“Doesn’t the Bible say God loved Jacob and hated Esau before they were born?”
This question was put to me me recently during a friendly theological debate around the dinner table.
In this particular conversation, we were discussing what happens to unborn babies when they die. But it’s a verse that is also brought up a lot in debates about salvation/election in general, particularly in the Calvinist-leaning circles I tend to run in. If you’ve never heard it talked about before, than you probably haven’t been around many Calvinists.
So…where does this idea come from? And more importantly, is it biblical? Does scripture say God hates certain unborn babies and loves others? Let’s find out.
The Verse in Question
The scripture being referred to is Romans 9:13. It’s a verse that has stirred a fair amount of controversy, for obvious reasons. Some Christians (especially Calvinist-leaning Christians) think the idea of God choosing to hate/love babies before they are born makes sense within their “unconditional election” framework. Or at the very least, it’s a hard truth that we just have to accept. Other Christian, though, find it extremely disturbing and inconsistent with God’s character for Him “hate” an unborn baby who hasn’t had a chance to do anything wrong yet.
Over time I’ve heard various expositions/explanations of the passage, from multiple sides of the spectrum. Some people say “hate” was hyperbole, and that the verse is comparing God’s feelings for the two brothers in extreme language to emphasize how much God preferred Jacob. Others argue that God hated Esau because He knew in advance what a horrible person Esau would turn out to be. Still others shrug and say “He’s God, He can do whatever He wants. Who am I to argue?”
But as it turns out, the simplest and (in my humble opinion) most biblically grounded way to understand this verse actually sidesteps almost the entire debate.
By the time you finish this post, I’m betting you’ll agree with me.
The Broader Context
First, let’s look at the full biblical statement, with a bit more context:
But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring…
…And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
The statement is part of a much larger argument Paul is making, as he discusses the troubling fact that many of the Jews rejected their own Messiah. He’s explaining how that fits with God’s promises to Abraham and Abraham’s seed.
There are several schools of thought on how to interpret the broader point he is making, depending on your theological leaning, but whether you think Paul is talking about individual election/salvation here (the Calvinist view) or corporate election (the Provisionist view) or something in between, it doesn’t actually make any difference to the point I’m about to make. The interpretation I’m presenting is based on simple exegetical principles, not on any particular theological construct.
So here goes. Let’s de-tangle this verse by going back to the source and using scripture to interpret scripture…
What Passage Was Paul Quoting?
First, a careful reader may notice that the common paraphrase “God loved Jacob and hated Esau before they were born” isn’t actually what the verse says. Rather, God declared that “The elder will serve the younger” before they were born. Then it adds “As it is written” and proceeds with the controversial “hate” passage.
If you think that’s a needless distinction, check your cross-references.
(For any who don’t know, cross references can be found when a scripture passage is quoting another, earlier passage. You can locate them by checking the tiny letter at the end of the verse, and matching it up with the same letter in a footnote (or in the margin, depending on how your bible is formatted), where you will see a scripture reference for the passage being quoted.)
The New Testament writers quote the Old Testament a LOT. And of course, the original audience didn’t get the benefit of cross references. They just had to be familiar enough with scripture that they knew what passage was being cited. But lucky for us, the cross references were added in later.
Anyway. You will quickly notice that “the elder shall serve the younger” and “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated” have two different cross-references. They don’t come from the same place (as you’d expect them to if God had actually said both before Jacob and Esau were born). Actually, they are about as far apart in the OT as you can get. Quotation #1 comes from Genesis 25 (the first book in the OT), while quotation #2 comes from Malachi 1 (the last book in the OT).
Considering that the two books were written hundreds of years apart, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the context of the two statements is very different. In the Genesis passage(Gen 25:23), God is speaking to Rebekah specifically about her unborn children. (How would you feel if God were to tell YOU He hated your unborn child? Pretty awful, right? But thankfully God didn’t do that.) In the Malachi passage, God is speaking of Israel as a nation (sometimes called “Jacob” because they descended from Jacob/Israel), and comparing His treatment of them to His treatment of the nation that descended from Esau (also sometimes called “Edom”).
This becomes quite clear if you keep reading in Malachi:
I turned his mountains into a wasteland, and gave his inheritance to the desert jackals. Though Edom says: “We have been devastated, but we will rebuild the ruins,” the LORD of Armies says this: “They may build, but I will demolish. They will be called a wicked country and the people the LORD has cursed forever.
In other words, the Malachi passage wasn’t referring to unborn baby Esau. It wasn’t even referring to the adult, murderous Esau we encounter later in Genesis.(Gen 27:41) Rather, it was focused on the nation of Esau/Edom, many hundreds of years after the person Esau was dead and buried.
Ok. You might be thinking. But couldn’t that just mean that God hated Esau from the beginning, and cursed the whole nation descended from him?
Theoretically yes. But that’s not what we find in scripture. The story is actually a lot more complicated and interesting than that. Let’s dig in a see.
In Scripture: Esau the Person
We all know Esau the person started out poorly. He despised his birthright,(Gen 25:34) married Hittite/Hivite women who grieved his parents,(Gen 26:35) and plotted to kill his own brother in a rage.(Gen 27:41)
However, when he reenters the story and is reunited with Jacob later, he seems to be a changed man.(Gen 33) Repentant of his former murderous plans, he runs to meet his brother, embraces him, and weeps with joy. The last we hear of Esau the person, he is peacefully settled in Seir, reconciled with Jacob, and producing descendants who eventually become rulers of a large nation.(Gen 36:15-43)
We don’t see any indication that he is personally under the ongoing curse/wrath/hatred of God.
In Scripture: Esau the Nation
Moving on to the nation of Esau/Edom. If we look closely at scripture, we will see that Edom (at least initially) seems to be under God’s blessing.
Notice, He gives them their own land,(Jos 24:4) driving out the Horims (possibly a nation of giants) before them in order to do so. (Deu 2:22) And despite the fact that the king of Edom refuses to allow Israel to pass peacefully through his territory,(Num 20:21) God still shows favor, instructing Israel not to meddle with the people of Esau as they pass by their boarder on the way to the promised land.(Deu 2:5) Later, He specifically instructs Israel not to “abhor” an Edomite, because “he is your brother”(Deu 23:7). Since ‘abhor’ is another term for hatred, it would be odd for God to tell the Israelites not to hate somebody He already hated Himself!
So, if God initially bestowed favor on Esau the nation, when (and why) did the hatred kick in?
Well, Edom’s relationship with Israel becomes very complicated over time. Though they initially allow Israel to pass by their borders and sell food to them,(Deut 2:28-29) things soon get messy. We see King Saul making war on his “enemies”, including Edom,(1Sa 14:47) and King David subjugating them.(2Sa 8:14) When Solomon turns to other gods, God raises up the prince of Edom against him.(1Ki 11:14) Later, we find Edom allied with the kings of Judah and Israel to fight against Moab,(2Ki 3:9) but shortly afterward revolting against Judah during the reign of Jehoram,(2Ki 8:20) and being attacked and slaughtered by king Amaziah.(2Ki 14:7)
Despite the fact that God initially seems to want Israel to treat Edom with fraternal kindness, things don’t go smoothly, and there is regular warfare. However, the moment when God turns against Edom finally and completely and promises to “cut them off forever” (Oba 1:10) is tied to a particularly heinous act of betrayal.
When Did God Turn Against Esau?
The thing that causes God to wash His hands of the nation of Edom is clearly linked to their response when Judah was being taken over by Babylon. The book of Obadiah (only one chapter long) pronounces God’s judgement for “violence against thy brother Jacob” when Edom “stood on the other side…rejoiced over the children of Judah in the day of their destruction…spoke proudly in the day of distress…entered into the gate of my people in the day of their calamity…laid hands on their substance…stood in the crossroads to cut off those of his that did escape…”
Siding with the enemy against their brother in a day of calamity capped off a long and volatile relationship, and from that point on, God turned against Edom. The previous fighting back and forth between the two nations seems to be have been viewed as an “in-house conflict” in some sense. Basically just a large-scale version of two brothers squabbling. God doesn’t severely judge either of them for it. But when an outside attacker arrives, and Edom takes sides against Israel, that’s unacceptable.
We all know the phrase, “Nobody gets to pick on my brother except me.” Well, in this instance, Edom sided with the bully against his brother, and God declared that was a step too far. Especially since Jacob was the brother/nation God had specifically set apart to serve Him, to show God’s glory to the world, and to eventually send His Messiah through.
All of this finally culminates in the Malachi passage when God declares. “Jacob I have loved, and Esau I have hated.”
Ok. Let’s recap.
God showed favor to both Esau the person and Esau/Edom the nation until the moment when Edom sided with those attacking Israel and rejoiced in Israel’s calamity. At that point, God essentially said, “Israel is my chosen nation. I initially showed you favor because you are also descended from Abraham, but if you are going to take sides against Jacob, you’re done.”
THAT is the context and history behind Paul’s quotation. Paul’s point in Romans wasn’t that God had chosen to love Jacob and hate Esau as unborn babies. His point was that God had chosen Jacob (the younger) not Esau (the elder) to carry on the Abrahamic covenant/promise and be the father of His covenant people Israel. This choice was made before they were born, not based on anything “good or bad” that they had done, but on God’s sovereign decision.
And by the end of the OT story (Malachi) God had shown his steadfast commitment to Israel by preserving, protecting, and siding with them (despite their repeated failure and unfaithfulness) while turning totally against Edom in final judgement.
Paul uses this story to demonstrate that even though God blessed all of Abraham’s seed to some extant, His promises in the OT never obligated Him to bless all Abraham’s descendants indiscriminately. Isaac was chosen, Ishmael was not. Jacob was chosen, Esau was not. It was always in some sense a “remnant” of Abraham’s seed who carried on the promise.
Thus, Paul argues, the fact that only a remnant of 1st century Israel had accepted the Messiah was perfectly in line with the pattern of biblical history.
Final Verdict…is it Biblical?
So we return to the question that started this whole post. Is it biblical to claim God “hated” unborn baby Esau?
I hope I’ve made a pretty clear case that the answer is NO.
Romans 9:13 does NOT describe God’s hatred for an unborn child. (Nor does any other bible passage I’ve encountered.) All we have to do is read the passage in Malachi that Paul was quoting, and we can see the “Esau” in question was the rebellious nation of Edom, which had betrayed and turned against Israel/Jacob.
Esau the person (let alone Esau the unborn baby), was simply not in view in this passage. A survey of the OT story quickly shows that neither the man Esau, nor the nation of the Edom, was hated by God “before it had done anything good or bad.”
Was Jacob “chosen” and blessed in a way that Esau was not? Certainly. But was Esau automatically “hated” because of this? No. Esau/Edom was judged and hated for sins they had committed as a nation, against Israel the nation. Baby Esau was NOT preemptively and personally hated for sins he had yet to commit.
Whatever theological positions we hold, and whatever our view on election happens to be, we need to keep Genesis and Malachi in their proper contexts. Esau the unborn baby and Esau the rebellious nation are two entirely different entities. Let’s take care not to mash them together and create a statement about unborn babies that God never intended to make.
What do you think? How have you heard this verse used/explained in the past? Does examining the contexts of Malachi and Genesis make Paul’s point more clear? Let me know in the comments!