For many people the thought of God being a 'Jealous' God is rather strange. The word is almost entirely negative in our language and attributing any negative attribute to deity is understandable repulsive. Notwithstanding 'Jealous' is a Biblical word applied to God; it is actually a rendering of three different but related Hebrew words and one Greek. The object of this short paper is to outline the exact meaning of the word and perhaps to begin to suggest how jealousy may be a divine attribute.
The primitive Hebrew root which underpins the word 'Jealous' is qânâ' (H7065). The meaning of it is zealous, jealous or envious. The etymology of the word is disputed. Wilson believes it comes from being 'inflamed' or 'red' citing Schultens. Unger & White specifically disavow that derivation suggesting instead it means to be 'intensely competitive'.
The latter suggestion may well fit correctly with the first usage of the word although careful reading of the context is required to see this. The word first occurs in Gen 26:14-
Gen 26:14 For he had possession of flocks, and possession of herds, and great store of servants: and the Philistines envied him.
Gen 26:15 For all the wells which his father's servants had digged in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines had stopped them, and filled them with earth.
At first glance this use of qânâ' rendered envied is simple material greed: Isaac had possessions which the Philistines would like. However verse 15 paints a different picture: the Philistines were not focused upon acquiring those possessions for themselves - they were focused to preventing Isaac's growth. It is quite possible that they wanted to prevent Isaac from growing too strong rather than growing stronger themselves.
The next two uses qânâ' of fit more readily to the concept of competitiveness. The first is Rachel wanting children in the manner her sister had them and then the brothers of Joseph envying him.
However it is the first occasion of qânâ' rendered as Jealous that is most suggestive. In Numbers 5:14,30 the case is brought of a man that suspects his wife of adultery. The spirit says he is 'jealous' of his wife. Clearly in context the idea is not that his wife has something that he would like; rather it is his wife that he wants and he is willing to compete with everybody else for her. It is also clear in context that whilst the emotion the man is suffering is negative and must be removed it is totally reasonable that he should be willing to compete for the affections of the woman to whom he is married.
In translation the word qânâ' is rendered jealous(10), envied(5), jealousy(5), envious(4), envy(3), zealous(2), enviest(1), zeal(1).
Whilst qânâ' is the commonest word rendered jealous and the primitive root behind the concept, the more famous word is probably the adjective qannâ' (H7067) which is used only of God. It is always rendered as jealous (on six occasions) and is word behind the expression: 'I the Lord thy God am a jealous God.' It should be noted that on all six occasions the context is identical and is introduced as part of the second commandment - you shall have no other gods before God. I think the meaning is clear, beautiful and as righteous as a man being jealous for his wife. In an environment where many gods compete for the affection of man God is intensely competitive in vying for the affections of His people.
The more negative aspect of facing an intensely competitive deity occurs in the word qannô' (H7072) which only occurs twice and on both occasions is rendered jealous. Here the context is sin; how do you hope to approach or 'compete' with God?
The Greek word zēloō (G2206) means to 'boil with zeal' and therefore appears to combine the two alternative Hebrew etymologies given. Interestingly it is first used (Acts 7:9) as a Greek rendering of a usage of the Hebrew qânâ'. I think we may therefore assume that the Greek and Hebrew words have similar meanings. The word is rendered in many different ways: affect(2), covet(2), desire(2), envy(2), moved(2), zealously(2), affected(1), earnestly(1), envieth(1), jealous(1), zealous(1).
Again it is noteworthy that the one occasion the word is rendered 'jealous' it refers to God's relationship to a believer and in particular to the idea that the believer is espoused to Christ and God is 'jealous' that the exclusivity of that relationship should remain intact.
Perhaps the reality is that for modern Americans the word 'jealous' is always going to be negative. We like to have choices; even if we have committed to something we like to feel we have freedom to maneuver. We want our personal space. God has different ideas. God enters into deep committed relationships. He did it with Israel and He has done it with believers today. From God's perspective this relationship is as intimate and as exclusive as a marriage bond, and God is not a neglectful husband. He is attentive and faithful and desires and expects the exclusive attention of His spouse and will compete fiercely within anything that comes between Him and you. God is a jealous God.