The Names of God: El Kanna

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What comes into your mind when you think of jealousy? Usually, we think of jealousy in inherently negative terms. One dictionary defines “jealousy” as “feeling or showing an envious resentment of someone or their achievements, possessions, or perceived advantages.” When jealousy is equated with envy and resentment, we might find it surprising that God describes himself as a jealous God. But he did. Listen to these words that he spoke to Moses: “You shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:14). The Hebrew name translated “jealous God” is El Kanna, which is the name of God under consideration before us this week. But if God is a “jealous God,” does that mean that he is envious and resentful of our achievements, possessions, or advantages? How do we understand God to be a jealous God?

Last week, we considered the fact that God is a holy God. We saw that holiness, biblically speaking, is more than moral or ethical purity. Properly speaking, holiness describes God’s otherness—that he is completely unlike anything in his creation. This otherness is the reason that he is El Kanna—a jealous God.

Jealousy certainly can be sinful but only when we are jealous over something to which we do not have a right. But God’s jealousy is rooted in that to which he has exclusive right. He has exclusive right to the adoration and worship of his creatures and when we direct our allegiance elsewhere, we give to someone or something else that which is God’s right alone. That is the context of the name of God before us.

As Israel stood on the cusp of the Promise Land, God knew that they would face the temptation to idolatry. Their forefathers had been called out of idolatry, and their families had been delivered from idolatrous Egypt and were about to be delivered into idolatrous Canaan. They had been commanded to completely drive out the Canaanites so that they would not be tempted with idolatry. But God knew that they would be tempted to not obey fully and that they would consequently be tempted to idolatry. It is the context of this temptation that this name of God comes:

Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Take care, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst. You shall tear down their altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim (for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God [El Kanna]), lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and you are invited, you eat of his sacrifice, and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters whore after their gods and make your sons whore after their gods.

(Exodus 34:11–16)

Because El Kanna was making a covenant with his people, they were not to make a covenant with anyone else. Because he had demanded their worship, they were not permitted to worship other gods. Because they were his people, they were not to give their daughters in marriage to the people of another god. God was jealous for his glory and would not allow that glory to be given to other gods. He would state this explicitly to a later generation: “I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols” (see Isaiah 42:8).

Think of divine jealousy in terms of the relationship between a husband and his wife. In a healthy marriage, each spouse rightly expects a proper attention and affection of the other. In fact, there is cause for concern when such attention and affection is improperly directed to another person. J. I. Packer says, “This sort of jealousy is a positive virtue, for it shows a grasp of the true meaning of the husband-wife relationship, together with a proper zeal to keep it intact.”

Consequently, to affirm that God is El Kanna—the jealous God—is to affirm “that he demands from those whom he has loved and redeemed utter and absolute loyalty, and will vindicate his claim by stern action against them if they betray his love by unfaithfulness.”

The paradox here is that, while God is jealous for his own glory, his jealousy works to our benefit. It is because he is jealous for his glory that he has redeemed us and brought us into covenant relationship with him. Divine jealousy makes it possible for us to enter into relationship with God. Because he has the right to be worshipped by the creatures he has created, and because he will not allow that worship to be shared with other gods, we have the wonderful privilege of being invited into exclusive and eternal relationship with him as our God. As Packer asserts:

God’s jealousy over his people … presupposes his covenantal love; and this love is no transitory affection, accidental and aimless, but is the expression of a sovereign purpose. The goal of the covenant love of God is that he should have a people on earth as long as history lasts, and after that should have all his faithful ones of every age with him in glory. Covenant love is the heart of God’s plan for his world.

As you pray this week, allow your prayers to be guided by the fact that you are praying to a jealous God. The revelation of God as El Kanna is important for at least three reasons.

First, it helps us to understand the nature and character of the God to whom we pray. In contrast, it helps us to understand the superficiality of the other things to which we so often give our devotion. God is right to be jealous because he alone is worthy of our devotion. Understanding God as a jealous God helps us to understand that he is the creator who has exclusive right to the devotion of his creation. It also helps us to understand that he is a God who desires a relationship with the people he created, despite our sin.

Second, it helps us to understand something of the danger of God. Yes, divine jealousy drives God to desire a relationship with and to offer a relationship to the people he created, but divine jealousy also secures his punishment against sin and idolatry. He will not tolerate people giving his glory to other people and things and, while he is patient, his judgement will certainly fall on those who do not pledge to him the allegiance that is his exclusive right.

Third, it helps us to understand that the jealous God, who will certainly judge those who ultimately reject his gospel, is nevertheless the God who pursues us. In fact, so devoted is he to pursuing those with whom he desires a relationship that he sent his only Son to experience his wrath in their place. He desired reconciliation with his sinful people so deeply that he made reconciliation possible at the cost of his own blood.

As you pray this week, allow the revelation of God as El Kanna to encourage your heart toward absolute and exclusive devotion to the God who made a covenant relationship with him possible at the cost of his own life. As the songwriter put it, allow the things of this world to grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.