I would like to offer some context and framing to help people make sense of Romans 9–11, in the context of Romans overall. Here I’m mainly interested in the way the discussion of “election” that gets a lot of attention from a lot of theologians, and what the story of Jacob and Esau and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD can do to help us make sense of a rather famous reference in Romans 9:
As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated …
If we delve into the background behind this simultaneous reference to the prophecy of Malachi against the Second Temple and the story of Jacob and Esau, I think the rest of Romans and Romans 9–11 opens up to us like a flower. But first I’d like to explain what Paul is doing, and why I think a deep dive on this layered, precise, and I think perfect reference helps us understand so much about Paul and Romans.
First, fix in your mind this image of Paul: he is an impoverished peacemaker who has given up everything to suffer constant beatings and violence as he proclaims the subversive message of a Kingdom that is utterly unlike the Empire in which he lives. It is a Kingdom that brings peace and security, but not in the normal way through soldiers and weapons. Instead, it brings a deeper peace and security through an assurance that God will bless those who walk in his way of love and mercy, even in the face of those very soldiers and weapons. What is of first importance for Paul is the notion of a king, a real one, who overcame death by giving his life for others and was raised from the dead, instead of dealing death to others in order to carve out a fragile island of stability in a chaotic world.
Who is Paul writing to, and what kind of writing is Romans?
Throughout Romans Paul is working to bring peace to the cosmos: peace within the Jewish and non-Jewish parts of the fledgling community of Jesus-followers in Rome, and peace between them and others. Before Romans chapter 9 he’s mainly working to bring peace within and among this strange and beautiful mix of weirdos. Understandably, there are all kinds of tensions, especially between the Jewish and non-Jewish parts of the community. Many utopian societies have been attempted. This one worked. Why?
In part, Paul is able to make this work through a series of deep insights into the work fo peacemaking. At the center of that is the transformative role that their shared identity in Jesus plays in tearing down old animosities and hatreds among them. This shared center in Jesus also certainly helps with the fresh new animosities that always crop up in community, too. Romans 1–8 primarily does this essential, internal community work.
Then with Romans 9 to 11, Paul turns his attention beyond the community of people who have accepted Jesus, those who have not experienced the peacemaking power of his grace and love in community, which is the work of the Holy Spirit in people.
These days it is unfortunately necessary to stop here and note that some people have spent their entire lives in church without experiencing this peacemaking power. And plenty of other people have experienced at least some of that peace, but it is easy to forget because pain and confusion and even abuse have buried it. Sometimes that has come from outside the church. Sometimes from inside. Usually some of both.
Still, let’s set that aside as we try to read Paul in his original context, long before the church became its own locus of enormous political power. Paul couldn’t have built the foundation for the remarkable mass movement that became Christianity, lacking any kind of weapons or much social power or standing, if he hadn’t been able to build healthy, attractive, beautiful communities. How did Paul do the peace-making work that must have been essential to build that kind of movement? Brilliantly. And throughout Romans this is one of his main strategies:
Paul personally identifies with everyone in the community, to address and stop abuse cycles within people and between people, and within groups and between groups
Throughout Romans, Paul does the work by entering into the perspectives and the psychology of the parties involved, including their self-righteous judgments, hypocritical accusations, self-hatred and other hatred. He understands and at times mirrors their desires for the pleasures of solidarity with powerful in-groups. He understands all too well the kind of unhealthy group ‘bonding’ that creates groups by hypocritically scapegoating outsiders. While this kind of unhealthy ‘bonding’ creates divisions between people groups, it also creates internally divided ‘in-groups’ made up of people who are unhealthily glued together by their shared inability to deal with their own hypocrisy in a gracious and healing way. But they can all at least hate the same outsiders! (And so also hate the outsider in each of themselves.)
The challenge is that this unhealthy out-grouping process is mixed up with an essential process for any healthy group: drawing clear moral boundaries. After all, a healthy group must reject practices like torturing people for pleasure (to take an example that is hopefully uncontroversial) and must therefore be able to say and believe, from their hearts, that “torturing for pleasure is wrong.”
One core challenge is that people tend to take the enormous and just moral force of this sort of essential boundary, and use it to cultivate punitive and brutal responses to others, as well as self-satisfied in-groups who can say to themselves, “At least we aren’t as bad as them” even if they are even worse than “them” in plenty of ways.
Far from fixing the problem, this sort of response feeds into cycles of pride and shame, and encourages the hiding and proliferation of abuse.
A restorative framework, like the one Paul teaches, focuses instead on the exposure of abuses, protection of survivors, and the loving prevention of future abuse. This is also paired with support and care for the perpetrators, which includes preventing them from having opportunities to perpetrate again. The care for perpetrators is not only merciful, but is also essential to justice: it encourages honesty, openness and change, instead of dishonesty, concealment and pride/shame cycles. Paul is in the tricky business of bringing abusive cycles to an end through this essential insight: abusive responses to abuse are also wrong. Moral clarity paired with gentleness, forgiveness, and appropriate reconciling practices are the solution.
Paul enters into the ugliness and messiness of abuse cycles not to wallow in them or justify them, but to turn all of the ugliness around: he replaces the pleasures of in-group power with the joy of standing with whoever is marginalized. This creates a community that is persistently and gently seeking truthful reconciliation, peace, and harmony. By identifying himself with each part of the community, he at least partially reconciles the parts of the community in himself, and in this small way, he imitates what Jesus did in the biggest possible way. By bringing all of these tensions into himself, and identifying himself convincingly with everyone in the group, he helps each group see itself in the others.
In this way, Paul replaces self-hatred and other-hatred with a love that isn’t narcissistic, because it is rooted in God’s loving work and presence within each person and group, in real life, and in history. And he holds fast to the truth of God’s gracious and forgiving love in order to bring reconciliation, in the face of pride, shame and hypocritical accusation. It is a marvelous tour-de-force, and not too hard to follow if you understand what he is up to. But it is precisely because Paul speaks so exquisitely well to the specific viewpoints and cultures of the groups he was actually caring for that it takes some work to understand what he was saying and what it means to us. So next, let’s understand specifically who Paul was talking to, and how he very carefully structured his conversation so that it could do the peacemaking work he needed to do.
Paul is having a conversation with these groups by having a conversation with himself
If you don’t understand the kind of life Paul was living as a part of these various fledgling Christian communities, who were just learning to live like Jesus, it is easy to get confused. But the thing to notice is that Paul is basically having a conversation with this community, to train and equip them to live the kind of life he was living.
The very worst thing you can do with the kind of writing Paul does in Romans is pull some line or another out of context, and treat it like a free-floating proverb. (Unfortunately, this very worst thing happens all the time!) Instead, you really have to follow Paul’s argument through to see the point, just like you have to follow a conversation to know what’s happening.
If you snip out snippets of Romans, you’re like a person catching a conversation where someone suddenly, loudly, and aggressively shouts, “Get back!” Imagine that you just witnessed this happen. You might guess, at first glance, that the shouter feels threatened by the other person and wants them to get away. But now imagine that you’re listening to the whole conversation from the start. You notice that the shouter is clearly comfortable with the other person. Oh, and they’re telling a story about an encounter they had earlier in the day. In that encounter, the shouter saw someone wandering into an oncoming bus, the wanderer glazedly gazing into their phone. The shouter shouted “Get back!” to keep the wanderer alive. You realize that the shouter actually felt safe enough with their friend to loudly act out their shout: it wasn’t a sign of feeling threatened, but of friendly comfort. Turns out, you had it all backwards. When you pay attention to the whole conversation, this isn’t unclear or complex or tricky. You were only confused because you didn’t have the context…and maybe because you didn’t realize you needed it so badly.
In the same way, Paul’s approach in Romans isn’t too terribly complicated, unless you bring in assumptions that make it complicated.
So what kind of conversation is Paul having, exactly?
Paul is creatively bringing together Jewish stories and history with Greek oratory and philosophy
There’s one other big thing to notice about the way Paul is writing, and it relates closely to the way he is bringing together Jewish, Greek and Roman culture, to bring together his community of people who had all in their own ways been shaped by Jewish and Greco-Roman culture. He takes the stories of the Hebrew Bible and the whole narrative of the Hebrew Bible as he sees it summed up in the unconditional enemy love and reconciling work of Jesus, and then turns it into something like a Greek philosophical argument, or persuasive speech.
This approach richly draws on Greek philosophical dialogues and oratory and the Hebrew Bible, although it is remarkable in his context that Paul puts this fascinating stew all together so coherently, in a letter to a community. We don’t have anything else quite like it. The letter is so long, by the standards of the day, that it probably cost the equivalent of $2000 to produce the physical letter. Do you think he was thoughtful and careful with what he spent this precious money on? Yes. He was very thoughtful and careful.
On the Greek side, consider how Plato’s famous dialogues were basically presented as probing discussions among people, which lead them into a more nuanced understanding of truth as they considered different arguments, drew out good points from them and set aside other points. But instead of presenting things as discussions between people, Paul internalizes these conversations, which means he basically has an extended conversation with himself. This kind of writing is called “dialectical,” but don’t be intimidated by that terminology. You do this sort of thing all the time.
Here’s a simple example of everyday dialectic:
“I think I need to deposit this $2000 in cash at the bank right away this morning, because I don’t want it lying around. Hmmmm. But there’s a lot of construction and it is already rush hour. I’m going to put the money somewhere safe. What if I head out at 9 and get stuck? I’m going to wait until 11, after rush hour.”
Basically, if you’re thinking like that you’re just “having a discussion” with yourself. That’s all Paul is doing. (He’s just doing it amazingly well.)
Now, if someone takes the first sentence in that thought process, about the $2000 in cash, and tries to turn this into a piece of computer code or something, they’re going to completely misunderstand what is going on. But as with the conversation between two people, it isn’t hard to bring this idea together with the other main idea, which is that rush hour will cause a delay. Nobody needs to be confused about where this all ends up. You can look at the end of the discussion to see it: if all goes according to plan, the cash is going to be safely deposited soon, and it isn’t going to be sitting in a car during rush hour. If this is your thought process, are you going to head out at 9 because you asked yourself “what if I headed out at 9”? No. That’s ridiculous. We all know you’re planning to leave at 11. And if it weren’t clear enough from the flow of the thought process, there’s also the difference between the “what if” which shows us you’re considering something, and the conclusion “I’m going to wait” which is clearly a firm decision and not a “what if.”
The only “trick” is that you need to keep reading and follow the flow of thought to see how it brings together these two conflicting ideas to arrive at a single solution that does justice to both ideas: depositing the money safely soon, while avoiding rush hour. Also notice that the ending has a certain pride of place in this kind of process. It tends to be the conclusion that brings everything else together. This is actually really important to remember, as simple and obvious as it should be to you now:
In a constructive and forward-moving thought process, the ending usually has a priority of meaning over the earlier parts, precisely because it is the conclusion of the thought process. This is especially clear if the earlier parts are “what if” type statements, but the conclusion has firm language.
Also notice something really neat: this process of bringing together two ideas is kind of like bringing together two conflicting groups so that they can arrive at a single solution that does justice to both groups! Remember: that’s what Paul is actually trying to do in the community he is writing to. Paul’s approach isn’t just interesting writing. It is a smart, practical intervention in the chaotic and conflict-ridden life of a very strange community. But we’re not done explaining how smart and beautiful Paul’s approach is, because there’s also this:
Paul’s use of Jewish stories and history is also an absolutely essential part of what he is doing.
Notice how a simple thought process that pulls together two ideas, honoring both, also resembles a simple fable like the Tortoise and the Hare. We could say that the fable sets you up with one idea to start: the tortoise is slow, but the hare is fast.
But hold on, I’m about to blow your mind. There’s another idea in this story!
The other idea is that the hare is lazy and arrogant, but the tortoise is diligent and humble. In this case, these two conflicting ideas get resolved into a satisfying conclusion that brings together both ideas and connects them in a very specific way: the humble persistence of the tortoise overcomes the speed of the hare.
People intuitively grasp this with ease, and you can use it to make fun variants on the story that keep its heart completely intact. In fact, the variants might even help you uncover even more fully the heart of the story.
For example, as storytellers, we might ham it up and emphasize how very, very, very slow the tortoise is. The story structure is still going to reconcile our two story ideas. People who know the story, in fact, will know exactly what we’re doing from the start. If it takes the tortoise all day to finish the race, and you are exquisitely skilled enough to spend a good five minutes making the kids laugh by explaining how very, very, very slow he is, that just means it took the hare even longer to sleep through the great tortoise run. We can go as deep as we want on the idea of slowness. It just means that while we’re telling this fable, we simply have to go even deeper on the idea of the hare’s pride and laziness: the slower the tortoise, the more arrogant and lazy the hare.
The story structure simply and intuitively holds the relationship between the ideas together. With the basic story form in view, the storyteller is free to honor the ideas as deeply and creatively as she likes.
Take good note of this! This reflection is as serious as any point in this article. Don’t be lulled into inattention by the fact that I’m talking about a simple children’s fable that may have come from a very short and very ugly little slave named Aesop, for all we know. (If it did come from such a source, of course, this is just the sort of thing we’d have to say about him: we don’t even know if he ever was.)
So throughout Romans, Paul uses stories from the Hebrew Bible to help structure and orient his argument. In doing this, Paul is bringing together stories (or narratives) and ideas in a way that is simple enough for a kid to understand. But it is beautiful, and it involves a fairly profound insight into the parallel structure of stories, the structure of “dialectical thought”, and the social conflict in his community between (and within) those who have Jewish and non-Jewish backgrounds. He is bringing together Jewish stories and Greek (or better, Greco-Roman) ways of communicating and thinking, based on a deep insight into their underlying unity, in order to help bring together real live Jews and Greco-Romans in a real live community in Rome.
In doing this, Paul demonstrates that he understands how to communicate the beauty and power of his Jewish stories to a Greco-Roman part of his audience that, at least in part, probably sees itself as too sophisticated for those homely little Jewish stories. And maybe he also helps connect Hellenized Jewish people (that’s the term for Jewish people, like Paul, who were substantially formed by Greek culture) and non-Hellenized Jewish people to each other and their heritage as well. In doing this, he gave them a way to honor their own tradition in a social context, the Roman Empire, that had colonized and abused and exploited and marginalized and transformed them. After all, Alexander’s Greek Empire and now Rome had been working hard at hammering the Jews into a more Greco-Roman shape with its weapons and Centurions and tax farming and patronage systems and gymnasia and pagan temples.
So it is thrilling, in this context, that Paul’s method brings together those deceptively simple-looking old stories from the Hebrew Bible (culminating, for Paul, in Jesus) with this Greek style of discussion, which explicitly describes and explores the psychological and relational and spiritual depths that are hidden just below the surface of those very stories.
Or to sum it up briefly:
In Romans, Paul is sharing the wisdom of Jewish stories using the tools of Greek philosophy and oratory, in order to make peace and bring reconciliation in his Jewish-Greco-Roman community. And ultimately between this community and everyone.
His style of writing is a bold and fascinating thing. If you like to write, it is worth considering how you might also deeply understand different genres and the inner logic that makes them tick, in order to create something that deeply satisfies different audiences while bringing them together in a fresh and surprising way.
This sort of thinking, and writing, and thinking about writing, is something we need today as much as ever!
But for all of the vital peacemaking Paul does in Romans 1–8 within this community, it leaves a glaring question sitting there. And it is a question that weighs very heavily on Paul’s heart as he goes around the Mediterranean visiting synagogues and pagan temples, getting beaten up, arrested, falsely accused, and run out of town for his troubles:
But then what about all the people who are beating me up all the time and trying to get me killed? How can God bring them peace?
Romans 1 to 8 does a lot to create peace within the community of Jesus-followers in Rome. But for Paul, that isn’t enough. He’s concerned for everyone, including the people who are routinely attacking him and his community. What about them?
Or to pull together his core concerns all at once, we might put it this way: Paul was gathering in all kinds of non-Jewish peoples together in the name of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus, just as the Jewish scriptures had promised. Although his own little churches were tiny things, he saw them as being so filled with promise that this movement would one day fill the world. (It turns out he was right. How strange.) But even as all of the non-Jewish peoples of the world are gathered in, what does this say about the Jewish people who reject Jesus?
In our own context, after Christians have done so much to persecute and brutalize non-Christians (and other Christians!), it is important to remember that for Paul the situation really was reversed. In a way that is not the case for many of us, he was routinely threatened by other more traditionalist Jewish and pagan people who were not at all comfortable with his take on Messianic Judaism. Be careful not to read our own very different situation back into Paul’s!
If we want to understand Paul’s answer to this conundrum, one of the most important things to notice is that Paul starts off Romans 9 by leading us up to the story of Jacob and Esau, briefly providing context from Genesis until he gets to the beginning of that beautiful and famous account. At least for the Jewish part of his audience, they would have probably heard the beginning of the story of Jacob, the tricky “heel-grabber” who would be transformed over the course of the story into Israel, echoing in their minds. This is in fact a perfect (and complex!) account for Paul to bring in, as a good rabbi must, in talking about the true nature of Israel. (He brings in Jacob and Esau in verse 9:13, if you’re following along in Romans.)
Then at the moment where the story in Genesis would continue with Jacob and Esau, Paul shows his mastery of Hebrew Scripture by quoting a prophecy from the start of the book of Malachi. The quote mentions Jacob and Esau in an extremely interesting way, in Paul’s context. This prophecy was, importantly, delivered after the first Temple had been destroyed, and the second Temple rebuilt. The Temple referred to by Malachi, there at the end of the book of Prophets, was the very Temple (although substantially gussied up by Herod’s building project!) that stood as Paul wrote. Malachi promised another destruction of this temple much like the destruction of the first, if the people of Israel did not turn toward justice and mercy. For Malachi, the point of referring to Jacob and Esau is apparently to suggest that Israel (aka, Jacob) will suffer destruction like Edom (aka, Esau) if it persists in being unjust and unloving and cruel to the poor, and (in a closely related way) stingy towards God. Clearly, a prophecy of the destruction of the existing Temple system at Paul’s time is in view in Malachi, and Paul pulls all of this together by quoting it at just the point in his account where Jacob and Esau would come into view, based on his recounting of Genesis. The crucial quote is at Romans 9:13:
As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated …
This little snippet anchors the whole discussion we find it Romans 9 to 11, and it is important to understand that Paul is basically telling a story or “following a narrative” even in the more philosophical and oratorical language that follows. He is also beautifully layering parts of the Hebrew Bible, demonstrating the way in which a good rabbi interprets and applies these old stories as patterns for interpreting the past and present: by insightfully drawing together different parts of the Hebrew Bible, Paul is anchoring himself deeply in the heart of his tradition by speaking truth to power in his own day.
Also consider that like someone referencing the “Tortoise and the Hare” today, even a short reference to the well-worn story of Jacob and Esau is enough to clue his audience in. At least it would have been more than enough to clue in the Jewish part of his audience to the full narrative of Jacob and Esau, as well as those gentiles who were familiar with the story and its beautiful complexities.
If that seems like a stretch to you at all, just imagine this scenario:
I point at someone who is boasting about how fast he works. He’s been claiming that he’s going to be managing all of us in a year’s time, and I say, “Oh yeah, that hare’s gonna win the race.”
With even a brief and slightly oblique reference to a well-known story, there’s little real question in any informed person’s mind about what I’m saying. The end of the story leaps immediately to mind, based on my brief reference to the start. So if you have basic cultural competence, you’ll instantly know that I’m basically saying, “That guy’s going to burn out.” And maybe I’m even suggesting that someone who works more slowly and steadily and quietly is going to come out ahead.
For Paul, the story of Jacob and Esau is like that, only even more. Paul wasn’t saturated with all kinds of media growing up, and Jacob and Esau wasn’t just some childhood fable. He was a highly trained Jewish leader in a culture where the typical person would have known and cherished Jacob and Esau’s story even more than we cherish and know the Tortoise and the Hare. This was one of his people’s core stories, integrally connected to their history and present, and it was a part of their Scriptures. They lived and breathed these stories in a way that we don’t live and breathe “The Tortoise and the Hare”. If you can easily catch my reference to that fable, consider that for Paul, Jacob and Esau was like that but more.
So if you don’t know the story of Jacob and Esau and its stunningly moving conclusion, you’re going to completely miss the obvious significance of this snippet of Romans 9, in which Paul refers to Malachi referring to Jacob and Esau:
As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated …
In case you don’t know the story of Jacob and Esau let me catch you up, like a Jewish member of Paul’s audience might have gotten a Roman pagan caught up:
How Jacob Became Israel and Saw God’s Face
You can read the full account of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 25:19 - 33:20 if you like. It is a beautiful story about sibling rivalry, competition, injustice, trickery, theft, rage … and ultimately, repentance and reconciliation.
First, let me give you a bit of context for the story. The normal order of society (and law) in the Ancient Near East involved the older sibling receiving a special birthright in a family. This was a widespread convention, and is expressed in the Law of Moses in Deuteronomy 21:15–17. The form this convention takes in Deuteronomy is interesting, because the law concerns itself with another type of marginalization that plays a role in the story of Jacob and Esau: the marginalization of an unloved wife in a plural marriage, in a patriarchal society. But that’s a disturbing if ultimately beautiful exploration for another day. Today, we will turn different perturbations to beauty instead. Just be aware that here in Deuteronomy, where we find the principle of preference for first children assumed, it is specifically being applied in the interest of an unloved wife.
Here, let’s also notice that there’s an injustice in the notion that the first born has any kind of special rights at all. According to this law or custom, the second child is legally and conventionally marginalized and deprived, instead of being treated fairly and equally. It’s not as if anyone chooses what order they’re born in!
It is in the context of this sort of norm that God “elects” or “loves” the younger brother Jacob over his older brother, Esau. This election of the younger sibling who would normally be marginalized is part of an important recurring pattern in the Hebrew Bible. The pattern shows us that, again and again, in the face of a law that creates a kind of injustice, God elects the younger child by “loving him” in spite of the normal order of the law. That’s the idea behind God “hating” Esau and his older-brother rights, while “loving” Jacob instead. This tells us a lot about what “election” in the Hebrew bible and all of Christian scripture is about: it is God “unjustly” and “illegally” choosing the more poor and marginal, represented by the younger brother. This kind of “election” specifically addresses the real injustice of legal “justice”.
So what happens as Jacob lives out his younger-sibling life, a life that is “loved” and “elected” by God already from the moment that it is a marginal, second birth?
Jacob uses trickery and tough negotiation to claim the birthright of his brother, and to steal his brother’s blessing from his father. He takes advantage of his brother’s hunger (as rich land-owners have throughout history, and as Jacob’s youngest son Joseph will one day do on a massive scale in Egypt) to get Esau to trade away his birthright for some food: a bit of red soup. Then, under his mother’s guidance, Jacob intentionally deceives his father by disguising himself as Esau, in order to trick their father, Isaac, into giving his blessing to Jacob instead.
Understandably, Jacob’s mother is concerned when she hears that Esau wants to kill him for all of this. So she warns Jacob and advises him to flee.
So Jacob flees to another country, and makes a life with his uncle Laban. But Laban deals with Jacob as dishonestly and unjustly as Jacob dealt with Esau. And as with Esau, Jacob ultimately outsmarts Laban but infuriates him, and flees from Laban’s rage as he once fled from Esau’s rage.
Still, Laban pursues Jacob. His rage is ultimately stilled by God, and so Laban and Jacob are reconciled. The pattern is now set quite clearly for the attentive listener, through the layered onions of this story: there is a basic injustice, and another injustice is cleverly done to fix it. This creates rage and fear, but then God steps in to reconcile both parties so that the original injustice and the injustice of the repair are both repaired. In this way, justice is done more fully, as a more just peace is established.
Ah! So already with Laban, before Jacob makes his way back to Esau, you can discern the moral in this story’s pattern. What is the moral?
Is the moral that those elected and beloved by God will outfox the rest, being the most clever deceivers in a deceptive and clever world? No.
Are the elect, like their God, beyond good and evil? Recognizing that property is theft and the social order is unjust (this is all true enough), are they ultimately called to unjustly take whatever they can, run for the hills, and call it a day? Again, no.
Instead, there is a bit of a story to be told: legal systems, even the very best, are intrinsically unjust. God opts for those marginalized by them. Some Christians call this God’s “preferential option for the poor.” It is at the very heart of Biblical election. However, this election makes those who benefit from the unjust legal system angry. Through the reconciling work of God, though, the anger is stilled and a more just peace emerges. Notice as well that Jacob gets to keep his ‘winnings’ from his counter-trickery. This building of peace involves a real redistribution of wealth, an equalizing one, which sticks at the end of the day even though it results in angry and sometimes violent resistance. So there are a couple of steps there, but it isn’t too hard to catch the basic flow of the story.
I’d like to stop here and note that these are profound stories that raise profound questions, very much alive to me today as I write on land that I have legally bought, but which was originally stolen from its indigenous inhabitants through wars and broken treaties. Sure, my own nation’s law says that this land is mine. But the law is bound up in webs of injustice. So is my purchase of the land on which I live the end of the story? This property in Ohio is indeed predicated on theft, and I have indeed bought this land. So what? Maybe I better just make sure nobody steals it back? No. Or do I say to myself, “God has elected me to benefit from this land, and so it is duly mine, by God’s inscrutable will which is beyond good and evil, end of story?” This sort of thinking certainly marked the original colonizers of the land that I sit on. But no. That’s not how Biblical election works. If I am the “elect” in some sense then my task is clear: my work is to pursue generosity and reconciliation. (And now, if you like, you might want to think about that blood red soup at the top of this article.)
So now we’re ready to finish this story! The story of Jacob and Esau unfolds further, telling us again and more fully what the encounter with Jacob and Laban has already told us once. (This patterning in the story also helps it become a pattern for us, for future application.)
After being reconciled with Laban, Jacob turns back to the God who promised him a home, back to his promised land among his people. But Esau lives there, and has also grown in wealth and power. So turning back from his life of trickery means that Jacob must turn back to his brother Esau and face him. He has to face the one who hated him for his double theft of birthright and blessing.
We need to pause here for a moment to notice something small that is a bit buried here, in this complex account of a promised land. Alongside that promise of land there is another promise that goes far beyond it, which is the promise of Abraham now carried forward through Jacob, who will become Israel. This is the more expansive promise:
All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring …
Jacob was probably focused on the more immediate matter of getting back to the land and getting his brother to not kill him. But for us today, it is the example of the coming reconciliation that blesses us all profoundly.
And so we follow further as Jacob prepares to face his brother. He has a briefly-mentioned encounter with God’s messengers at Mahahaim, meaning Two-Camps, the place where he and God both camped. (We are in Genesis 32 now.) And maybe Two-Camps is also the place that promises that his camp will stand beside his brother’s, at least for a time. Or maybe, and also, he realizes that it will be wise to split his own camp in two internally as well, so that if one camp is destroyed by Esau’s wrath, at least a remnant will remain. At any rate, after encountering God’s messengers at Manahaim, Jacob will split his own camp in two, send gracious gift-givers ahead of him as messengers to his brother, and come to meet him, bringing their two camps together for a time. Jacob truly encountered God at Two-Camps! And here, if we read attentively, we might learn much of the wisdom that animated Paul in his endeavors.
After doing all of that, probably nervously waiting for his fateful encounter with Esau, Jacob tries to sleep. But instead he wrestles with a mysterious man, is wounded and is changed. Jacob demands a blessing, and the man blesses him. Or maybe he “blesses” him. Because this man re-names Jacob Israel, ‘one who struggles with spiritual beings’ and touches his leg, wounding him. Jacob is changed. Jacob limps. Now he is Israel, but is only sometimes referred to in that way. Often when the Bible speaks of him it will call him Jacob, and then call him Israel. Or call him Israel, and echo “Jacob.” This convention preserves and reminds us of this story, and the strange dynamic of a man who has been changed. Or at least changed in part. Jacob. Israel.
And so it is this limping and humbled Israel who returns to his older brother Esau, engaging in an elaborate process of gift giving and repentance as he approaches him. Here is the climactic moment of the story, the moment in Jacob and Esau’s lives when the tortoise crosses the finish line. If Jacob’s painful night involved the birth pangs of Israel, then maybe this moment in which Jacob truly sees Esau is the birth of Israel:
“No, please!” said Jacob. “If I have found favor in your eyes accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably. Please accept the present that was brought to you, for God has been gracious to me and I have all I need. And because Jacob insisted, Esau accepted it.”
While the brothers each end up going their own ways in the end, perhaps not quite trusting each other fully, there is also deep love and a restored connection between them. They will remain differentiated but connected.
So God’s election isn’t a morally arbitrary choice, “illegal” though it may be. Instead, it is an understandable and consistent one. It is consistently the choosing of those marginalized by custom or law, even when this creates shock and rage and scandal and division. And then it is God’s desire to reconcile the two parties, so that a deeper justice still can be done. (God gets what God wants, by the way.)
Notice that election isn’t the end of the story, and it also isn’t identical with the idea of ultimate salvation. Not at all. Nope. Not even a little bit. To read “election” in that way is, frankly, to betray that someone is simply Biblically illiterate and morally blind as well. This isn’t intended as an insult. If someone doesn’t catch your reference to a fable, for example, you understand something about them very quickly: they lack the basic cultural framework that they need to navigate normal interactions in your culture. The appropriate response is to simply and kindly explain what has perplexed them. No shame in it at all.
So let’s be extremely clear, since bad ideas sometimes take a while to clear away. What is election in this story really about? The elected younger sibling is saved from the injustice of the normal legal and cultural system. But the idea isn’t that this decision by God damns the non-elect, older brother. It just means that the favoritism of the law is counteracted with a balancing act of ‘favoritism’, pointing toward an ultimate reconciliation and transformation of the entire relationship.
God’s election is a deliberate choosing of those marginalized within the unjust “justice” of the legal system, for the purpose of creating true justice by forming those formerly marginalized individuals as powerful AGENTS of reconciliation.
This is also, precisely, Paul’s vision for the Christian community: they will be agents of God’s complete reconciliation so that the injustices of normal justice are corrected, and the parties will all be reconciled. Don’t believe me?
Well, with this background, reading Romans 9–11 should clear that all up for you.
Now you’re ready to relish Romans 9–11
This is where I rather controversially suggest that Romans 11 really means what it says: that the faithful remnant of Israel, Paul’s community, is ultimately part of God’s plan to save and consecrate all of Israel. And if any part is holy, that means the whole thing is ultimately holy: all of them, every last one, will be rescued for the sake of the faithful few.
Paul’s mission involves rescuing those who can be rescued now and inviting them to become the Jacob-like faithful remnant of humble, marginal, peaceful, reconcilers who will be integrated into God’s work of reconciling and redeeming everyone in the end.
Especially when the clarity of Romans 11 and the clarity of 1 Corinthians 15 are allowed to mutually interpret each other, I think we can fairly easily reconstruct Paul’s view: there will be suffering now for everyone, although it is mixed with hope and joy for those who understand and live in Christ already. Then there will be an ultimate judgment when the true goodness or badness of every life is fully revealed, with shame and glory to match, depending on how well each person loved. In other words, at the final judgment people receive shame or glory depending on how much grace they allowed to flow through their life. This experience is especially painful for those who did a great deal of wrong and never dealt with it, or who hoarded truth and love. They will have to understand and deal with what they’ve done, and the fact that they continued to pile sin on sin throughout their lives means they have a lot to deal with and little good to show. And there will be sweet vindication for those who did right and who dealt with their sin more thoroughly. This process ultimately leads to a fullness of reconciliation and repentance for all. And then ultimately, in just the same way that everyone dies, so too will everyone be fully alive in Christ.
Here, I think I’m just reading Paul’s clear statements in Romans 11 and 1 Corinthians 15 together. And I’d note that both of these texts represent points in their respective letters where Paul clearly and coherently is concluding his arguments and stories and reflections, by saying exactly what he wants to say. In this way, Romans and 1 Corinthians, taken as a whole, are about as clear as the text of Jacob and Esau that I just interpreted.
I don’t take the fact that this is controversial to mean that the texts themselves are especially unclear. Climate change is also controversial, but not because the science is unclear to competent researchers acting in good faith. It seems to me that the controversies about Romans 9–11 are largely a result of people being threatened into reading Paul poorly, when they would otherwise know better. How are people threatened? These days, they’re threatened with persecution by the church, sometimes even expulsion from the church, and possibly endless torture for having the wrong opinion on this. Historically, people were also legally punished for reading Paul plainly here, and punishments included things like removal of property and the right to teach publicly. It is understandable enough that some people who have been threatened respond to those threats, and that a tradition shaped by those threats trains people to recoil even now at the basic reading! This history of coercion, and its present impacts, are uncontroversial and easy enough to document. But those threats, and their historical success in coercing lots of people to develop and defend habits of reading poorly, don’t change the fact that Paul’s texts are reasonably clear at this point.
(For my own part, I do think readings other than mine can be defended, but the common arguments for these other readings are surprisingly very weak for how widespread they are. That is what threats and bribes can buy you: arguments which are both bad and popular. And I’d suggest that other New Testament texts may express views that are different than Paul’s. I welcome a diversity of views on these issues, if that’s what we find. Still, for all of that, Paul says what Paul says.)
So in reading Romans 9–11, I’m confident that the deeper you dig into this remarkable text and its many layered references, the more you will find that Paul consistently embraces the logic of Jacob and Esau’s story, read through the filter of Malachi’s prophecy against the second Temple, which grounds it concretely in the communities Paul is talking to. For Paul, there is certainly death and tribulation, even enormous suffering to come in Israel. His integration of Malachi’s prophecy does a lot to clue us in to that. But fitting the pattern of all Hebrew prophecy and Jacob and Esau’s story, there is also a profound hope of reconciliation on the other side of all of this, and the opportunity for transformation and holy heroism now.
Let me provide a bit more context on that prophecy from Malachi, and how it relates to Paul’s context. As it turned out, Malachi was right about the second Temple being destroyed like the first, leaving only a faithful remnant. Romans was written around the year 58, and there had long been plans for violent rebellions against Rome in Judea. As a Christian, Paul would not have supported this, recognizing that it would amount to something like “suicide by Centurion.” The Christian message regarding this violent approach to resistance was pretty simple: “Live by the sword, die by the sword.” In other words: “If Israel rebels against Rome violently, Rome is going to crush Israel. Can’t you see that?”
This view wouldn’t have required some kind of enormous magical insight: it was right there in Malachi, which Paul certainly knew well and quoted, and it was also common sense. The Romans had a huge army. Israel, not so much. As it turned out, Malachi and Jesus and Paul were all correct to warn people about the results of this course of action. Israel’s rebellion against Rome resulted in the catastrophic destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, a chain of events that continued in the horrifying, brutal extermination that came in response to the Bar Kokhba revolt around 135 AD. The moral issues around this horrible and regrettable chain of events are complex and difficult in every sense. Still, I think the Christian response (then and now) to these sorts of historical horrors must always be very simple: we are meant to rescue everyone we can, and we are not meant to participate in this sort of thing on any side. We are meant to reject violence completely.
Also, I want to be clear that we are not to engage in victim blaming, either in this historical case or today: Jesus is the ultimate victim and he absorbs all the blame. This is not to say that we should avoid warning people about the predictable results of bad decisions!
So it was predictable that the rebellion against Rome would lead to this catastrophic outcome, and it is appropriate and important to warn people about this sort of thing. But the residents of Israel who fell by the Roman sword were not all responsible or equally responsible, and sorting that out is above our pay grade. Still, Jesus does show us this: to die as a refugee in the catastrophe that is history is to be joined with the Christian community in its marginality, not to be ultimately condemned. The message, in that sense, is clear and simple and far too often ignored. Rescue whoever you can. Warn people of the consequences of bad decisions. But judge no one, especially in an ultimate sense: that is above our pay grade, at least this side of being taken up completely in the love of Jesus.
To understand the rest of the structure of Romans 9 through 11, it helps to consider that Paul is “posing a problem” or “presenting a narrative idea” again and again throughout the first part. Consider that “God loved Jacob and hated Esau” poses a problem that is resolved at the end of the story of Jacob and Esau: “God’s love was for the sake of a greater reconciliation between all parties.” If you want, you can even search Romans 9 and 10 for a few key phrases and words which can show you where Paul “poses a problem” which he then resolves clearly in the second half of Romans 9 to 11. For example, you can search for the words “mercy” or “stumble” or “children” (especially if you think about family trees and adoption!) to get started.
You can also look into the various references Paul makes if you like. For example, the rather famous references to Isaiah in verse 9:20, which are sometimes used to justify the notion of an arbitrary God whose will is beyond any kind of good or evil we can understand, are very interesting. Paul is also, even there, making ironic use of comforting words in Isaiah 45:9. It is also important to notice that when Paul talks us through these “tricky” phases of his argument, which mirror the tricky early phase of Jacob’s life, it is consistently in a “what if” mode. He is very careful not to claim that God IS a capricious being who smashes whoever God wants to smash! He clearly ups the ante by making us consider that horrible possibility: what if there really is an all-powerful God who ultimately smashes people for some inscrutable reason? (The implication: that would be terrible, and even worse, we couldn’t do anything about it.) Instead, he presents a problem which he resolves in the end: no, that’s not how God truly is. Ultimately, Paul will conclude his argument in a clear and declarative mode rather than the“what if” mode that is appropriate to the start of the narrative. So just be aware and very clear about this: the despair and death and trickiness and injustice that Paul explores as a mere possibility in Romans 9 do not have the final word.
In a sense, Paul spends Romans 9–11 working through the logic of the story of Jacob and Esau in a way that is equivalent to me working through the “Tortoise and the Hare” as if it is actually a discussion about the ideas of “slow persistence” and “fast pride.” The ideas are “God’s just election of the marginal” and then, ultimately, “God’s mercy on all.” As with the account of Jacob and Esau, where the conclusion of the story tells you what it was all about, the conclusion naturally takes priority. Where the twists of a story or argument shape a surprising conclusion, the conclusion casts everything that precedes it in a fresh light and takes clear precedence. This not only clear from the general structure of Romans 9–11, but is also clear at particular points in Paul’s language, which moves from articulating “what if’s” and possibilities and problems, toward assured conclusions about what he calls a “mystery” that he does not want his audience to be ignorant of, because ignorance will make them conceited. (It is easy to understand how this sort of ignorance can make “the elect” conceited, then and now!)
So before you read Romans 9 and get stuck, I’d invite you to read the grand conclusion at the end of Romans 11. Notice that the reference to Jacob at the start of Romans 9 is carried through powerfully in the end of the letter. In this way, Paul teaches this Jewish-Greco-Roman-Christian community that their job is to act like the humbled and limping and apologetic and gracious ‘Jacob’ toward the non-Christian Jewish community, who are (just for a time) their ‘Esau’ but who are also assuredly in the end all Jacob, all Israel. (Emphases mine.)
Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!
I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved. As it is written:
“The deliverer will come from Zion;
he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.
And this is my covenant with them
when I take away their sins.”
As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.
Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay them?”
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever!
Sometimes people get hung up on certain sentences in Romans 9–11, treating them as if they are permanent theological conclusions, or part of a static theological system. This is what often happens with Paul’s hypothetical discussion in Romans 9, where he establishes that God can choose or smash whoever God wants, because God is God. The point, of course, is not that God is arbitrary and capricious and “beyond good and evil” according to human understanding. No. Not at all. The point is that God can choose the marginalized as agents of God’s reconciliation, so that God can bring peace to all … even if this involves some apparent violations of the unjust legal order along the way. And of course, these ‘violations’ are then followed by humble reconciling practices, bringing peace with those previously favored by the unjust legal order, which leads to a deeper and deepening peace and reconciliation.
Those who read Romans 9 and spin off a whole theological system from it are kind of like people who read the beginning of the Tortoise and the Hare, and go off to write a treatise on the virtues of the hare. Ah, let us make the magnificent speed of the hare our central principle! A generous response is laughter, but as an argument it isn’t really worthy of a more serious response than that. I think we should, of course, take the people trapped in this kind of thinking seriously and treat them with great love and respect, even if they come at us sputtering with self-righteous rage. But precisely because we respect and love them as human beings, we should generously and directly and patiently help them see how silly and ultimately damaging their arguments are.
All of this matters because stories have a way of becoming our histories. And unfortunately in Christian history, a brutal mis-reading of this story that horribly abuses the text has played its role in shaping a history of abuse and brutality toward all kinds of out-group members, especially Jewish people.
So whenever you see Paul talk about election, remember that you don’t understand what Jacob’s election is about unless you follow the whole story through to the end and find that Israel, the elect younger brother Jacob, brings about the reconciliation of the two through the humility that he learns on his long and painful journey. Don’t get stuck at the start of the story, and mistake it for the end. This sort of getting stuck in the text is not only a small problem of Bible reading: it has contributed a great deal to a misreading of history, and where we are at in it, and what role Christians are supposed to play. And here, I’ll just briefly note that the point of Romans as a whole is not that we are to give Jewish people some kind of special preference in general, but that we are to be the limping and humble Jacob who brings peace wherever we go. Still, special amends are due to many groups who we, as Christians, have wronged. In that sense, it is essential to note that Jewish people have been persecuted to a very high spot on a very long list.
So why is there so much controversy over this text, if it isn’t so terribly hard for a basically informed reader to understand?
I’d start by suggesting that one of the very clearest and easiest things to get out of Christian scripture is that selfless enemy love is meant to completely replace domination through money, power, coercion and prestige, for us. It is explicitly and very clearly taught in Matthew 5 and Luke 6. Plus, the entire narrative of the New Testament (and then the letters!) demonstrate this ethic in practice again and again and again. The first 300 years of Christian writing only further reinforce the point. And still, plenty of Christians manage to get that wrong, too. Why is this? I think the misreadings are probably connected to a degree, even if they aren’t reducible to each other.
I think a core issue here is that a lot of grown-ups come to think that they’ve got to screw people over to survive. This is an easy exaggeration, which goes along with needing to rationalize having more money, power and prestige (and access to coercion) than others. And so all too many grown-ups read this sad, twisted, and dark view over the Bible. In doing this, they ignore what the Bible actually teaches when read well, and instead snip it up so that it seems to justify the violence, self-righteousness, hypocrisy and defensiveness that they have let seep into their hearts from the world.
They’re wrong about needing to screw people over to survive, by the way. Actually, the truth is just the opposite. Screwing people over is the road to death.
The good news is that death isn’t the end. And there will always be people who choose life, who choose peace, who choose love, who choose reconciliation, who choose solidarity with the suffering and marginalized, instead of the way of death. Some of those people will remain, even as history piles stinking wreckage on wreckage. And they will pick up the shattered wreckage left by the others, bind the wounds, carry on, and find new ways to build more lasting peace. In the end, when the world is rolled up like a scroll, they will shine like the sun, as all of the darkness is brought to light and melted away.
As it turns out, if you buy into this wacky Christianity thing, that’s the central message of the KING OF THE FREAKING UNIVERSE: Jesus.
Now I understand if you don’t buy it. It’s a lot to claim. But I do buy it. And whether you buy it or not, that really is the idea behind Romans, and Paul’s mission. It is worth understanding what one of the most significant pieces of writing in human history was all about!
So the moral of the big story that so captivated and transformed Paul, whether you like it or not, is that these peaceful, stupidly generous, unconditional lovers are the agents of peace who change things for the better, in history.
They’re the helpers to look for, who give you hope when things are grim.
And if there’s anything to this Jesus stuff, they’re going to win.
In fact, they’re going to win all the marbles, in the end.
And then they’re gonna share them with everyone.
That’s how they do, so that’s how they’ll do.
You can join them, if you dare.
Why “if you dare”?
Because to be heroes in this story means that you have to become a part of a people who wrestle with their spirituality and their family scars. We have to do this until we learn to limp and reconcile our way through life together. That’s the only way to become Israel.
To be these kinds of heroes, to be the marginal reconcilers in this story, we have to share our marbles until we find ourselves standing on the edges.
And our marbles include more than our toys. (Those too.)
They also include those weird Jesus ideas, including the ones we’ve lost track of along the way, even though they are still rattling around in there somewhere.
That might not sound so easy, but I’ll tell you this:
It is a whole lot easier than getting lost in that hopeless little screen.
David Bentley Hart’s “That All Shall Be Saved” deserves credit/blame for inspiring this article. In that brilliant and foolish book, he briefly mentions the underlying exegetical idea about Jacob and Esau in Romans 9. This encouraged me, and reminded me of something I’d been working on for several years.
If you don’t like David Bentley Hart, don’t worry. I take him firmly to task and show him what-for here. Wouldn’t want to miss that dog pile.
And if you do like him … well this just got awkward. I think you’ll like that article okay, too, if you actually read it from start to end and don’t get too hung up on a sentence or two at the start.