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Exodus 20:5 NIV

You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.

If there is only one God, of whom is God jealous?

And there seems to be some confusion as to what the word jealous means here, as seen in these two comments:

In the original meaning “jealous” means wishing to hold on to what is yours. “Envious" means wanting to be like someone else. In recent times “jealous” has come to be used to be used like “envious” — but the passage here is using it in its original meaning. So the passage only means that God does not readily give up what is due to him. – DJClayworth

You may amend your initial correction to “For whom is God jealous,” which may help clarify your point. Moreover, it is common in English to confuse the notion of “jealousy” with “envy,” but the two are very distinct. That may be a helpful addition to your very nice answer. – jackweinbender.

Can anyone shed some light on the meaning of the passage?

3 Answers 3


As Frank Luke points out, the Hebrew word "kinah" (קנאה) as in "El kanna" in Exodus 20:5 (אל קנא) in both in OT Hebrew and in modern, is both jealous and zealous at the same time, and can have either positive or negative moral value depending on the subtext.

The name "Cain" in the story of Creation apparently comes from the same root, meaning someone who was jealous of his brother.

Another use of "kinah" meaning jealousy is Numbers 5:29 (AKJV):

This is the law of jealousies, when a wife goes aside to another instead of her husband, and is defiled

The NEV translation of Numbers 25:11 brings out the moral ambivalence of the word when used with the meaning "zealous" in one and the same verse:

"Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites; for he was as zealous as I am for my honour among them, so that in my zeal I did not put an end to them."

Here the zeal of Pinehas is good, and averts the destructive zeal of God. In this verse the latter use of "kinah" alludes to the thorough and protracted nature of His punishment.

"Kanaim" (קנאים) are "zealots" or what we today call "extremists", in the sense that they are "jealous" of one particular opinion or position and will not tolerate any other.

The word can also be used to mean someone who is a perfectionist or persnickety in some matter. It is often used in modern Hebrew advertising as a boast that some manufacturer is zealous about his quality or some other attribute of his product.

So in the case of Exodus 20:5, the answer is that God is jealous of our time and attention, and of our recognition of Him as the only entity worthy of worship. Compare with Deuteronomy 6:4-9 where we are commanded to love God with all of our hearts and efforts. He wont tolerate us wasting our attention on other gods, even if they are non-entities, as in Deuteronomy 32:21,

"They have made me jealous with what is no god; they have provoked me to anger with their idols. So I will make them jealous with those who are no people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation." (ESV)


The Hebrew word is qanna. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament has a fairly long entry on it. The word can be used positively or negatively. They suggest "zeal" to be a better translation of the word as it has the same negative or positive aspects. If one is zealous for another's property, this is envy and a sin. However, if one is zealous of your own property, then you are protecting what is yours and that is good. It should be noted that this is a deep emotion and not a fleeting feeling. It is the word used to describe barren Rachel's feelings to the fruitful Leah (Genesis 30:1). In the Pentateuch, it is often used of God's relationship with Israel and warning them not to enter idolatry. Their relationship with God is a marriage and idolatry would be like adultery.

The central meaning of our word, however, relates to "Jealousy" especially in the marriage relationship. Adultery was punishable by death (Lev 20:10; Deu 22:22). By marriage the "two become one flesh" (Gen 2:24). Hence, adultery was a severing of the body-a form of murder. Because woman usurped man's position in Eden the law was constructed to emphasize her subjection and man's leadership (Gen 3:16). Hence, provision was made for a husband to accuse and discover suspected adultery (Num 5). Nor should it be overlooked that this was also a means whereby an accused but innocent woman could escape the accusation and wrath of a jealous husband in as much as God himself would pronounce her guiltless. The law provides a fit end for justified jealousy, the death of the offender (IDB, III, p. 332).

God is depicted as Israel's husband; he is a jealous God (Exo 20:5). Idolatry is spiritual adultery and merits death. Phinehas played the faithful lover by killing a man and his foreign wife, and thus stayed the wrath of divine jealousy (Num 25:11). Joshua repeated the fact that God is a jealous God who would not tolerate idolatry and the people voluntarily placed themselves under God's suzerainty (Josh 24:19). Through idolatry Israel incited God to justified wrath, e.g. in the days of Ahab, and God punished them. Ultimately, repeated warnings went unheeded and God gave his people the justice due their spiritual adultery (Ezek 5:13; Ezek 8:3, 5; Ezek 16:38). The Psalmist identified the jealousy of God as the cause of the exile and he besought his Sovereign to quench his wrath against Israel (Psa 79:5). According to promise God rested his jealous wrath against Israel (Ezek 16:42, cf. Deut 30) and turned against those who had misused them (Ezek 36:5-6). So strong is his disposition to vindicate his name (Ezek 39:25) and his people, that all the earth felt his wrath (Zeph 3:8). Thus it will be seen that the action informed by this intensity may result in ill and perdition and is associated with words denoting wrath (Num 25:11; Ezek 16:38, 42; Ezek 36:6; Ezek 38:9) and anger (Deut 29:19 [H 20]), and as a consuming force with fire (Zeph 1:18; Zeph 3:8).

On the other hand the divine action accomplished with "Jealousy" may result in good and salvation. Thus this arduous love effected the return (Isa 42:13). The restoration of Israel does not, however, exhaust God's gracious activities in behalf of his people. He will effect their salvation (the restitution of a perfect relationship between himself and his creatures), which they lost in father Adam, by a second Adam-Immanuel (Isa 9:7 [H 6]). Furthermore, the return from the exile foreshadowed an even greater event God's creating and choosing a perfect bride through his Servant (Isa 42:13). God's jealousy when offended issued in just retribution, but when stirred by his grace it resulted in eternal love. Hence, the church is called the bride of Christ. It is now being perfectly prepared and preserved for the wedding.

God expects man to return his love. Love, however, is not simply an emotion. It is a structured relationship. To love God is to obey him. So the word is used to denote a passionate, consuming "zeal" focused on God that results in the doing of his will and the maintaining of his honor in the face of the ungodly acts of men and nations. Phinehas, Elijah and Jehu are particular examples of this zeal (TWNT, II, p. 878). Saul (2Sam 21:2) and Jehu (2Kings 10:16) were prompted by their ardent zeal Jealousy) for God to commit acts violating his commands. Thus, they stirred the wrath of God who is jealous for his name (Ezek 39:25) - that it be vindicated by the keeping of the whole law (Deut 29:20 [H 19]). The godly (esp. Messiah) are consumed, therefore, by an ardour jealousy) to exalt God by maintaining purity of worship (Psa 69:9 [H 10]), and purity of obedience respecting the whole of God's word (Psa 119:139).

In relation to Exodus 20:5, God is the husband of the believing community. As such, he will no more tolerate believers committing idolatry than a human husband would tolerate an adulterous wife. He wants our all, and nothing is more important than He is.


The G-d of Israel promotes a radical monotheism and a direct and intimate relationship with his followers.

The last 2 words of Exodus 20:3 is al Panai. This literally means 'on my face'. The worst possible form of idol worship is to worship G-d correctly and simultaneously worship another G-d. It is like you are cheating on G-d.

The same jealous idea for Exodus 20:4 as graven images are external to G-d. Again you are splitting your relationship with G-d.

And we see the sin being done in Exodus 20:5 is bowing to idols. Same as it was for verse 3 at the top of my comment regarding you asking about the word jealous.

We see with Eliyahu the prophet who faced the Baal worshipers.

All of Jeremiah 7 is an explanation of this but these 2 verses should be sufficient. Jeremiah 7:17,18

And it is also G-d being jealous for the same reason Exodus 20:20

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