Romans 9: Isaac and Jacob

, posted by SEA

In verse 7 of Romans 9, Paul quotes Genesis 21:12 to explain that, even before Isaac was born, God had determined that Abraham’s offspring would be “reckoned” through Isaac—in other words, that the covenant people would pass through the line of Isaac rather than that of Ishmael. The original context of this passage, incidentally, makes it clear not only that Isaac is to be chosen, but that Ishmael is to be rejected in favor of Isaac. Yet God makes it clear that Ishmael is to be rejected by Abraham, so that the covenant line is clearly through Isaac; nevertheless, He reassures Abraham in the very next verse (Gen. 21:13) that “I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring.” In the following verses we read that “God heard the boy [Ishmael] crying …. ‘I will make him into a great nation’ …. God was with the boy as he grew up” (Gen. 21:17-18, 20). In other words, God has a positive plan for Ishmael and his descendants as well as for Isaac and his descendants; it is only as a member of the covenant nation that Ishmael is rejected.

Paul, significantly, interprets the quotation by stating that “it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring” (v. 8). He is subtly doing here what he does clearly in Galatians 4:21-31: he identifies ethnic Israel with the children of Hagar, as opposed to those of Sarah. Since ethnic Israel is depending on natural descent from Abraham, they are analogous to Ishmael, who was Abraham’s descendant (not to mention the firstborn) by purely natural means. The Christians, trusting that “those who believe are children of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7), are analogous to Isaac, the child of promise. In Romans 9:8, Paul quotes Genesis 18:10, 14 to establish that the promise had indeed occurred before Isaac’s conception.

Paul’s use of Isaac and Ishmael, then, is primarily intended neither to be a statement of their individual eternal election, nor to be typical of the elect and reprobate. It rather establishes that the Jewish people have no reason to trust in their descent from Abraham to guarantee their inclusion in the covenant. If they could, the descendants of Ishmael would have just as much right to claim God’s promises as could the descendants of Isaac.

Jacob and Esau

Lest the Jewish questioner argue that Isaac was the legitimate son, as opposed to the illegitimate, Paul moves down to the next generation to find an even more compelling example, that of Jacob and Esau (9:10-13). These have the same set of parents, and were even born together as twins. The only natural primacy that one would have over the other would have been the birthright, which would have gone to Esau. And yet, before they were born, Rebekah was told that “the older will serve the younger” (9:12, quoting Gen. 25:23). Paul even states that the reason God told Rebekah this was “in order that God’s purpose in election might stand” (v. 11). Surely here is clear reference to unconditional individual election.

Many Arminians have chosen at this point to insert God’s foreknowledge as the key to understanding the passage; i.e., even though this was “before the twins… had done anything good or bad” (v. 11), God still judged them on the basis of what He knew that they would later do. This clearly runs counter to the intent of the passage. Paul obviously means to exclude personal merit from consideration of Jacob and Esau’s election. Such election is “not by works, but by him who calls.” God was perfectly free to choose either Jacob or Esau, and freely chose Jacob.

However, again, the choice involves not individual election to personal salvation or damnation, but rather the line through which the covenant people will come. Genesis 25:23, from which Paul quotes, clearly refers to nations, not individuals:

      Two nations are in your womb,


      and two peoples from within you will be separated;


      one people will be stronger than the other,


    and the older will serve the younger.

Individuals or Nations?

And what is to be done with “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Rom. 9:13, quoting Mal. 1:2-3)? Again, a look at the source of the quote clearly reveals that the nations are being referenced, rather than the individuals Jacob and Esau. The point of comparison lies in the nature of the land that was given to the two nations. God had given preference to Jacob in the land that He gave to Israel. Malachi goes on to discuss the fact that Edom had come under such judgment that it would never be able to rebuild its land; but was this a foregone conclusion from before Jacob and Esau were born? It seems not to be. Deuteronomy 2:4-6 suggests quite the opposite. God did not allow the Israelites to attack Edom or to take any portion of their land, stating that “I have given Esau the hill country of Seir as his own. You are to pay them in silver for the food you eat and the water you drink.” This hardly seems consistent with a people whom God “hated.”

It seems more likely that “loved” and “hated” in Malachi 1 and Romans 9 are to be understood merely in terms of preference, as in Jesus’ statement in Luke 14:26, “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.” No one could imagine that Jesus is actually calling upon his disciples to hate their families in absolute terms, but merely to choose Him in preference to their families. God had simply given preference to Jacob over Esau, in terms of the land received by their respective descendants, and in terms of whose line would comprise the covenant nation.

If one wishes to argue that “Jacob I loved but Esau I hated” must refer to election to salvation, one must grapple with the fact that this statement first appears, not in Genesis, but in Malachi. God’s point cannot be that all of Israel in Malachi’s time are saved! In fact, God indicts Israel throughout the rest of Malachi specifically because they have been unfaithful to the covenant and have broken faith with God in many ways. Rather than being a pleasant assurance of God’s favor, the statement, “Jacob I loved but Esau I hated,” forms part of God’s indictment—that even though God had favored Israel, nevertheless Israel had been unfaithful, and was therefore under judgment.

Paul uses these quotations in Romans 9 once again to oppose those Jews who would say that, if Paul’s gospel were correct, then “God’s word had failed” (9:6). His response to them is that God had never made the unconditional promises, based either on “works” or ethnicity, that they were claiming. God sovereignly chose Isaac over Ishmael; He sovereignly chose Jacob over Esau; and by implication, He can sovereignly choose on the basis of faith in Christ, as opposed to works of the law or ethnicity.

To the hypothetical Jewish questioner, of course, God’s apparent change (from law and ethnicity to faith as the criterion of election) would appear to be unjust (v. 14). Note, by the way, that the present interpretation of Paul’s argument makes perfect sense of the questioner’s sense of injustice. No Jew would see injustice in God’s gratuitous election of Isaac over Ishmael or Jacob over Esau as individuals. The only thing about the argument that would have caused them to view God as unjust is the implication that “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (9:6), and for Paul, of course, to be a true descendant of Abraham was to follow him in faith (4:11-12, Gal. 3:7-8).

Keith Schooley
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