Genesis 36: Did God Really Hate Esau?

Petra, which was part of Edom became the dwelling place of Esaus descendants

Petra, which was part of Edom became the dwelling place of Esau’s descendants

Genesis 36: God Didn’t Hate Esau

Reading for Sunday, January 25, 2009

While a student in college, a professor for a class that I took on Romans had us write our own little commentary on a single chapter in that great book.  At that time I was on my own Calvin kick and I chose Romans 9 as the chapter I would focus on.  Not only would I focus on chapter 9 but also verses 10-13 which says,

10 Not only that, but Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. 11 Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: 12 not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

Looking back, I was not really interested in entertaining any other position other than the one that appeared to be obvious to me in the text, God hated Esau and he loved Jacob even before they were born.  What confused me greatly though, was that so many Calvinistic writers did not take this verse the way I wanted to take it.  In fact, I remember reading an article by Walt Kaiser, then Old Testament scholar and Academic Dean of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (following this became the very distinguished president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) in which he disagreed that the idea of “hate” was intended in Romans 9:13.  Essentially, the Greek word μισέω   has two basic meanings.  The first means to hate or detest something and the second is defined this way,   ② to be disinclined to, disfavor, disregard in contrast to preferential treatment [1] Kaiser, along with many scholars, argues that Romans 9 ought to be translated in accordance with the second definition.    NT Scholar Robert Mounce writes this about this subject in his commentary on Romans,

“Neither national heritage nor personal merit has anything to do with the sovereign freedom of God in assigning priority. This accords with the testimony of Scripture, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Mal 1:2–3). This should not be interpreted to mean that God actually hated Esau.” [2]

So, it is clear that there is some disagreement about the meaning of the word μισέω and its application to the book of Romans.  Again, some say that we ought to translate it as “hate” and others argue that we should translate it “did not prefer,” or “disinclined to.”  So which should it be?  Both words could be used, but as interpreters of the Word of God to look at the overall context of a word and in this case, the background from which it springs.

I believe that this story and the preceding one give us a good indication.  In chapter 36 of the book of Genesis, the author goes out of his way to show us that Esau experienced the blessing of God. While he did not receive the blessing of Isaac or the birthright of Abraham, he did receive God’s blessing in his life.  Like Lot and Ishmael, he did not receive the promise and did not settle in the Promised Land as the heirs of the royal line had (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, et. al.,).  Yet, it is also clear that God did bless Esau as one he loved,

Esau took his wives and sons and daughters and all the members of his household, as well as his livestock and all his other animals and all the goods he had acquired in Canaan, and moved to a land some distance from his brother Jacob. Their possessions were too great for them to remain together; the land where they were staying could not support them both because of their livestock. So Esau (that is, Edom) settled in the hill country of Seir” (Genesis 6:6-8, NIV 84) [3]

Throughout the rest of the account of Esau and his descendants we get the strong impression that God had been good to him.  We also get the impression from this narrative and the one in which Jacob returned from Laban’s house that he had also become a better man in terms of real character than his brother.

Because of these factors, it seems to me much better to understand the meaning of the word “hate” in reference to Esau ought to be translated, as many scholars have pointed out, “did not prefer.”  God preferred to give Jacob, not Esau, the blessing of being one of the patriarchs of the Messiah’s line before the boys were born.  Based on these factors, it seems to me that while God chose Jacob as his preferred vessel to carry forth His redemptive plan, He also really did love Esau.

[1]Arndt, William ; Danker, Frederick W. ; Bauer, Walter: A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2000, S. 653

[2]Mounce, Robert H.: Romans. electronic ed. Nashville : Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001, c1995 (Logos Library System; The New American Commentary 27), S. 198

[3] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ge 36:6–8). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.


19 Responses to “Genesis 36: Did God Really Hate Esau?”

  1. Derek Taylor Says:

    I’ve considered this passage in Romans for many years as well. I agree with your opinion here.

    I think that Genesis actually gives us a lot of reasons why God might have “preferred” Jacob. The episode with the soup revealed Esau’s attitude about his birthright – it didn’t mean much of anything to him. He was far more interested in the here and now. Hebrews describes Esau with the term “pornos”, implying that he was a man ruled by his physical and/or sexual appetites.

    We also know that Esau took wives among the Hittites. It seems likely to me that the very act of marrying a Hittite could have been a disqualifying factor, as the intermarrying with neighboring idol worshippers/pagans was clearly a really big deal to not only Isaac, but even moreso to God. Imagine how disappointed Isaac must have been, particularly after seeing how marvelously God had brought Rebekah into his life. Here is a real contrast between the life of faith and obedience (Isaac) and rebellion and impulsiveness (Esau).

    Jacob certainly had his faults, but it seems to me that many of his faults had more to do with immaturity than with fundamental character flaws. He also clearly WANTED God’s blessing – that was made clear in several pivotal encounters with God Himself. I think we see in other Scriptures that God really wants to be asked for things (and often, repeatedly), just like a human parent does (Matthew 7:11).

    At the end of the day, I think God “preferred” not to give Esau the blessing for many of the same reasons He chose not to give the firstborn blessing to Simeon, Reuben and Levi, who shared the same traits as Esau – impatient, lacking in self control and behavior that prevented/disqualified them from reaching their true potential.

  2. Bruce Smith Says:

    Excellent points. I really appreciate what you have added to this topic. The only other thing that I might add to what you have said is that it seems that Esau matured as he became older and was not the man Jacob anticipated when he returned from Laban’s house.

    Thanks again, Derek, for adding so much to this discussion.

  3. Derek Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Bruce. I agree with you- Esau was a different man. I suspect that God did the most loving thing (to Esau) that He possibly could by withholding the firstborn inheritance and blessing.

    In our natural mind we assume that God doesn’t love us or is being unfair if He withholds a certain desire or blessing from us. What we forget, when we think this way, is that God cares more about our character development than He does our immediate happiness or satisfaction. As the parent of a 3 and 5 year old, I think about this concept a lot.

    So I agree that it is significant to note that Esau was chastened, but not destroyed, when God took away his firstborn rights. I wholeheartedly agree that God loved Him. I see that more clearly now than I ever have now that we have looked at this in greater detail.

  4. Shirley Smith Says:

    I do feel that that is a better explaination of that passage. When you consider all of Scripture, it fits. Just using John 3:16, “God so loved the World that He gave …”. It also goes with The Lord choosing Judah to be the one that the promised Messiah was to come thru. The double blessing went to Joseph, but Judah was the one chosen to be the line Jesus was to come through. I do think that when you read the story of Joseph’s trial in Egypt, you see Judah willing to take Benjamin’s place in Gen. 44:18-33. At that point in his life, he was willing to give his life in place of his brother’s.

  5. Chris R Says:

    That sounds great, and I would love to believe that. But, what about the original Hebrew translation? In Malachi 1:3 the translation for “hate” is exactly what it says, “hate.” There is no other translation given.

  6. Dale Tuck Says:

    There are four issues here, one, who is God?; two, Who is Esau?; three, who is Jacob?; and four, why is the definition of hate so important here?

    Let’s discuss God (The Father). God is eternal and knows all things. In reality, God has already achieved his objective of identifying all those that are to enter into His kingdom. Therefore, He knows all of us and all of our acts, before we are born. Are we elected/chosen in God’s eyes? He is the one to choose us, we do not get the right to determine if we are good enough to enter his kingdom. Bottom line, we are already in heaven (or not) in God’s eyes.

    Now, Esau was highly favoured by Issac and would have been the son that was intended to carry on the family tradition. Even after all of this privelege and education, Esau gave it all up for a simple bowl of pottage (he was hungry). What would the eternal God have thought of this kind of belittlement and rejection? Fury, hatred, I would think so. Would he have continued to want this individual to lead his people, I think not! Did he favour Esau? Of course, he was the offspring of Abraham. However, would he be favoured to enter heaven? I think not, but then again, that election is up to God not me.

    Who is Jacob (the future Israel)? Without the education and the favour of his father Issac, Jacob wanted what Esau was throwing away. Would that not be significant in God’s eyes? I would think it would.

    Why is hate so important? This story is a reference for all of us. He knows each and every one of us as well as he knows Esau and Jacob. Does he hate any one of us. Well, how do you treat God and what he has offered you?

    Note the present tense throughout.

  7. Dale Tuck Says:

    Love is a very important part of God, but it is not all. What did David have to say on this subject? Read Psalm 50: particularly verses 5 and 6, and verses 21 and 22. What are we to sacrifice? Is being a ‘good man” a significant enough achievement? Does not Christ require us to become ‘new” in Him – is this the sacrifice?. Is having a good life on earth really the objective here? Jesus Christ loves you but many are asked yet few chosen.

  8. Bruce Smith Says:

    I grabbed this quickly from the site:
    “Q: In Mal 1:1-4, how did God love Jacob and hate Esau?
    A: Three points to consider in the answer.
    People, not a person: The context of this is stated to be the “land” (Malachi 1:3) and of a “wicked people” (Malachi 1:4). This was written long after Esau had died. When Critics Ask p.323 discusses this aspect more.
    Degrees of love: As R.C. Sproul says in Now That’s A Good Question p.570, this is also a Jewish idiom called antithetical parallelism. This shows not hatred of Esau’s descendants, but the differential between the degree of love given to Jacob and withheld from Esau. See the discussion on Romans 9:13 for more info on God having “the right” to have a special love for some that He withholds from others. Hard Sayings of the Bible p.347-348 and Haley’s Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible p.97-98 also discuss this Hebrew idiom of “loving less”.
    Terms of a Treaty: Walt Kaiser in A History of Israel p.389-392 mentions that these words, “love” and “hate” have been found in treaties of this time. He gives three references of places where “love” and “hate” are used in suzerainty (pronounced SUZ-ren-ty) treaties to indicate “chosen” and “rejected”. This is consistent with the Old Testament use of “covenant-love”, which means only secondarily an emotion and primarily a choice.”

  9. Dale Tuck Says:

    Hard Sayings of the Bible

    It surprises me when people mention this issue. It is quite possible that I have totally confused this here but I really don’t think so.

    When these comments are made in the bible, it is clearly shown from elsewhere in scripture that the individual or group spoken of has already (in God’s eyes) passed or failed the test. You state correctly in quotations that God has “the right” to make the statement because He is the Right. However, it is hard to find a situation where God seems unjustified (even in our own human eyes) in making such a “decision” unless, of course, we are of the opinion that “everyone is good and deserves the right to enter heaven”.

    Maybe this comes from the singular desire on our part to “fill the empty pews” with the simple prayer that somehow, God will send these individuals the light.

    Is that where Christianity has failed or become irrelevant and sometimes ridiculous for many?

  10. Bruce Smith Says:

    Thanks Dale for the interesting thoughts. Certainly salvation is not by our own merit but through faith in Jesus Christ who paid for our sin on the cross. I was totally lost in sin until the day that my heart was changed by the Holy Spirit. The only righteousness I have is Christ’s righteousness and praise alone be to God for such mercy!

    With regard to this entry: I think all of this is simply a basic attempt to understand more clearly what the text means. The concept that God “hates” someone before birth is generally confined to the story of Esau and his descendants (Edom) in the Bible. It is a common rule of interpretation that it is wise not to build significant doctrine on texts that are unclear or uncommon. It is because of this that it seemed wise to take a moment to pause in order to gain a better understanding of this important text. So, the questions that I have are whether Esau was the only one God hated before birth; or if this concept of God’s pre-birth “hatred” for can be extrapolated outward from this one example to (some) all those who are not elect; or whether the English translations are not as clear as they could be in the way they have handled this of this particular issue?

    Certainly, this is not about filling pews for there are churches that take various positions on this who are empty and others that do so which are full. Ultimately, the issue for me revolves around the question of which of these positions best describes what the text is actually saying.

    Thanks for reading and I really appreciate the fact that you are seeking God’s Will in your life. May He bless you richly as you walk with Him.

  11. eze Says:

    Thanks for your thoughts here. But am yet to be convinced why God favored Jacob? It means God approves favoritism. In terms of Esau having possessions, can we say it was God who blessed him as even it was not stated how he got them? Someone can get material possession in other means apart from God.

    Okay, assuming the blessings were of God, are there not obligations a father owes to his children? and we know that obligations may not be born out of love but just sense of responsibility. If someone has children, he has the responsibility to provide them with the necessities of life and may not be out of love for any or all of them.

    I still have a query concerning God loving the whole world (John 3:16) and at the same time he said in John 14:21 that he will love those who love him. Is there no contradiction? If God is generous with his love, i mean he should do everything possible for everyone irrespective of such persons love for him. His love is not unconditional.

  12. eze Says:

    But am yet to be convinced why God favored Jacob? It means God approves favoritism. In terms of Esau having possessions, can we say it was God who blessed him as even it was not stated how he got them? Someone can get material possession in other means apart from God.

    Okay, assuming the blessings were of God, are there not obligations a father owes to his children? and we know that obligations may not be born out of love but just sense of responsibility. If someone has children, he has the responsibility to provide them with the necessities of life and may not be out of love for any or all of them.

    I still have a query concerning God loving the whole world (John 3:16) and at the same time he said in John 14:21 that he will love those who love him. Is there no contradiction? If God is generous with his love, i mean he should do everything possible for everyone irrespective of such persons love for him. His love is not unconditional.

  13. Bruce Smith Says:

    Thanks eze for the interesting thoughts. You raise some questions that are really stretching.

    The first question regarding whether God shows favoritism is particularly interesting. Based on this passage, and from my perspective, it appears that the answer is a “yes.” God does favor some over others. As one reads the book of Genesis for example, there are many examples of this. Abraham chose Ishmael yet God chose Isaac; Isaac chose Esau but God chose Jacob; Jacob chose Joseph and God chose Judah and on and on it goes throughout the rest of the Scriptures. Even with Jesus, the seventy were closer to the crowds that followed him; the twelve were closer than the seventy; the three (James, Peter and John) were closer to him than the rest of the twelve and the disciple that Jesus loved (the Apostle John) was closest of all.

    Now, just because God favored one over another, it does not that mean that he did not love all the rest. And to a large degree, this is the point of the post.

    You have also raised another interesting thought with regard to the types of love listed in John 3:16 and John 14:21. Is it contradictory to say that God loved the whole world so much that he sent his son to die on the cross for sin and the idea that those who do God’s will are those who love him and that those who love him are also loved by the father? My first answer to this would be to say that the passage in no way states that God doesn’t (in some way) love the person who doesn’t love him. Here it is in the NIV:

    “21 Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”

    As we can see from this verse, it no where contradicts the notion that God loves the whole world. Yet from another level, we must understand that those who are truly born again of the Spirit of God will demonstrate this love relationship through obedience. For this person there is the promise of a love that is far deeper than that which can be experienced by the person who has not entered into that type of relationship with Jesus Christ. It was because of God’s deep love for a lost humanity that the Father did not spare his son but made him a ransom for us. Yet this relationship can only take its deepest significance when a sinner turns from his sin and embraces the savior. For those who refuse to put their faith in the savior, there will be a day of accountability. As we read in the NIV in Matthew 25:31ff.,

    31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ 44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ 45 “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ 46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

    So, God has a perfect understanding of what eternity is like for those who have been separated from himself because of sin. God made us in his likeness and in his image and in love sent his son to be our only possible savior. Those who embrace Jesus Christ by faith experience deeper dimensions of his love and mercy than those who do not do so. It is because of this that those who refuse his offer of mercy will then be called to account and judgment for all that they have done. So we have love and justice both working perfect accord. Some men will experience more of God’s love and others will experience more of God’s justice. Let the redeemed of the Lord pray and work toward the joy of the former so that fewer will suffer the latter.

    I hope that my answers are tracking with your questions eze, and if not, it would be great to converse with you more about it.


  14. Lois Says:

    ((He is the one to choose us, we do not get the right to determine if we are good enough to enter his kingdom. Bottom line, we are already in heaven (or not) in God’s eyes. ))

    Yes, the good, perfect, immortal man of God’s creation already is in heaven in God’s eyes. And the mortal, sinning, dying man is already dust in God’s eyes as well. However that doesn’t divide the race up into different classes. Instead, it divides only ourselves against ourselves: which man do we identity with? Do we identify with our Esau dust self, or do we identify with our eternal divine self , the self that God made in His own image and likeness? Of the latter, John says, “it doth not yet appear what we shall be ” meaning that we do not yet see the full manifestation of our perfect selfhood. However, we, like Jacob can choose to identify with our God-made self here and now and doing that, we will gradually see more and more of it. Jacob beheld Esau’s face even as the son of God, so evidently even Esau was a son of God who will at some point in his spiritual journey have to forsake his dust self and choose his eternal Godlike self, so that he might enjoy it.

  15. John Teets Says:

    This seems to be an issue for some people but I am not sure why?I am saved by His grace. By believing and accepting his death (shedding of his blood) and his resurrection from the dead unto eternal life. What does it matter if God chose me or not? God is God he can do as he pleases! If a person never receives salvation and dies is that Gods choice or theirs? I’m not sure what the benefit is to believing one way or another? I certainly believe I am saved by his grace. I have a friend and we both read His word. I acted upon His word by faith and my friend did not believe. Was that our choices or was that God predestining me to salvation and rejecting my friend? Does it Matter? God is God! However He chooses to to deal with His creation is fine with me. I will praise Him in whatever state I am in just because He is God! Is it wrong to feel this way? I tell people of Gods goodness to me and share his word and pray for others to receive salvation. Is that wrong? Is it a waste of time? I don’t think it is. God already knows who will or will not be saved. I just can’t see what the issue truly is!

  16. Bruce Smith Says:

    Thanks John for your comment and you make a great point in what you are saying. You love Christ and you trust his goodness without question. That is the way it should be for all of us.
    I wrote the post because many Christians really struggle with these verses, and honestly, I was among those who did for many years. I couldn’t understand why God “hated” someone before he was even born as this seemed to be inconsistent with the rest of Scripture. It was a relief to me when I was directed to Kaiser’s essay and learned that God didn’t hate Esau in the way that we 21st century American’s think in terms of the word “hate”. Thanks so much for taking the time to share so thoughtfully and I pray that God will continue to bless you in your unwavering trust in Jesus.

  17. bography Says:

    Here is Spurgeon on Jacob and Esau

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