I was asked to explain the verse in Malachi 1:3, “Esau I hated.” He wrote: “This is one of the few verses in the Bible that truly disturbs me…. I believe everyone who has ever lived … will attain supreme, lasting happiness…. What exactly does it mean that God hated him, I don’t know?” A similar question can be asked about Malachi 1:2 where the prophet chastises the Judeans for not loving God despite God loving them. Does God feel hatred and love?
What does Esau mean?
Malachi is not referring to Isaac’s son, Jacob’s brother, but to the nation to the south of Judea (the name Israel had at that time). The Judeans were treated badly by this nation. As I showed in another article, the Bible does not portray the biblical Esau acting improperly. He was even loved more by his father than Jacob, although his mother loved Jacob more.
A traditional answer
The Soncino commentary “The Twelve Prophets,” which does not deal with philosophical issues, offers a traditional response. The commentary explains that the Bible sometimes uses the term “hatred” to denote “less loved,” as in Genesis 29:31 and Deuteronomy 21:15. This answer may not satisfy many readers; why should God love the nation of Esau less than the Judeans?
The commentary adds a deeper explanation. This passage reflects the longstanding hostility between the two nations, such as mentioned in I Kings 11:15f and Amos 1:11. The bitterness grew when the nation of Esau gloated over the misfortunes of Judea, as mentioned in Obadiah 10ff and Psalm 137:7. These insults and injuries rankled in the national memory. This expanded solution suggests that it is not God that hated Esau but the Judean whom the prophet Malachi was addressing.
Anthropomorphisms and Anthropopathisms
This second solution offers readers an opportunity to learn what to many is a new way of reading the Bible. An anthropomorphism is a description of God performing an act similar to a human act, such as moving about, speaking, and helping. An anthropopathism is attributing human emotions to God, such as anger, hate, and love.
Philosophers, including Maimonides, recognize that we can not really know anything about God other than negatives. Two notions that most people apply to God erroneously are behaviors similar the human behavior (anthropomorphism) and feelings (anthropopathism).
Why does the Bible use anthropomorphisms and Anthropopathisms?
There are three main reasons. First, describing God in human terms makes it easier for people to understand what is happening. Second, it helps control human behavior. When people believe that God becomes angry and will punish them when they act improperly, they are more careful in what they do. Similarly, when they are told that God loves them, they are more likely to act properly. Third, people will not understand what is being taught if they are taught the truth.
Nobel Lies and Essential Truths
The ancients from many cultures recognized that the general public cannot deal with the truth about many subjects, especially about religion. The public, they taught, must be told what they can accept. The Greek Plato (c. 428- c. 348) called such teaching “noble lies.” The Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1138-1204) called them “essential truths” and placed many of them in his philosophical “Guide of the Perplexed” along with real truths. The Muslim ibn Tufayl (1110-1182) described in his “Hai ibn Yaqzan” how a man who knew the truth was unable to teach it to religious people.
How should we understand Malachi 1?
Despite the literal wording, the prophet is not passing on a description of divine love and hatred. He was telling his co-religionists that if you act properly, you will prosper (God loves you). Your ancient enemy has been defeated (God hates Esau); you now have an opportunity to enjoy life.