And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; or though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, 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]
In the middle of his letter to the Roman Christians, the apostle Paul begins to answer the question of why not all Jews are accepting Christ as their Messiah. Turning to Old Testament examples, Paul brings up Jacob and Esau, pointing out that, despite neither twin had been born, and having not done anything good or bad, Jacob was chosen over Esau to fulfill God’s purposes and His promise. In these verses we find the clear teachings of God’s sovereignty over man’s will, as well as the nature and purpose of His divine election onto salvation.
Yet along with John 6:44, Romans 9:10-13 is one of those passages that is so clear in language that many will try to find a way to avoid what it is plainly saying. The following are some popular responses to it (with a counter-response provided for each):
The Argument: This is one of the most common arguments against the Calvinist interpretation of the passage. Those who make it do so by pointing out that the quote “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” is taken from Malachi 1:2, wherein God is referring to Israel and Edom, who were the descendants of Jacob and Esau respectively. Therefore, Paul is speaking here not of individual election, but rather of national blessings.
The Dilemma: In order for this to be true, one has to completely ignore the full context of Romans 9, which is dealing with individuals. The apostle Paul, after talking of the assurance of salvation for God’s people in Romans 8, has to preemptively respond to a contention that some in Rome might be presenting: if God’s people are given the promise of faith, then why are so many Jews – God’s supposed “chosen people” – rejecting the Gospel? Paul replies that it is “not as though the word of God has failed,” and explains “they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel” (v. 6). He follows this up with the statement that the Jews are not “all children because they are Abraham’s descendants” (v. 7). In other words, you have Jew A and Jew B, and Jew A accepts the Gospel and Jew B does not – but this is no mater, for it is not being an ethnic Jew that makes you one of God’s elect. In fact, it is now set so that Jew A and Gentile A together are the true Israel of God with Jew B not being a part of Israel.
Note very carefully here: Paul’s talking about individuals. Jew A and Jew B are not members of specific separate nations. Paul is answering the question, “Why does Jew A follow the Gospel and Jew B rejects it if both are supposed to be part of Israel?” This is not a question of nations – this is a question of persons.
This is also contradicted with how Paul uses the quotation from Malachi 1:2, which is really just an expounding of the earlier quotation of Genesis 25:23. Paul’s reference to the story of Jacob and Esau is one entirely of individual traits, not the traits of nations. He cites throughout verse 11 that “the twins were not yet born,” and had “not done anything good or bad.” Who is being addressed here? The twins, Jacob and Esau – individual persons.
This is seen likewise in the passages that follow, wherein Paul quotes God saying to Moses “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (v. 15), followed by Paul’s own summation: “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (v. 16). This is, again, dealing with election on an individual basis. We see it again when Paul mentions Pharaoh (v. 17) and declares, “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires” (v. 18). Once again, this is dealing with individual election, not national blessing. This is why reading nations into verses 10 to 13 is to simply jump from Paul’s train of thought.
The Argument: This is another popular argument, especially by those who recognize that Paul is referring to individuals and not nations. Essentially, God looks down the corridor of time, sees what Jacob and Esau will do, and thus makes His election of Jacob over Esau based on that. Therefore, God is not unconditionally electing Jacob over Esau, but He is choosing Jacob because of how Jacob will be later on in life.
The Dilemma: Despite its popularity and its seemingly simple response to Calvinism, this is perhaps the most fallacious argument to make, as it completely contradicts the original text. Namely, the fullness of verse 11:
for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, [all emphasis mine]
Paul is presenting a clear scenario: two twins are yet to be born; they haven’t done anything good or bad, so you can’t judge them by any actions. A choice is then made – one of the children is favored by God. Why was this done? Does the text have God say, “Because I see in the future that Jacob is going to be a great man”? On the contrary, it says it was done on the basis of “God’s purpose according to His choice,” and even specifies that it was not because of works, but on God, the Him who calls. God’s decision of choosing Jacob over Esau had nothing to do with what Jacob or Esau would do decades after their birth, and the verse makes that clear. Nowhere does it even imply that this election was based on passive foreknowledge of future events.
This is likewise contradicted by Paul’s repetition a few verses later with the previous quoted: “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (v. 16). Once again, it is not man’s works upon which God made His electing decision, but God’s mercy alone. It was not what Jacob did which made God choose Jacob over Esau, but God’s purpose and His full intent with what He wanted to do with Jacob. This very argument, in fact, leads logically into a works-based method of salvation, wherein man’s works or actions come first, and essentially convince God to justify them upon that basis.
In this same vein, I might ask which action of Jacob made him appear justified before God? Was it Jacob’s making his hungry brother give up his birthright (Gen 25:29-34)? Was it when Jacob tricked his blind, dying father into handing over Esau’s blessing to him (Gen 27:1-38)? The way some interpret this passage, one would think that Jacob was a holy individual, but while he found favor in God’s eyes, he was far from perfect. In any case, even if we disregard this, it still remains that the verses clearly tell us that what Jacob did had no affect upon what God decided. For a person to argue thus is to read something into the verse that not only isn’t there…but is completely contradictory to what the verse says.
The Argument: The original Greek word for “hated” in the verse does not mean a literal hate, as if God downright loathed Esau, but that God simply loved Esau less than Jacob. This can be seen in some translations: the NLT renders it “I rejected Esau”; the CEV renders it “the Lord liked Jacob more than Esau”; the Amplified adds the parenthetical statement “held in relative disregard in comparison with My feeling for Jacob.”
The Dilemma: It is certainly affirmed from many commentators (such as A.T. Robertson) that the word used here for “to hate” (μισέω) can mean to have a form of moral antipathy when contrasted with the word “to love” (ἀγαπάω). One example of this is Christ’s own use of the two words in Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13, wherein He says that one cannot serve two masters “for either he will hate the one and love the other.” One could therefore make a valid case that when scripture says Esau was “hated,” it doesn’t mean a violent, passionate malice similar to an antisemitic person against a Jew, but, as stated before, a form of moral antipathy, with full preference given to Jacob.
Yet even if we concede this, where does it really get us? That God elected Jacob over Esau on preference does not hide the fact that election took place, and that Esau, during that election, was forsaken. Imagine a parent saying, “No no no, I don’t hate my second son, I just prefer the first one over him.” Or let’s return to the citation of Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13 – are we supposed to believe that the servant loves both masters equally? That would completely contradict the point Christ was trying to make. The point made is that God went over Esau and gave His blessing to Jacob, irregardless of what either individual did.
Therefore, to argue that “to hate” actually means “to love less” is, in the end, simply a non sequitor.