In Genesis 25-36 we are given the stories of Isaac and Jacob. These are not mere narratives but a display of the relentless grace of God. Through broken people we are going to see the amazing grace of God which will give us hope in God’s grace as we study these accounts.
Genesis 25 opens with the death of Abraham. Remember the final important story concerning the life of Abraham is that he made sure that Isaac did not marry a Canaanite or leave the promised land. Abraham has his servant go to Haran where his extended family is and from there finds a wife for Isaac named Rebekah. Genesis 25:19 opens with the generations of Isaac. Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebekah. But you will notice Isaac experiences the same issue that his father Abraham experienced. Rebekah is barren. We have the same hopeless and helpless situation for Isaac that Abraham had. Remember that Isaac is the promised child. It is through Isaac all the nations of the earth will be blessed (Genesis 21:12). Through Isaac, Abraham’s descendants are going to be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sands by the sea. But Isaac’s wife is barren. The promises appear dead. Hope is dead. The same hopeless situation for Abraham is presented to us again through Isaac. Just as his father did (20:17), Isaac prays to the Lord for his wife and the Lord grants Isaac’s prayer. Based on verse 26 we know that Rebekah remains barren for 20 years. Do not be misled into thinking that Isaac prayed once and God answered. Twenty years passed before God chose to answer Isaac’s prayer for Rebekah to be able to have a child. Once again we are seeing God who is at work through all the events that are happening in the lives of these two. God gives hope to the hopeless, answering prayer because God is faithful. God made a promise and God always does what he says. Therefore, since God said through Isaac all the nations would be blessed, then God is going to solve the physical problem to accomplish his purposes. One of the great hopes we have is that we know God can and will overcome any physical or perceived obstacles to accomplish his will. God is sovereign. His will cannot be thwarted. He does as he pleases. No one can stop him. No one can foil his plans or his efforts. This is the message of Psalm 2. The nations may rage against the Lord and his Anointed and attempt to break off their shackles, but the Lord who sits on his throne simply holds them in derision. You cannot go up against God. Your problems or your obstacles will not stop God doing what he has purposed to do.
While she is pregnant, Rebekah has a concern. The children seem to be fighting inside of the womb. The Hebrew word here refers to a violent struggle. So Rebekah inquires of the Lord to understand what is happening. God’s answer is that there is something more going on. In Genesis 25:23 the Lord tells her that there are two nations in her womb. These are going to be two peoples and they will be divided. These two nations are going to violently struggle with each other just as these two boys in her womb were struggling now. But then God says something very unusual to human wisdom. The two boys represent two nations. These two nations will be divided and one of the nations will be stronger than the other. But what is unusual is that it will be the older that will serve the younger. The people that come from the older child will be the ones to serve the people that come from the younger child. The reason this is unusual is because the older child got the “headstart” if you will. The oldest child first received the blessing. When we read about the blessings given in the scriptures, these blessings typically included how the descendants of the child would be a great nation. The descendants of the oldest child will be powerful, particularly more powerful that the descendants that come from the other children. The second “headstart” was that the oldest child also received the birthright. The birthright was a double portion of the inheritance, which was given as a command by God in Deuteronomy 21:17. So consider the great advantage that was given to the firstborn son. He would receive a double portion of all of his father’s possessions and would receive a blessing that would set him and his descendants as greater than his siblings. But notice that God reverses this before they are even born. “The older shall serve the younger.” God is already working out his plans and purposes before the boys are born. The struggle for supremacy has already begun between these two boys, yet God rules even over this. This reversal becomes a common theme in the scriptures. Abel is chosen over Cain. Isaac is chosen over Ishmael. Jacob is chosen over Esau. Joseph is chosen over his older brothers. Judah is chosen over his older brothers. Ephraim is chosen over his older brother Manasseh. David is chosen over his older brothers. Solomon is chosen over Adonijah. God is setting up a picture about how he is going to accomplish his purposes.
Before we move forward it is crucially important to notice one other thing. There is nothing here in Genesis about God choosing to save one boy and eternally damn the other. Please notice that the promise God makes regards the descendants of Jacob and Esau. God is not predetermining the salvation state of either child. God is foreknowing, predestining, and choosing before they were born that the descendants of Jacob, the younger, would be greater that the descendants of Esau, the older. Thus, the older shall serve the younger.
In verse 25 we see the first boy come out of the womb all red and his body hairy, so they called his name Esau, which means hairy. As Esau comes out from the womb, there is hand holding on to his foot. The twin is holding Esau’s foot as he comes from the womb. Therefore they called his name Jacob, which means “heel-catcher.” But this Hebrew word also has a hostile sense to it where it refers to dogging at someone’s heels, being a deceiver or a cheat. So Jacob’s name is interesting before we get to know him at all.
Now it is easy to read this account and pass right along without any further consideration. But these accounts are recorded for us for a reason. This account is particularly important to the future expectations of God’s election. We already considered that this is not the first time God will do this, nor will it be the last time that God will do this. In our Malachi study we have seen a reference to this promise where God declares, “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated” (Malachi 1:2). When you read Malachi this again is not a reference to the two individuals but the two nations that came from them. The nation that came from Esau, Edom, was destroyed by God through the Babylonians. However, the nation that came from Jacob, Israel, was not utterly destroyed by God through the Babylonians. God preserved a remnant and brought them back to the land. God had chosen Jacob’s descendants over Esau’s descendants. Jacob’s descendants were part of God’s covenant blessings and God chose to allow them to remain, showing his love for them.
Now this meaning is very important to understanding God’s purpose of election. Turn in the scriptures to Romans 9:10-16. Our context in Romans 9 is important. The apostle Paul is proving that the word of God regarding the covenantal promises to Israel have not failed.
But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 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. (Romans 9:6–8 ESV)
Paul’s point is that God’s promises regarding Israel have not failed because not all the people who were Israelites by birth actually belonged as God’s chosen people. His point is that it has always been a remnant and never the whole group who have belonged to God and enjoyed God’s covenant promises. Romans 9:7 is the first proof. It was not all of Abraham’s children that were children of the promise, but only Isaac and his descendants. Paul continues the argument in Romans 9:10-16.
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. (Romans 9:10–16 ESV)
The apostle Paul now uses the text we have been studied in Genesis 25 to prove the doctrine of election. We read Genesis 25 and think it is merely about two children being born. But listen what God was showing through Jacob and Esau. God’s purpose of election continued to be revealed through Rebekah, choosing Jacob, the younger, rather than Esau, the older. Now remember what this meant in the context of the promise in Genesis 25 because this is where a big mistake is made. God is not saying he saved Jacob but not Esau. That was not what the promise was. The promise was just like Isaac’s. The children of promise would not be of the flesh nor come through Ishmael, the older. Rather the children of promise would be the descendants of Isaac. In the same way, the children of promise would not be through the flesh, that is, come through the older child, Esau. Rather, the children of promise would be through the descendants of Jacob.
Why did God do this? Did God do this because Jacob was a better person than Esau? The answer is “no” for two reasons. First, we are going to read about Jacob and we are going to notice that he is not a good person. We do not see righteousness exuding from his early life. Second, and it is the answer Paul gives, is that Jacob was chosen before they were born and before he had done anything good or bad. What we are reading about when God tells this promise to Rebekah is God’s purpose of election. This emphasized further in verse 11, “Not because of works but because of him who calls.” Why was Jacob chosen so that it would be his descendants that would receive the promise? Paul’s answer is because God said so. God chose. This is God’s prerogative showing God’s purpose of election. So, was God unjust (Romans 9:14)? No, for God is author of grace and can choose the means of grace and the means of receiving promises. Jacob owes his place to divine election, not merit or birthright. This is the message that God wants to communicate about grace. Therefore, listen to the apostle Paul.
So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. (Romans 9:16 ESV)
The point is that God’s promises are not accomplished by mere human effort. God determines how he will save. God determined how the promises would be fulfilled. Israel wanted to establish their own means of righteousness, so that they were saved by just being physical children of Abraham. God destroys this argument showing that it has never been of the flesh, or birth order, or who you were born to that caused one to be a child of promise. As Paul is will say in Romans 11:5-6,
So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. (Romans 11:5–6 ESV)
When we read the account of the promise given to Rebekah about Esau and his descendants and Jacob and his descendants, there is one message that we are supposed to hear. God chooses by divine grace and not by who we are, what race we are, what lineage we belong to, what wealth we have, what power we have gained, or why any ability or merit we think we have achieved. Friends, we rejoice in this! God was showing again and again through history that belonging to God’s family and being children of promise would never be by who you are, but by God who chooses by grace.
Please notice that the argument is not that God determines one person to be saved and determines for another person to be condemned. This is not the issue being addressed at all. Rather, the point is that God determined the means by which the promises of God would come. If God says the promises will come through Isaac, then so be it. If God says the promises will come through Jacob, then so be it. What has been the point of Romans in regards to this? If God says the promises come to those who come to Jesus by faith, then so be it.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:16–17 ESV)
For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (Romans 2:28–29 ESV)
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:21–25 ESV)
That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all. (Romans 4:16 ESV)
That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. (Romans 4:22–25 ESV)
This is God’s purpose of election that he wanted people to see. We do not get to tell God how salvation will occur or who will be saved and who will not. All we must do is submit to God’s righteousness. God determined that only a remnant would be saved by grace. Thus, all those who come to Jesus by faith would be saved. Thus, the gospel message was preached in the book of Acts for people to turn away from their sins, confess Jesus as the Son of God, and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins as the expression of faith in Jesus.