Q&R with Brad Jersak: Was Paul wrong about Esau & Pharaoh?

Question

Do you think Paul was wrong in Romans 9? I can’t imagine a loving parent saying something like this. He argues that God chooses people according to his purposes:

  • 11 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— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
  • 14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 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.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
  • 19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? 

I would think pretty terrible things about any father who spoke this way to his child in my psychotherapy office. I might even call child protective services on him. What do you think?

Response

What an important question!

Paul was absolutely right to raise this horrendous hypothetical question (an arbitrary view of God his opponents seemed to believe), precisely in order to shatter it to bits throughout the following chapters. That is, we absolutely must NOT read Romans 9 in isolation as if it represented Paul’s own point of view. Instead, from Romans 9-11, he’s pondering the fate of his Jewish brethren who’ve rejected Christ and asks, with tears, if there is now no hope for them.

And so he begins with a “What if?” question–a worst-case hypothetical scenario: Okay, what if God does play favorites? What if God does choose some people or groups for salvation and elects others for damnation? What if we take characters like Esau or Pharaoh and prooftext the Scriptures (again, in isolation) to show that God simply hates some people and loves others? Who are we to question God?  

But then Paul proceeds to shred that line of thinking to bits and lays out God’s masterplan whereby Israel’s rejection of Christ, gratefully, leads to the broader Gentile inclusion in the gospel… and now that Gentile inclusion will ultimately lead to a complete Jewish inclusion (by whatever means).

Far from ignoring the Old Testament text, Paul reframes the story in grander terms–the great arc and drama of redemption. Over and over, from Cain and Abel through to Manasseh and Ephraim, rather than inclusion vs. exclusion, the recurring pattern is that even when his children wandered away or delayed God’s promises, God nevertheless redeemed their rebellion by subverting it to broaden the scope of his salvation even wider.

As David Bentley Hart has written

  • This is clearest in the stories of Jacob and of Joseph, and it is why Esau and Jacob provide so apt a typology for Paul’s argument. For Esau is not finally rejected; the brothers are reconciled, to the increase of both precisely because of their temporary estrangement. And Jacob says to Esau (not the reverse), “Seeing your face is like seeing God’s.”

On that biblical basis, Paul brings his argument to a glorious climax with these bold and beautiful promises:

  • Christ is the end of the law so that ALL may attain righteousness, “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile–the same Lord is Lord of ALL and richly blesses ALL who call on him” (Romans 10:12).
  • The believing “remnant” of Israel (11:5) is not merely an exclusive club of “the saved,” but rather, “the firstfruits” of the “dough that makes the WHOLE batch holy” or “the roots” that make ALL the branches holy (Romans 11:16).
  • Yes, like Pharaoh, “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” (Romans 11:25-26), and then finally, the apostle concludes his argument,
  • “For God has bound EVERYONE over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them ALL” (Romans 11:32).

As I say, the “what if” exclusivist scenario of Romans 9 is a distorted construct of God (which stumbled Augustine and his Calvinist progeny). But in context, Paul thoroughly cuts off that error. After all, Christ revealed God as our “loving heavenly Father” rather than an arbitrary tyrant. 

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