Quartz Hill School of Theology

In Romans 9:10-13 Paul writes that God loved Jacob but hated Esau. Why did God choose Jacob?

Let's quote the passage in question, first:

Not only that, but Rebekah's children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad in order that God's purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls she was told, The older will serve the younger. Just as it is written: Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.

A common answer to the question is that God saw who and what Jacob would become, and who and what Esau would become, and so chose Jacob accordingly. Although this might satisfy most people, it is in reality a very unsatisfactory answer. In fact, it is heretical.


Because, if God chose Jacob on the basis of what he would do in the future, then Jacob was chosen on the basis of his good deeds. Therefore, Jacob's salvation, rather than being by grace, is by works.

This obviously runs afoul of such explicit biblical statements as Ephesians 2:8-10:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Beyond that, to argue that God chose Jacob based on his future works explictly contradicts the very arguement that Paul is here attempting to make: that before the twins...had done anything good or bad in order that God's purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls.... Paul's point is that Jacob's being chosen was the consequence of God's mercy, not the consequence of some deeds done. Paul's whole point is that salvation is by grace rather than by works.

The life that Jacob had, the good works that he was to accomplish, were the consequence of the choice God made, not the cause. Because God chose him, his life turned out the way it did. That's the message in Ephesians 2:10: we are righteous because we have been saved. As Martin Luther put it at the time of the Protestant Reformation, we are righteous not because we have done righteous things. We do righteous things because we have been made righteous.

So why did God choose Jacob? Paul answers the question, but it is not the answer we want to hear. The answer we want is that it was merited, because, after all, in our daily lives that's how things work. We get paid because we work; we get promoted because we do a good job; we get good grades because we did the work well.

But with God, it doesn't work that way, and therefore Paul's point is very hard to either accept or understand:

For he says to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion. It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy. (Romans 9:15-16).

To ask why God chose Jacob and not Esau (or any of the other people he chose in the Bible) is like asking why the sky is blue, why gravity has the force it does, why anything in the universe, any of the natural laws are the way they are. It is simply the nature of things a nature that is consistent and dependent upon the nature of God.

As irritating as it might be, God rarely answers our why questions.

Copyright 1995 by Quartz Hill School of Theology.

Scripture taken from the the HOLY BIBLE, New International Version. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

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Quartz Hill School of Theology
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