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!