I have loved you, says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?” Is not Esau Jacob’s brother? says the Lord. Yet I have loved Jacob but I have hated Esau; I have made his hill country a desolation and his heritage a desert for jackals. (Malachi 1:2-3)
One of the most puzzling statements in the Bible is this one where God said that he loved Jacob, but hated his brother Esau. Would God really do such a thing—love one man and hate another? My attempts to understand this very disconcerting comment threw up answers to not one, but several questions I had often asked myself. As they pertain to issues that are vital to our understanding of God and other subjects like predestination, justice, mercy and fairness, I thought it a good idea to address some of them here, beginning with the question of why God chooses to bless some people while damning others, as he seemed to do with Jacob and Esau.
image courtesy www.chandlerschool.org Jacob and Esau (as you undoubtedly know) were Isaac's sons, grandchildren of the great patriarch Abraham. Despite being twins, they were totally unlike each other, both in appearance and in temperament. Esau, the older of the two, loved the outdoors and became a skilled hunter, endearing himself to his father who liked the wild game the boy brought home to cook. Introverted Jacob preferred to stay indoors and help his mother Rebekah in the house, making himself beloved of her. If opposites attract, it didn't hold good in this instance as there was hardly any love lost between the twins. The enmity apparently began in the womb: Rebekah complained that they constantly kicked and fought inside her!
Esau cut a pretty sorry figure as a little story about him showed. He went out hunting on one occasion. He must have been gone for a few days and not had much luck in snaring anything, because when he returned he was empty handed and starving. As chance would have it, Jacob had just cooked a pot of stew. Eagerly Esau asked for a serving, but Jacob, a schemer if there ever was one, told him that he could have it only in exchange for his birthright. In a remarkable act of idiocy, Esau agreed to the trade, instantly damning himself in the eyes of God.
To understand why this act provoked God's intense displeasure, you have to understand how important the birthright was. The birthright—the inheritance of the firstborn—consisted of leadership in the family, a double portion of inheritance, and the title to the covenant blessing promised to Abraham. It was given by God himself. By "despising his birthright" as the Book of Genesis states he did, Esau effectively thumbed his nose at God. (Many Christians today are guilty of the same thing, selling their birthright thoughtlessly by trading eternal blessings for momentary pleasures.)
But if Esau was a miserable specimen of the human race, Jacob was not far better. If anything, all stories of him indicate he was a worse character than Esau. What sort of a person, after all, would make a trade of this sort with his own brother? His actions in later life were not very redeeming either. When his father was dying, he conspired with Rebekah to steal the blessings that were reserved for Esau. After he married Rachel, he engineered the payment of outstanding wages by her father Laban in an extraordinarily deceitful way. And then, coming across Esau when journeying back to his homeland and scared that his brother would kill him, he sent his wife ahead to negotiate a peace rather than go himself. Ever the wheeler-dealer, on one occasion he even negotiated with God!
Why then, would God love this man? The only answer is the correct one: God's sovereign grace. For reasons of His own, that had nothing to do with anything Jacob was or did or would do, God chose Jacob as an object of His love and simply showered him with an abundance of it. From the time he left his father's house, desperate to escape the wrath of an enraged brother cheated of an inheritance, up until the time he died, soon after conferring blessings upon Pharoah himself, God's mighty hand rested upon Jacob in love and protection.
Why didn't God favor Esau with his love too, then? Surely God could have overlooked Esau's little foolishness, like he seemed to overlook so many of Jacob's failings. Why, instead, did God hate him so? (In Semitic usage "hate" means to "love less" but regardless of whether you accept this translation, or take "hate" to mean what we usually take "hate" to mean, it is obvious God did not care much for Esau. He did permit Esau to become the father of Edom, but there is no trace of the house of Esau or of Esau himself in history.) God gave Moses the answer to that question a long time ago:
"I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.." (Exodus 33:19)
Many would say this smacks of injustice. If God was just, he would grant Esau the same clemency that he did Jacob, the same grace, the same love. Anything else would be unjust, surely. But would it? To answer this question we need to understand what justice is and what mercy is and I would like to take a brief diversion into my own life to illustrate both.
For twenty five years I wandered about in the atheistic wilderness, living a hedonistic, amoral existence [see The Return of the Prodigal]. In July 2002, God drew me to conversion, and I was saved. Did I deserve to be saved? No! I deserved to die, because sin is punishable by death! That I didn't was the mercy of God in action, exercised totally because he deigned to.
Let us go back again to July 2002, and consider briefly what might have happened if God had chosen not to draw me to conversion. I would have simply died out there in the desert, and spent the rest of eternity grinding and gnashing my teeth until they wore down to the roots. Could I have blamed God for this? Of course not, because this would have been justice! But God chose, instead, to have mercy on me. Is mercy justice? Not quite. But then it is not injustice either; it is simply nonjustice.
It is important that we understand this. It is also important that we understand that God's mercy is entirely at his own discretion. Most of us take it for granted, believing that His mercy is automatically forthcoming. When it isn't, we cry, "Foul!" We would do well to remember that God is never obligated to be merciful. It is the same with grace. God never owes grace. Both grace and mercy are gifts and we shouldn't expect either. The only thing we should expect is justice. For all of us who persist in sin, that translates as death.
May the Spirit be with you.