The second Commandment, as stated in Exodus 20:
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 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, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
This passage has always confounded me. Not because of the command against idolatry—I don’t have statues of Baal or Aphrodite sitting on my living room mantel. But the idea of God as “jealous” seems wrong: the Church teaches that jealousy is a sin, a temptation to run away from. Yet the Almighty is perfect and holy, and therefore His jealousy must be perfect and holy, as well.
The jealousy that stems from selfishness and greed places it squarely in the “sin” category. Someone either wants what they don’t have, or they think someone else is trying to steal what they do have. A child who won’t let her best friend touch her new doll is protectively jealous because she wants to keep the toy all to herself. Her jealousy rises from selfish greed.
The jealousy of God, on the other hand, stems from love and purity. The Israelites are instructed not to make idols because God is jealous of their worship: He does not want them to turn away from Him and lust after false gods, which disrespects the Creator and harms the Israelites. The disastrous consequences of their faithlessness are laced throughout the Old Testament. God rightfully demands Israel’s complete devotion and loyalty, and His jealousy guards a relationship that is only holy when it is pure and complete.
In the book of Hosea, the relationship between God and Israel is likened to marriage. The Lord refers to Israel as an adulterous whore who has deserted her true husband for various lovers, including Baal and other idols. The Lord, acting as the just and faithful husband, openly shames Israel: “I will uncover her lewdness in the sight of her lovers, and no one shall rescue her out of my hand.” (Hosea 2:10) Yet this is not the end of the story. God will then show mercy upon Israel by wooing her back to Himself: “Behold, I will allure her and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.” (Hosea 2:14) It is God’s jealousy that spurs both the just punishment and the merciful reconciliation. He loves Israel enough to be jealous for her, and patient with her sins.
This same principle can be applied to our human dating and marital relationships: we need jealousy to keep marriage healthy and intact. At their wedding, a bride and groom give themselves wholly to each other. They are no longer their own, but “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” (Song of Solomon 6:3) The consequence of not staying true to this commitment is lust and adultery. Just as God rightfully expected the Israelites to unconditionally worship and obey Him, we must expect our spouse to remain unconditionally loyal and committed to the marriage, and guard the purity of this commitment jealously.
I’m not talking about extreme cases of physical abuse or overprotective spouses: a smile of friendship to someone of the opposite sex should not occasion burning jealousy. Yet a small, healthy dose of jealousy only adds to the strength of a romantic relationship because it demonstrates the individuals’ depth of love and commitment. The man who is not jealous of his wife’s attentions does not care enough about their marriage, and will only encourage her to look elsewhere for intimacy.
Romantic love is not like a toy, which should be generously shared with others for maximum enjoyment. Some things should not be shared, and marriage is one of them.