Romans 9:10-13 – “Not Based on Works” – Jacob and Esau

, posted by kingswoodhart

This is part of a series of posts on Romans. The main focus of this series will be chapters 9-11 of the letter. These chapters, particularly chapter 9, have been interpreted in various different ways. My aim is to demonstrate what I consider to be the correct interpretation. I will do this by considering the structure and context of the letter and then focusing in on these chapters, showing how the proposed interpretation fits with the context and structure of the letter, as well as being internally consistent within chapters 9-11. Click here for the contents page.

This detailed analysis follows from the previous overview of Romans 9:6-13. As we saw in the previous post, looking in detail at the “not based on ethnicity” part (9:6b-9) of this section, Paul has demonstrated that descent from Abraham is no guarantee of receiving God’s blessing. Now, in the “not based on works” part (9:10-13), he proceeds in a similar way to make his second point, and he also surrounds the main point by an example to illustrate it:

“[10] And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, [11] though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad, in order that God’s purpose of election might stand — not because of works but because of him who calls — [12] she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” [13] As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.””

As with the previous section, the main point is clear: relying on “works” also gives no guarantee of receiving God’s blessing. Verse 10 acts as a bridge between the two sections. The reference to Rebekah’s children being conceived ‘by one man’ shows that the second example will also demonstrate Paul’s first point of “not based on ethnicity”, but Paul moves on after this to focus on the second point of “not based on works”.

It is important to remember that Paul is addressing an anticipated objection from some ethnic Israelites who will not like his teaching set out in the corresponding section earlier in Romans (3:1-4:25) – that God has decided to save all who have faith in Christ. They consider that God ought to save ethnic Israelites due to their physical descent from Abraham and/or their works done in obedience to the law (as they understand it). The first part of Paul’s response to these people is to reiterate that God does not save based on ethnicity and/or works.

As a reminder, the teaching of Paul from Romans 3:1-4:25 relating to “works” that has caused these people to object includes:

  • “By works of the law no human being will be justified in his [i.e. God’s] sight” (Romans 3:20)
  • “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Romans 3:27-28)
  • “[1] What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? [2] For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. [3] For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” [4] Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. [5] And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, [6] just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: [7] “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; [8] blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”” (Romans 4:1-8)

It is Paul’s teaching that God’s people are justified by faith apart from works of the law that will cause some ethnic Israelites to object. As we saw previously, Paul does not go off-message in Romans 9-11, but maintains the same teaching, for example (Romans 9:30-32):

“What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have obtained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works.”

Returning to the current section (9:10-13), we see that its main point fits with the rest of Paul’s teaching on “works” in Romans. Paul states: ‘not because of works but because of him who calls’ (verse 11). Salvation is not something we earn by doing good works, but it is a gift given by God. Salvation is therefore “because of what God does”, not “because of what we do”.

The statement ‘because of him who calls’ shows that salvation is up to God and not up to us (because it is God who “calls”), but it does not say anything about how God has decided who will be saved. There is no need for Paul to set out again in full his positive case for who gets saved at this point, as it is Paul’s clear teaching on this matter from earlier in Romans (see the long list of quotes here) that has prompted the objection now being addressed. Paul’s aim here is to focus on the negative case of “not based on works”. This is the error that the objector has made, in thinking that salvation should be based on works.

The statement ‘because of him who calls’ also does not give any detail regarding the process that the word “calls” is referring to. We therefore can’t use the word “calls” from this verse to draw any detailed conclusions about this process. As Paul is focussing on the negative case, he does not set out any details regarding this process here. The word “calls”/“called” will be discussed in more detail in relation to Romans 9:24-29. Whatever interpretation of “calls” one considers to be correct in verse 11, we should be careful not to build our theological understanding of salvation on our chosen interpretation of this word in this verse, given that its meaning is not explicitly clear.

To illustrate his point of “not based on works”, Paul refers to the example of Jacob and Esau. As with the example of Isaac and Ishmael considered in the previous post, we will see that the specific choice being made by God in the case of Jacob and Esau was also not a choice of who would be saved and who would be dammed. Rather, Paul is using Jacob and Esau as an example of the way God made the choice, i.e. ‘not because of works’. Paul does not claim that every aspect of the lives of Jacob and Esau corresponds to the situation he is discussing; he is simply referring to them to illustrate a point.

Looking at the example in more detail, we can understand what choice was being made by God by looking at verse 12. The quote, ‘the older will serve the younger’ is from Genesis 25:23, which is God’s message to Rebekah (Isaac’s wife) while she was pregnant with twins:

“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.”

We can see that the choice had nothing to do with the salvation/damnation of Jacob or Esau. Instead, God revealed to Rebekah that each of her twins would become the ancestor of a nation, and that the nation of the younger twin (Jacob) would take precedence over the nation of the older twin (Esau). This did not mean that all individuals from Esau’s nation were automatically dammed as a result of this decision, in the same way as all individuals from Jacob’s nation were not automatically saved. In fact, descendants of Esau were allowed to enter the assembly of the Lord, as explained by Moses in his final sermon to the Israelites: ‘You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a sojourner in his land. Children born to them in the third generation may enter the assembly of the LORD.’ (Deuteronomy 23:7-8 – the word for ‘assembly’ in the Greek Old Testament (LXX) is the word that is translated as ‘church’ in the New Testament.)

Jacob, not Esau, did indeed receive this blessing, as can be seen in Genesis 27:29, when Isaac blesses Jacob (thinking it to be Esau):

“Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.”

Returning to Romans 9, in verse 13, Paul also confirms that God’s choice of Jacob’s nation having precedence over Esau’s nation was fulfilled:

“Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

This quote is from Malachi 1:2-3, which was written long after Jacob and Esau had died and is part of a passage that relates to the nations of Jacob (Israel) and Esau (Edom). The contrast between ‘loved’ and ‘hated’, when literally translated into English, does not convey its original meaning well. It is apparent from other parts of the Bible that these terms are used to indicate an order of preference, rather than speaking of pure hatred against the “hated” person. For example, in Luke 14:26, Jesus said ‘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’. He clearly was not speaking of pure hatred here as Jesus also endorsed the commandment to ‘honour your father and mother’ (Mark 10:19). Instead, Jesus was teaching that his disciples must put him ahead of all other people. This is confirmed by Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 10:37 that ‘anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me’. Another example is Genesis 29:30-31. In verse 30, Jacob is said to have ‘loved Rachel more than Leah’, while verse 31 states that ‘Leah was hated’. The “hated” person is the one who is second in the order of preference. We can therefore see that a more appropriate translation into English of the phrase ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated’ would be something like ‘I loved Jacob more than Esau’.

Another issue with our understanding of this phrase is that, in modern English, the word “love” is often understood to relate primarily to a feeling, whereas in the Bible, the word “love” relates primarily to actions. When God says that he “loved” Jacob, he is referring primarily to his actions, not his feelings. The context is that God chose for Jacob to be the brother that would inherit the promise made to Abraham, while Esau did not inherit this promise. God “loved” Jacob by blessing him and his descendants with being his special people, Israel, who were given a special role in being a nation that would show the rest of the world what God is like (Exodus 19:6, 1 Kings 8:41-43). On the other hand, God did not do this with Esau and his descendants, so Esau was not “loved” by God in this sense. Esau can therefore be said to have been “hated” by God because God did not bless him in the way that he blessed Jacob.

We see that Paul’s point in using the example of Jacob and Esau was to demonstrate an example of God choosing (i.e. electing) to bless one person over another in a manner that was not based on works. In Romans 9:11, Paul emphasises the fact that neither of Jacob and Esau had done anything good or bad at the time when God announced (before they were born) that Jacob would receive the blessing. The reason Paul mentions this is that it demonstrates that God’s decision was not based on any works done by the twins. As the decision was made before either of the brothers had done anything, the decision could not have been made based on their works. This is the point that Paul is making, as shown by his statement ‘not because of works but because of him who calls’. Just as God’s choice of Jacob to receive the blessing instead of Esau was made “not based on works”, so God’s choice regarding salvation is made “not based on works”. In both cases, it is God who decides who he will bless and no one has the right to tell God that he should do it in another way.

As with the example of Isaac and Ishmael, the example of Jacob and Esau would have been particularly pertinent to the ethnic Israelites being addressed by Paul. They would have understood Paul to be teaching that the unbelieving ethnic Israelites of their generation correspond in the example to Esau, not Jacob. Just as Esau found himself outside of God’s blessing in a choice (not relating to salvation) that God made “not based on works”, so the unbelieving ethnic Israelites find themselves outside of God’s blessing in a choice (relating to salvation) that God made “not based on works”. In both situations, the person/people outside of God’s blessing had no right to rely on their works as a reason why God should in fact include them in his blessing. No one’s works are sufficiently good to deserve God’s blessing. It is entirely within God’s rights to bless people in a manner that does not relate to their works.

God’s ‘purpose in election’ (verse 11) includes his desire to bless those who do not deserve it, rather than those who might (wrongly) be expected to deserve God’s blessing. The word “election” simply means “choice”. The term is often understood to include additional meaning due to there being theological doctrines of “election”. However, it would be inappropriate to include the definition of this doctrine in our understanding of the word “election”, as this would be imposing our preferred version of the doctrine of “election” into the text.

Paul does not give any information regarding why God chose Jacob over Esau to receive the blessing. Paul only states that the choice was not based on works, and that it was ‘because of him who calls’ (i.e. it was up to God to decide who would receive the blessing – see the discussion above). This is as far as Paul intends to take the analogy between God’s choice (election) to bless Jacob over Esau and God’s choice (election) in salvation. While we know from what Paul has already taught in Romans that God’s choice in salvation is that God has decided to save all who trust in Christ, it is not necessarily the case that God’s choice of Jacob over Esau was made on the same basis. There is no suggestion in the text that God’s decision to bless Jacob over Esau was linked to Jacob’s future faith (foreseen by God), as some have suggested. As with God’s choice to bless Isaac over Ishmael, God’s choice to bless Jacob over Esau was again a choice of the younger son over the firstborn son, which (we may speculate) may have had an influence in why God chose as he did. While the firstborn son would expect to be favoured over the younger son in normal circumstances, God shows his authority and his grace by choosing to bless the younger son instead.

Some people have read into this passage that Paul is teaching that God decides which individual people to save and which to damn before they are born and without any reference to faith, but this comes from the mistaken view that the example of Jacob and Esau relates directly to salvation. Although salvation is in view in Paul’s overall argument, the example does not itself relate directly to salvation, as explained above and in the overview of Romans 9:6-13. The “before they were born” part of verse 11 is used as evidence that the particular choice of the example was made ‘not because of works’. There is no suggestion that all choices God makes that are “not based on works” must be made in exactly the same manner as the choice of the example. Paul does not teach that every aspect of the example (which relates to a choice that is not about salvation) exactly corresponds to God’s choices regarding salvation. He is merely drawing on the similarity that both God’s choice in the example and God’s choice regarding salvation are made “not based on works”, and that in both cases it is up to God whom he chooses to bless. As has been noted, Paul has already taught clearly that God’s choice regarding salvation is that he has chosen to save everyone who trusts in Christ (rather than choosing based on works and/or ethnicity). The view that God chose in the past whom to save and whom to damn individually and without reference to faith in those individuals conflicts with what Paul has been teaching regarding salvation. Such a choice by God would not depend on faith, but Paul has been teaching that salvation does depend on faith (and he goes on to repeat this in Romans 10:9-13). Given that Paul does not teach this non-faith-based view, and that this view conflicts with Paul’s clear teaching, there appears to be no good reason to hold it.

In summary, Romans 9:6-13 is the beginning of a response from Paul to some ethnic Israelite objectors who will not like his teaching that God has decided to save all who have faith in Christ. They consider that God ought to save ethnic Israelites due to their physical descent from Abraham and/or their works, and that the current situation of many ethnic Israelites not receiving God’s blessing is down to a failure on God’s part to keep his word. Paul demonstrates that the word of God has not failed, as God never promised to save physical descendants of Abraham based on their ethnicity, and he never promised to save people based on their own works. Paul reminds his ethnic Israelite objectors that it is up to God to decide who will receive his blessing.

In the next post, we will move on to begin looking at the next section: verses 14-18.

This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.