God Hated Esau? What's Up with That!
Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated"— Romans 9:13, KJV
In Case You Missed It
In “Is Jacob’s Election a Sample of Unconditional Election”, I discussed that given the context of Romans 9 and the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant, Romans 9 does not teach that God elected Jacob to be “saved” (made righteous). Instead, Romans 9 teaches that God unconditionally elected Jacob to be the recipient of the Abrahamic Covenant: that Jacob would be blessed, that his seed would be blessed, and that the world would be blessed through his seed.
It is conceivable that during the times of the patriarchs there lived other people who were also “saved” like Abraham and Jacob, but who were not partakers of the Abrahamic Covenant. Think, for example, about Melchizedek and Job: both lived in the times of the Patriarchs, but neither of them partook of the Abrahamic covenant. Still, both were righteous before God (Genesis 14:18, Job 1:1).
After reading “Is Jacob’s Election a Sample of Unconditional Election”, the reader may still have questions about God’s stated hatred for Esau: Why did God hate Esau? Does God’s stated hatred for Esau indicate that Romans 9 speaks about personal salvation and condemnation? Did Esau go to Hell? Therefore, in this article, we will try to make sense of God’s hatred for Esau.
Making Sense of God's Issue with Esau
In Romans 9:13, Paul makes a reference to Malachi 1:2-3, where God states that he loved Jacob and hated Esau. One should take in consideration the context in which Paul makes this reference. Paul was not saying, “By the way guys, just so you know, God loves Jacob and He hates Esau… I just wanted you to know who God’s friends are.” No, Paul makes reference to Malachi 1:2-3 to explain that not all of Abraham’s descendants will receive the promises made in the Abrahamic Covenant (you can read “Is Jacob’s Election a Sample of Unconditional Election” for more information: Paul wants to prove that God has not broken his promises to Israel).
Paul has previously demonstrated that God did not intend to fulfill the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant on all of Abraham’s descendants, but only on Abraham’s descendants through his son Isaac (not through his son Ishmael). Beginning on verse 10 of Romans 9, Paul now demonstrates that the Abrahamic Covenant is not even for all of Abraham’s descendants through Isaac, but only for those through Isaac’s son Jacob, not Esau.
Before quoting Malachi 1:2-3, Paul quotes Genesis 25:23, in which God states that Esau (the elder son) would serve Jacob (the younger son). Paul sees a relationship between Genesis 25:23 and Malachi 1:2-3: this is evident in that Paul writes “it was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (Romans 9:12-13, KJV). That phrase, as it is written, shows that Paul sees Genesis 25:23 and Malachi 1:2-3 as being in agreement with each other. In other words, Paul is using Genesis 25:23 to interpret Malachi 1:2-3, and Malachi 1:2-3 to complement Genesis 25:23.
When one reads Genesis 25:23 in the Pentateuch (as opposed to reading it in Romans 9), one learns that God was not only talking about the two individuals Jacob and Esau, but He was also talking about two nations and peoples. This is relevant because in Romans 9 Paul is really talking about the people of Israel, not just two individuals. Moreover, it shows that Malachi 1:2-3 may also be referring to peoples, not individuals (and that’s actually what Malachi is talking about).
Several hundred years later, long after Jacob and Esau are dead, God said something that still baffles people today: He said, “yet I loved Jacob, and I hated Esau” (Malachi 1:2-3, KJV), which Paul quotes as “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (Romans 9:12-13, KJV). Why would God make such a statement after so long? Why did He only say to Rebekah that one will serve the other if He meant I love one of them and I hate the other? The answer is that God did not actually hate baby Esau.
Just because God chose baby Jacob to be the recipient of the Abrahamic Covenant does not mean God was sentencing baby Esau to Hell. Otherwise, Ishmael would have also been sentenced to Hell when God chose Isaac and not Ishmael as the recipient of the Abrahamic Covenant, but God was merciful to Ishmael. God heard the prayer of the child Ishmael and saved his life (Genesis 21:17-19), and God even promised to bless Ishmael (Genesis 17:20-21). God didn’t have anything personal against Ishmael, so why He have something personal against Esau? The election was not about personal salvation and standing before God (thus, it wasn’t the unconditional election Calvinism proposes), it was only about who would be the recipient to the Abrahamic Covenant.
When after the Exodus Israel roamed the wilderness with Moses, God instructed the nation of Israel not to meddle with Edom, who are Esau’s descendant (see Genesis 25:30, 36:1, and 36:8-19). God was protecting Esau’s possession (Deuteronomy 2:4-8)! If God hated Esau, why would God protect His possession? Even more, God also commanded the Jews not to abhor the Edomites (Deuteronomy 23:7). Why would God protect Esau’s descendants if He hated Esau and all of Esau’s descendants? Most likely, God loved the person we know as Esau, brother of Jacob and son of Isaac.
God did not declare hatred for Esau from the time Esau was conceived until the times of Moses. Nevertheless, hundreds of years after Moses, God declared through Malachi that He hated Esau. Why? Did God change His mind several hundred years after Esau was dead? Of course, the answer is that God did not change His mind about Esau several hundred years after Esau was dead; the issue is that in Malachi 1:2-3 God is using figurative language to get Israel’s attention.
In Malachi 1:2-3, God is not really talking about the persons Jacob and Esau: He is talking about the nations Israel and Edom. God is using a figure of speech called synecdoche (in synecdoche, a part of the whole is used to represent the whole).
God tells Israel that He loves them, and Israel (which, by the way, is personified) asks God what He has done to show He loves them. God responds, “Was not Esau Jacob's brother? saith the Lord: yet I loved Jacob, And I hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness“ (Malachi 1:2-3, KJV). God’s point is that when God declared Jacob and his descendants to be the recipients of the Abrahamic Covenant, God chose to love the nation Israel. On the other hand, God did not choose Esau and his descendants as the recipients of the Abrahamic Covenant, so therefore God did not choose to love Edom in the same way He loves Israel.
God’s hatred for Esau could be taken as a hyperbole, an exaggeration. After all, in the first three verses of Malachi there is an instance of personification (Israel speaks as one person) and there are two instances of synecdoche (Jacob represents the nation of Israel, and Esau represents the nation of Edom). Why not throw another figure of speech? Most prophesies are expressed in poetry.
What makes this word hated very rich is that it is ambiguous. In regards to Esau, hated is really a hyperbole since, as we have seen, God didn’t’ have any personal hatred against Esau; He actually protected Esau’s inheritance and people from Israel. Nevertheless, if Esau is a synecdoche, a part representing the whole, then hated is not a hyperbole: by the time of Malachi, God really did hate the Edomites!
In verses 3 to 5 of Malachi 1, God describes His hatred not for Esau, but for the nation of Edom. God declares that He has turned the land of Esau (of Edom) into a wasteland for dragons, that He will destroy whatever the people of Edom try to rebuild, and that God has an indignation forever against the people of Edom for their wickedness. Finally, God also declares that He will be magnified in Israel’s borders, which means that God will give victory to Israel against Edom (in Obadiah 1:9-10, God condemns Edom for using violence against Jacob, or Israel).
Romans 9 Does Not Teach Unconditional Election
In Malachi 1:2-3, God states that He hated Esau. There are several factors that indicate this statement should not be taken literally: (a) God’s rejection of Ishmael as recipient of the Abrahamic Covenant did not mean God hated Ishmael, so His rejection of Esau as the recipient of the Abrahamic Covenant should not mean that He hated Esau; (b) God did not reveal hatred for Esau to Rebekah in Genesis 25:23; (c) God protected Esau and His descendants from Israel’s attacks and hatred during the times of Moses; (d) the statement in Malachi 1:2-3 was made several hundred years after Esau was dead; (e) Malachi uses with complexity several figures of speech in its first few verses; (f) and the same passage in Malachi explains that God’s actions are actually against the nation of Edom, not Esau himself.
In light of these factors, one can safely conclude that Romans 9:11-13 does not teach unconditional election (the doctrine of Calvinism that teaches God chooses some people to believe in Jesus Christ for salvation and others to reject Jesus Christ for condemnation); instead, Romans 9:11-13 teaches that God unconditionally elected Jacob and his descendants as the recipients of the Abrahamic Covenant. This latter point is actually more pertinent to Paul’s argument in Romans 9, since in that passage Paul is actually arguing that God has not broken His promises to Israel by requiring Jews (and gentiles) to believe in Jesus Christ for salvation.
What is your theological perspective?
R. C. Sproul comments on Unconditional Election
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© 2018 Marcelo Carcach