What does it mean to be zealous? Most see zeal as the ardent or extreme support of an idea, belief, or  behavior. Being a zealot of some sort is not always good, but zeal in itself can be a commendable quality. What about jealousy? Is that a good emotion? Most would say it is not. Indeed, in English, the word jealousy typically carries a negative connotation. Being labeled as a jealous person is rarely desirable. Yet that is exactly how God describes himself.

“You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; כִּי אָנֹכִי יהוה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֵל קַנָּא (ki anochi Adonai Elocheycha El qana) for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God…” (Ex 20:4-5).

The Hebrew verb קָנָא (qana) means “to be jealous” or “to burn with zeal.” In some contexts it can even be translated, “to be envious.” It describes an intense emotion. It is a derivative of a noun קִנְאָה (qinah) translated as “jealousy” or “zeal”. In fact, in Hebrew being jealous and being zealous are the same. The same word expresses both notions and meanings. The context alone determines the difference and shows the direction of this powerful feeling.

Zeal or jealousy can apply to lovers (Prov 6:34) or to husband and wife (Num 5:14). In can also be seen in other family relationships (Gen 37:11, Gen 30:1). And at the same time, God calls himself אֵל קַנָּא (el qana) “a jealous/zealous God”. It would appear that an ardent commitment to someone, extreme love, loyalty, zeal, jealousy and passion for the right reason is indeed a good thing. God rewarded Aaron’s grandson Phineas for being “jealous with God’s jealousy”בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת־קִנְאָתִי (bekano et kinati) in Num 25:10-13. Could it be that the Almighty expects his people to be passionate and jealous about the matters that are of extreme importance to Him?  It seems clear that He does!

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28 COMMENTS

  1. Wow! I have experienced God’s goodness leading me to repentance, but I have always read the text (Ten Commandments) as though it were works. I never noticed before that the “you shall nots” are connected to His goodness (because He is jealous) and that indeed the Ten Commandments were meant to lead us.

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  2. It is interesting to view this word as “zealous”. The targum also uses the same word as the Hebrew (‎קנָא ) in Exodus 20:5 but in the Aramaic/Syriac Peshitta the word is ṭnn (ṭannān) from the root ܛܢܢ (teyn) which also means “zealous”. Ref: http://cal.huc.edu/ adj. zealousṭnn (ṭannān) 1 zealous Syr. BS 3(18) : ܛܢ̈ܢܐ ܚܡܝܡܐ ܕܢܡ̈ܘܣܐ ̈‏ ardent zealots of the laws. 2 champion Syr. P Acts22:3 : ܛܲܢܵܢܵܐ ܕܿܲܐܠܵܗܵܐ‏ . 3 emulator Syr. Chrmin 107:16 . 4 envious Syr. ESHaer 54:22 . ܛܢܢ

  3. So if I read with humility (rather than thru our own works) would the zealots of the laws be a people who were just zealous or a people who knew God to be their only Ruler because of His zeal.

  4. Yes, our God is a jealous God. But I don’t think He expects us to be jealous to the extent that we kill or take life of any human being as some religions believe.

    • While it offends our “civilized” sensibilities, that is exactly what happened in Numbers 25. There were plenty of witnesses to the crime, so what Pinchas did was proper legal execution, not murder. He was rewarded by God in a way only matched by 2 or 3 other people, ever.

  5. Great concept.
    I have always understood that the different between jealousy and envy as in 10th Commandment..Thou shalt not covert…. is that jealousy is wanting something that is legally yours such as a wife or your possessions or you are entitled to and so is righteous.
    Envy is when you want something to which you are not really entitled like someone else’s wife or possessions etc.
    Thus God is rightly a jealous God but covertness is a really dangerous negative thought process that can lead to all sorts of unhappiness for all concerned, especially for the innocent parties.

  6. If you love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength, and next ask, “how wonderful do we have things, that this is our God’s first request? To love Him back?”
    Jealousy shows he cares. No open marriages. 37plus73.com. Shalom.

  7. The form kannaʾ here (Exodus 20:5) is used in the Bible solely of God, never of a human being, right? Maybe that is an important distinction. Thanks a lot for all the interesting writings.

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