Esau I have hated?

This past Sunday at Monte Sano Baptist Church our sermon passage was Malachi 1:2–5 which contains the difficult saying, “I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated.” And because God’s feelings toward Esau are not the main point of this passage (the main point is God’s special, covenantal love for Israel), I only touched briefly on what God means here. But I also promised that I would make some more information available to those who were interested in better understanding what God means when he says, “Esau I have hated.” And that is what I want to do in this post.

In the sermon this past Sunday I explained that one of the most important themes in the Old Testament is God’s election (or his choosing) of Israel to be his special people. I reminded us that out of all the people on the earth God decided that he would accomplish his purposes through this particular group of people. Beginning with Abraham, a man who was a pagan and who had no special qualities that would set him apart from anyone else, God determined that his special people would be Abraham’s descendants. And so Abraham would become the “Father” of this “chosen” people. (That is why so many children have learned the song “Father Abraham” in vacation Bible School.) And God decided that through this group of people, who were Abraham’s descendants, he would carry out his plan of redemption for the world. He would place his special covenantal love on them. He would be their God and they would be his people. A people loved by him in a special way.

And we considered the question: Why, out of all the potential candidates on the earth, did God choose this group of people? Why Abraham and his descendants? Was it because of something they did? Was it because they were special in some way? And the answer to that is, of course, “No.” In fact I pointed out that if you read their stories you learn that was definitely not the case and that some of them were outright scoundrels. So why did God choose these people? And the answer I gave on Sunday is that what the Bible teaches us is that God placed his special love upon them out of his mercy and for no other reason. In fact God tells Israel in Deuteronomy 7:6–9:

6 “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. 7 It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, 8 but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. 9 Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations (Deuteronomy 7:6–9 ESV)

As we see here, God’s choosing of Abraham and his descendants was a meritless selection. And as I pointed out on Sunday, this meritless selection is made very clear in the story of the two twins which were referred to in our passage on Sunday from Malachi 1:2–5.

These two twins are known as Jacob and Esau and they were the grandsons of Abraham. And from these two twins would come two nations. Jacob would become Israel and Esau would become Edom. And God made a choice between these two boys, and thus these two nations, while the twins were still in their mother’s womb. And as I explained Sunday, his choice was not based upon anything special within the boys nor because he was looking into the future and knew one would be better than the other. Very simply, God did not choose Jacob over Esau based on anything special about Jacob or anything negative about Esau. The simple fact is that the lineage of God’s special people was only going to go through one of them and he chose Jacob. God’s promises to make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation would continue with Jacob and not Esau.

But still, why Jacob and not Esau? Well, the Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 9 that when Rebekah (Jacob and Esau’s mother) “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’” (Romans 9:10–12 ESV). And Paul goes on to quote from Malachi 1:2–3 saying, “As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Romans 9:13 ESV).

Now the point here is that God did not choose Jacob based on any special quality in him or based on any negative quality in Esau. God’s choice to love Jacob with his special, covenantal love and not love Esau with that same special covenantal love was done solely to achieve the fulfillment of God’s purposes for the world. Much about these purposes is a mystery, but what is not a mystery is that God was using this special group of people who would descend from Jacob to bring salvation to the whole world. The bottom line is that God’s plan of redemption included sending a Messiah to save not just Israel, but the whole world. He chose Israel as the nation through whom Jesus Christ would be born. And so ultimately, Jesus Christ is the reason God chose Israel. The Messiah must come from some nation, and God chose Israel. Not on the basis of anything special about them, but simply on the basis of God’s choosing.

And so, as I pointed out Sunday, when the people of Israel in Malachi’s day are wondering whether or not God really loves them. God points them to the story of Jacob and Esau. He reminds them of the special covenantal love he has for them. When the people of Israel respond to God’s declaration of love to them by saying, “How have you loved us?” God answers them saying, “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” In other words, “Didn’t Esau have the same right to be chosen as Jacob. On the basis of who Jacob and Esau were in and of themselves, didn’t Esau have the same right to my covenantal love as Jacob? And don’t the people of Edom have the same right to be my special people as you people do? Aren’t the Edomites also descendants of Abraham and Isaac, your forefathers. Weren’t Jacob and Esau in the same womb? Esau was even the older brother who traditionally would have been the favored brother. And yet, I chose Jacob, and thus, I chose you. I have chosen you out of all the people on the earth to be the recipients of my special, covenantal love.”

You see, the fact is that Jacob and Esau, and their descendants, have equal claims to God’s love. But in the mysterious purposes of God, God set his special love on Jacob and Jacob’s descendants. And Malachi begins his message by reminding the people of Israel of this fact.

But with all this said, there are still some words in this passage that make it difficult for us to understand, aren’t there? The struggle we have is not in the words, “Jacob I have loved,” the struggle we have is in the words, “Esau I have hated.” We struggle to think of God hating someone. And not just someone, but a whole group of people. Well, take comfort in knowing we aren’t the first people to struggle with these words. There has been much ink used trying to explain what God means here. And I found myself on Friday as I was preparing my sermon for Sunday walking through my house saying out loud to myself and anyone else who would listen, “I don’t have to defend God. I don’t have to defend God. I don’t have to defend God.” Because often times that is what it seems like people who comment on verses like these are trying to do. But God is a big boy. He can defend himself. So please know that I am not going to offer a defense for what he says in this passage. God doesn’t anyone defending him, but that is so often what we see people trying to do regarding difficult passages.

Regarding this passage, there are some who claim (a great many actually and many who I respect as teachers of God’s word) that when God says he hates Esau, what he means is that he loves Esau less. And they have some pretty good support for this. They point to passages like Genesis 29:30–31 where it says that Jacob both “hated” his wife Leah in one verse and that he “loved her less” than his other wife Rachel in the other verse. So they claim this idea of hate is a “more and less” thing. Jacob loved Leah less than Rachel and God loved Esau less than Jacob.

And they also point to the New Testament where Jesus says in Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” We know that Jesus does not want us to “hate” (in our normal understanding of that word “hate”) our family. Jesus even tells us that we are to love our enemies. And so when Jesus says that we are to hate our family and ourselves, it is clear that he is speaking in comparative terms. We are to love him so much that our love for others and ourselves appears more like hate.

But is that what God means here about his love for Jacob and his hate for Esau? Well let’s look at what the rest of this passage says. What does Malachi say God has done to Esau? At the end of verse 3, after saying “Esau I have hated,” God says, “I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.” And God goes on to say in in verse 4 that if Edom should decide to rebuild what God has destroyed that “they may build, but I will tear down, and they will be called ‘the wicked country,’ and ‘the people with whom the LORD is angry forever.’” And so God’s choosing to love Jacob’s people and choosing to “hate” or “reject” Esau’s people has had concrete results.[1] Jacob’s descendants have been brought back to their land, to rebuild and to reestablish their covenant with God, while Esau’s descendants have acted wickedly and have had everything taken away from them and have become the objects of God’s anger and have become known as a “wicked country.” Again, there is a sense in which the result of God giving his special attention to Jacob and not Esau resulted in Esau and his descendants doing many evil and wicked things which eventually resulted in God’s destruction of their nation. When left to their own devices, Edom did many evil and wicked things. This evil included having spiteful and destructive behaviors toward Israel. It included “pillaging and looting” them during Israel and Judah’s destruction by Babylon.[2] And so in one sense, “Edom brought divine judgment upon themselves.”[3] But in another sense, God’s treatment of Edom is connected to the “divine rejection of Esau that occurred before he and his twin brother Jacob were born.”[4]

And I think one implication is that God is trying to make here is that, had God not been involved intimately with the people of Israel, the result would have been the same. As one commentator explains, “[Israel] deserved nothing from [God] and would wind up in the same state as Edom for their wickedness, were it not for [God’s] changeless and sovereign love.”[5] God does punish Israel for their evil actions by destroying their land and sending them into exile, but because of his covenant love for them, he is bringing them back to rebuild and renew. Something he is not doing for Esau.

God’s choice of Jacob and not Esau meant that Esau’s descendants would not be the nation upon whom God placed his special, covenantal love. God’s choice of Jacob and his descendants was the establishment of a permanent, unbreakable relationship with them. And no matter how unfaithfully the people of Israel acted, God would always remain faithful to them. When God’s special people sin, God’s response is discipline. He sends them to exile for discipline. (Remember I said a few weeks ago that after the Exile, Israel never had a problem with idolatry again.) Hebrews 12:6 tells us that God disciplines those whom he loves. But his response to Edom is not discipline. It is judgment and condemnation. Where Judah’s destruction by the Babylonians was temporary, Edom would never return to their land again.[6] While God temporarily rejected Israel, according to Malachi 1:4, God’s rejection of Edom is forever.[7] Why the difference? Israel had a “perpetual alliance with God” that “made the difference between Israel and the other nations.”[8]

So I don’t think we can simply say, this is a more or less thing. I don’t think we can simply say that when God says “I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated,” that we can simply conclude “Oh what he means by that is that he loves them both, he just loves Jacob a little more.” God made a choice. He made a choice to place his special, covenantal love upon Jacob and not upon Esau. And so, as one commentary explains it: “The point is not that God loved Jacob more than Esau but that he loved himrather than Esau.[9]

Now, that is hard stuff. And there is a lot of mystery in it. And I could continue writing and try to make you feel better about God choosing to love Jacob and choosing to “not love” or “hate” Esau, but I am not sure I would accomplish much.

But, nonetheless, without trying to defend God, I will say say just a few things about this. First of all, this is why when we encounter a difficult passage like Malachi 1:2–5 that I so often say that we have to use Scripture to interpret Scripture. When we run across something like this that seems out of character for God to us, we have to let what we clearlyknow about God from elsewhere in Scripture inform what Scripture is trying to teach us in difficult passages like this one. Again, the main things are the plain things and the plain things are the main things. And one thing we know clearly from Scripture is that God is not like us. When Malachi 1:3 says God hates, that does not carry all of the normal human baggage with it. God is not vindictive, he is not evil, he is not spiteful, he is not all those things that come along with human hate. So don’t think of God’s hate in those terms. Think of his hate in terms of his choosing to not love Esau in the same way he loved Jacob. Think of it in terms of being “rejected” or “passed over” or “not chosen.” Don’t lay on God all the baggage that normally accompanies human hate.

Also note that in Deuteronomy 23:7, God instructed the people of Israel to not despise or detest or abhor the descendants of Esau. Again interpret Scripture with Scripture. He said: “You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother.” Now, God is not going to tell the people of Israel to do something he is not willing to do. So again, this hatred is not to be understood in the way we understand the hatred of one human being for another. There is something different going on here. It is not that God has personal animosity towards Esau. It is simply that in the Bible, in the context of God’s covenant with Israel and his special love for them, when the word “hate” is coupled with the word “love” the word “hate” is best understood as “not loved” or “not chosen” or “rejected.”[10] Hate in this sense is not the opposite of love. It is more the absence of the love that God only has for his chosen people.

And finally, we know that in some sense God loves all of his creation. Although God’s people, including us as Christians, are loved by God in a special way, that does not mean that God does not love all of his creation in other ways. We know that God is love. 1 John 4:8 says so. God has also told us to love our enemies. And as we saw earlier, he told the people of Israel not to despise the people of Edom. And we all know that John 3:16 tells us that God loved the whole world so much that he gave up his son. And so, God cannot be thought of apart from his great love for the world even when we read the words, “Esau I have hated.”

  1. Pieter A. Verhoef, The Books of Haggai and Malachi, New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 202.
  2. Andrew E. Hill, Malachi (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 167.
  3. Hill, 167.
  4. Richard A. Taylor and E. Ray Clendenen, Haggai, Malachi, ed. E. Ray Clendenen, vol. 21A of The New American Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2004), 252.
  5. Taylor and Clendenen, 258.
  6. Taylor and Clendenen, , 253–254.
  7. Hill, 168.
  8. Taylor and Clendenen, 253.
  9. Taylor and Clendenen, 251.
  10. Hill, 166.

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