Jacob, Esau, Moses, and Pharaoh

This post is part of the Series "Understanding What the Bible Says About Election"

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Jacob and Esau

After using the illustration of Isaac and Ishmael, Paul uses the story of Jacob and Esau as his next illustration of what happens when the people of God reject the one God has chosen:

For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though 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—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 9:9–13)

God’s choice of Isaac over Ishmael created controversy, but His choice of Jacob over Esau creates even more. God chooses Jacob, and not Esau, to carry the promise and advance His redemptive purpose. As they both grow, we see that Esau is the oldest, strongest, and seemingly the best qualified one to carry the family’s name. Jacob is weak with an incredibly flawed character. Even his name highlights the fact that his character is flawed. Esau is the most qualified, but God passes over him and chooses Jacob. Again, God chooses the man who has to be supernaturally brought into his promise, rather than the child who possesses natural strength. We would have bypassed Jacob, but God does not in order to demonstrate the glory of His salvation.

This passage is often viewed as a summary of God’s decision to save Jacob and damn Esau. However, that is not the main point of the story. The story is emphasizing the point that Paul made in the story of Isaac and Ishmael. God’s election of individuals for his redemptive purposes can actually cause the people of God to fall away. To recognize what Paul is saying, we need to look very carefully at what he says.

Paul tells us first that, before Jacob and Esau were born and before they had done anything good or bad, God chooses Jacob. Thus, we see God does not respond to human effort. He selects Jacob for His own reasons. Esau’s strength did not impress God. Jacob was the younger and, therefore, not naturally positioned to receive the family inheritance, and yet God chooses the weaker brother with deep character flaws. We would have bypassed Jacob, but God did not in order to demonstrate the glory of His salvation.

Paul’s next phrase is the key phrase emphasizing just why we must correctly understand this story. Paul says that God chooses Jacob so that the “purpose of election” might stand. God has a purpose in election that we must recognize. If we miss the purpose of election, we will miss Paul’s explanation of Israel’s crisis and his warning about the seriousness of recognizing God’s election.

Most people assume the purpose of election is for God to demonstrate His right to save Jacob and not save Esau. God certainly has that right, but that is not Paul’s main point here. Paul’s readers would have assumed God, as Creator, could do anything He wants with His creation. God’s right to save one and not save another merely on His own ability to choose apart from their works was not a radical point for Paul’s readers. There is another purpose for election that Paul wants us to recognize in order to help understand Israel’s crisis through the rejection of Jesus.

The purpose of election is to demonstrate that all are unworthy and all are unrighteous. No one is better qualified to be chosen than another. God picks Jacob, and Jacob’s flaws graphically illustrate how unqualified He is. Israel’s sins throughout history have illustrated how unworthy Israel is. However, Jacob’s failure, like Israel’s failure, is not because Jacob is any worse than any other. If God has picked Esau, the one who appears strongest, Esau would have failed in his calling as well because Jacob’s failure demonstrates the human situation. Jacob’s failure is human. Israel’s failure is the failure of humanity.

So, regardless of whether God chooses Jacob or Esau, either one will fail in his calling. If God chooses a massive nation rather than a small nation like Israel for His purposes, that nation will fail as well. However, if God choses Esau, we would have to assume God responds to human strength and our “goodness” is attractive to Him. By choosing Jacob, God thunders throughout history that He is not moved by the strength or appearance of man. He can accomplish His purposes through the weakest just as easily as the He can through those we perceive to be strong.

God had to elect the weaker one so that we can know His love is expressed without regard to what we can offer Him as humans. When we understand this correctly, it liberates us to know God’s mercy towards us is on the basis of His goodness towards us. It’s not a response to our own goodness. God is not impressed by what humanity considers strong, smart, or good. He loves us because He is good, not because we are good or because He sees something in us that He responds to. He responds to us out of the goodness of who He is and not the goodness of who we are.

Genesis emphasizes this point when it tells the story of how Esau sold his birthright. Esau came in exhausted and hungry from working and desperately wanted something to eat. Jacob offered him something to eat if Esau would give him his birthright. That exchange perfectly illustrates God’s purpose in election. Esau’s strength became his weakness. When he was exhausted, he was willing to trade anything to replenish his strength. His strength was ultimately a liability and did not qualify him for the call of God. Jacob was willing to scheme to try to obtain what God had promised him, also demonstrating how unworthy he was of the call of God (Genesis 25:29-34; 27:5-41).

God also demonstrates the supernatural nature of His salvation by choosing Jacob. Because of who Jacob was, there was no question that God had to do something supernatural to transform Jacob into the leader of a nation. Because of his natural gifting, had God chosen Esau, we might be tempted to think God simply needed to enhance Esau’s natural ability to bring His purposes to past. When God chooses Jacob, we recognize that our salvation must be supernatural. God partners with us deeply, but He does not accomplish His purposes on the basis of our human strength. God must transform us by the power of His Spirit and make us new in order for us to fulfill our calling. This is why Jesus says that we cannot enter the kingdom without being “born again” by the Spirit (John 3:3-8). God’s election demonstrates the supernatural nature of His salvation because the individual who God elects cannot fulfill their calling apart from God’s power.

This should liberate us to approach God with boldness and give courage to those who feel most disqualified to receive His love. However, God’s election actually provokes self-righteousness because we are deeply committed to the fact we are inherently good and have something to offer God. When God picks someone who is “unqualified,” we should rejoice at His goodness; instead, we rage against God or against the person He chose because He did not choose us or He did not choose according to our value system. We would have chosen Esau because he was strong. God choose another, and the nations have raged against that choice ever since. Israel would have chosen a strong leader to liberate her from Rome, but God choose Jesus and sent Him as a suffering servant, and both Israel and the nations have raged against that choice.

God’s election illustrates the condition of the human heart, both in how God elects and in how we respond to His election. This is the purpose of election that Paul wants us to recognize. God’s election cuts to the deepest issues of the heart, and we have to recognize it. It cuts so deeply that the elect people, Israel, can end up cut off (Romans 9:6) from the benefits of their election because of offense at how God chooses to bring them into their calling. Paul is not in agony because Israel is no longer elect. In fact, he affirms the opposite. Israel remains elect; however, within the elect nation of Israel are individual Israelites who are cut off from the elect nation because of their rejection of the man God has chosen.

The nation of Israel remains elect. The Jewish people remain elect in the purposes of God. However, Jewish individuals, though born elect, can end up cut off just as Ishmael and Esau did over a rejection of God’s choice of Jesus. This is why we must see that Paul’s purpose for election here is to demonstrate the nature and goodness of God through the way He advances His redemptive purpose. When we look carefully at the way Paul tells the story, we can better understand the point he is making.

To summarize, the purpose of election here is not primarily that God elects one to be saved and one lost. It is that God uses election to expose our own self-righteousness, to demonstrate the nature of God, and to demonstrate the need for supernatural salvation to be brought into our calling. Certainly, it is within God’s right to choose some for salvation and not choose others for salvation, but that is not Paul’s primary point here, and verse 12 indicates it.

She was told, “The older will serve the younger.”

Note carefully how Paul introduces God’s election of Jacob. Given all the statements in the Old Testament about the destruction of Edom (Esau’s descendants), this would be the perfect place for Paul to quote a verse indicating God’s desire to judge and destroy Esau, but Paul does not do this. When he highlights Jacob’s election, he quotes exactly what Rebecca was told: the older will serve the younger. God’s statement over Jacob’s and Esau’s lives before they were born was simply that Jacob would be preeminent and Esau was to serve him. This is reaffirmed in Genesis 28 when God gives Jacob Abraham’s promise.

And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (vv. 28:13–15)

When God gives Jacob his call and promise in Genesis 26, He reiterates that the purpose of the call is to bring blessing on the nations. Jacob is elected to bring salvation to “all” the families or people of the earth. Therefore, the idea that Jacob’s call was at the cost of Esau’s damnation goes against the flow of the promise made. Yes, Jacob was specially chosen, but chosen for a redemptive purpose that would bring blessing to all the families of the earth—including his own family. Therefore, Jacob’s election is not Esau’s condemnation, rather it is meant to be Esau’s salvation. However, whether or not Esau participates in that salvation will be determined by how he responds to Jacob.

This is why Rebecca was not told Jacob was accepted and Esau would be rejected. God highlighted their redemptive function in His plan. Jacob would have the challenge of leading God’s redemptive purpose. Esau would have the challenge of serving Jacob. Nowhere in this language does God even hint that He has rejected Esau and has no purpose for him. God told Rebecca He had a purpose for Esau to become a leader of another nation (see Genesis 23:25). The challenge was that Esau’s nation would be called to serve Jacob’s. In order words, God elected one to a redemptive purpose, but He did not condemn Esau. Paul continues in verse 13 to summarize the history of Esau’s response:

As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

Paul moves from quoting Genesis 25 in Romans 9:12 to quoting Malachi 1 in Romans 9:13. When we recognize the use of Old Testament texts in the New Testament, we often fail to take in the entire context of the passages being quoted, but it is critical to understanding this verse. Paul’s use of the Old Testament indicates his thought process. In other words, there are reasons specific passages come to mind for Paul as he is addressing a specific topic, and we need to ask why was Paul thinking about this passage. Understanding his use of the Old Testament gives direct insight into what he was thinking. Because the Old Testament was the Bible of the early church, Paul expected his readers to be familiar with it and with the context of its passages. Therefore, when Paul quotes an Old Testament passage, he expects his reader to import the context of the passage to get his ultimate meaning.

First, we need to recognize that Malachi 1 has a very different context than Genesis 25. In Genesis 25, God elects Jacob for a redemptive purpose. In Malachi 1, God reminds Israel of her election and responds to the way Esau’s descendants raged against His election of Jacob. Malachi 1 begins with God’s addressing Israel’s complaint regarding all she has suffered. God reminds Israel that, though she sinned, she still exists as a nation. That is proof of His special love for her and the permanence of her election. This is the first reason we can see why Paul quotes this passage. Paul is burdened by the painful reality of Israel’s sin in rejecting Messiah, and yet he also emphasizes God’s love and continuing election towards Israel. In Malachi’s day, Israel had turned from God which caused Israel to experience God’s judgment for her sin. However, in the midst of that judgment, God affirmed His calling on Israel. Individual Israelites were cut off in judgment, but the nation’s promises remained. Paul sees what is happening to Israel as a similar scenario. Most of Israel has rejected Jesus as Messiah; therefore, individual Israelites are cut off, but God’s promises on the nation remain (Romans 9:6).

Malachi also records God’s response to Edom after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. God specifically addresses Edom’s attitude towards Israel in that period of tragedy. Obadiah devotes his entire book to this issue. Ezekiel summarizes it in the following way:

“Therefore, as I live, declares the Lord God, I will deal with you according to the anger and envy that you showed because of your hatred against them. And I will make myself known among them, when I judge you.” (Ezekiel 35:11)

God’s hatred for Esau in Malachi 1 flows from Esau’s attitude towards Jacob. When “Jacob” or Israel was enduring God’s judgment from the Babylonian armies, Esau saw it as an opportunity to take advantage of Israel. He joined in the plunder of the Jewish people and sought to claim Israel’s land. Ezekiel identifies the core issue in his oracle against Edom: God will judge Edom because of the anger and envy they held towards Israel. In Israel’s hour of judgment, Edom could have been gracious towards Israel, recognizing their own weakness as a people. Instead, the nation sought to take advantage of Israel’s judgment, demonstrating the envy they had for Israel’s calling. They found joy in the prospect that Israel was being humiliated, and they joined the Babylonian destruction of Israel, hoping to see Israel and her redemptive calling destroyed.

Why did Edom seek Israel’s destruction? Ezekiel makes it plain. There was jealousy over Israel’s election in the plan of God. All of this is what produces God’s statement in Malachi that he loves Jacob (Israel), but hates Esau (Edom). God did not hate Esau from the beginning. He promised to make him a nation though he did not choose him to carry the seed of redemption. God did hate Esau’s response to His election of Jacob. Esau was called to “serve the younger” but did exactly the opposite throughout history. This rejection of divine order and calling culminated in Edom’s response to the Babylonian invasion. Obadiah records God’s anger at Edom’s response because Edom is demonstrating self-righteousness by essentially rejecting God’s sovereign election and seeking her own greatness (Obadiah 2-14).

Because Esau rejected God’s election, and later sought to oppose it, God hated Edom and cut the nation off. Again, we see Paul’s grave warning. Offense at God’s election can cause a people to be cut off from Him. Esau could have received blessing as a nation that honored God’s election of Jacob. Instead, the nation was jealous of Jacob’s calling, and God hated the nation for that jealousy.

If Edom’s destruction was due to the fact that God hated Esau from the beginning, then God would have expressed that hatred in Genesis from the beginning of Esau’s life, but He didn’t. God has no problem later in the redemptive story saying He hates the descendants of Esau, so God is certainly not afraid of expressing His hatred. He doesn’t say He hates Esau when He is born because that is not the context for His anger towards Esau. In the beginning, God simply made a declaration: Esau would have to serve Jacob. Esau was given an opportunity to recognize the purpose of election—that neither he nor Jacob deserved anything. God gave Esau a purpose as the father of a nation, but Esau would have to make the decision to serve Jacob and recognize the greater calling.

Moses and Pharaoh

While there are other elements at play in the conflict between Moses and Pharaoh, it is important to recognize Paul is still thinking of the controversy of God’s election when he includes the story of Moses and Pharaoh in Romans 9.

For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” (Romans 9:15–17)

God’s election of Moses was controversial on two points. First, God’s election of Moses was extremely controversial for Israel. Because Moses is so deeply associated with the Jewish people, it can be easy for us to forget that Moses was a very difficult for Israel to accept. He never lived a day in his life as a slave. He was raised in the palace, and when he discovered who he was, he left. When he returned after his encounter at the burning bush, he came as the leader over an enslaved people—the same man who had personally never lived under slavery. He had a life of privilege and, in many ways, probably seemed more Egyptian in culture than Hebrew. It was difficult for the slaves of Israel to receive one as their leader who had never shared their burden. Stephen makes this point extensively in his sermon in Acts 7 where he repeatedly makes the point of how controversial God’s choice of Moses was and how the people resisted it (vv. 20–51). The conflict between Moses and the people of Israel was no doubt exacerbated by the reality of who Moses was.

Second, God’s election of Moses was extremely controversial for Pharaoh. We can easily forget Moses and Pharaoh were raised as brothers. They were raised in the same household. Moses and Pharaoh shared a conflict that was very similar to Isaac and Ishmael, and Jacob and Esau. They were raised together, though Moses was an adopted son, so Pharaoh was the clear heir and, therefore, the one worthy of greater honor. When Moses came to challenge Pharaoh, there was no doubt that Pharaoh took great offense at the idea of his adopted brother making demands. Pharaoh did not like that God had chosen his half-brother to display his power. This was one of the social dynamics behind Pharaoh’s refusal to submit to Moses’ demands. Pharaoh was not going to submit to Moses. God’s desire to display His power through Moses required Pharaoh, like Esau, to serve his brother, and Pharaoh did not agree with God’s election of Moses.

Next we will consider just how significant and, at times, divisive the issue of election can be. Wrong responses to election can result in a tragic situation.

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