Commentary: Wrestling with the shocking statement that God 'hated Esau'


We are about to examine what James Montgomery Boice and many other Biblical scholars declare is “the most difficult portion of the entire Bible,” recorded in Romans 9:13 (quoting Malachi 1:2-3) where God emphatically says: “I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau!”

Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. writes in his book entitled Hard Sayings of the Old Testament how he is compelled to admit: “If God is depicted as being good to all (Ps. 145:9), how can he hate Esau? Surely this runs counter to all we know about the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” John MacArthur chimes in that God’s declaration “seems shocking and completely contrary to most people’s view of God’s impartiality.” It is shocking if not distressing to most Christians who first read or hear such words; nevertheless, as Boice states succinctly: “It is something we must deal with, since no one can seriously attempt to study or teach the Bible … without confronting it.” Amen.

Therefore, why did God say He hated Esau?

Let’s explore a two-fold answer/explanation rooted in both God’s prophetic and idiomatic words. The former reminds us how God sees beyond time and place to carry out His purpose on earth through, and sometimes in spite of, His Chosen People for the betterment of this world. The second reminds us how He expresses Himself in ways that may puzzle and bewilder us. Even Jesus was known to use hyperbole or exaggeration to drive home His message.

The apostle Paul quotes the prophet Malachi who began his book with a recap of history about Esau, and how God had seen from the beginning how Esau could not and would not be the son of Isaac to be a chosen instrument for a new nation that would be a blessing unto all nations.

God foreknew what would happen to Esau and his descendants (Edomites). Malachi details how the Edomites proved to be hateful enemies of Jacob/Israel’s descendants. He knew what was written in Ezekiel 35:5 about the Edomites' “ancient hatred.” God loved Jacob/Israel and His people even though they proved to be sinful and rebellious, but He hated how Esau/Edomites turned away from Him and His love throughout history.

The Apologetics Study Bible offers an encompassing summary at the beginning of Malachi: “1:2-3 Malachi begins with a reference to the longstanding tension between Israel and Edom, the descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau who despised his birthright and held the promises of God in contempt (Gen. 25:29-34)… the Edomites continued to believe the Israelites had taken the land of Canaan by deception. They cooperated with the Assyrian invasions of Judah, and when the Judeans were taken into exile they claimed the land for themselves. For these reasons, they came under God’s judgment (Exek. 35:5-15, 36:1-15).  

Nowhere else besides Malachi 1:2-3 in the Bible is God said to hate any other individual, though he does hate evil deeds. Biblically speaking, God expresses hatred for evils – for the evils that are done by people; but, God continues to love people, calling them to repent of their evils, even going so far as to send a most reluctant prophet named Jonah to preach repentance to the most tyrannical and evil Assyrians ensconced in Nineveth – and known by many as the world’s first terrorists.

The specific expression, “I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau” is a biblical idiom which means in comparison to His love for Jacob (who eventually learned to trust and obey God) God loves Esau less. We see this idiomatic expression in Jacob’s “less love” for Leah as opposed to Rachel. Jesus used this idiom as a hyperbole for emphasis in Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple.”

G. Campbell Morgan cautions: “It is hardly necessary to say that our Lord was not claiming that in order to be disciples we should have a malicious attitude of heart toward our loved ones … Nothing is fairer, finer, more beautiful than human life, that love of father, and love of mother, love of wife, and love of children, love of brothers, and love of sisters …” We are dealing with idioms and hyperboles, accentuating contrasts but not to be taken literally. God didn’t hate Esau and does not want us to hate our families


Paul R. Baxter is the mission strategist for Georgia's Pine Mountain Baptist Association.