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.
I will add that Jeff Radon pointed out to me that the bibical mandate is not to eradicate all of the Amalekites, as some later studied Torah in B’nei Berak. The command is to wipe out the “memory” of Amalek Deuteronomy (25, 17-19), in a symbolic, metaphorically sense, that is, that Amalek is the symbol of evil.
This is an interesting interpretation and may be correct. But virtually all Bible commentators understand that the command was to eradicate the people of Amalek, and the word “memory” is just a metaphoric way of saying that they should all be killed. In regard to the tradition that descendants of Amalek studied in Bnei Berak, this may be just a parable. Or, it could be still another recognition that the ancient Israelites – even Joshua – did not obey the command to kill all the people of Canaan as as well as Amalek.
I agree that God does not has emotions. “I am G-d who does not change (Mal. 3:6). And if He were sometimes angry and sometimes happy, He would be changing (MT, Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah, 1:12). Yet Maimonides failed to convince most Jews that G-d does not have emotions. For example, Gerald Schroeder, a well-respected scientist wrote that G-d regretted making humans (the flood of Noah). Radak would disagree: “When it says that He ‘regretted,’ this is the Torah speaking in human terms (view of Rabbi Ishmael).”
Jeff pointed out to me Rambam’s analogy that the sun emanates light just as matter is emanated from G-d. This is similar to the G-d of Aristotle, the “unmoved mover” and Micah Goodman’s view of Rambam’s deistic G-d. All agree that G-d lacks human emotions.
Should we apply the same interpretation of Malachi 1:3 to the command to blot out the memory of the nation of Amalek? Indeed, some Amalekites later studied Torah in B’nei Berak.
Thank you for another excellent essay!