Jealous Gods

For thou shalt worship no other god: for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous god.

—Exodus 34:14

Many verses in the Bible, such as the one above, state unequivocally that Yahweh is a jealous and vengeful lawgiver. They warn of how he loathes idols, and graphically describe the dreadful punishments he will inflict on any of his chosen people who go astray and worship false gods. In fact, the prohibition on worshipping false gods is the very first of the Ten Commandments – more important than abstaining from theft or murder, more important than honoring your parents or being faithful to your spouse.

I’ve often wondered how Jews, Christians and Muslims justify the overriding, supreme importance placed on this rule in their respective religious traditions. Sure, if God existed, I could see him mentioning it here or there – but why stress it this much? Why exalt it above all other moral duties, including those about being kind and loving your fellow people? Are we to believe that the infinite, all-powerful ruler of all existence, the creator of an awe-inspiring universe of a hundred billion galaxies with a hundred billion stars each, feels slighted, or worse, threatened if the inhabitants of one insignificant planet don’t give him what he views as his due praise? Such a depiction speaks to me not of omnipotence and infinite wisdom, but of puny ego and petty jealousy. These are the faults of a vain and insecure human, not the character traits of anything we might reasonably call a god.

No, I think there must be a better reason why the Bible depicts God as all-consumingly jealous. And I think I know what that reason is.

To know more about a god, look to its creators. Why are human beings jealous? The answer, as in many things, lies in evolution. If our male ancestors were unconcerned with their mate’s fidelity, they might well end up using their time and energy to raise other men’s children, rather than propagating their own genes. That variant would soon die out of the gene pool. By contrast, the ancestors who jealously guarded their paternity are the ones whose genes were passed on to us. A similar principle holds for our female ancestors: those who demanded that their mate spend his effort on caring and providing for their own children, rather than the children of another woman, would be far more likely to pass on their genes than those who were indifferent. In both cases, in the brute calculus of reproductive success, jealousy wins and free love loses out.

Richard Dawkins is famous for pointing out that memes, the units of cultural transmission, undergo selection and evolve very much like genes. And we can apply that lesson in this case to come to a surprisingly powerful conclusion: human beings and gods are jealous for the same evolutionary reasons.

After all, what would happen to a religion which taught that its followers could freely mix and mingle with the teachings of other faiths? Like the free-loving ancestor, its memes would soon be mutated and diluted into unrecognizable form. It might survive in some form, but nothing like a coherent set of beliefs or teachings could be passed down over time.

But a jealous god, like a jealous human being, has far better odds of perpetuating itself with fidelity. Stern warnings against worshipping other gods or following other teachings keep the line of transmission pure and ensure that the belief is replicated faithfully from one generation to the next. It may well be that inherently syncretistic belief systems, including modern-day religions like Wicca, simply can never gain much power because they are too diverse. The only kind of religion that can act with ideological unity are the religions of the vindictive and jealous gods – and it’s ironic that those believers who fiercely police the purity of their doctrines, supposing themselves to be doing God’s will, are really just victims of a trick of memetic evolution.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Alex Weaver

    This post feels like it’s been left hanging, somehow.

  • ChristineS

    It is a rather short post.

    One interesting thing about many of the “jealous god” statements that often gets overlooked by Christians (and other monotheists, but my experience is mostly with Christians, so I’ll speak to what I know) is the fact that these statements almost always reference other gods. Not idols, but other gods. I tended to read that as an acknowledgment from this particular divinity that yes, there were other gods, but I’m your god, and there will be hell to pay if you don’t worship me. Just a random thought on the subject.

  • Christopher

    I wonder – if a “god” can be jealous, yet simultaniously be omnimax, could it possibly become infinitly jealous? Perhaps so jealous that it even becomes jealous of itself: envious of its own successes as much as anyone else’s, degenerating into a cycle of self-loathing that culminates in divine suicide?

    The point here is that the idea of an infinite being (call it “god” or anything else) is just so absurd that anything atributed to it must also become just as absurd…

  • bestonnet

    It has been suggested that the ancient Israelites were henotheists that believed in the existence of many gods but only worshipped one.

  • Brad

    I think a predictable theist response is that “god” is a metaphor for anything humans practically “serve” or are dependent upon – such as tobacco, alcohol, sex, or any other behavior that consumes us, like video games or internet usage. (Even this interpretation doesn’t much change the original post’s thesis of societal ESS, however.) But, let’s see the verse in its context.

    Exodus 34:10-16

    The Covenant Renewed

    Then God said, “Behold, I am going to make a covenant. Before all your people I will perform miracles which have not been produced in all the earth nor among any of the nations; and all the people among whom you live will see the working of the LORD, for it is a fearful thing that I am going to perform with you.

    “Be sure to observe what I am commanding you this day: behold, I am going to drive out the Amorite before you, and the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite. “Watch yourself that you make no covenant with the inhabitants of the land into which you are going, or it will become a snare in your midst. “But rather, you are to tear down their altars and smash their sacred pillars and cut down their Asherim –for you shall not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God– otherwise you might make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land and they would play the harlot with their gods and sacrifice to their gods, and someone might invite you to eat of his sacrifice, and you might take some of his daughters for your sons, and his daughters might play the harlot with their gods and cause your sons also to play the harlot with their gods.

    In parallel with all the other Biblical instances of the Israelites relating with neighboring pagan nations, I think this is best not interpreted as metaphor. One may posit that it was a foresight of a divine god to make this type of metaphor, despite its suspiciously literal nature, but I think that explanation holds much less water than naturalistic one(s).

    This “covenant renewed” above goes along exactly with what Ebonmuse was saying: “After all, what would happen to a religion which taught that its followers could freely mix and mingle with the teachings of other faiths?”

    Passages in the Old Testament such as these are a testament to how jingoistic and xenophobic Israel was, and goes to show for how wise and trustworthy an authority such as Scripture really is.

  • Pedro Timóteo

    Men rarely (if ever) manage to dream up a God superior to themselves. Most Gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child.
    – Robert A. Heinlein


  • Michael

    Is Islam then a refinement (evolution) on this idea, given that it came later?

    i.e. anyone leaving the religion is required to be murdered.

    Not only is the god jealous, men enforce that jealousy directly, no need to mess around waiting for the person to die naturally to be judged. It must be far more fearful worrying about being buried up to your neck and pelted with rocks than being scared of an imaginary place only seen in the visions of mental patients. I imagine that helps one ‘keep the faith’ somewhat.

    Will it prove to be a more successful virus as a result?

  • NoAstronomer

    It’s a short post because it describes a fairly simple, but powerful, concept: that religions evolve. Two points I am curious about:

    1. Isn’t jealousy one of the seven deadly sins? Therefore isn’t the christian god a sinful god?

    2. Couldn’t an omnipotent god just get rid of the other gods? Thereby eliminating the problem.

    3. (Just occurred to me) Is it possible to have two omnipotent gods? I think not.

  • Clay

    I see it as a political and economic move by the priests to keep their customer base strong, more than anything. The First Commandment benefits the priests more than anybody else.

  • Judy

    That 1st commandment is what leads my mother to her (vehement) opinion that Muslims don’t worship the same god as Christians and Jews (the Islamic god commands his people to kill others; the Christian/Jewish one doesn’t, is her belief).

  • John

    Joe 2:18 Then will the LORD be jealous for his land, and pity his people.

    2Cor 11:2 For I am jealous over you with a godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.

    From the above two Bible verses, we can infer a different meaning for jealousy.

    Also the word “jealous” has been translated from Hebrew as “zealous” By Young’s Literal translation of the original Hebrew texts. Young’s literal translation of the Bible has “jealous” listed 4 times whereas the KJV has “jealous” 19 times. Either way, understanding the Bible is the work of a lifetime if not many generations.

    “It’s a short post because it describes a fairly simple, but powerful concept: that religions evolve.”

    True indeed, Christianity is evolving.

  • Mathew Wilder

    @ NoAstronomer: Ah, but God’s Ways(tm) are not our ways. Similarly, God’s Jealousy is different than mere human jealousy. You see, whatever God does is good by definition, even if it seems immoral to our finite, sin-tainted minds.

    How lucky for god, hmmm?

  • Tandem

    Here is an interesting point on the other side of the question by David Sloan Wilson.
    Wilson is an unbeliever, by the way. Why Richard Dawkins is Wrong About Religion, which can be found on

  • Joffan

    Interesting. I wonder how the Hindu pantheon has survived so well; under this thought experiment they should have burnt off their excess gods down to just one, but unless I misunderstand, there’s still plenty of gods kicking around there.

    However all this just puts me in mind of debating whether unicorns can swim.

  • Brad


    Joel 2:18 uses Qana’ (Hebrew, can mean “zealous”) and 2 Corinthians 11:2 uses Zelos (Greek, even closer to the meaning “zealous”), but the derivative of the former, Qanna’, especially in the context of Exodus and Deutoronomy, obviously means “jealous,” not merely zealous. It wouldn’t make sense for it to be only a “husbandly love” God had for the Israelites (unless we use the analogy of an abusive, manipulative husband); he commanded their jingoism, xenophobia, and strictly exclusive worship.

    [The Ten Commandments]

    You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

    Exodus 20:5-6, repeated in Deutoronomy 5:8-10

    [Israel Urged to Obey God's Law]

    Now the LORD was angry with me on your account, and swore that I would not cross the Jordan, and that I would not enter the good land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance. For I will die in this land, I shall not cross the Jordan, but you shall cross and take possession of this good land. So watch yourselves, that you do not forget the covenant of the LORD your God which He made with you, and make for yourselves a graven image in the form of anything against which the LORD your God has commanded you. For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.
    Deutoronomy 4:21-24

    [Obey and Prosper]

    Then it shall come about when the LORD your God brings you into the land which He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you, great and splendid cities which you did not build, [...] then watch yourself, that you do not forget the LORD who brought you from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall fear only the LORD your God; and you shall worship Him and swear by His name. You shall not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who surround you, for the LORD your God in the midst of you is a jealous God; otherwise the anger of the LORD your God will be kindled against you, and He will wipe you off the face of the earth.

    Deutoronomy 6:10,12-15

    I think it’s extremely suspicious for a supposedly all-powerful/knowing/good God to (1) have a “Chosen People,” to the exclusion of other nations; (2) screw up so badly trying to help the Israelites; (3) have a “Promised Land” in the first place (why not just make their current location the PL – why put the rats through the maze of pointless torture?); (4) use “prophets” as vehicles for his communication to such a degree, when these many so-called prophets of the time were themselves untrustworthy (“false”) prophets (why the shell game? shouldn’t we have informed choice in following God?); and (5) need to “deliver” the Israelites by having *them* slaughter and drive out other nations. The whole bizarre story just drips with the unshakable impression of “man-made religion.”

  • heliobates

    You see, whatever God does is good by definition.

    I love the smell of tautologies in the morning. Smells like auto da fé.

  • Leum

    Is Islam then a refinement (evolution) on this idea, given that it came later?

    i.e. anyone leaving the religion is required to be murdered.

    Judaism has a similar requirement.

    (6)If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers;

    (7)Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth;

    (8)Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him:

    (9)But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. Deuteronomy 13:6-9

    But doubtless John will tell us that this is merely allegory for, um, the glorious way in which people are free to accept or refuse God. Yeah, that’ll be it.

    I wonder how the Hindu pantheon has survived so well; under this thought experiment they should have burnt off their excess gods down to just one, but unless I misunderstand, there’s still plenty of gods kicking around there.

    Sort of. Hinduism sees all its gods as manifestations of Brahman which is a sort of supreme transcendent being that sustains the universe (if I understand correctly). Also, Hinduism is tends to absorb any nearby religions into itself, so it’s not uncommon for Hindus to worship Jesus as just another part of Brahman. Actually, this tendency makes a lot of religious minorities in Hindu areas angry, since Hinduism declares their religion to be another part of Hinduism itself (Muslims and Sikhs especially dislike being told that Allah or Waheguru is not the one true divine being).

    Please note that this is just my understanding. Correction from a Hindu or scholar of Hinduism will be greatly appreciated.

  • Polly

    Hah! Take that fundies!
    The exclusivity of your religion, far from being an indicator of its truthfulness, is a pretty good sociological analog of biological evolution.

  • cl


    IMO, your assessment of Hinduism and Brahman seems pretty intact; I would reserve or possibly omit any connotation of the word ‘being’ with Brahman, however. Hinduism seems to assert that God is not a personal creator but the ultimate reality behind and beyond all things. Different from Brahma, which has personal attributes and character, Brahman is impersonal, ethereal, and all pervasive. In essence, Brahman is not the most rudimentary aspect of life or of the universe; it is the most rudimentary aspect. The term denotes the supreme unity, “that” or “that one,” the all which lies behind or beyond both existence and non-existence. In Brahman, there are no fundamentally divisive or exclusive differences. Rest and action are joined, as are good and evil. Everything is united, part and parcel of the same god or creation force. Hindus use the neuter pronoun in order to avoid any idea of a manlike god, personal creator or first principle.

    Although Hinduism is pantheistic in asserting that God is not a personal creator but the totality of all things seen and unseen, it is important to note that pantheism does not exclude the spirit world or spirits, and in Hinduism there are also personal beings, gods and deities of various order. A recurring Hindi trinity consists of Brahma, the creator; Shiva, the destroyer; and Vishnu, the redeemer. The three are said to work in a continuous cycle of creation, destruction and redemption. Brahma creates a new world. Shiva destroys it, presumably when the point of moral or spiritual ‘no return’ has been reached, and Earth cannot hold any more evil. Vishnu comes in the form of a human to teach men something for a problem they cannot solve on their own. So for many Hindus, the Buddha, Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Ghandi and other avatars are just further manifestations of Vishnu. One should note that not all Hindus interpret Brahma, Shiva, or Vishnu as personal beings, and some interpret them as essential human ideals humans imagine to be real. Under this idea, the real function of worshiping personal gods is to direct the worshiper towards the knowledge of the ultimate one truth.

  • Mathew Wilder

    I love the smell of tautologies in the morning. Smells like auto da fé.

    See, this is why I love your comments, helio. You have such a way with words. It makes feel all warm and fuzzy.

  • Tommykey

    Whenever theists declare that god is angry at us over this, that or the other thing, I picture that scene in “The Stand” where Randall Flagg goes on a furniture smashing tempter tantrum in his Las Vegas hotel room.

  • heliobates

    You have such a way with words. It makes feel all warm and fuzzy.

    Thanks for your kindness.

    In the words of Henny Youngman (PBUH): “We aim to please. You aim too, please!”

  • D

    Yet another lesson on the “is/ought” distinction. Just because something is able to survive, it does not follow that it therefore is good for it to survive.

    I agree that it feels a bit “hanging” at the end, though – most of your posts have some kind of heartening conclusion. Looking over it again, perhaps it’s the nature of the conclusion that makes it feel like it dangles: “All this trouble for all these thousands of years is just an emergent property of natural selection.” I mean, that kinda sucks. But hey, sometimes the truth is stupid.

    All in all, though, another very good post.

  • heliobates

    Yet another lesson on the “is/ought” distinction.

    Carrier shows, both in Sense and Goodness Without God and in this talk that the “is/ought” distinction really isn’t. Or at least not what everyone says it is, isn’t…oughtn’t. Whatever.

  • Jerryd

    Brad, You quote the King James Version of Exodus 20:5-6, repeated in Deuteronomy 5:8-10. Here is the NIV of Deuteronomy: “8 “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 9 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, 10 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

    The major difference I see is that the NIV keeps generations in the love segment as is in the punishing segment. As another evidence that humans wrote the Bible, other than the evolutionary one that Ebon points out, give some thought to the details of exactly, what this says and the logical problems one would have figuring out how to deal with God’s laws here.

    If we go back to the Old Testament story, I would assume it is safe to say that Noah would get full credit for loving God, all the other generations notwithstanding. In doing so he, according to the Commandment cited above, would bestow God’s love on a thousand generations. If we assume that a generation is 25 years, that means God’s love is guaranteed for 25,000 years from Noah’s time. So we still have about 18,000 years on God’s love credit card. Can we assume that means that we are free to do whatever we want, that Noah gave us this free pass?

    But wait, there is another problem in here. It says that up to the fourth generation will be punished for the sins of the father. So, if father A is responsible for generation B, C, D, and E how do we work things out if father A sins? He has apparently put the hoax on B, C, D, and E. But can B read the Bible and decide to love god and get a free pass and then remove A’s hoax on himself as well as C, D, and E?

    This is like God’s example of Rocks, Scissors and Paper with Paper left out. And he forgot to tell us which is the rock and which is the scissor. Does Noah’s love give us all a free pass for the next 18,000 years or so? Or does some generation down the line being sinful override Noah’s good deed, and, if so, for how many generations? And how do we track this with certainty? If we get it wrong, the punishment could be eternity in hell. With that at risk, wouldn’t you expect directions that are perfect, unquestionable?

    This would appear to be important if you really believe that God exists. If we all have a free pass thanks to Noah, no apparent need to go to church or try not to sin, we are all set. Of course, after 18,000 years, someone is going to have to check back up line to see if one of their ancestors gave them a free pass, or got them in hot water.

    A perfect God simply couldn’t have dreamed up such a ridiculous system, only humans in their fallibility. The only way to devise a system with accountability is to make each person responsible for their own behavior. Humans not understanding this, wrote whatever they wanted in the Bible. Of course, including the incredible hoaxes that you could go to heaven or hell for eternity, not based upon your behavior, but what you said or didn’t say.

  • LiquidThinker

    Well said!

    I had previously considered that the commandment, as Christine S noted, implied the reality of the existence of other gods (though I’ve had arguments with Christian friends as to what that really means.). But clearly the use of Elohim (plural of El) in Genesis is consistent with that picture. Like you, I’ve also considered the “jealous” god as totally inconsistent with a “God of the cosmos as we now know it”. It is also clear that jealousy can provide an evolutionary adaptive advantage, both for humans, and more speculatively, for memes. The tying together of man creating gods in his own image along with whatever traits for which evolution has selected is such an obvious and natural fit, I wonder how religions can keep denying it.

  • D

    Carrier shows, both in Sense and Goodness Without God and in this talk that the “is/ought” distinction really isn’t. Or at least not what everyone says it is, isn’t…oughtn’t. Whatever.
    Yeah, that was the lecture I wanted to go to, but couldn’t find a carpool or viable public transportation route. OK, so Carrier goes and explains how morality can be broken down to a system of hypothetical imperatives, and good on him for that. Sounds an awful lot like like Phillippa Foot’s paper, Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives. That’s not what this is about, though – Carrier’s statement that “you can’t get an ‘is’ from an ‘ought’ ” is a straw-man of the is-ought problem; the problem is simply that lots of people conflate descriptivity and prescriptivity, which are different things.

    Still, I suppose my meaning would have been clearer if I had phrased it in terms of the naturalistic fallacy, pointing out that just because religion is good at surviving in the meme pool, it does not therefore follow that it is a good meme for humans.