:25 NABRE
The prophet Isaiah had the same perspective:
How the faithful city has become a whore, she who was full of justice! Righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers.Isaiah 1:21 ESV
God’s jealousy, then, is not that of a petty and tyrannical demiurge, as Marcion believed, but rather that of an upright husband who wills the return of an unfaithful wife.
Jesus the Bridegroom
The nuptial aspect of God’s covenant is fully developed in the person of Jesus and in the New Testament. When answering the disciples of John when they asked him why his disciples did not fast, Jesus refers to himself as “the Bridegroom”:
And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.Matthew 9:15
The word for “bridegroom”, νυμφίος (pronounced noom-FEE-os), appears sixteen times in the New Testament, and always refers to Jesus. Here is another example from St. John in the Book of Revelation:
Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready;Revelation 19:7
Let’s get back to God’s jealousy. St. Paul speaks of God’s jealousy too, which we see in his first letter to the Corinthians:
You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?”1 Corinthians 10:21-22
St. Paul links this divine jealousy to the nuptial meaning of the New Covenant in his second letter to the Corinthians:
I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness. Do bear with me! For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ.2 Corinthians 11:1-2
St. John Chrysostom, an early Church Father and Doctor of the Church, wrote:
“For God also is said to be jealous, not that any should suppose passion, (for the Godhead is impassible,) but that all may know that He does all things from no other regard than their sakes over whom He is jealous; not that Himself may gain anything, but that He may save them.”St. John Chrystostom Homily XXIII on 2 Corinthians
Speaking again of this divine jealousy in a homily on Paul’s letter to the Romans, St. John Chrystostom wrote:
“This is why He does not refuse even to condescend to grosser words, and to speak the names of human passions, and to call Himself jealous. For ” I am a jealous God ” [ Exodus 20:5 ], He says, that you may learn the intenseness of the love. Let us then love Him as He would have us: for He sets great store thereby. And if we turn away, He keeps inviting us, and if we will not be converted, He chastens us through His affection, not through a wish to exact punishment of us. And see what He says in Ezekiel to the city”St. John Chrystostom Homily XXIII on Romans
In summary, it seems that there are several characteristics of God’s jealousy that we must keep in mind: While it is like human jealousy in that it is intense and relational, it differs from human jealousy too. God’s jealousy is pure, and not for His benefit, but rather for ours: our salvation. It’s nuptial, that is, meant for lasting, eternal intimacy.