“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)
Now, this doesn’t translate well into our culture, but would have been extremely significant in the ancient near east 4,000 years ago. At that time, all the rights and the bulk of the inheritance went to the eldest son. The idea of equity among brothers was unheard of then, partly because families were usually quite large and most of the wealth was in property and livestock (which are not as easily divided equally as money). Also, they believed strongly that every family should have a strong patriarch who guided the family until he died. So, the elder son would inherit that role of family patriarch upon the death of his father.
There are two ideas in this one verse that permeate through the rest of Scripture:
- In God’s economy, often the poorer and weaker are exalted above the stronger and wealthy. In our economy, of course, it is just the opposite. So, throughout Scripture, we are going to see how God turns our culture on it’s head and does things completely counter-intuitively, often choosing to work through people that would surprise you. So, for example, God accepted the sacrifice of Abel (younger brother) over Cain (older brother), when Abel died, God chose to work through their still younger brother Seth over Cain, God chose Isaac (younger brother) not Ishmael (older brother), etc. There will be many more examples of this throughout Scripture.
- God is in control and everything is ultimately subject to His sovereignty over all things. This is called God’s “unconditional election.” We are not saved by virtue of what family we are born in, or our status, or our wealth, or our intelligence or anything else. We are saved, ultimately, because in God’s plan He chose to save us.
Romans 9 puts that second point this way:
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. For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 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— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (Romans 9:8-18)
In other words, while Jacob and Esau were in the womb, before they had done anything good or bad, God said, I am going to choose Jacob to carry on the family name, and not Esau. When God says, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (a quotation from Malachi 1:2-3), the verb translated “hate” should be understood to mean “relative preference for one over another.” It is the same verb that is translated “hate” when Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26) Jesus is clearly not saying that we have to hate our parents, spouses or siblings in order to follow Him. His other teachings make that clear. He is saying that choosing to follow Him often means choosing against following the direction of family and friends. I wrote an entire blog post on this idea a while back if you are interested.
The point is, try as we might (and we do try), our salvation is ultimately dependent upon God’s divine choice, not our human effort.