There are certain texts in the Bible that make modern Christ-followers cringe. One of the most difficult is Jesus’s statement about hating one’s father and mother in order to be his true disciple (Luke 14:26). The key to resolving this difficulty is hidden in the ancient meaning of the Hebrew word שנא (pronounced: soneh) inaccurately translated as “hate”.
We read that God loved Jacob, but “hated” Esau (Malachi 1:3). However, we can see that God actually blessed Esau greatly (Gen.33:9), even warning the Israelites not to attack the sons of Esau or risk the withdrawal of His protection from them if they were to do so (Deut.2:4-6).
In fact, the Torah narrative is developed in such away that anyone hearing the story of the stolen blessing and Jacob’s deception of Isaac would sympathize with Esau instead of Jacob! There is no question that God loved Jacob with his covenantal love (a different kind of love and care than he had for Esau), but He did not “hate” him in modern sense of the word. The translation also tells us that Jacob “hated” his first wife Leah. Upon closer reading, however, it becomes clear that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah (Gen.29:31). So the best I can tell in Biblical Hebrew soneh meant “loving someone/something less”.
In the Torah God permits divorce based upon certain stringent circumstances that would make a marital relationship impossible to continue. In other words, God’s Word itself allows for divorce under some circumstances. When our translation says that God “hates” divorce (Malachi 2:16), here too we must challenge our English translation and demand a more nuanced (and accurate) meaning. We all know that divorce is one of the most painful experiences that any human being can go through in life. But there is one thing that is even worse than divorce – an abusive marriage. Torah protected people from needing to continue in this ungodly bond. Naturally, divorce and remarriage (even under biblical grounds) is not ideal, but to translate Mal.2:16 as, “God hates divorce” in general, is a horrible misrepresentation of the loving God of our broken world.
The majority of believers struggle with the biblical figure of Jacob when they consider his life in the privacy of their thoughts. The basic question they ask is this: how can a thief, a liar, and a coward be considered the father of God’s People, Israel?
The blind, elderly Isaac had two different blessings in store for his sons. One was the blessing of the first-born son prepared for Esau, and the other was the blessing of Abraham prepared for Jacob. The first was a general blessing of prosperity and power, but the second one had to do with a special blessing of Abraham:
“May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples. And give you the blessing of Abraham, to you and your descendants with you, that you may inherit the land in which you are a stranger, which God gave to Abraham.” (Gen.28:3)
Jacob’s place in the covenant was not based upon the blessing he stole, but upon the blessing that Isaac gave him before he departed for Padan Aram. In fact, Jacob (upon his return from Haran and before meeting Esau) sent Esau reparations; thereby honestly acknowledging the sin of his youth. In so doing, he returned that which he had stolen (Gen.32:1-21). Prior to meeting Esau, Jacob’s encounter with the angel of the Lord enabled him to overcome even his fears. (Gen. 32:22-30).
In his life, Jacob experienced the opposite of the things described in the stolen blessing (prosperity and power) while at the same time, his life unfolded in accordance with the great covenantal blessing that Isaac had bestowed upon him (Gen.47:9). Prosperity and power belonged to Esau (Gen.27:28-29), but God had promised Jacob the blessing of Abraham – an everlasting heritage of children and the land (Gen.28:1-5).
How many other passages in the Bible have we misunderstood because we’ve failed to understand their Jewish background? Share with us in the comments box below!
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