Why Did God Hate Esau?
“Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” Romans 9:13
You’re not going find this verse on a coffee mug at your local Christian bookstore. If we’re honest, it makes God sound unfair, doesn’t it? Especially when we take in to account that God’s treatment of Jacob and Esau is something he determined before they’d even been born “and had done nothing either good or bad” (Romans 9:11). So did God just decide to hate Esau for no good reason? How do we make sense of this?
We use the words “love” and “hate” today, usually to describe intense emotions. But we can’t assume that Paul uses them the same way that we might. Instead, he uses a Hebrew figure of speech that pairs absolute terms to stress contrast. Jesus does the same thing when he says that we cannot be his disciples unless we “hate” our families (Luke 14:26), whereas in Matthew 10:37 he simply warns us against loving them more than him.
Jesus, of course, talks about a way of life, not merely emotions. Similarly, rather than describing God’s emotions in this verse, Paul describes his actions. It’s important to remember this so that we don’t interpret this text as saying that God had an intense hatred of Esau (v. 13) before Esau ever gave God a reason to (v. 11).
Instead, “love” refers to God’s act of choosing Jacob, while “hate” refers to his not choosing Esau. He’s not saying that God chose Jacob because he loved him and rejected Esau because he hated him, but rather “Jacob I chose…Esau I rejected.” It’s another way for Paul to say what he has been saying since verse 6.
To be clear: this is still a difficult verse and section. It teaches that God elects some to salvation and not others, and that he has reasons for doing that we don’t and can’t understand. Paul addresses some objections to this in the rest of chapter 9. But let’s be clear that verse 13 isn’t saying that God had an arbitrary, intense hatred of Esau, but instead that he didn’t choose him.