Jacob I Loved, but Esau I Hated
Is God Fair?
“Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his mountains into a wasteland, and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.” (Malachi 1:2,3)
If God is against you, who can be with you? If the Almighty creator of the universe has turned his back on you, before you were born, before you have done anything to deserve it, of what hope can there be? For no one can stand against the Almighty.
In Romans 9, Paul attempts to answer those questions. He paraphrases Malachi in verse 13, “ Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” He informs the reader that we have no right to question God, that the created cannot complain to the creator. He compares God to a potter and says that a potter can take a lump of clay and from that lump he is well within his right to make something common, or something extraordinary. Paul, of course, is right. A potter can use his own materials to make an ornate vase, or a garbage can. Morally, however, there is a bit of a difference between a lump of clay and a sentient being. God can have justice and mercy on whomever He chooses, He can love His children or He can hate them. Before we’ve done anything to earn it, He can single us out in the womb for greatness or for destruction. But is it fair? Can He be a God of justice and mercy if He’s already decided to lift His hand against certain infants before they’re even born?
"I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion."— Romans 9:15
God’s Chosen Ones
The apostle Paul drew his answer from Genesis. The Book of Genesis introduces us to a man named Abram. Abram was a shepherd, married to a woman named Sarai. In a culture where children meant everything, Sarai was barren. God told Abram to leave his home and settle in the land of Canaan, and without question, he did. God promised Abram a son, and Sarai, being barren decided to help God out a bit by giving Abram her servant Hagar. Hagar became pregnant but then Sarai grew jealous of Hagar and mistreated her. Hagar fled but God knew of her distress, He sent an angel to find her and tell her to return. He assured Hagar that her descendants would be too numerous to count. The angel told her that she would have a son named Ishmael, he would be a “wild donkey of a man” whose hand would be against everyone and everyone against him. And he would “live in hostility toward all his brothers.” (Genesis 16:11,12)
Abram was 86 when Ishmael was born, thirteen years later, God again showed Himself to Abram. God changed his name to Abraham, which means father, and to his wife He gave the name Sarah, which means nobility. God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. Abraham and Sarah were chosen by God for their faith. Yet we see that their faith wasn’t 100%. By the time that God made this covenant with Abraham, he and Sarah were already 100 years old. Well past the optimal age for bearing children. Abraham suggested that God pass the blessing on to Ishmael, but God had other plans. He told Abraham that Sarah herself would give birth to a son named Isaac, with whom He would establish an everlasting covenant for he and all his descendants. (Genesis 17:19)
As promised, Sarah gave birth to a son named Isaac, and afterwards, in her jealousy, she sent Hagar and Ishmael away. Years passed and Isaac grew into a man, Abraham didn’t want him to marry any of the godless Canaanites, so he sent his servant to his hometown to select a suitable wife. The servant returned with a young lady named Rebekah. Isaac was forty when he married Rebekah, and as it happened, she too, was barren. Isaac prayed, and God granted him twin boys. It seems that often twins have a close bond that ties them for life. They often seem to share similar interests and tend to be very close, especially when compared to other sibling relationships. Not so with Isaac’s sons. Even in the womb they fought. Rebekah cried out to the Lord, and he told her; “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”
Of the twins, Esau, red and hairy, was born first. Closely behind came Jacob, grasping at Esau’s heel. The two sons were as night and day. Esau grew into a man’s man. He was a skilled hunter, a rugged outdoorsman who enjoyed spending time out in the open country. Isaac loved Esau the most. Jacob, on the other hand, was a homebody. He was a quiet man who preferred to be close to hearth and home. He was his mother’s favorite son. (Genesis 25: 27, 28) One day, Jacob was cooking stew when Esau returned from the country, completely famished. The Bible doesn’t say what he was doing or how long he had been gone. It may have been days since his last meal, or it may have been hours. He asked Jacob for some of that stew, and here Jacob shows his character.
Generally, if somebody is hungry, the decent thing to do is to feed them. Jacob and Esau lived in a particularly godless period of human history. They were born hundreds of years before God handed Moses the Mosaic Laws, and thousands of years before Jesus came to earth. So Jacob didn’t have those guidelines to show him morality. But then, one shouldn’t need a set of laws to tell them to feed the hungry. Especially if the hungry one is your own twin brother. Esau had been traveling, he was hungry, and he asked his brother for some stew. It seems a reasonable request. Jacob, instead of showing mercy to his brother, demanded that he sell him his birthright. The significance of which can be lost on modern readers. A birthright in those days meant that, upon Isaac’s death, Esau would be the new head of the family and inherit the property. Jacob wanted Esau to trade his inheritance for a bowl of stew.
Esau told Jacob that he was about to die of hunger, why would he care about a birthright when he had a foot already in the grave? Now again, we don’t know how long it had been since Esau last ate. Hunger can cause a drop in blood sugar which can cause a person to be impulsive, cranky, or unreasonable. It can certainly lead to bad decisions, as it did for Esau. Esau insisted that he was starving to death, if it had been five days since he last ate, then one can surely sympathize with him. If Jacob had taken advantage of a brother who had not eaten in days, then it is a mark against his character. Very few people would intentionally withhold food from a starving sibling.
On the other hand, Esau could have just as easily eaten that same day. He could have just been hungry and overly dramatic. If somebody is so impulsive and short sighted as to renounce their inheritance for a bowl of soup, perhaps they’re ill-suited to be charge of property in the first place. I’m sure the stew smelled good and increased his hunger, but it’s a terrible trade. Nevertheless, it was a deal that Esau was willing to make. He sold his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup and a piece of bread.
Turns out that wasn’t the last of Jacob’s treachery. Isaac was sixty by the time his sons were born, by the time Jacob and Esau had grown, he was quite a bit older. Time passed and he grew physically weak and blind and he knew that his days were numbered. He called Esau to him and told him that he was dying and requested that Esau, a skilled hunter, go and bring him some food for his last meal. Afterwards, he would give Esau his blessing. Here we see another cultural custom that that doesn’t translate well to modern readers. The blessing wasn’t merely symbolic, nor was it a mere wish for good luck. It had actual, permanent meaning. It was believed that what Isaac blessed him with on his death bed had the power to actually happen in real life. Once spoken it could never be taken back.
Rebekah heard Isaac’s instructions to her eldest son, but it was Jacob whom she loved. So she called for Jacob and had him slaughter some goats. Then she dressed him in skins so he would feel like Esau, as Esau was a hairy man. Rebekah knew that though Isaac was blind, he would still be able to tell his own sons apart. She wouldn’t be able to fool his sense of hearing, but she could manipulate his sense of touch and his sense of smell. For the latter, she dressed Jacob in his brother’s clothes. In the days before frequent baths and washing machines, everybody had their own distinct odor. In Rebekah’s cunning we can see where Jacob inherited his duplicity. And the scheme worked. Though Isaac was initially suspicious, it was his sense of smell that betrayed him. When Jacob leaned close, Isaac smelled him, and mistaking him for his older brother, Isaac bestowed upon him the blessing reserved for the first born son. A little while later, Esau returned from his hunting trip. He cooked the food and brought it to his father, but it was too late. What was done could not be undone, and the younger was placed ahead of the elder.
God had made a convent through Abraham that his offspring would eventually become many nations. Isaac was a link in the chain of God’s Chosen People.
The Rejected Ones
The Bible doesn’t hide the faults of its protagonists. Jacob was a con artist, but he was also a man of great faith. However, the Book of Genesis makes it clear that he was not chosen for his faith. He was chosen long before he had done anything to earn it. Was this fair? Abraham was a man who loved and honored God, for this he was rewarded and God promised him that he would be the father of all nations. By seeing the faith of Abraham, we can easily understand why God chose him. But what of the others? Ishmael was still in the womb when the angel told Hagar that everyone’s hand would be against her unborn son. What did he do to deserve that?
Ishmael was Abraham’s son, but not Sarah’s. They both knew that God had promised them offspring, but they also knew that Sarah was barren. It may seem strange to modern readers that Sarah would offer her servant to Abraham, but in those days it was a pretty common practice. Of course, Hagar didn’t have a say in the matter, and when she became pregnant she felt compelled to run away to escape the maltreatment of a jealous wife. God had a plan for Abraham, but Abraham and Sarah deviated from that plan. God all along had intended Isaac to carry on the chosen lineage, Ishmael was never a part of the plan. Abraham and Sarah lacked faith and their actions had consequences. Unfortunately, Ishmael and Hagar were the victims.
Isaac was the intended recipient all along. In this world, people have gifts; some people are talented singers or pianists, some people have a gift for numbers, or a photographic memory. When people are born with a talent, it adds to that person, but it doesn’t take away from others. Another person’s natural gifts cost us nothing. God had made a convent through Abraham that his offspring would eventually become many nations. Isaac was a link in the chain of God’s Chosen People. This wasn’t something that was taken away from Ishmael because it was never offered to him in the first place. It doesn’t mean that God was against Ishmael. When the Angel told Hagar that Ishmael would live in hostility with all of his brothers, that wasn’t a curse. In His omnipotence, God knew that Ishmael would have a difficult life, and He simply told Hagar as much. Unfortunately, such difficulties were often the case in those days of children born of a servant/master relationship. Even today, a child born out of wedlock or through adultery may have a harder time than a child born within a marriage. Such unions may have been common, but that doesn’t mean the children had it easy.
Despite Ishmael’s struggles, he was still blessed by God. In Genesis 17, God promised Abraham that his son Ishmael will not be forgotten. In verses 20 and 21, God promises Abraham that he will bless Ishmael and make him fruitful, that he will be a great nation and the father of twelve rulers. And indeed he has, for out of Ishmael came the Arab nations, a very numerous people to this day. God never abandoned Hagar or Ishmael, He remained faithful to both of them throughout their lives, and they too, were given many blessings.
But what about Esau? Conned out of his father’s blessings by a deceitful brother and mother, surely he was treated unfairly. And to be sure, things do not always work out for poor Esau. Jacob may have twice conned Esau, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he was a victim. He willingly sold his inheritance for a bowl of soup. If nothing else, that was a terrible decision. Yes, he was hungry, but it he could have easily prepared a meal for himself, we know from other verses that he could cook. He could have easily made his own lentil soup, the ingredients were probably still nearby. It was his choice to give up land and reject becoming the head of a large, extended family for a simple meal. Does that make Jacob’s actions any better? Of course not, Jacob showed no sympathy for his brother and exploited his weakness, but Esau was still responsible for his own actions.
God would never send His son to die for a creation that he hated. John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus died for all the Ishmaels and all the Esaus out there, and for all the other brothers who got the short end of the stick.
God's Love For His Children
Jacob did not get away with his crime, however. Though Jacob was God’s elect, he lived a life far from ease. He paid for his sins against his brother, and for future sins as well. After Rebekah helped Jacob trick Isaac, Jacob ran for his life from his angry brother. He lived in exile for twenty years and never fully believed that his brother wouldn’t pay him back for what he had done. Jacob lived with his uncle who took advantage of his labor and tricked him into marrying a woman he didn’t love. Rebekah paid for her sins too. For her part in the duplicity, she lost the only son that she loved. There were no innocent victims in this family, only flawed humans. Yet despite their weaknesses, God still loved them and used them for good.
So was Esau chosen, before his own birth, to be hated by God? The verse in Malachi is certainly troubling. The idea of God Almighty hating his own children is disturbing and goes against everything else the Bible teaches. It was upsetting enough that Paul felt compelled to comment on it in Romans 9. Paul’s answer was that we don’t have a right to question God. There is no question that we don’t have all the answers or information that God has. We see but a mere puzzle piece, while God sees the entire puzzle. It may seem harsh and unsatisfying that Paul says 'God hates Esau, don’t question God.' But Paul goes on to say that God is both just and merciful.
Despite the lamentations in Malachi, God did not hate Esau. God would never send His son to die for a creation that he hated. John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus died for all the Ishmaels and all the Esaus out there, and for all the other brothers who got the short end of the stick. The Bible is filled with verses that speak of God’s love for all of His children. Psalm 136 tells us that His steadfast love endures forever. In Romans, just a chapter before Paul speaks of Jacob and Esau, in verses 38 and 39, Paul explains that he is “convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present not the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the Love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The full context of Malachi is not that God rejects some of His children, rather the entire book is how His children have rejected Him! God chose the Israelites, through Jacob, and they turned their backs on Him. The very first chapter, second verse, begins with God telling Israel that He has loved them. By the time of Malachi, Israel’s faith had become tepid, they were merely going through the motions of worship without any heart or feeling. God didn’t hate Esau, He merely chose Jacob. Through Jacob came the Israelites, and through them came Jesus the Christ. As with Ishmael, Esau was still blessed despite being the ‘rejected’ son. Through him came the nation of Edom, and historical evidence suggests that over time they may have settled in Spain and the Ottoman Empire. Both sons were the fathers of great nations.
Isaac, Jacob, and the Israelites were God’s chosen, but through Christ, we have all become chosen. Jesus did not die for the Jews, He died for all of mankind. God did not send His son to condemn the world but to save the world through Him. (John 3:17) Galatians 3 teaches us that we are all one in Christ. Through God’s atoning grace, there are no rejects, there are only the beloved children of God.
Questions & Answers
- Helpful 1
Your comment that Sarah was simply jealous when It is clear that Ishmael derided God’s promise made to Isaac. Many versions describe Ishmael's behaviour as taunting. Sarah might have feared that Ishmael would have pushed his birthright as the first born son and killed Isaac for it. On this matter God agreed with Sarah and instructed Abraham to listen to Sarah and to send them both away. Something he did not want to do. Do you agree?
© 2017 Anna Watson