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Israel and God's Plan – Jacob and Esau

Exposition of Romans 9:10-14

(A short section from Forster & Marston's book God's Strategy in Human History)


God Chose a Nation in Embryo

In the next part of Romans 9 the apostle passes on to the next point in the history of Israel:

(For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth;) It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated. (Rom. 9:11-13)

People often fail to understand that in this whole section the apostle is talking about nations and not about individuals. Turning up the passage quoted by Paul we read:

And the LORD said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger. (Gen. 25:23)

Esau the individual never did serve Jacob; in fact it was, if anything, the other way around. Jacob bowed himself down to the ground before Esau (Gen. 33:3), addressing him as "my Lord" (Gen. 33:8, 13) and calling himself Esau's servant (Gen. 33:5); Jacob begged Esau to accept his gifts (Gen. 33:11) for Esau's face seemed like the face of God to him (Gen. 33:10). Esau the individual certainly did not serve Jacob, it was the nation Esau (or Edom) which served the nation Jacob, (or Israel). Paul's point is that God's choice of Israel was made when both nations were still in the womb, and neither had done good or evil. The choice of the nation was not a reward for merit, but part of a God-determined strategy.

God Loved Jacob but Hated Esau

Paul's next quotation: "Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated (Rom. 9:13)" comes, as H. C. Moule pointed out, "from the prophet's message a millennium later." F. F. Bruce comments that the quotation is: "from Malachi 1:2f, where again the context indicates it is the nations of Israel and Edom, rather than their individual ancestors Jacob and Esau, that are in view." The Lord has loved the nation of Israel but hated the nation of Edom.

Since God has used these words love and hate in this way, we must ask whether he anywhere indicates what he means by them. A clue comes first within the history of Jacob itself:

And he went in also unto Rachel, and he loved also Rachel more than Leah, and served with him yet seven other years. And when the LORD saw that Leah was hated ... (Gen. 29:30-31)1

The text itself seems to indicate that hated here means "loved less than." Barnes says: "It was common among the Hebrews to use the terms love and hatred in this comparative sense, where the former implied strong positive attachment and the latter, not positive hatred, but merely a less love, or the withholding of expressions of affection";2 Jesus himself speaks to them using their own language conventions, when he says:

If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)

The parallel text in Matthew 10:37 shows us that again the word hate is not literal, but implies "love less than." See also Proverbs 13:24; Matthew 6:24 for other uses of love/hate in such comparisons.

We may see, therefore, that when the Bible uses the word hate as a contrast to love, it intends us to understand it to mean "love less than." This is its meaning in all other references, and we must suppose it to be so in Malachi 1:2. The verse does not mean that in a literal hatred of Esau and his descendants God has condemned every one of them to hell. It has reference simply to the higher position of the Hebrew race in the strategy of God. Sanday and Headlam wrote:

The absolute election of Jacob - the 'loving' of Jacob and the 'hating' of Esau - has reference simply to the election of one to higher privileges as head of the chosen race, than the other. It has nothing to do with the eternal salvation. In the original to which St. Paul is referring, Esau is simply a synonym for Edom.3

The context of Malachi 1:2 is also important for our understanding of the meaning of Paul's quotation. God said that he had shown special favor to Israel (Malachi 1:2) and when they asked in what way this was so (Malachi 1:2), the prophet pointed out how austerely the Lord dealt with the nation of Edom compared with Israel (Malachi 1:2, 3). Yet the Israelites, the prophet complained, were behaving very sinfully even in spite of this special privilege (Malachi 1:6-14).

Paul may well have had this context in mind when he put the quotation into Romans 9:13. It is, he notes, in the passage where the chosenness of Israel is stated in the strongest terms, that the prophet also berates Israel for their evil deeds. This makes it obvious that God's choice of Israel could not be a result of her merits or works. We must remember"' that Paul has in mind at this point those of his opponents who believed that "works of the law" were both the reason for God's choice of Israel, and the way to holiness. His introduction of the quotation from Malachi 1:2 is therefore of particular relevance here, and he uses it as he develops his theme that it is God's strategy and not Israel's works which has caused God to choose them.

In summary, then, God's "love of Jacob but hatred of Esau" means this: God has chosen to give to the nation of Israel a special place and privileged position. This is not because of their "works," for the passage that affirms his choice also proclaims their sinfulness. Rather, his choice is a result purely of his own strategy.


1 The two Hebrew words for love and hate (aheb and sane) are the same as in Malachi 1:2 and Proverbs 13:24. The Septuagint also used the same Greek words (agapao and meseo) in all three of these passages. The New Testament uses the same two Greek words (agapao and meseo) in all the verses which contain this form of comparison, (i.e., Matthew 8:24; Luke 14:28; 18:13; and Romans 9:13 ). There can be little doubt, therefore, that this form of comparison would have been well known to the Jews as an idiom-both in the Hebrew and in the Creek. [Back to the text]

2 See also Griffith-Thomas and others. In Everyday Life in the Holy Land, James Neil remarked on a similar Hebrew figure of speech: "In ever so many places the negative 'not' followed by 'but' does not deny at all; and 'not this but that' stands for 'rather that than this.' Thus God says to Samuel, of the children of Israel, 'They rejected not thee, but they rejected Me,' which must mean, 'They rejected Me rather than thee.' For they did very definitely reject Samuel, on the ground that he was old and his sons were not walking in his ways. When Joseph magnanimously said, to comfort his brothers, 'It was not you that sent me here, but God'; his words could only mean, 'It was rather God than you,' etc." [Back to the text]

3 Sanday and Headlam were, in this instance, quoting Core in Studia Biblica iii p. 44. [Back to the text]


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