Commentary on Romans 9:6-13

Notes (NET Translation)

6 It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all those who are descended from Israel are truly Israel, 7 nor are all the children Abraham’s true descendants; rather “through Isaac will your descendants be counted.”

One might think that God’s promise of salvation to Israel had failed because most Jews of Paul’s day were rejecting the gospel and therefore forfeiting its promise. Paul responds by saying that physical descent does not determine who is part of the people of God. God never promised that every individual Israelite would be saved. He notes how the one people of God have developed through time in order to show that the current state of affairs is not so unusual. Verses 7-9 allude to the fact that both Ishmael and Isaac were descendants of Abraham but only Isaac was the son of promise. Verse 7 quotes Gen. 21:12 LXX.

In Genesis “calling” (καλεῖν, kalein) means “named” or “identified”. But in this context in Romans it also bears its usual Pauline meaning, an effective call that creates what is desired (cf. Rom. 4:17; 8:28, 29; 9:12, 24, 25, 26). Indeed, there is probably an echo here of 4:17, where God “calls things into being that do not exist,” which in the context of Rom. 4 refers to the birth of Isaac by God’s creative word. This interpretation of calling in 9:7 is also validated by the structure of the verses, for the parallel to “calling” in verse 8b is “promise” (ἐπαγγελία, epangelia). The promise of God secures that which is pledged just as the call creates that which is intended. Thus the thesis of verse 6a is defended. God’s promises have not and cannot fail, because they are based on his call, which is always effective, and on his promise, which is guaranteed.1

8 This means it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God; rather, the children of promise are counted as descendants.

9 For this is what the promise declared: “About a year from now I will return and Sarah will have a son.”

The quotation is from Gen. 18:10, 14 LXX. “Paul emphasizes again God’s initiative in creating his covenant people: not by natural generation but by God’s supernatural intervention is the promise to Abraham fulfilled.”2

10 Not only that, but when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our ancestor Isaac — 11 even before they were born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose in election would stand, not by works but by his calling) — 12 it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger,” 13 just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

Verses 10-13 provide a second example where physical descent does not determine who is a member of the people of God.

Three particulars in the scriptural story about God’s choice of Jacob over Esau provide Paul with powerful support for his insistence that covenant participation comes only as the result of God’s call. First, Jacob and Esau shared the same father and mother. This silences the objector who might argue that Isaac was preferred over Ishmael simply because they had different mothers. Second, God promised that Jacob would be preeminent before the twins were born, implying that it was God’s will alone, and not natural capacity, religious devotion, or even faith that determined their respective destinies. Third, Jacob’s being the younger of the two makes it even more clear that normal human preferences had nothing to do with God’s choice.3

Most translations (e.g., NRSV; NIV; NASB) suggest that Paul is simply referring to the birth of both Jacob and Esau from the same father, “our ancestor Isaac.” This point fails, however, to advance Paul’s argument, for the essential situation is then no different than it was in the case of Isaac and Ishmael, who were both children of Abraham. It is therefore attractive to interpret Paul’s Greek as a reference to the one act of conception that produced the twins Jacob and Esau. Paul would then be highlighting the utter lack of natural distinguishing characteristics separating Jacob and Esau. Born of the same mother, sharing the same father, and conceived at the same point in time, neither of the twins had a better claim to the divine promise as a birthright than the other.4

The older was Esau, and the younger Jacob. There was nothing to distinguish the one from the other apart from God’s sovereign choice — they had the same father, and neither had yet done anything either good or bad. Had it been the younger that would serve the older, it would be in accordance with the natural order of things in the ancient Near East. By reversing this order, God was indicating that it was his choice, not ancient Near Eastern custom, that was the determining factor as far as the outworking of his purpose is concerned. This is expressed in the clause, ‘in order that God’s purpose in election might stand’.

It is important to note that God’s choice of Jacob through whom to effect his purposes and not Esau was made before they were born, and before they ‘had done anything good or bad’. It was determined, Paul emphasizes, ‘not by works but by him who calls’. The indications are that the ‘works’ the apostle denies had any effect upon God’s choice are the ‘good’ or the ‘bad’ that people do. Clearly, such works are not the performance of, or the failure to perform, ‘works of the law’, that is, those things that are prescribed by the Mosaic law and understood by some as Jewish sociological markers, because Paul is speaking of the patriarchal period prior to the giving of the law. Nevertheless, Paul may have used the expression ‘works’ here to prepare the ground for his later contention that Israel, in spite of her pursuit of righteousness (by works of the law), failed to achieve it (9:30-33).5

“Purpose” is one of those many words that connect Paul’s argument here with his teaching about the children of God in 8:18–39. In 8:28, it denotes the “plan” or “design” according to which God calls people to belong to him, a plan whose steps Paul unfolds in vv. 29–30. Here, similarly, the word denotes a predetermined plan that God would use to bring covenant blessings to a people, Israel, and eventually to the world. Paul’s use of the word “election” to characterize this plan reflects his purpose in this part of Rom. 9: to demonstrate that God’s plan has unfolded in the OT by a series of free “choices” that he has made. Isaac was chosen; Ishmael was not. Jacob was chosen; Esau was not. By these choices God has seen to it that his plan to bring into existence a people who would be his “peculiar possession” would “remain.” If God’s plan depended on the vagaries of sinful human beings for its continuance, then, indeed, God’s “word” would have fallen to the ground long ago (see v. 6a). But God’s purpose in history is fulfilled because he himself “elects” people to be part of that purpose.6

The quote in v. 12 is from Gen. 25:23 LXX. The quote in v. 13 is from Mal. 1:2-3 LXX, where the nations of Israel (Jacob) and Edom (Esau) are spoken of.

The shocking nature of the verb ἐμίσησα is sometimes explained in terms of the Semitic contrast between “love” and “hate,” so that the latter means “to love less” (cf. Gen. 29:30–31; Matt. 10:37; Luke 14:26). Even if this option is correct, which is doubtful here, it hardly lessens the problem, for the point of the text is that God set his affectionate love upon Jacob and withheld it from Esau. It is a doubtful expedient in any case since Malachi describes God’s “hatred” of Esau (Edom) in active terms: he lays waste their land (Mal. 1:3), tears down their buildings (v. 4), and his “anger” is upon them “forever” (v. 4). What Rom. 9:13 adds to the promise of verse 12 is that the submission of the older to the younger is based on God’s choice of Jacob and his rejection of Esau. This was already evident from the explanation in verses 11–12a, but the OT citation confirms it further.7

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 9811-9818 
  2. Moo 1996, 578 
  3. Moo 1996, 578 
  4. Moo 1996, 579–580 
  5. Kruse 2012, 378-379 
  6. Moo 1996, 580–581 
  7. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 9907-9914 
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