Keys to Understanding Romans 9 : 10-13 – Who Is Jacob? Who Is Esau?

In this series we are not going through Romans chapter 9 in depth. My goal is merely to give us some key cross-reference passages to help us come to a clear understanding of what Paul is communication in Romans 9. Most of these passages come from Paul in the book of Romans, Galatians or Ephesians. But we will also look to some of Old Testament passages he cites, as well as other related passages. 

In the last post we saw that Paul, in Romans 9:6-9, uses Isaac, the child of promise, to represent the Church of Jesus Christ made up of Jewish and Gentile believers. And he points his finger at his unbelieving countrymen and suggests that they are like Ishmael, the son of a slave women. This was clarified by referring to Galatians 4:21-31 and Romans 4:13-16. Now we want to turn to the next section in his argument found in 9:10-13.

10 And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac 11 (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), 12 it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” 

Rom 9:10-13 NKJV

In this passage we see that Paul is continuing the argument he started in 9:6. The phrase, “And not only this,” let’s us know that Paul is going to use a similar argument in verses 10-13, that he used in verses 9:6-9. He is going to use Jacob, the “younger” son, as a representative of the Church of Jesus Christ which came later in history to national Israel. And at the same time he is going to point his finger at unbelieving national Israel and say that they are Esau, who sold their birthright for a bit of porridge. They refused to give up their national and personal pride and receive the Savior of the world. They were unwilling to give up their special status as Abraham’s descendants and enter into the New Covenant on equal footing with Gentiles. But Paul has already made it clear that the Gospel is for both Jew and Gentile, and is only received through faith in Christ, not lineage or devotion to the Law of Moses. 

In this section we see that Paul wants to make two arguments at once. He is going to continue to use the Old Testament characters to represent the members of the Old and New Covenants, as we saw in Galatians 4:21-31 and Romans 9:6-9. But He is also going to make a point about how individuals become a member of the New Covenant. 

So, we have two questions:

  1. Do Jacob and Esau really represent two nations?
  2. How do individuals become members of the New Covenant represented by Jacob?

21 Now Isaac pleaded with the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD granted his plea, and Rebekah his wife conceived. 22 But the children struggled together within her; and she said, “If all is well, why am I like this?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. 23 And the LORD said to her: “Two nations are in your womb, Two peoples shall be separated from your body; One people shall be stronger than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.” 

Gen 25:21-23 NKJV

By going back to the original context of the passages cited by Paul, we see that he does indeed have two nations in view. We see that there is an older and an younger nation. If we follow Paul’s train of thought from Romans 9:1 until 9:13, we see that the older nation represents national Israel which came first in history, and the younger nation represents the Church, which is a “holy nation” set apart by the blood of Jesus Christ. Though the Church came later in history, it was always God’s plan to unite all things in heaven earth under the Lordship of Christ (Eph. 1:9-10). And this includes uniting Jew and Gentile into one Body through faith in Christ. 

1 The burden of the word of the LORD to Israel by Malachi. 2 “I have loved you,” says the LORD. “Yet you say, ‘In what way have You loved us?’ Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” Says the LORD. “Yet Jacob I have loved; 3 But Esau I have hated, And laid waste his mountains and his heritage For the jackals of the wilderness.” 4 Even though Edom has said, “We have been impoverished, But we will return and build the desolate places,” Thus says the LORD of hosts: “They may build, but I will throw down; They shall be called the Territory of Wickedness, And the people against whom the LORD will have indignation forever. 

Mal 1:1-4 NKJV

When we look at Paul’s next citation from the Old Testament, we see that he is still thinking primarily about nations. Esau was the father of Edom, and Jacob was the father of Israel. By quoting this passage, Paul is telling the unbelieving Jews that they are Edom, a people under God’s wrath. Paul is not pulling any punches.

5 Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace. 6 And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work. 

Rom 11:5-6 NKJV

Having said that this section is primarily pointing to the older nation of Israel and the younger nation of the Church, we cannot ignore the fact that Paul has purposefully spoken of Jacob and Esau as individuals, and even as preborn babies. He does this because nations are made up of individuals. So he wants to point out the difference between reckoned a cursed child of Esau, or a blessed child of Jacob. 

In Romans 9:11 he clarifies his point. Just as Jacob was chosen to inherit the promise of Abraham before he had done anything to deserve it, so we can only receive the grace that is found in Jesus Christ through faith. He makes this point by contrasting “according to election” with “not of works.” What is he getting at? 

In Romans 11:5-6 he clarifies further. “According to election” is shorthand for “according to the election of grace.” That is to say, God’s people are chosen by grace, not by works. This is why in 11:6 he points out that if it was by works it would not be by grace. So, Paul’s point in 9:11 is that we are chosen by grace, not by the works of the Law of Moses. The unbelieving Jews were imagining that they had the corner market on salvation because they kept the Law, but Paul is telling them this is a great error.

16 Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all the seed, not only to those who are of the law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all 

Rom 4:16 NKJV

But doesn’t “election of grace” mean that there are no conditions for salvation? Not according to Paul! In Romans 4:16 Paul makes it clear, that God chooses His holy people by grace through faith. Paul does not imagine that faith is a work that earns God’s favor and salvation. Instead, faith is the means by which we receive the grace of election. So, Paul’s point is that we do not become part of Jacob’s nation by the works of the Law of Moses, but through faith in the grace of God that is found in Jesus Christ. It is according to the election of grace which is received through faith, not by the works of the Law of Moses. 

Genesis 25:21-23, Malachi 1:1-4, Romans 11:5-6 and 4:16 are keys that help us understand Romans 9:10-13.


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