“Jacob I loved, Esau I hated". What is the meaning?[1]

Peter Paul Rubens, The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, 1624

(Image courtesy Wikipedia)

Spencer D Gear

There has been for centuries a debate on the means that God uses to bring people to salvation. One Calvinist takes the view that Romans 9:13 refers to ‘a declaration of the sovereign counsel of God as it is concerned with the ultimate destinies of men’ (John Murray).[2] Another Calvinist (Douglas Moo) states that this

passage gives strong exegetical support to a traditional Calvinistic interpretation of God’s election: God chooses those who will be saved on the basis of his own will and not on the basis of anything – works or faith, whether foreseen or not – in those human beings so chosen.[3]

Calvinist Charles Hodge affirmed that

God is perfectly sovereign in the distribution of his favours, that the ground of his selecting one and rejecting another is not their work, but his own good pleasure…. Thus Meyer says, “God does not act unjustly in his sovereign choice; since he claims for himself in the Scriptures the liberty to favour or to harden, whom he will.[4]

The contrasting view of Norman Geisler is that, loving Jacob and hating Esau,

one of the strongest verses used by extreme Calvinists does not prove that God hates the non-elect or even that He does not love them. It simply means that God’s love for those who receive salvation looks so much greater than His love for those who reject it that the latter looks like hatred by comparison.[5]

Lutheran exegete, the late R. C. H. Lenski, wrote of Romans 9:13 that the Israelites (national, not individual) should have recognised what God had done for them by his grace through promises to them. This grace should have caused all of them to become ‘the children of promise’ (v. 8). But it didn’t and they chose the opposite, refused faith and became stubborn in their presumptuous, outrageous unbelief.[6]

Evangelical Arminians state that:

The Calvinist methodology of interpreting Jacob and Esau as a representation of how individuals are chosen then is a decontextualized over-stretching of the analogy, and thus fundamentally flawed. The context of the chapter plainly dictates that the analogies demonstrate the choosing of one group over the other according to God’s eternal purpose in Christ.

So, what does Romans 9:13 mean? Is it promoting Calvinistic double predestination – some to salvation and the rest to damnation? Or is it contrasting election for the destinies of the nation of Israel and the nation of Edom?

Romans 9:10-13 reads:

And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11though 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— 12she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (ESV).

There is a tendency among some Christians to understand this passage as referring to individual salvation, thus supporting a Calvinistic view of election to individual salvation, interpreting it as meaning God loved Jacob and he was saved, but hated Esau and he was lost.

However people fail to realise that the context of Romans 9 in which v. 13 appears is not referring to individual salvation but Paul is talking about nations. We know in this passage from the OT:

And the LORD said to her,
Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the older shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23, emphasis added).

Back in this Genesis context, Esau as an individual did not serve Jacob. It was the opposite. The evidence from Genesis 33:1-3 is that Jacob was “bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother [Esau]” (Gen. 33:3) and Jacob addressed Esau as “my lord” (Gen. 33:8, 13). In fact, Jacob said to Esau that Jacob was “your servant” (Gen. 33:5). It was Jacob who wanted Esau to “accept my blessing” (presents) and Jacob said that Esau’s face was “like seeing the face of God” (Gen. 33:10-11).

So we know from this Genesis 33 context that Esau as an individual did not “serve” his younger brother, Jacob. It was the nation of Esau (Edom) that served the nation of Jacob (Israel).

So what is the point that Paul is making in Romans 9? God’s choice of Jacob was God’s choice of the nation of Israel over the nation of Edom and that choice was made while they were still in the womb before they had committed neither good nor evil. This was a plan that God had made, the choice of a nation –Israel – and it was not based on human merit. Calvinistic commentator, F. F. Bruce, stated of Rom. 9:13 that it was “from Malachi 1:2 f, where again the context indicates it is the NATIONS of Israel and Edom, rather than their individual ancestors Jacob and Esau, that are in view”.

What is the meaning of “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated”? Does God indicate what he means by “loved” vs “hated”? We get some concept from Genesis 29:30-31,

So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah, and served Laban for another seven years. 31When the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren (ESV).

There is an indication here that “hated” means loved less than. We see this kind of view with the comparison of two NT passages that discuss the same event:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26 ESV, emphasis added)

The parallel passage is in Matt. 10:37,

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me (ESV).

So the comparison of these two passages shows us that the word “hate” can not be taken literally, but it implies “love more than”. Even a Calvinistic commentator, John Murray, agrees:

It has been maintained that the word “hate” means “to love less, to regard and treat with less favour“. Appeal can be made to various passages where this meaning holds (cf. Gen. 29:32, 33; Deut. 21:15; Matt. 6:24; 10:37, 38; Luke 14:26; John 12:25). It would have to be admitted that this meaning would provide for the differentiation which must be posited.[8]

So when the Bible uses the contrast of “hate” vs “love”, it signifies that hate means “love less than”. This is the meaning we find in the passage from which Paul seems to have quoted in Malachi 1:2-3,

“I have loved you,” says the LORD. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the LORD. “Yet I have loved Jacob 3but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert” (ESV).

In Malachi 1, the prophet dresses down Israel in a firm – even angry – way, so he cannot be seeing any merit in the nation of Israel. The parallel in Romans 9 has Paul to correct is opponents who believed that the works of the law were the reason God chose Israel and provided them with the way to holiness (Rom. 9:30-33).

Lenski, provides this exegesis of Romans 9:13:

The statement cited from Mal. 1:2, 3: “Jacob I treated with an act of love but Esau with an act of hate,” is used by Paul as corroborating the promise of Genesis: “Even as it has been written” (the perfect: and is thus still on record). The [Greek] aorists egapesa and emisesa might be constative and summarize God’s different treatment of the two nations until Malachi’s time. But Paul treats this passage in the same way as he treated Gen. 25:23; he takes out of each only what pertains to Jacob and to Esau personally and omits the rest. So we translate the two aorists with reference to the two individual acts when God took Jacob and did not take Esau. The passage is excellently chosen for bringing out what we have repeatedly said regarding Paul’s illustrating how the Israelites got all the gifts mentioned in v. 4, 5. When Israel asked wherein the Lord had loved them they were answered: “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother? Yet I loved Jacob and hated Esau.” Had Jacob a greater claim to be the next patriarch than Esau? Why, they were twin brothers! Let the Israelites look at their array of blessings (v. 4, 5) and see in them God’s gratuitous gifts of love.

That is the great point here. The Israelites should have recognized what God had done for them with his grace and his gratuitous promises. They should have recognized the gratuity that made these the pure promises they were. They should, every last one of them, have become “the children of the promise” (v. 8). They did nothing of the kind. They did the exact opposite. They refused faith; they became obdurate in unbelief and in their unbelief grew presumptuous. Outrageous! When Paul thought of it, it nearly broke his heart. To use such blessings only for their own damnation – incredible but, alas, a fact!

“I did hate” is highly anthropopathic but refers to the effect that Esau was not made the third patriarch and not the affect. Hate is used comparatively to love. On this use compare Gen. 29:30, 31; Deut. 21:15-17; Prov. 13:24; Matt. 10:37 and its restatement in Luke 14:26; finally, John 12:25…. Sufficient has been said regarding the Calvinistic interpretation.[9]

Both OT and NT demonstrate that God’s choice of the nation of Israel (Jacob) over the nation of Edom (Esau) was not because of Israel’s good works, but because of God’s choice – His plan. So in Rom. 9:13, God’s love of Jacob and hatred of Esau meant that God chose to give the nation of Israel a special place in His plan for history. It was not based on any goodness or righteousness of the nation of Israel. It was God’s way of planning the unfolding of history.

Anglican commentator, the late Leon Morris, in his commentary on the book of Romans gave this meaning of Romans 9:13:

Characteristically Paul backs up his argument with a quotation from Scripture, this one from Malachi 1:2-3: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated”…. We have just seen that the Genesis passage refers primarily to nations and we would expect that to continue here. That this is the case seems clear from what Malachi writes about Esau: “Esau I have hated, and I have turned his mountains into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals (Mal. 1:3). Both in Genesis and Malachi the reference is clearly to nations, and we should accept this as Paul’s meaning accordingly.[10]

Norman Geisler pointedly summarised the facts from Romans 9 to contradict the view that God is not perfectly good [11] or does not have moral perfection in Romans 9:13, “Jacob I loved, Esau I hated”. This is the objection that Geisler is answering:

According to Romans 9, God loved Jacob and hated Esau (v. 13); He has mercy on some but not on others (v. 15) (v. 15); He destines some to destruction and not others (v. 18). From these examples, it seems obvious that God is not omnibenevolent when it comes to salvation.[12]

Geisler provides these responses:[13]

1. The passage in Romans 9 is not speaking of election of individuals but of nations, the nation of Edom that came from Esau (cf. Mal. 1:2) and the nation of Israel that came from Jacob (cf. Rom. 9:2-3).

2. Individuals and their election to salvation are not being addressed, but Israel is chosen as a nation, a ‘channel through which the eternal blessing of salvation, through Christ, would come to all (cf. Gen. 12:1-3; Rom. 9:4-5)’. However, even though Israel as a nation was chosen by God, not all individuals in Israel were elected to salvation (Rom. 9:6).

3. The use of the word, hate (Greek emisesa, from miseo) means ‘to love less’ or ‘to regard with less affection’ and does not mean ‘not to love at all’ or ‘not to will the good of a person’.[14] This is seen in the phrases used in Gen. 29:30-31, ‘loved Rachel more than Leah’ which is used as equivalent to ‘Leah was hated’ (see also Matt. 10:37).

4. See the example of Pharaoh hardening his own heart against God (see Ex. 7:13-14; 8:15, 19, 32) before God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 9:12). Why were the 10 plagues sent on Egypt? They were to convince Pharaoh to repent. He refused to repent and so his heart was hardened as a result of Pharaoh’s own actions. Geisler uses the example of how sun melts wax but hardens clay. ‘The problem is not with the source but with the receptivity of the agent on which it is acting’.[15]

5. The ‘vessels of wrath’ (Rom. 9:22 ESV, NKJV) were not destined to be destroyed against their own will. They were destroyed because they rejected God and 2 Peter 3:9 states that the Lord ‘is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance’ (ESV).

Even such a prominent Calvinist as Charles H. Spurgeon stated,

I cannot imagine a more ready instrument in the hands of Satan for the ruin of souls than a minister who tells sinners it is not their duty to repent of their sins [and] who has the arrogance to call himself a gospel minister, while he teaches that God hates some men infinitely and unchangeably for no reason whatever but simply because he chooses to do so. O my brethren! May the Lord save you from the charmer, and keep you ever deaf to the voice of error.[16]


We can conclude that Romans 9:13 does not refer to double-predestination of the Calvinists (some predestined to salvation and the rest predestined to damnation). Rather, it refers to two nations, Israel (Jacob) and Edom (Esau) that were chosen when the individual men were in the womb. It is not referring to God’s unconditional election of some to salvation – those whom God loved – and the remainder, whom God hated, to damnation. With Charles Spurgeon we echo the theme that it is ‘the voice of error’, an instrument of Satan, to not tell all people (sinners) that it is their duty to repent of their sins.


[1] Much of this material has been gleaned from Roger T. Forster & V. Paul Marston 1973. God’s Strategy in Human History. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., ch. 9, pp. 59-62. This is by far the finest explanation I have read of the meaning of “Jacob I loved, Esau I hated” in Rom. 9:13.

[2] John Murray 1968. The Epistle to the Romans (vol. 2). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., p. 24. This is the one-volume edition that contains Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, but the page numbers start at the beginning for each volume.

[3] Douglas J. Moo 1996. The Epistle to the Romans (The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, p. 587.

[4] Charles Hodge 1972. A Commentary on Romans (The Geneva Series of Commentaries). London: The Banner of Truth Trust, p. 312. The original edition was in 1835, with a revised edition in 1864.

[5] Norman Geisler 1999. Chosen But Free. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, p. 83. Dave Hunt considers that Rom. 9:13 is ‘not about salvation of individuals but concerning blessing and judgment upon nations descended from Jacob and Esau’ (Dave Hunt & James White 2004. Debating Calvinism. Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, p. 105).

[6] R. C. H. Lenski 1936. Commentary on the New Testament: The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers (this edition was published by Hendrickson in 2001), pp. 604-605.

[7] Christian Forums, Baptists, “Questions for Arminians on their assurance of salvation”, Skala #208, available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7584042-21/ (Accessed 28 August 2011).

[8] John Murray 1968, The Epistle to the Romans, Part 2 (The New International Commentary on the New Testament). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., p. 21. This is a one-volume edition that consists of Part 1 (published 1959) and Part 2 (published 1965). The numbering for the two parts is retained as two separate volumes in this one-volume edition. Part 1 covers Romans, chapters 1-8; Part 2, chapters 9-16.

[9] R. C. H. Lenski op cit, pp. 604-605.

[10] Leon Morris 1988. The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company / Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, pp.356-357.

[11] Geisler used the term, “omnibenevolent”. Reference.com gives the meaning of omnibenevolence as ‘defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “unlimited or infinite benevolence“. It is a technical term used in the academic literature on the philosophy of religion, often in the context of the problem of evil and in theodical responses, and even in such context, the phrases “perfect goodness” or “moral perfection” are often preferred’. Available at: http://www.reference.com/browse/wiki/Omnibenevolence (Accessed 28 August 2011).

[12] Dr. Norman Geisler 2004. Systematic Theology (vol. 3: Sin, Salvation). Minneapolis, Minnesota: BethanyHouse, p. 195.

[13] Ibid., pp. 195-196.

[14] Geisler uses the comparison with Luke 14:26 where Jesus stated, ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters-yes, even his own life-he cannot be my disciple’.

[15] Ibid., p. 196.

[16] Iain H. Murray 1995. Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism: A Battle for Gospel Preaching. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, pp. 155-156.

Copyright © 2014 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 08 May 2020.