Does God hate Esau?!
I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit – that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only so, but also when Rebekah 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.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 9:1-13 ESV)
Little Esau had been quiet at lunch. He wasn’t as boisterous at the dinner table after church. He sat by himself reading his book when normally he’d be playing with his brothers and sisters who didn’t really notice anything when he said that he wanted to finish his book instead of play Ticket to Ride. Esau’s Mum noticed with a Mum’s ‘spidey sense’ and a little later brushed his forehead and smiled at him while secretly checking whether he was running a temperature. No. Normal. ‘You ok, honey?’ Esau smiled but it was a sad smile she thought. In the hustle and bustle of family life the day progressed and at bed time after Esau’s Dad had read him a chapter from the Narnia Chronicles – they were working their way through them – and before the prayers, kiss and lights out, Esau asked quietly, ‘Dad, can I ask you a question?’. ‘Sure’, said his Dad. ‘Does God hate me?’ Esau’s Dad was stunned and momentarily didn’t know what to say or why Esau would have even asked the question! ‘Of course God loves you, Esau! Jesus died for everyone!’ he quickly said wrapping the little boy in his arms. ‘But I heard at church …’ the little voice spoke to his father’s chest and Esau’s Dad suddenly was back at church that morning and his first thought was ‘Kids! They do listen! Nothing really gets past them.’ as he remembered hearing the second reading and then wondering whether Esau was listening – after all the reading from Romans ended with the phrase – a quote from Malachi – ‘Jacob I loved but Esau I hated’. And Esau heard.
When we hear the Bible we, of course, need to hear the message that the words say and understand them and we are adept at following words literally, metaphorically, historically, socially, symbolically as the occasion and meaning demands. To understand the words we need to hear them and also hear them in context before we make a decision about how they are words to us. The Bible speaks truth but the question becomes ‘How is it truth for me?’. So we smile – wryly – it is in poor taste after all – when we hear two sentences from the Bible – both true – put together: ‘Judas went and hanged himself’ (Matthew 27:5) and an instruction from Jesus ‘You go and do likewise’ (Luke 10:37) and we’re not troubled by the nutter who does string those two sentences together because we know other words from the Bible that challenge and refute that message.
When we do struggle with the Bible it is often because of one of two reasons. 1. We don’t like what we read because it isn’t what we want to hear because it either presents God or us in a light we don’t like. 2. We don’t understand what we read because we can think of other Bible passages that seem to say something else – even the opposite. When God’s Word doesn’t square then what we need is more of God’s Word to help us to see and the light that those words reveal increasingly helps us understand what we were reading.
Welcome to Romans 9-11 – and the next few Sundays we will hear from chapter 9, then chapter 10, then chapter 11 – and these three chapters are often regarded as some of the hardest chapters of the New Testament so that not only little Esaus wonder what is going on but ‘big people’ do too.
Paul begins a new direction in Chapter 9 having ‘springboarded’, as it were, off chapter 8 which finishes with the wonderful ‘nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’. He has spent eight chapters writing about sin and grace – that this applies to Jew and Gentile – that the law gives way to grace – and faith in God’s promises is not confined to DNA or family tree. And Paul now addresses what is probably the ‘elephant in the room’ that if God chose the people of Israel to be his people in the world, why have they rejected and still reject the Messiah, God’s Christ, ie. Jesus?
Paul is speaking with ‘inside knowledge’ because he knows from now bitter personal experience what it was like to persecute The Way and how blind he was when he thought he knew it all and it took Jesus to blind him so that he could see clearly. And with this background he is in pain – Christ’s love for him flows to his love for the followers of Judaism and as Jesus died for all so he would be prepared, if it was possible, to be cursed by God so that they might be blessed. Jesus is the fulfilment of their adoption in Abraham, of the glory that travelled with the people – defended them and dwelt also in the tabernacle and temple, of all the covenants – even and especially the new covenant promised through Jeremiah, of the law – Jesus did fulfil it for us, of all the worship – which is now centred in Jesus and his Word and Sacraments, and of the promises of God which are only valid and trustworthy when they are in Jesus. Paul’s point is that the people of Israel were the bearers of all those blessings and that cannot and should not be denied.
But now so many do not follow Jesus but it is not God’s Word which has failed! And so begins Paul’s argument over the next three chapters that even in the Old Testament not all the people of Israel believed the law and the prophets – which was seen in their disobedience and their idolatry – and the fact that Jesus came into the world. Relationships with God were always based on God’s promise to which people responded with faith trusting that promise. It was never simply a matter of being a descendant of Abraham for God’s plan was always to bless the world, not a chosen few. And God would use specific people to do that – not just any descendents but those who were graciously – that means they weren’t worthy in themselves – chosen to carry the promise. So although Ishmael was older, Isaac was the child of promise. Even when twins were born God’s promise of the one who would fulfil this blessing for the entire world can only come via one of them – and in this case the younger Jacob was chosen over the older twin, Esau.
God’s purpose of election – it might be better thought of as selection – to be the links in the chain that eventually produces the Messiah – is what Paul is addressing here. Of course he is speaking with an historical perspective with the goal being Jesus and his cross as the salvation for all.
For each generation – for each link in the chain – and for us today – we live our days built on the past – our immediate past – and the history of earlier generations of which we’re often unaware – but we’re always living ‘now’ – in the present – today and that involves faith in God’s promises. What tests that faith is of course our sins, our bad behaviour, the troubles we face, and the hassles and evil other people do to us. God’s people live only by faith and so when problems, hassles, troubles, sufferings come it is easy to target people as our enemies – when in truth as Paul wrote to the Ephesians: … we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12 ESV). So in the story of Esau and Jacob, we know of their sins – an arrogant lovelessness on Esau’s side – a conniving trickery on Jacob’s – Esau didn’t care about his birthright – Jacob stole the blessings due to him – Esau’s anger and desire for revenge caused Jacob to flee and to trust God. Jacob was never perfect – he had to learn to trust God – Esau was a foil, in a sense, to help him do that. When the brothers eventually meet there is no death but there’s no let’s-forget-the-past either – just an uneasy alliance – while it is through Jacob’s line that the rescuer of all
will come. This is what Paul is referring to here – that God has selected Jacob for this role in history and he didn’t select Esau for it. In this context that is what ‘love’ and ‘hate’ mean.
Jesus wasn’t an Australian Aborigine or Chinese or Welsh; he was a Jew born to die for Australians, Chinese, the Welsh and us all. If we hear ‘love Jacob’ and ‘hate Esau’ in terms of salvation – that Jacob is in heaven and Esau in hell – then we change the Bible’s message – that God loved the whole world (John 3:16) – that God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth, ie. Jesus (1 Timothy 2:4) and we reject the claim about Jesus that he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29). If we think that love and hate refer to salvation in this context then we are opening ourselves to a double predestination – that God chooses some only for salvation and condemns the rest which robs people of comfort and hope and turns the cross of Jesus into a spiritual version of Russian roulette with God pulling the trigger! Like the mystery of the cross, God’s love for Jacob and hate for Esau is the way that it is possible for Esau to be saved for salvation only comes through God’s Word – ultimately Jesus.
Paul is saying that there is a real tragedy that his fellow Jews do not see Jesus as Lord and God but God still hasn’t rejected them – doesn’t hate them – but salvation is only now through Jesus – the old has passed away the new has come – and only through God’s Word about Jesus will they be saved – and this is why Paul works as he does in his ministry.
Sometimes we wonder today why family members – children perhaps – parents in other circumstances – maybe friends – leave the church or seem resistant to the Gospel. Paul’s message here and in the other chapters to come is a reminder that God uses all circumstances to bring people to him. Perhaps a wandering family member will in time return to the Faith but now bring with him/her many people who otherwise wouldn’t hear about Jesus? In the meantime, like Paul, we insist that God’s Word doesn’t fail – that Jesus – the Word made flesh – died and rose again – and that God loves all people – everyone of us big and little Esaus alike – and the promises God makes to people through words, water, bread and wine are never rescinded … ever.
- Romans 9:1 - 13