The Hatred of God

Sunday, Jennifer and I worshiped at First Immanuel Lutheran, a historic African American Lutheran church located at the corner of Roosevelt and Ashland here in Chicago. It was great worship experience, especially since Pastor John Nunes preached and led worship. Given the events of the last few days, I wasn’t sure I was going to be up to worship this Sunday. But it was good to be there.

(It was less African American than Bethel Evangelical, in West Garfield Park, where Jennifer and I have worshiped regularly for the last few years. Worship there is a lot more gospel, and last more than two hours!)

At any rate, First Immanuel is Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) congregation. Jennifer grew up in the LCMS, and it is a more conservative church body theologically and socially. (I’m not so sure the LCMS is all that more culturally conservative than the ELCA, and at some point, I will explain why I think that.) But they didn’t appear, at least based on what I’ve been able to dig-up online, to follow the LCMS lectionary. Rather, they were using the revised common lectionary readings that the ELCA (and a number of churches use).

So they were using the same Romans reading from last week, from Romans 9. But they didn’t stop at the fifth verse, as the RCL does, but went all the way through to end of verse 13. It’s a passage that speaks of election, and it struck me when Pastor Nunes read it. I’ll post the last seven verses here:

6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. 9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 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 continue, 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.” (Romans 9:6-13 ESV)

“Jacob I have loved, but Esau I hated.” (Τὸν Ἰακὼβ ἠγάπησα, τὸν δὲ Ἠσαῦ ἐμίσησα.) Strong words. Here, Paul is quoting from Malachai, who says the following at the beginning of his very short book (the last one of the Christian Bible, but not in the Tanakh):

2 “I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob 3 but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert. (Malachi 1:2-3 ESV)

Or, possibly better:

2 I have shown you love, said the Lord. But you ask, “How have You shown us love?” After all–declares the Lord–Esau is Jacob’s brother; yet I have accepted Jacob 3 and have rejected Esau. I have made his hills a desolation, his territory [a home for beasts]* of the desert. (Malachai 1:2-3 JPS Tanakh) 

I wish my Theological Dictionaries weren’t packed away in boxes, so I could spend some time looking at Greek and Hebrew phrases here when the LXX says καὶ ἠγάπησα τὸν Ιακωβ, 3τὸν δὲ Ησαυ ἐμίσησα and the Tanakh says וָאֹהַב אֶת–יַעֲקֹב וְאֶת–עֵשָׁו שָנֵאתִי. They key words here are שׁנא in Hebrew and μισω in Greek, and I’d love to spend some time exploring what they mean. Some other day, I think.

Instead, I’ll just have to look what “hate” might mean in the context of scripture.

First, there is the context of Malachai, where God originally speaks the phrase. It is spoken to Edom, a nearby people who are descendants of Isaac from Esau, Isaac’s oldest son. Thus, they are Israel’s close cousins. Through verse five, the vision condemns Edom, and God tells Malachai:

4 If Edom thinks, “Though crushed, we can build the ruins again,” thus says the Lord of Hosts: They may build, but I will tear down. And so they shall be known as the region of wickedness, the people damned [זָעַם] forever by the Lord. 5 Your eyes shall behold it, and you shall declare, “Great is the Lord beyond the borders of Israel!” (JPS Tanakh)

Before going any farther, according to the notes for the ESV Study Bible, Malachai is generally believed to be a contemporary of Ezra and Nehemiah. That puts the oracle of verses 4-5 into a context. Ezra and Nehemiah are all about the return of the exiled leadership of Judah from Babylon following Babylon’s conquest by Persia, the rebuilding of the temple and the re-establishment of regular worship in an Israelite polity that was a part of the Persian empire. This means that Israel is rebuilding too, and quite possibly Edom has suffered just as mightily from war (maybe at the hands of the Persians). So, both peoples are dealing with wreckage, carnage and destruction. Both are struggling to rebuild.

The difference here, apparently, is Edom is not rebuilding either with the help or the permission of God. The Tanakh ends with Chronicles, and the final words of Chronicles are the proclamation of King Cyrus of Persia: “The Lord God of Heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and has charged me with building Him a House in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Any one of you all of His people, the Lord his God be with him and let him go up” (2 Chronicles 36:23 JPS Tanakh). The Book of Ezra begins with a nearly identical (though expanded) proclamation. So, God is using the power of the Persian Empire to judge Babylon (as promised by God through the prophets) and fulfill the promise of redemption, regathering God’s people and restoring them to their patrimony.

But the returned remnant, measuring walls for new stones and gates for new doors, ought not to get complacent. Because the rest of Malachai is an indictment of sloppy, even thoughtless, worship. Of the failure, or even refusal, to off the best to God as a sacrifice. To take sacrifice seriously, to honor God in worship that matters. And God threatens another curse on Israel — remember, God ALWAYS saves the worst of God’s judgement for God’s people:

1 And now, O priests, this charge is for you: 2 Unless you obey and unless you lay it to heart, and do honor to My name–said the Lord of Hosts–I will send a curse and turn your blessings into curses. (Indeed, I have turned them into curses, because you do not lay it to heart.) I will [put your seed under a ban]* and will strew dung upon your faces, the dung of your festal sacrifices, and shall be carried out to its [heap] (Malachai 2:1-3, JPS Tanakh, last set of brackets in the text)

Consider for a minute. God loves Jacob. God loves Israel. And that love did not stop God from judging Israel with war and pestilence, with suffering and with exile. And here God is promising more, to cast Israel into a giant shitpile, for its corruption of and failure to keep the covenant, even after Israel has been restored from exile, a time when the temple is being rebuilt and worship being renewed.

There is the promise of “My messenger” (מַלְאָכִי) at the beginning of chapter 3, an allusion to the coming of Jesus who “shall come to His Temple suddenly.” And Malachai ends much the same way, with God promising to send “the prophet Elijah before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord” (Malachai 3:23 JPS Tanakh) with a promise of reconciliation. But first, God will judge Israel, and judge Israel harshly.

Remember, this is all God’s love in action.

Paul quotes the phrase about loving Jacob and hating Esau in the context of election, and what it means to be an heir to the promise of God to Abraham. “Not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.'” (Romans 9:7 ESV) Again, Paul is pulling from Genesis. Not all physical of children are “children of Abraham” for purposes of the promise. A point I will return to later.

So, God hates Esau. What does that mean in scripture where Esau actually appears? Apparently, Isaac’s wife Rebekah had a difficult pregnancy, and so she asked God what was happening in her womb, and was told:

“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.” (Genesis 25:23 ESV)

Esau (also called Edom, according to Gen. 25:30) was born first, and was thus the oldest son. “When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.” (Genesis 25:27-28 ESV) Esau was strong, athletic, a hunter, while Jacob (whose name means “he grabs by the heel” or “he cheats,” which describes how Jacob gets ahead for much of his life) is something of a quite young man who spends his time indoors. (Much of Genesis can be described as the triumph of the nerds or the sissies, depending on how you want to look at it.) Jacob convinced Esau to “sell his birthright,” his rights as the firstborn son, for a pot of lentils, and then arranges (with the help of his mother — another interesting family dynamic in a book full of really awful families) to steal his dying father’s blessing (which includes a repeat of the Genesis 12 formula, “Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you”).

Esau is angry enough to kill his brother, but Rebekah sends Jacob away before Esau can act on his urges. Esau, seeing how much his father hates Canaanite woman, eventually goes to Ishmael (remember him?) and marries one of his daughters. (Yay! Cousin marriage!) And then we don’t hear of Esau for a while. The story focuses on Jacob’s adventures.

Esau never actually serves his brother in scripture. Edom is eventually conquered and ruled by Israel, and that may explain “serving,” but the Edomites are no more enslaved that the Israelites are themselves by the time of Solomon’s empire.

And it appears at the Jabbok, where Jacob wrestles with the mysterious stranger and gets a new name, that his life — all that cheating — finally catches up with Jacob. It’s been a long time since he’s seen Esau, but they are preparing to meet, and Jacob is scared. He fears the worst. He is ready to beg Esau for mercy, and he prays to God, “[p]lease deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come to attack me, the mothers with the children.” (Gen. 32:11 ESV)

Instead, it’s a magnanimous and even loving meeting. “But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” (Gen. 33:4 ESV) Esau is no longer angry, and he initially refuses the peace offering Jacob had prepared. Whatever anger Esau may have had, he has made a life for himself in which he has enough. Whatever blessing might mean here, Esau is content with his life. He has material goods in abundance, and he takes the offerings from Jacob only after the younger brother insisted. And they part, and at least in the text, they never see each other again.

Edom — that other name for Esau — appears occasionally in scripture after that, but as a bit player. Coming back to Malachai, we have a devastated Edom, and Edom struggling to rebuild after some kind of calamity, but struggling to rebuild without God. At least that seems to be the assumption.

So, what then exactly might it mean when God says, Jacob I love, but Esau I have hated.

Because we have Edom as long as we have Israel. Edom does not disappear off the face of the earth. God does not smite Edom with plagues, pestilence, war, death, and destruction — at least no more than God smites Israel, and certainly not much in scripture (if at all). God does not command the earth to open up and swallow Edom. While Israel’s history has not been pleasant. The love God shows for Jacob doesn’t prevent much death, destruction, war, pestilence, death, and whatnot. It doesn’t prevent the conquest and exile. It does not prevent judgement.

So, what might love and hate mean here?

Well, let’s go back to Paul and his understanding of election. God’s promises to Abraham are specific — children, patrimony, blessing. But they are given to a very specific people, and not the entire world. Israel is a very specific people, and they are recipients of this very specific promise. Ishmael and his descendants are not the recipients of that promise. Nor is Esau. The hatred of God here means, then, that Esau is simply not the person God “chose” to receive and convey the promise. And that’s all it means.

To be hated by God, then, doesn’t mean Hell, or damnation, or exclusion, or anything even remotely resembling that.

And we might want to consider what love means while we’re at it. To be beloved of God here means to belong to the people who have received the promise of God to Abraham and who convey that promise to the next generation. And that’s all that means too. It’s not a grant of land, or permission to do as one pleases to one’s unchosen or unbeloved neighbors. If anything, to be beloved of God means you get all the extra-special attention from God that those God doesn’t much care about don’t get.

Because God saves God’s harshest judgements for God’s people. And for God’s people alone.

Now, to further confuse things, all of the promises made to Abraham, repeated to Isaac, made to Israel through David and the prophets, are resolved in Jesus Christ, who becomes faithful Israel (he is both north and south, lost Ephraim and conquered Judah). He is promise and fulfillment. This is what it means that Jesus fulfills the law. He becomes Israel. All of Israel. As all of Israel, he is the keeper of the covenant we cannot keep, and in being baptized into his life, death, and resurrection, we who are gentiles inherit the promises of God to Abraham — promises fulfilled in Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham — and become part of that promise.

What this means is that you can no more earn the hatred of God through actions — or inaction — then you can earn the love of God. God chooses. But in Jesus Christ, who fulfill the law in faithfulness, we are all invited to become part of the redeeming and reconciling love of God. To be inheritors of the promise to Abraham. And to convey that promise to the whole world, to another generation, to those who come after us.

All are welcome. Even Esau.

* * *

*According to the JPS Tanakh, the meaning of the bracketed phrase is uncertain in the Hebrew.