One reads Romans 9:13 about God “…Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” and may think God is a bigot. Our interpretations of the author’s meaning and message are fallible. Let’s not be dogmatic but engaging in our conversations about God. Also, we best “err” on the side of grace, mercy, and love as it concerns God to avoid misleading anyone. Most can agree on moral absolutes and behaviors associated with perfect love because we all share being made in our Creator’s image. God’s love and perfect human love are one and the same.
We need to understand the Apostle Paul’s audience. They stumbled over the idea that a relationship with God was simply by faith in God’s unconditional love than through obeying certain laws which we all fail at anyway. Rules are necessary in relationships but they don’t produce intimacy. The Jews struggled with the idea that God only chose them as an inclusive plan to bless all nations, even the Gentiles (Gen 12:3). Keep this in mind in understanding what Paul seeks to convince his readers of and why certain questions are raised in this passage.
When we read God hated Esau, we must err on the plausible side. God cannot ask us to be impartial (James 2:1) and yet God show favoritism. That is irrational. God no more than human parents can justify hating a child simply because of their birth order. God’s wrath and hate are not the same. God’s wrath is no different than a loving parent showing tough love. God only gets angry or punishes in hopes of positive change and restoration.
Paul didn’t mean what we normally think of in terms of the emotion of hate. God loves not hates. Context reveals what I mean by “I love steak, I hate hamburgers.” I don’t really hate hamburgers. Luke did not mean that one must hate their family and life to love God (14:26). We must sometimes choose God over family, which may appear as if we hate our family. Paul was using a figure of speech. God doesn’t actually hate Esau. God choose Jacob’s lineage, through no merit of his own, for the Messiah to be born into to bring grace to all including Esau. Both can’t receive the birthright. The one not chosen for the birthright makes it seems as if hated.
If God really hated Esau, I would think in verse 15 Paul might say “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have contempt compassion on whom I have contempt compassion.” Besides, if God hated Esau as we normally think of it, God has a strange way of showing it as Paul conveyed moments later God is doing all of this to have mercy on them all (11:32). When we hate we aren’t scheming how to show mercy. Do we really think God hated Esau after Esau broke down in tears and reconciled with Jacob (Gen 33:4)?
Romans is not about God loving some and hating others though they desire a relationship with God. It would be strange that Paul would accuse God of what he reprimands the Jews for. Some Jews acted as if God loved them but hated and excluded the Gentiles. People at that time felt the first born was entitled to the birthright. God chose Jacob to convey that God’s grace and unconditional love is not something inherited according to law but freely given to all.