by Matthew W. Bassford
The wisdom and subtlety of God truly are beyond our comprehension. Sometimes, though, we are privileged to get a glimpse of it in the Scriptures. This is the case with the story of Abraham and his descendants in Genesis, which only makes sense in the light of its New-Testament explanation.
For instance, why did the promise come through Isaac, not Ishmael? God doesn't really explain this in Genesis, but He does decree that it is through Isaac that Abraham’s descendants will be named.
Similarly, when Rebekah is still pregnant with twin boys, God informs her that the older of them will serve the younger. Again, why? As Paul points out in Romans 9, it's not like either of them had done anything good or bad. When they do start making decisions, Jacob comes across as a trickster and Esau as more of a stand-up guy, but according to the divine decree, the promise descends through Jacob.
We may never know all the reasons why God does this, but Paul gives us one of them in Romans 9:6-13. Here, Paul is dealing with what I like to think of as the problem of Israel. The Israelites have been God's chosen people for 1500 years, yet Christ, the final fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises, is rejected by almost all of them. Instead, the newly established churches across the Mediterranean are largely filled with Gentiles, descendants of those whom God did not choose.
What's going on here? Did God's plan fail? Even more strongly, aren't the fleshly descendants of Abraham entitled to a place in the kingdom of God? Doesn't the fact they have ended up on the outside means that God has cheated them?
To answer these questions, Paul returns to the stories of those early ancestors of the Jews. Ishmael was Abraham’s firstborn. He should have inherited. However, he did not, nor was Abraham’s line of descent reckoned through him. God's blessing came not according to the rules of the flesh but according to the promise that God made.
The same is true with Jacob and Esau. Esau was the firstborn. Once again, he should have received the blessing and the birthright, but he ended up with neither. Instead, Jacob claimed both. Once again, he received them not because of the flesh, but because of the promise that God made to his mother.
This is a brilliant argument. If the Jews deny that God's blessing should come according to the promise, they also are denying that their own ancestors should have been blessed. By that logic, they shouldn't be God's chosen people at all!
If, on the other hand, the Jews accept that God's blessing ought to be according to the promise, then they are left without any grounds for complaining that Abraham’s fleshly descendants have been excluded. They have no less right than the Gentiles to become children of God, but they no longer have any more rights either.
The argument is brilliant, but the brilliance is not Paul's, but God’s. God knew before the foundation of the world that the problem of Israel would arise. 2000 years before it came, he arranged the family affairs of an obscure clan of nomads so that His chosen apostle would be able to demolish the objections of the descendants of those same nomads.
I'm thankful that a God like that is for me rather than against me!