Hate is a powerful word. We are taught from childhood to avoid hatred at all costs and to obey the command of Christ to love everyone, including our enemies. So it's shocking to read the words that Paul quoted from Malachi, who declared that God loved Jacob but hated Esau (Malachi 1:2–3). How can a God of love, hate?
Let's begin by examining the Hebrew terms. The Old Testament uses two words that can be translated "hate": sane (sah-NAY) and ma'as (ma-AS). They differ only slightly in meaning. In fact, Old Testament writers sometimes used them interchangeably. For example, the prophet Amos placed them side-by-side to express God's disgust with Israelite worship, saying, "I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies" (Amos 5:21 NIV, emphasis added).
While sane and ma'as can express intense emotional displeasure toward something—see the account of Joseph in Genesis 37—"hating" in ancient Near East cultures had more to do with one's priorities than with one's emotions. For example, Esau "despised" his birthright when he made a choice for a bowl of soup over his covenant blessing (Genesis 25:29–34). Esau didn't have intense negative emotions about his birthright—he certainly didn't "hate" it as we would use the term. In fact, he fought hard to regain what he had lost and was inconsolable when he failed.
Furthermore, in the New Testament, Jesus required His followers to "hate" their money, their families, and even their own lives (Matthew 6:24; Luke 14:25; John 12:25). He wasn't instructing His disciples to treat others cruelly. The issue at hand was priority, choosing discipleship over all other things and choosing Christ over all other relationships.
So where does that leave us with Malachi 1:2–3? The book of Malachi was a warning to the nation of Judah, who profaned the temple by offering substandard sacrifices and keeping the best livestock for themselves. He accused the priests of "despising" their covenant blessing, much as Esau "despised" his birthright. By recalling the story of Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel) and Esau (whose descendants formed the nation of Edom), the prophet drew a clear parallel:
|Jacob prized the covenant.
||Esau despised the covenant.
|God promised to rescue Israel (Deuteronomy 4:29–31; 30:1–10).
||God vowed to condemn Israel (Jeremiah 49:7–22; Ezekiel 35).
By the time of Malachi, both prophecies had been fulfilled. God had restored a faithful remnant of Israel to the Promised Land; however, they could not afford to become smug. By despising their covenant blessing, the Israelites ran the risk of suffering Esau's fate. In other words, "Take heed, Israel. Esau despised his birthright and Edom incurred the judicial abandonment of God. What do you think will happen if you despise your birthright?"
God's "hatred"—His act of choosing one over another—is absolutely righteous and utterly just.