Since the ancient heretic Marcion first tried to drive a wedge between the “God of the Old Testament” and the “God of the New Testament,” people have repeated the same arguments why the Old Testament puts them off. The God depicted in the Old Testament is angry or violent or unpredictable, they say. They much prefer to think about the loving posture that Jesus adopts in the New Testament. Putting aside Jesus’s imprecations in the Gospels and the streets of blood in the book of Revelation, I suppose I can see where those folks are coming from. After all, God does say in Malachi that he hated Esau.
Puzzling over Malachi’s short sentiment has given me a lens through which to read the Old Testament that’s proven quite transformative.¹ The answer to the riddle of God hating people is simple enough: God’s hatred of Esau is an idiomatic way of saying that he did not choose Esau but instead chose, or loved, Jacob. The implications of the phrase—“I loved Jacob, but I hated Esau”—are legion. Here’s just one:
In Genesis 3:15, after Adam and Eve have succumbed to the serpent’s temptation, God gives the first promise that he will one day redeem humanity. He assures the serpent, “I will put hostility between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” God’s promise foretells how the story will end, and from here until Revelation 22 we learn bit by bit how it unfolds.
God’s hatred of Esau is an idiomatic way of saying that he did not choose Esau but instead chose, or loved, Jacob.
A key development in the story of redemption occurs in Genesis 12 when God calls Abram out of Ur—where the tragedy of Babel had occurred just one chapter earlier. Over the next several chapters of Genesis, we learn that Yahweh plans to create a people for himself through Abraham. He wants to build a people who will bless all the humans of the world—not just the family he chooses through Abraham. God lays out how his blessing will come to fruition: Abraham “will command his children and his house after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just” (Genesis 18:19).
Just a few verses later, as Abraham intercedes for the righteous people who may be living in Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham grounds his intercession in exactly the same principle: “Won’t the Judge of the whole earth do what is just?” (18:25). He will do what is just, of course, but Abraham and his descendants won’t always follow suit.
In fact, from Genesis 12 where God calls Abraham to the near-sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22, Abraham fails three different times to “keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.” In the first instance, Abraham acts unjustly toward his wife and the entire house of Pharaoh. Abraham’s act of lying and offering up Sarah as a concubine to Pharaoh endangers God’s promise of a son, a necessary component if Abraham’s “children and his house” are to be a blessing to all nations. Further, Abraham’s actions curse the nation of Egypt, as God sends a plague on Pharaoh’s house. The plague protects Sarah and the promised son from harm, yes. It also ultimately shields Pharaoh from the more severe judgment that likely would have resulted from consummating the relationship with his newest concubine.
The whole episode repeats several chapters later, only this time Abimelech subs in for Pharaoh and infertility for the unnamed plague. Again Abraham endangers the promise, sacrifices his wife, and enacts a curse on another nation. Again God intervenes to protect the promise, rescue Abraham’s wife, and lift the curse caused by Abraham’s sin. The man through whom all nations would be blessed would seem to be batting .000.
In short, God loves those he hates, or doesn’t choose.
In between the two episodes of Abraham’s unjust actions toward those within and outside of his household, we find the story of Hagar. The Egyptian slave gave birth to Abraham’s first son, Ishmael. God is very clear throughout his dealings with Abraham that Ishmael is not the chosen seed and Hagar is not the wife through whom the chosen heir will come. Yet, despite Ishmael’s and Hagar’s status as outsiders to the covenant promise, God protects the two and tenderly reveals himself to Hagar not once but twice.
Both times God appears to Hagar, he offers comfort, hope, and a promise that Ishmael will become a great nation. In fact, God’s promise to Hagar in Genesis 16:10—“I will greatly multiply your offspring, and they will be too many to count”—is strikingly similar to the covenant God makes with Abraham. Not only is the promise similar, but God’s statement that “the Lord has heard your cry of affliction” foreshadows Exodus 2, when God will once again hear cries of affliction. Only that time the cries come from Israelite slaves rather than an Egyptian slave. In Hagar’s case, God acts on behalf of someone outside the covenant community, and in Exodus he acts on behalf of those within the covenant community.
In short, God loves those he hates, or doesn’t choose. Though the Old Testament is a story of how God will bring redemption through one family, it’s also a story of redemption for the entire world. God’s choice of Israel does not mean he ceases to care for the rest of the nations—Pharoah and his house, Abimelech and his house, Hagar and Ishmael, and even Gentiles like you and me. Jesus Christ continues the program of welcoming the stranger into the household of God on a much grander scale, but God’s hospitality is nothing new—he has been about the business of caring for those outside of the covenant promise since the days of Abraham.²