As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” Romans 9:13 ESV
Many people say that interpreting the Bible is hard. I think that the main thing that complicates interpreting the Bible is how we read it. The Bible is not an inspirational verse calendar. It is not a science text book, a fairy tale with no relevance to us whatsoever, or whatever we want it to be. The Bible is a collection of sixty-six books written over a period of 1,500 years by forty different authors on three different continents. It has about eight different genres (Law, Historical Narrative, Poetry, Wisdom Literature, Prophesy, Gospels, Epistles, and Apocalyptic Literature). It has one main unifying theme, God’s restoration of a people to Himself through His Messiah. It is completely true in anything it talks about. The writers wrote their literature to be understood to their original audience and to those who would follow after them. The key to biblical interpretation is context.
So how do we interpret a Bible verse? We read it in context. Take the verse above. In order to correctly interpret that verse, we need to know the verses surrounding it. What does it look like when we put the verse before and the verse following it? It looks like this, “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!”
This helps us understand the verse a little better but that leaves us with more questions:
1. Who is she?
2. Where is this written and why is this written?
3. What does it mean by love and hated?
4. Why does this make God just?
Some one might come up with more questions but let us stick with these four. We need more context to clear up this passage. We need to find the pericope. A pericope is the whole thought that the author is telling. Sometimes you have to go to the beginning of the chapter or further to find the start of it. You also might have to go to the end of the chapter or further to find the end of it. Here is the Pericope of Romans 9:13
1I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. 4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. 6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 8 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. 9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 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 destruction, 23 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? (Romans 9:1-24, ESV).
This helps us understand the verse a little bit more. Paul is very upset that all of national Israel is not saved. Then he explains that not everyone who calls themselves an Israelite is an Israelite. His first example is an Old Testament example to show that it is the children of the promise who are saved. That example is Sarah giving birth to Isaac. (It is important to know the history of Israel when Interpreting the Old Testament from Genesis to Esther). This next example is Rebecca giving birth to Esau and Jacob. Before Jacob ever had the chance to steal the birthright or the blessing from his father, God had already chosen Jacob to be the child of promise and thus be saved. This answers questions 1&2 above. Verse 20 answers questions 3&4 above. Love and hate are referring to choosing some to be saved and others allowing them to go their own way. This is righteous because God is good since He is the creator and establishes right and wrong. He uses those who are destined to destruction to show His patience and loving kindness towards those whom He has chosen for mercy. The rest of the chapter and the next two following chapters show that it is Israel’s own fault for being doomed to destruction because they did not seek salvation through faith in God, through Jesus Christ His Son, but through their own righteousness, which is no righteousness at all.
We could go on and dive deeper, but it is sufficient to say. We interpret a Bible verse by interpreting it in its context. This is exactly what I teach in my books When My Ox Gores My Neighbor and Romans Roadblocks. The introductory booklet, What Does It Mean To Me?, I wrote is also a useful tool in helping you in interpreting the Bible. Here is a video below that shows John Piper interpreting this passage using the principles of hermeneutics.
[Please look at the Resources section for resources that will help you interpret the Bible and share your faith]