Romans 9:13-15: Is God Unjust?
Is God fair? Does he treat us unjustly? These natural human questions are only magnified when we read passages like "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated" (Rom 9:13). Yet Paul himself wrestled with precisely this question as he reflected on Judaism's rejection of Christ in light of Old Testament passages. What these Old Testament passages, appealed to by Paul, seem to reveal is a sovereign arbitrariness in God's dealing with human beings. Statements like "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated" provoke from us the question: But why? What did they do to deserve either God's love or his hate? Our sense regarding some injustice here increases when we read in 9:11 that decisions about Jacob and Esau were made "before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad."
The "hardness" of this text arises at least in part both from assumptions which we tend to bring to it and from our neglect regarding the flow and content of the surrounding text.
Paul anticipates the reader's response to the apparent injustice of God. In words reminiscent of those put to Job (Job 9:12; 40:2), he begins by questioning the appropriateness of even raising such questions (Rom 9:20). Then he drives home the point by citing Isaiah 29:16 and 45:9: "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, `Why did you make me like this?' " (Rom 9:20-21).
Paul's point is, of course, that the question "Is God unjust?" arises from our human propensity to measure and critique God's ways on our terms. To even raise the question of unfairness assumes that we know what fairness in its final, absolute sense looks like. That is the creature's presumptuousness. Since we do not know the mind of God nor can we fathom his ways (Rom 11:33-34), we are not in a very good position to judge God's purposes. We see and experience only pieces; we see but poor reflections in a mirror and know only partially (1 Cor 13:12); we perceive God's revelation in the context of our earthen vessels (2 Cor 4:7). Only God sees the whole, and from that perspective what may seem "unjust" to us will finally be revealed as God's saving grace.
We bring another assumption to this text which skews our hearing of it in a particular direction. Because of certain inherited theological traditions, we tend to hear this text in terms of predestination and eternal destiny. This theological tradition holds that our eternal destiny has been predetermined. The inevitable question to such a view is the one which Paul's hypothetical reader asks: "Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?" (Rom 9:19).
This question has validity only if Paul is in fact concerned here with the matter of individuals' eternal destiny. On close reading of the passage, however, it becomes clear that he is not speaking about salvation and eternal destiny, but about God's calling of individuals and peoples to service, and God's use of events and persons in the accomplishment of his redemptive purposes, namely the salvation of both Jews and Gentiles.
Let us attempt to hear Paul's argument clearly. He begins his consideration of the fate of his own people by recalling all that God had done for them and given them (Rom 9:1-5). The purpose of Israel's calling is to be a vehicle for the realization of "the promise" (Rom 9:4, 8-9)--the promise made to Abraham that through his descendants "all peoples on earth will be blessed" (Gen 12:1-3). Paul saw this promise as finding fulfillment in Christ (see Gal 3:15-18), through whose death both Jew and Gentile would be brought into God's family (Gal 3:28-29).
Yet the reality which Paul, and with him all Jewish Christians, faced was the rejection of Jesus by the people of Israel as a whole. Had God's word failed? (Rom 9:6). In answering this question, Paul shows, by reciting Old Testament events, that God chooses ways and means for accomplishing his redemptive purposes, and that even the present rejection of the Messiah by Israel is used by God toward that end. Not all the children of Abraham are part of the line which leads to the Christ. Isaac, the son promised to Sarah, becomes the vehicle (Rom 9:6-9). Jacob not Esau, is used by God for moving toward the fulfillment of the promise (Rom 9:10-13). God's choices have nothing to do with human merit or status or achievement (Rom 9:11-12). Isaac was not better than his brother Ishmael; Jacob not better than his brother Esau. In other words, they were not "more deserving." In fact, on purely human terms, Jacob's deception should have made him less deserving (Gen 25, 27).
At this point, Paul cites the prophetic word regarding Rebekah's unborn twins: "The older will serve the younger" (Gen 25:23). This is not a statement so much of predestination as of prophetic foreknowledge. The historical record reveals that Edom frequently was dominated by Israel and forced to pay tribute (2 Sam 8:13; 1 Kings 11:14-22). For Paul, confirmation for this prophecy regarding the future of Jacob and Esau (and their offspring) is found in Malachi 1:2-3, which he quotes in Romans 9:13.
In the use of this word from Malachi about God's love for Jacob and hate for Esau, two things are to be noted. First, it is the prophet's concern to demonstrate God's love for Israel (Jacob's descendants), in order to go on to show that her unfaithfulness deserves God's judgment. The Edomites (Mal 1:4) are the descendants of Esau, who stand in a relationship of enmity with Israel. According to Malachi 1:3-4, they have apparently suffered military defeat, and the prophet sees this as evidence of God's judgment (1:4-5). Since God is using Israel to accomplish his purposes--despite her frequent rebellions--Edom's enmity sets it squarely against the purposes of God.
The expression "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated" must be understood in this historical context. In contrast with God's obvious love for Israel, the situation of Edom could only be interpreted as evidence of God's lesser regard for it. The strong expression "Esau I hated" must be seen as a typical example of Eastern hyperbole, which expresses things in terms of extremes. Further, in the Hebrew language "to love" often means "to favor," and "to hate" can mean "to favor or to love less." Note, for example, that in Genesis 29:31, 33, the RSV renders the Hebrew word hate literally, while the NIV renders the word with "not loved." That rendering recognizes, in light of Genesis 29:30, that Jacob loved Leah less than Rachel; he did not "hate" her. (See also Deut 21:15-17, where the Hebrew word for hated is rendered "not loved" in the NIV and "disliked" in the RSV.)
Neither in Malachi nor in Paul's use of it is there then any warrant for the idea that God has determined in advance the eternal destinies of either the people of Israel or the people of Edom. The historical situations of the two nations, their "election" or "rejection," are but temporary evidences of God's sovereign freedom with which he moves history toward his redemptive purposes. "God so loved the world" (Jn 3:16), including Jacob and Esau, Israel and Edom, Jew and Gentile.
This redemptive purpose is strongly underlined by Paul's citation of Exodus 33:19 in Romans 9:15. God's mercy and compassion are absolutely free and at his sovereign disposal. No one can earn them; no one deserves them. Even the hardening of Pharaoh's heart, to which Paul refers in Romans 9:17-18, is to be subsumed under the activity of God's mercy and compassion for his broken creation. For its purpose is that God's name "might be proclaimed in all the earth" (Rom 9:17). Thus, what from the limited vantage point of our human observation seems "unjust" is in fact only a misunderstanding of the mysterious workings of God's mercy.