God, Hating and Loving

As I pondered my previous blog post about Cain and Abel, I recalled these words from Malachi:

“I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.” If Edom says, “We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins,” the Lord of hosts says, “They may build, but I will tear down, and they will be called ‘the wicked country,’ and ‘the people with whom the Lord is angry forever.’ ” Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, “Great is the Lord beyond the borders of Israel.” (Malachi 1:2-5, English Standard Version — I’m using the ESV today because I don’t have my Tanakh handy.)

(Paul echoes these words in Romans 9:13 when he speaks of God’s choosing God’s people.)

Our ideas about God are only partly derived from scripture — the Church owes a great deal intellectually to Greek philosophy and reasoning (as does Islam, even as that reasoning articulates itself very differently among Muslims), perhaps more to Greek thought when it comes to ethics and theology than it does scripture. Scripture is harnessed to support and even recast the ideas put forward by the Greeks, but for much of Christendom, the Greeks come first. This may or may not be intellectually defensible — the followers of Jesus did not witness to his death and resurrection, did not create his church, in an intellectual or cultural vacuum.

But many of the ideas are troublesome, especially when we are forced to fit them in scripture. The God of the “omnis” — omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent — as well as an “all good” God provides a serious problem for scripture. (Even in the Qur’an, which is a much better fit for the “omni-God” than is the Bible.)

The problem I have with theology is that it makes God an object, an idea, to be manipulated by human beings. We cannot help doing this. But the God of scripture is not an object or an idea. That God is encountered, viscerally and intensely, and scripture is the witness to that encounter. God is the subject as we, God’s people, are the objects. Much happens in scripture that makes little or no moral sense, and we are foolish to try and make those things make sense.

“Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated.” The ESV online study notes to these three verses speak of the distinction between “the Good and the Arrogantly Wicked.” But was Esau wicked? Does Esau suffer for wickedness? No to both. He was merely cheated out of his inheritence — his blessing — by a far more obnoxious brother, Jacob, who then lives in fear of Esau. The two have a reconciliation of sorts in Genesis 33, and they bury their father Isaac together. In Malachi, God clearly has it in for Esau’s descendants Edom, but Malachi speaks a great many more words of rebuke toward the priests of Israel.

Our idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good God makes Malachi’s words — makes God’s rejection of Cain — make no sense. God couldn’t reject them, not the God of the Omnis, not our idea of God. So it was Cain’s fault that God rejected his sacrifice, and Esau’s fault that God hated him, that God spoke those words through Malachi the prophet. If only they had worked harder.

But again, the God of the Omnis doesn’t exist in scripture. The subjective experience of God is a God who chooses, capriciously, in a way that makes no sense. Esau did nothing except not be his brother Jacob, just as Cain did nothing except farm. Israel’s experience was of a profound and lasting encounter with God, a God who chose them and no one else as God’s people. A God who made that choice for no reason apparent to God’s people, whose choice was not a matter of privilege, power and glory, but for the salvation of the world.

The essence of faith — in Hebrew, Arabic and Greek — is trust. Not assent to a set of ideas or principles, but trust in God. That a promise made by God, a promise that will never be seen by the one to whom the promise is made (Abraham and his many descendants), is as good as kept. Assent to a set of propositions — the Lutheran confessions, for example — is an intellectual exercise. One confesses, but does not have faith in the confessions themselves, as they are not promises.

To trust God is to trust in something we may not be able to see or understand. God loves God’s people, but that does not stop God from visiting destruction upon God’s people. It is to encounter and experience God and often times have no idea what to make of that encounter. It can be aided by reason and by the intellect, by ideas and concepts and theories and notions, but at its core, that experience is not itself an idea, not something that humans grasp, but it is about being grasped by God and God not letting go.

We can only struggle to make sense of that encounter. Which is why “Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated” doesn’t bother me.