I have contemplated writing this post for a while now. It can be very frustrating to hear people misuse the Bible. Some of the time it is done by non-Christians who have never bothered to consider what the passage actually teaches, but they are looking for a proof text to support some behavior or cause. However, in many cases, it is done by well-meaning Christians who have either misread the text or misunderstood the context of a given passage. The goal of this series on misused Bible verses is to examine what the text of Scripture is really teaching.
There are some topics that I tend to avoid on my blog for various reasons, which is why I put this one off for so long. But after hearing or reading several Christians misuse this verse in just the last few weeks, I decided it was time to enter the fray.
Commonly Misused Bible Verse #8: Romans 9:13
One of the most common debates among Christians centers on the topics known as Calvinism and Arminianism. Whenever believers debate this topic, Romans 9:13 is almost certain to be mentioned in support of the Calvinist side. This post is not designed to directly address that debate, but it will show why this popular verse is often misused in the midst of that debate. Please understand, I am not denying the doctrine of election, but I want to challenge the reader to take a closer look at the context of this verse before citing it in support of one’s position.
What is so controversial about Romans 9:13? Let’s take a look.
Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 9:13, NET)
That seems pretty straightforward, so what’s the big deal? Well, for Christians who believe that God loves everyone, this would be a pretty strong argument against their position. Does the Bible teach that God loves everyone? It seems to do just that in one of the most popular verses. John 3:16 states, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” The way in which John uses the word “world” (Greek kosmon) would imply that God loves everyone in this world. Also, since we are supposed to imitate God, and we are commanded to love our enemies, it would seem that God also loves His enemies, at least to some degree. If that is true, how could He hate Esau? Is this a contradiction? Or are we just missing something?
Hate Doesn’t Always Mean Hate
Some would solve this dilemma by noting that love and hate are not necessarily mutually exclusive, even though we typically think of these words in this way. While I would agree with them on that point, it still doesn’t quite answer the question since there is a strong contrast drawn between God’s positive emotion for one party and His negative emotion toward the other.
There are at least two big problems for those who use Romans 9:13 to say that God hated Esau. First, the word translated as “hate” is the Greek root miseo. It is translated as “hate” in many other places, including Luke 14:26, where Jesus said, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.”
I agree with the traditional understanding of this verse that Jesus was drawing a contrast between the love we have for Him and the love we have for our family members, so He employed hyperbolic language to emphasize the point. Essentially, He was teaching that we need to love family members less than we love Him. This makes perfect sense since elsewhere the Bible commands us to love family members.
One of the problems for those who like to cite Romans 9:13 to say that God hated Esau is that the other side could easily respond by saying that God simply loved him less than Jacob. After all, there are other places where this love/hate language is used, but the “hate” doesn’t really mean “hate,” (i.e., despising the person). For example, the same love/hate comparisons are made in Deuteronomy 21:15–17, and there the word “hate” (or “unloved”) refers to one who is loved less (see also Genesis 29:30–31).
The biggest problem for those who use Romans 9:13 to talk about God hating Esau is that this verse is not even about Esau. Yep, you read that right. This verse is not about Esau, and it isn’t even about Jacob. Wait a minute! Have I lost my mind? How can this not be about Jacob and Esau? It’s so clear. Actually, if we look at the context, it’s so clear that it is not about Jacob and Esau. For those who have followed this series, you know we need to examine the context, so let’s back up and see what Paul was talking about.
Paul’s Unceasing Anguish
In the first eight chapters of Romans, Paul laid out a powerful explanation of the gospel message. Chapters 1–3 explain that we are all sinful and that we need a Savior. Romans 4 shows that salvation has always been by grace through faith. Chapters 5–7 address some of the implications of salvation, such as the facts that we have peace with God, we should no longer continue in sin, and that while we are freed from the Law, we still struggle with sin. Chapter 8 is a thorough explanation of the security of our salvation, ending with the idea that nothing in all of creation could ever separate us from the love of God which is in Christ. Having laid out the case for salvation by grace, through faith, in Christ, Paul turns his attention to something weighing heavily on his mind.
Here are the opening verses of Romans 9:
I am telling the truth in Christ (I am not lying!), for my conscience assures me in the Holy Spirit—I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed—cut off from Christ—for the sake of my people, my fellow countrymen, who are Israelites. To them belong the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from them, by human descent, came the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever! Amen. (Romans 9:1–5, NET)
What could cause Paul such unceasing anguish of heart? It was the response (or better, the lack of response) of the Jews to the gospel message. In Romans 1:16, Paul explained that the gospel went first to the Jew, and then to the Gentile. That was his traditional approach. Upon entering a city, Paul first went to the synagogue to preach to the Jews before ever going to the Gentiles (see Acts 17:1–15 and 18:1–4).
Now that the gospel had gone out to the Gentiles, did that mean that God was finished with the Jews? Would God’s promises to the Jews fail? That is what Paul spends three entire chapters addressing. He begins chapter 10 by writing, “Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God on behalf of my fellow Israelites is for their salvation. For I can testify that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not in line with the truth” (Romans 10:1–2, NET). He opens chapter 11 by writing, “So I ask, God has not rejected his people, has he? Absolutely not! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew!” (Romans 11:1–2, NET). Without space to go into all the details of Paul’s answer, look at how he wraps up the discussion near the end of Romans 11.
For I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: A partial hardening has happened to Israel until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written:
“The Deliverer will come out of Zion;
he will remove ungodliness from Jacob.
And this is my covenant with them,
when I take away their sins.”
In regard to the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but in regard to election they are dearly loved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable. Just as you were formerly disobedient to God, but have now received mercy due to their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all people to disobedience so that he may show mercy to them all.
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of the God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how fathomless his ways! (Romans 11:25–33, NET)
In other words, at some point in the future, the Jews (who are currently enemies of the gospel) will turn to God and be saved, just as promised in Zechariah 12–14 and elsewhere. Many have claimed that the Israel being saved in verse 26 is the church, but that cannot be. First, Paul was writing about what would happen to the Jewish people, so it makes sense that he would conclude the discussion with the great news about the Jews. Second, he wrote this letter to the church—those who believe the gospel—so why would he say that the church is an enemy of the gospel? It just doesn’t make any sense in the context to try to make “Israel” mean the church.
Two Nations, Two Peoples
So let’s get back to Romans 9:13. If it isn’t about Jacob and Esau, what is it about? In verses 6–9, Paul explains that not everyone who is a descendant of Israel (remember Jacob’s name was changed to Israel) are truly considered to be part of Israel, just as not all of Abraham’s descendants are considered to be part of the promises, since it was only Isaac who was the son of promise (and not Ishmael or any of Abraham’s sons with Keturah). Beginning in verse 10, we come to our specific context.
Not only that, but when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our ancestor Isaac—even before they were born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose in election would stand, not by works but by his calling)—it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger,” just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 9:10–13, NET)
Paul cites part of Genesis 25:23, where God said to Rebekah: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will be separated from within you. One people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger” (NET). Read it again. This verse is about “two nations” (“two peoples”).
In keeping with his discussion about Israel throughout Romans 9–11, Paul cites a verse that is clearly about the two nations (not individuals) that would come from Rebekah. This was not about Jacob and Esau, but about the nations that would come from them: the Israelites and Edomites. Does this interpretation fit the rest of the context? It’s the only one that does because that is exactly what the next citation is about. The quotation about loving Jacob (Israel) and hating Esau is from Malachi 1:2–4.
“I have loved you,” says the Lord.
“Yet you say, ‘In what way have You loved us?’
Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?”
Says the Lord.
“Yet Jacob I have loved;
But Esau I have hated,
And laid waste his mountains and his heritage
For the jackals of the wilderness.”
Even though Edom has said…(Malachi 1:2–4, NKJV)
Malachi was written more than 12 centuries after Jacob and Esau had died. But for the millennium leading up to Malachi’s time, God had shown love to Jacob’s descendants (the Israelites) who were occasionally faithful to Him, but he “hated” (loved less) Esau’s descendants (the Edomites, a very wicked nation throughout the years). While Genesis 23:25 pointed forward to the relationship between the Edomites and Israelites, Malachi 1:2–4 looked back on God’s treatment of them during the intervening centuries.
I’ve explained this to people before, and several have responded with something like, “Okay, so the Old Testament passages were about the nations, but in the New Testament, Paul, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, was “repurposing” these verses to talk about Jacob and Esau.” That’s a nice try, but it doesn’t work. If that’s what Paul was doing, then he was wrong. Look again at Romans 9:12. Paul said that Rebekah was told that the older nation (Esau/Edom) would serve the younger (Jacob/Israel).
Guess what—if this verse is supposed to be about the individuals named Esau and Jacob then it is false, because Esau (the older brother) is never shown to have served Jacob (the younger brother). Never. If anything, it was the other way around. Jacob fled from his older brother because he had stolen Esau’s blessing. When they came back together after 20 years apart (Genesis 33), Jacob repeatedly bowed down before Esau, called himself Esau’s “servant,” and even called Esau “my lord” four times! However, the nation that came from Esau (the Edomites) did serve the nation that came from Jacob (Israel) on several occasions, especially from the days of David until the days of King Jehoram, son of Ahab.
I am not opposing the doctrine of election, since the Bible clearly talks about it (although I would disagree with the way some people define it), and I am not saying that this passage is not about election—it is. What I am saying is that Romans 9:13 is not about the election of the individual named Jacob and the non-election of the individual named Esau. It is not about God loving Jacob and hating Esau. It is citation of Malachi 1:2–3 as part of Paul’s discussion on God’s plan for the Jewish people and the context shows that God elected Israel (the nation) and not Edom before their respective progenitors were ever born.