“Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 9:13 and Malachi 1:2-3)

jacob-and-esau-sibling-rivalryThis is a verse that raises as many questions as it answers. It is one of my “snag” verses and the basis of Saturday night’s sermon.

Saturday night we worked our way through this passage and most of the story of Esau’s relationship with his brother Jacob. Our discussion concluded with Jacob seeing the face of God in his brother Esau, who offered him unexpected, and undeserved, forgiveness. This was immediately after he saw the face of God at Peniel in his night-long wrestling match with the angel.

This is the purpose of snags. They challenge us to dig deeper in Scripture to points of unexpected insight.

There was not enough time Saturday to cover everything that should be said about Esau. Let me share three more things that may be helpful when wrestling with his story and specifically the phrase, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I hated.”

The Old Testament Isn’t Big Enough

First, the Old Testament, as big as it is, does not have enough room to tell everyone’s story. This is important to keep in mind when we come across characters we think are mistreated such as Hagar and Esau; or simply mysterious like Melchizedek.

We don’t know everything that happened in Esau’s life. God may have blessed him in spite of the fact that he wasn’t the chosen one. Maybe the rest of Esau’s story would have revealed that he was particularly evil. Knowing that we don’t know everything about Esau helps us bear the ambiguity in his story, and others, without giving up on our own growth. When it comes right down to it, there’s an awful lot we don’t know.

Esau I Have Rejected

Second, “hate” can be translated “reject”. God does not hate Esau but he has rejected him in favor of Jacob. He rejects Isaac’s firstborn as the one to carry on the covenant. In this context, God’s hate should not be viewed like a human emotion but as a definitive choice of one over the other.

A Nation Not A Person

Third, when God says, “Jacob I have loved but Esau I hated” he is referring to nations and not individuals. The name Jacob (or Sons of Jacob) is often a stand-in for the name Israel. It refers to all the people who are part of the nation descended from Jacob. Likewise, Esau is a stand-in for the Edomites who Scripture claims are descended from him. The Edomites caused the Israelites great harm when they conspired with the Babylonians to overthrow Jerusalem. (Ps 137) This resulted in the Exile of 586 BC.

Malachi was composed after the Jews returned from the Exile. The role of the Edomites in their captivity was well known among those who returned to Jerusalem. In Malachi the Jews understand themselves to be called by God to do his work and keep his covenant. They believe God loves them. The Edomites, on the other hand, contributed to their suffering and caused them to be distracted from their priestly task. Therefore, according to Malachi, God must hate the Edomites, who are represented by their ancestor Esau.

Ultimately, seen by its use in Romans 9:13, “Jacob I have loved but Esau I hated” reminds us that God sovereignly chooses Israel to serve his purpose in the world. (Exodus 19:6) But, just as Esau plays a part in saving Israel, so Israel will play the important role of bringing the savior to the world opening the way of salvation for all peoples, including Esau and the Edomites.