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26. The Principle of Divine Election (Genesis 25:1-34)

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During my first full year of teaching school I was chosen to be the representative from our school to the board of the district teacher’s association. Unfortunately that year there was a rather fierce battle over teachers’ salaries, and I found myself right in the middle of it. I chose to side with the moderate majority who were willing to accept the offer of the school board, an offer that was very close to what we had asked for. A small minority of angry young teachers decided that they would not settle for anything less than all they had demanded.

The matter came to a head when all the teachers gathered to vote on the issue. I had told the chairman of the meeting that I intended to propose that we accept the school board’s offer. This meant that the opposition would have to defeat my motion before submitting theirs—something almost impossible to accomplish. The chairman knew who those of the minority were who opposed this and that they would attempt to get their motion on the floor first. When the critical moment finally came, several quickly rose to their feet, seeking the floor. I rose also, but more deliberately than the others. I shall never forget the smug, triumphant feeling of having the chairman call upon me first, to the groans of the few hostile members of the association.

The chairman obviously called upon me because he knew that I would submit a motion that reflected the desires of the majority of the teachers. In doing this he effectively defeated the rebel faction with one parliamentary blow. Some people view the doctrine of divine election as operating in the same way that I have explained the events of that teachers’ meeting years ago. God, like the chairman of the meeting, knows who is going to do what, and on the basis of His prior knowledge He chooses the person who will do what He desires. The chosen under such a system may feel the same smugness about their “calling” as I did on that afternoon when I was recognized by the chairman.

Another view of election places the matter almost entirely in man’s hands. In its most blatant form it is said: God votes for us; Satan votes against us; and we cast the deciding vote.

Neither of these views is completely consistent with the biblical doctrine of election. No Old Testament passage puts the whole matter into its proper perspective more clearly than Genesis 25. I can confidently say this because the Apostle Paul chose to use the events of this chapter in Romans 9 as the best illustration of the doctrine of divine election. In our lesson we shall see the relationship between God’s choices and man’s conduct, between the divine will and the human will.

Abraham’s Death
and His Descendants

Certainly what we find in the first verse of chapter 25 is unexpected: “Now Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah.”

Over the centuries a number of Bible scholars have maintained that this marriage between Abraham and Keturah did not take place after the death of Sarah. A number of reasons can be cited in support of this conclusion:

First, the verb translated “took” can as easily be rendered “had taken,” as the margin of the NIV indicates.

Second, Keturah is referred to as a concubine in I Chronicles 1:32, which also fits nicely with the word “concubines” in verse 6 of our passage. A concubine held a position somewhat above that of a slave, yet she was not free, nor did she have the status or rights of a wife. The master did have sexual relations with the concubine. Her children held an inferior status to those born of a wife, but they could be elevated to the position of a full heir at the will of the master. Why would Keturah be called a concubine unless Sarah were still alive and this marriage was of a lesser type?

Third, the sons of this union were said to have been “sent away” (verse 6). This could hardly be true of the children of a full marriage, but it would be completely consistent with the children of a concubine. These children would have been sent away in just the same fashion as Ishmael. According to the Code of Hammurabi the sons of a concubine could be sent away, the compensation for which was the granting of their full freedom.208

Finally, Abraham was said to have been old, beyond having children at age 100 (cf. Genesis 18:11). Paul referred to Abraham as being “as good as dead” (Romans 4:19) so far as bearing children was concerned. Those who are mentioned here would have had to have been born to a man at least 140 years old if Abraham married Keturah after Sarah died and Isaac was married to Rebekah. These children listed in verse 3 would have been more of a miracle than Isaac.

The point of verses 1-6 is to establish the fact that Abraham was, in fact, the father of many nations, but that it was Isaac through whom the blessings and promises of the Abrahamic Covenant would be realized. Thus the promise to Abraham in Genesis 17:4 was fulfilled: “As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, And you shall be the father of a multitude of nations.”

Consistent with his faith in the promises of God, Abraham gave gifts to his other children and sent them off, out of Isaac’s way (verse 6).

After a rich and full life Abraham died at the age of 175. This, too, was in fulfillment of the word of God to Abraham: “And as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age” (Genesis 15:15).

One wonders if Abraham did not include Ishmael among those who received gifts while he was living (cf. verse 6). Nevertheless, Ishmael did return to bury his father in cooperation with Isaac (verse 9). At least a temporary truce was made to facilitate the burial of their father. They buried him in the cave of Machpelah in the field that Abraham had purchased for Sarah, himself, and their descendants (cf. Genesis 23).

Although Abraham was dead, the purposes and promises of God remained in effect. In verse 11 Moses reminds us of this truth: “And it came about after the death of Abraham, that God blessed his son Isaac; and Isaac lived by Beer-lahai-roi.

Through Isaac the covenantal promises were to be carried on. The work of God continues, even when the saints pass away. The torch has been passed from father to son, from Abraham to Isaac.

Ishmael’s Death
and His Descendants

If the first verses of chapter 25 demonstrate the faithfulness of God in keeping the promises of Genesis 17:4, then Genesis 25:12-18 reveals God’s fulfillment of Genesis 17:20:

And as for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.

Abraham had always had a special place in his heart for his first son Ishmael. Only with reluctance and under great pressure did Abraham send this son away. Abraham would have been content for God’s purposes and promises to have been fulfilled in Ishmael. He petitioned God to look with favor upon this boy (17:18). God refused to substitute this child of self-effort for the child of promise, but He did promise to make him a great nation. Verses 13-16 record the names of the sons of Ishmael, who were the twelve promised princes. Once again God kept His promise to His servant Abraham.

Ishmael died at the age of 137 and was buried. Notice that he was not said to have been placed in the cave of Machpelah, for this was a monument of hope for the people of the promise. The land of Canaan was not to be the possession of Ishmael nor of his descendants; rather we are told:

And they settled from Havilah to Shur which is east of Egypt as one goes toward Assyria; he settled in defiance of all his relatives (Genesis 25:18).

In this verse one more promise is shown to be fulfilled, the promise God made to Hagar years before:

And he will be a wild donkey of a man, His hand will be against everyone, And everyone’s hand will be against him; And he will live to the east of all his brothers (Genesis 16:12).

The Descendants of Isaac

The process of election has been apparent in the previous verses. God chose Sarah, not Hagar or Keturah, to be the mother of the child of promise. God likewise chose Isaac long before he was ever born to be the heir of Abraham. While Abraham had several wives and many children, only Isaac was to be the one through whom the promised blessings would come. In verses 19-26 we see that the process of election continues. Here it is Jacob who is designated as the child of promise as opposed to his twin brother Esau, the one who by a natural course of events would have been the heir of promise.

Isaac married Rebekah when he was 40, but it was 20 years later before she bore him children. Isaac interceded with God on Rebekah’s behalf, and she became pregnant in answer to his prayers (verse 21). During her pregnancy Rebekah was perplexed by the intense struggle209 that took place within her womb, so she inquired of God to determine the reason.210 The answer from the Lord verified the significance of the activity within Rebekah’s womb:

And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb; And two peoples shall be separated from your body; And one people shall be stronger than the other; And the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23).

Without all the sophisticated medical tests employed today, God informed Rebekah that she was to give birth to twins. Each of the children would be the father of a nation of people. Of these two nations, one would prevail over the other. Of these two sons, the older would not, as was the custom, become preeminent. Normally, the first-born son would have been the heir through whom the covenant blessings would have passed. While the father could designate a younger son to be the owner of the birthright (cf. Genesis 48:13-20), this was the exception, not the rule. Also, the oldest son could sell his birthright, as Esau did.211

This prophecy is a very significant revelation not only for Rebekah but also for Christians in our age because it indicates the principle of divine election. Before the birth of the children God determined that it would be the younger child who would possess the birthright and thus be the heir of Isaac so far as the covenant promises were concerned.

In Romans 9 the Apostle Paul referred to this incident as an illustration of the principle of election:

And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac, for though the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, ‘The older will serve the younger’ (Romans 9:10-12).

While we must acknowledge that God in His omniscience knew all of the deeds of both these sons from eternity past, Paul says that the choice of Jacob over Esau had nothing to do with their works. Jacob was chosen in the womb and without regard to the works he would do in the future. In other words, God’s election212 was not based upon “foreknowledge”213 as it is sometimes taught. God’s choice was determined by His will, not by man’s works. Personally, I think that Esau was the more likeable of the two. (At least Isaac would agree with me on this point.)

The events surrounding the birth of the twins gave further evidence to the truth of the words of the Lord spoken to Rebekah before their birth:

When her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold, there were twins in her womb. Now the first came forth red, all over like a hairy garment; and they named him Esau. And afterward his brother came forth with his hand holding on to Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob; and Isaac was sixty years old when she gave birth to them (Genesis 25:24-26).

Esau was born first, and he came from the womb red and hairy. The Hebrew word to describe the color of Esau sounded similar to Edom and may have prepared the way for his nickname as it was decided in verse 30. The name Esau somewhat resembles the sound of the word meaning ‘hairy.’

Jacob came forth from the womb grasping the heel of his brother Esau. Jacob’s name was suggested by the Hebrew word for ‘heel.’ Later events, such as the barter of the birthright in verses 27-34, indicate that the name, taken in its negative sense, referred to Jacob’s grasping and conniving nature.

The Barter of the Birthright

In the life of Abraham the birth of Ishmael was an event which taught the patriarch that God’s blessings are not wrought by self-effort but by trusting God. In Jacob’s life the incident in which he outwitted his brother into selling his birthright served the same purpose. It was a shrewd bargain that Jacob struck, but it was not the means of bringing about God’s blessing.

In addition to the events surrounding the birth of the twins, three factors played heavily in the relationship of the two boys. First, the boys had very different dispositions. Esau seems to have been a masculine, outdoor-type man who loved to do the things a father could take pride in. He was a skillful hunter, and he knew how to handle himself in the outdoors. In our culture I believe Esau would have been a football hero in high school and college. He might even have played for the Dallas Cowboys. He was a real macho man, the kind of son a father would swell with pride to talk about among his friends.

Jacob was entirely different. While Esau seems to have been aggressive, daring, and flamboyant, Jacob appears to be just the opposite: quiet, pensive, more interested in staying at home than in venturing out and making great physical conquests. Not that he had no ambition to get ahead, quite the contrary; but Jacob couldn’t see the sense in tracking about the wilderness just to bag some game. In the solitude of his tent Jacob could mentally reason out how to get ahead without getting his hands dirty and without taking dangerous risks.

The second factor which tended to separate the two sons was the divided loyalty between their parents. Isaac seems to have been the outdoor-type himself; at least he had an appetite for the wild game that Esau brought home (verse 28). Esau was the kind of son that Isaac could proudly take with him wherever he went. Rebekah, on the other hand, favored Jacob. She probably thought Esau was crude and uncultured. Jacob was a much more refined person, gentle and kind, the type of son a mother would be proud of. Besides, Jacob probably spent more time at home than Esau did. Each parent seems to have identified too much with a particular son, thus creating divisions which would be devastating. This favoritism also brought about disharmony between Isaac and his wife. Later Rebekah was to conspire with Jacob to deceive her husband (chapter 27).

The third factor which Moses recorded for us in chapter 25 was the underhanded means by which Jacob wrested the birthright from his brother. While Esau had been out in the field, Jacob had been at home preparing a stew. Weary and famished, though hardly at death’s door, Esau was enticed by the fragrant aroma of the meal. Esau greedily pled for some of “that red stuff.” Rather than showing his brother the hospitality due even a stranger, Jacob saw this as an opportunity to gain the advantage. Here Jacob’s greedy, grasping disposition rose to the forefront. Without a hint of shame Jacob bartered, “… First sell me your birthright” (25:31). With this Esau’s carnal nature emerged, “… Behold, I am about to die; so of what use then is the birthright to me?” (25:32). With an exaggerated estimation of his physical condition and need and a minimal appreciation for the value of his birthright, Esau was willing to exchange his destiny for a dinner.

Jacob was not willing to let Esau take the occasion as casually as he was inclined to; therefore, he made him swear a solemn oath declaring the sale of the birthright. This done, the meal was served, and Esau went on his way. As Moses concluded his report of this event, we find his estimation of Esau’s character: “… Thus Esau despised his birthright” (25:34). And so it is that the writer to the Hebrews can speak of Esau as a man who has no appreciation whatsoever for spiritual and eternal things:

See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled; that there be no immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal (Hebrews 12:15-16).


One cannot avoid the fact that this chapter clearly teaches the principle of divine election. Out of all the sons of Abraham, God chose Isaac to be the heir of promise and this even before the birth of the boy (17:21). Isaac, not Ishmael nor Zimran nor Jokshan nor Medan nor any of the other sons of Abraham was to be the heir of promise. Sarah, not Hagar nor Keturah was to be the mother of this child.

God’s choice is not determined by His knowledge of the good works that the chosen will later accomplish. Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Jacob all had very visible faults. Their conduct often was not any more sterling than that of any other person. At times others even appeared more righteous than they (cf. Abimelech in Genesis 20). While we are chosen “unto good works” (Ephesians 2:10), it is not because of our good works that we are chosen. Jacob was chosen before his birth without regard to future deeds (Romans 9:11). In theological terminology, God elects men and women unconditionally without regard to that which they will do. That is pure grace.

Some conclude from this fact that those who are not among the elect are forever lost because God did not choose them. There is, of course, truth in this statement (cf. Proverbs 16:4; Revelation 17:8; I Peter 2:6). While election to salvation is never on account of works, election to eternal damnation is. The emphasis of the Word of God is not that men go to Hell because God did not choose them, but that men suffer eternally because they have not chosen God.

That truth is precisely what Moses stressed in this chapter. Throughout these verses the principle of election is evident. And yet, at the conclusion of the account Moses did not report that Esau sold his birthright because God had predetermined this to happen, but because Esau “despised his birthright” (verse 34).

Election is unconditional. God chooses men because of His love and grace, not because of man’s future good deeds. While good works do not give us the reason for a man’s election to a place of blessing in God’s program, a man’s evil deeds are adequate reason for his rejection by God.

Dr. B. B. Warfield has stated this in the clearest fashion:

When Christ stood at the door of Lazarus’ tomb and cried, “Lazarus come forth!” only Lazarus, of all the dead that lay in the gloom of the grave that day in Palestine, or throughout the world, heard his mighty voice which raises the dead, and came forth. Shall we say that the election of Lazarus to be called forth from the tomb consigned all this immense multitude of the dead to hopeless, physical decay? It left them no doubt in the death in which they were holden and to all that comes out of this death. But it was not it which brought death upon them, or which kept them in its power. When God calls out of the human race, lying dead in their trespasses and sins, some here, some there, some everywhere, a great multitude which no man can number, to raise them by His almighty grace out of their death in sin and bring them to glory, his electing grace is glorified in the salvation it works. It has nothing to do with the death of the sinner, but only with the living again of the sinner whom it calls into life. The one and single work of election is salvation.214

In Revelation 16 we are told of the judgement that is poured out upon those who have rejected God and worshipped the beast. These words spoken by the angel of God express the truth that the non-elect receive the judgment they deserve:

And I heard the angel of the waters saying, “Righteous art Thou, who art and who wast, O holy one, because Thou didst judge these things; for they poured out the blood of saints and prophets and Thou hast given them blood to drink. They deserve it” (Revelation 16:5-6).

The message of the Bible is that all of us deserve the eternal wrath of God for our sins (Romans 3:10-18,23; 6:23). The message of the gospel is that God has provided a solution for the sins of man. That solution is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ upon the cross of Calvary where He bore the punishment that we deserve. He offers us the righteousness we lack (Romans 3:21-26; II Corinthians 5:21). It is true that those who are saved are those whom God has chosen from eternity past (Acts 13:48; 16:14; Ephesians 1:11, etc.). It is also true that all who are saved are those who have personally believed in Jesus Christ as their Substitute and their Savior. Every person who calls upon Him for salvation will be saved.

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name: who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12-13).

For “Whoever will call upon the name of the LORD will be saved” (Romans 10:13).

Like Isaac, the world in which we live prefers the Esaus and dislikes the Jacobs. The models which the media places before us are not the Jacobs, but the Esaus, the “macho men,” the tough guys. The world says to us, “You only go around once, so you’d better grab all the gusto you can get.” They have taken the words out of Esau’s mouth. They wish us to forget the future, to trade off our eternal destiny for a beer or for our belly or for some short-lived physical pleasure. If it feels good, do it. If it tastes good, eat it. Don’t believe it.

I see in this chapter an example of two wrong responses to the sovereignty of God in the matter of divine election. The first is that of Isaac, who attempted to resist the will of God as it was revealed to his wife Rebekah. While I am not certain that the twins, Jacob and Esau, knew of the election of the younger, I find it hard to imagine that Rebekah did not inform Isaac of this prophecy. In spite of this revelation Isaac persisted to favor Esau, and it would seem from later events that he attempted to pronounce the blessing upon him as well. I believe that just as Abraham attempted to convince God to choose Ishmael for the heir of promise (Genesis 17:18), Isaac hoped that God would change His mind concerning Esau. The lesson came hard, but it was finally learned.

In his last days Jacob (now called Israel) pronounced a blessing upon the two sons of Joseph. Joseph set the two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, before his father with the oldest at his father’s right hand and the youngest at his left. Jacob, however, crossed his hands so that his right hand was laid upon Ephraim’s head rather than upon Manasseh’s. Joseph thought this was a mistake caused by his father’s poor eyesight, and he attempted to rectify the ‘error.’ Jacob then informed his son Joseph that this was no error but an indication that the younger son would be the greater (Genesis 48:8-20). At last Jacob (Israel) had come to accept the fact that God’s election does not necessarily follow human conventions.

Rebekah misapplied the doctrine of election in a different way. I am convinced that she justified her partiality to her son Jacob on the basis of his election to be the heir of promise. It must have had a very spiritual ring to it, but it was just as wrong as the partiality Isaac had for Esau. God’s choice of Jacob over Esau was no basis for discrimination against Esau or for pampering Jacob.

If this assumption is true, then it has some far-reaching implications for us, my friends. If the prophecy concerning Jacob’s election did not justify favoritism to him at Esau’s expense, why is it that prophecy concerning Israel justifies partiality to the Jews at the expense of the Arabs? We have been so anxious to “bless” Abraham in order to be blessed (Genesis 12:3), that we have failed to condemn many of the actions of the Jews which have been unjust, immoral, and godless. Why are we so anxious to condemn an Arab attack as aggression and to defend an Israeli attack as defensive or retaliatory?

What I am suggesting is this: We dare not discriminate against any nation, Jewish or Gentile. We should bless the Jews and the nation Israel, but this does not necessitate our condoning that which is clearly sin. Let us remember that at this time in Israel’s history they are rejecting God and His Christ, Jesus the Messiah. While we may commend the bravery of the Jews and their intestinal fortitude, let us not in the process call evil good, and in the end inadvertently discriminate against the Arab peoples. Our eagerness to hastily and uncritically endorse every action of the nation of Israel must be questioned on both moral and biblical grounds.

Finally, it is noteworthy to observe that the biggest “crook” in our chapter is a believer. While Esau may have been crude, he was no crook. I think it is too often true today that Christian businessmen and Christian employees are crooked, just as Jacob was. We call ourselves shrewd, but that is only a euphemism for unethical practices. One reason why I think Christians can be as crooked as Jacob is that they are so convinced of the importance of the ends they seek that they feel that any means to achieve them are justified.

Jacob was one who, unlike Esau, valued the birthright. He valued it so highly that he was willing to stoop to the level he did to obtain it. Many of us convince ourselves that much of the money we make is going to missions, or the church, or the poor, and so we “launder” our money in Christian ministry. The goal is never more important than godliness, my friend. In fact, the Christian’s goal is godliness (Romans 8:29; Ephesians 4:15). Jacob was to learn that blessing resulted from prevailing with God, not prevailing over men. That is a lesson we too must learn.

208 “The Code of Hammurabi declares that children of slaves not legitimized, though not sharing in the estate, must be set free”. Law 171, as referred to by Harold Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 185.

209 The Hebrew term for the struggle implies an intense activity in the womb which Rebekah understood to be far greater than normal, and thus of great significance.

210 We would like to have had more details here to satisfy our curiosity. How did Rebekah inquire of the Lord? Bush’s remarks seem closest to the mark:

“There are very different opinions as to the manner in which she made this inquiry. Some think it was simply by secret prayer; but the phrase to inquire of the Lord, in general usage signifies more than praying, and from its being said that she went to inquire, it is more probable that she resorted to some established piece, or some qualified person for the purpose of consultation. We are told, I Samuel 9:9, that ‘Beforetime in Israel when a man went to inquire of God, thus he spake, Come and let us go to the seer; for he that is now called a prophet, was beforetime called a seer.’ As Abraham was now living, and no doubt sustained the character of a prophet, Genesis 20:7, she may have gone to him, and inquired of the Lord through his means”. George Bush, Notes on Genesis (Minneapolis: James and Klock Publishing Co., Reprint, 1976), II, p. 62.

211 “Now the sale of the birthright--or, as it was here, its exchange--was an accepted custom in the patriarchal period. At a later time the supplanting of the firstborn was forbidden (Deut. 21:15-17), but it has been pointed out above that exchange or sale of the birthright was done in Nuzu, explaining patriarchal custom. At Nuzu it is recorded that one Gurpazah traded his inheritance for immediate possession of three sheep from his brother Tupkitilla.” Harold Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 211.

212 Election here, as I understand it, does not refer to the selection of only Jacob to be saved (although his salvation was certainly due to election), but of Jacob to be the son through whom the blessings promised to Abraham would be passed on. Paul refers to this incident to illustrate the principle of election, and then applies it to that election which ordains individuals to salvation.

213 Some teach that God’s election is determined on the basis of His foreknowledge. In its simplest terms, God is said to choose those whom He knows in advance will choose Him. Our salvation is thus determined by our (first) choice, while God only seconds it. This makes man sovereign in salvation, not God. The problem with such a doctrine is that it denies the fact that God’s choice determines ours, and not the reverse: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain; . . .” (John 15:16). “. . . and as Many as had been appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). “. . . and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul” (Acts 16:14).

Furthermore, the word “to foreknow” sometimes means “to determine beforehand,” even as the word “know” sometimes means “to choose” (cf. Genesis 18:19; Jeremiah 1:5; Romans 8:29, 11:2, I Peter 1:20). Thus, to foreknow (or elect) refers to the selection of those to be saved, while predestination pertains to the destiny of these people. Foreknowledge selects the people; predestination the program.

214 B. B. Warfield, “Election,” Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, edited by John E. Meeter (Nutley, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1970), Vol. 1, pp. 296-97).

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