Christian theological models tend to personalize and sentimentalize the love of God. Within these frameworks divine love becomes personal in that it pursues individuals and sentimental in that it arouses emotional faculties. Christ’s sacrificial death for sins, in turn, sustains this system by generating the personal and sentimental love that satisfies the introspective and existential modern Western psyche. Conceived of in this way, the believer experiences God’s love as psycho-spiritual stimulant: divine love fills the heart, captures the members, possesses the mind, convicts the conscience, and overwhelms the senses. Such emphases produce familiar evangelical slogans: “Jesus died for me,” “Jesus loves you,” “Invite Jesus into your heart,” etc.
Theological conceptions of God’s hatred follow similar spiritualizing tendencies. Depending on one’s ideological commitments, divine indignation might befall sinful behaviors, destructive social structures, or, more rarely, unbelieving individuals—to varying degrees and in various combinations but never, so it seems, to concrete effect.
Regardless of the target then, in the hands of the skilled theologian, God’s hatred, like God’s love, remains a wholly immaterial affair, kept safely insulated from the earthly domain. Under such conditions, material misfortune (e.g. disease, poverty, death) proves no more the consequence of divine displeasure than material success (e.g. strength, wealth, power) the consequence of divine favor. This, the theologian remarks, would be a false gospel, a gospel of prosperity.
What purpose do these theological abstractions serve? Beyond meeting some of the psychological needs of modern individualistic man, these definitions also work to limit the scope of God’s activity in the world and in history. If the divine disposition has no bearing on the material world at the individual level, God’s temper remains aloof also from the political realm. Just as God is constrained to operate predominately within the personal and psycho-spiritual spheres, he is likewise prevented from intervening in the concrete affairs of peoples and nations. In accordance with the demands of the modern liberal order, God is kept out of the political domain. As a result, it is no longer the prophet who explains the courses and crises of history, it is the expert—the economist, the sociologist, the scientist, and the military advisor.
Jacob I have loved
In biblical context, on the other hand, God’s love is primarily communal in its object and primarily material in its effect.1 As Israel obeys and pleases God as a holy community, God prospers the nation in tangible ways (cf. Deut 28:-14). Israel’s fields give their fruit, Israel’s women bear sons, and Israel’s foes submit to the true god (Yahweh), the true king (David), and the true temple (Zion).
Moreover, when Israel disobeys and enrages God, the Lord dismantles the nation with plague, famine, and disaster (cf. Amos 4:6-11)—Israelites perish, the king succumbs, territory recedes, and Jerusalem falls. No longer an agent of terror among the nations (Deut 2:25, 1 Chron 14:17), Israel becomes an object of horror (Jer 24:9, Ez 26:21). In the end God’s recalcitrant people are left without a king, without a temple, and without a land—their political life completely undone by God’s anger.
Had the Lord not promised to one day make a great and mighty nation out of Jacob’s seed in accordance with his loyal love for David and the Patriarchs, Israel might have been utterly destroyed like other rebellious nations, its people wholly devoured by this or that pagan empire. Unlike God’s chosen people then, other peoples risk the permanent extinction of their socio-political orders by upsetting Israel’s divine master—as is the case with a whole host of peoples: the Sodomites, the Gomorrahites, the Canaanites, the Jebusites, the Amalekites, the Philistines, the Moabites, the Edomites, etc. While a remnant of Israel prevailed through Egyptian captivity, Philistine menace, Edomite betrayal, Assyrian siege, Babylonian exile, Greek cruelty, and Roman occupation—their hope of national glory and theo-political supremacy reaffirmed at every turn—their enemies are nations no more, devastated under the weight of divine wrath.
Esau I have hated
The biblical treatment of the nation of Edom confirms the point: divine disposition and socio-political fitness are intrinsically linked.
According to the earliest layer of biblical tradition represented in the Jacob-Esau stories (cf. Gen 25:23) Edom initially enjoyed a mostly positive relationship with Israel and thus with Israel’s God. Jacob outmaneuvered Esau and obtained the rights to the great-nation covenant promises (Gen 25:29-34, 27:27-29) but Esau was nevertheless granted a powerful nation of his own (Gen 27:39-40). For a time there was peace and a sense of brotherhood between the two peoples (cf. Gen 33, Deut 23:7, Hos 12:3).
Yet from here the biblical literature chronicles the dissolution of the Edomite state, interpreting its demise as the expression of God’s ire. Inasmuch as Esau betrayed his brother Jacob, God reviled the Edomite people, consigning Edom to disaster after disaster, meticulously unraveling the Edomite civilization (cf. Obadiah, Amos 1:11-12, Jer 49:7-22, Ez 35, Is 34:5-17, 63:1-6). At the prophet’s call, Esau’s armies were shattered, his kings slain, his people enslaved, and his towns hollowed out. When the dust finally settled, so hoped these prophets, Esau would cease to exist as a political entity, his land annexed by David’s son (Num 24:17-19, Amos 9:11-12, Is 11:14). Pressing even beyond this hope of imperial domination, at least one seer longed for the total consumption of the Edomite people in the fires of God’s fury (Obadiah 1:18-19).
Perhaps the definitive expression of Israelite frustration with their neighbor comes at the opening of the book of the prophet Malachi. There God declares his everlasting hatred for Esau and, consequently, his decision to permanently destroy his nation—”I have loved Jacob but I have hated Esau; I have made his hill country a desolation and his heritage a desert for jackals… They may build, but I will tear down, until they are called the wicked country, the people with whom the Lord is angry forever.” (1:2-5). While Israel’s political existence endures, safeguarded by God’s love, Edom disappears from history, exposed to God’s hate.
It is here, as God’s disdain for Esau precipitates the ruin of Edom’s political life, that Israel’s prophetic rhetoric bucks convenient spiritualization. The tearing down of the Edomite kingdom is not, in the main, a personal or sentimental matter. Rather, God’s hatred has dramatic political ramifications. These historical disturbances, in turn, reveal to the prophet the state of the divine disposition.
Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
Some Christians might accept this thoroughgoing political interpretation of God’s love and hate in the Old Testament but reject its applicability in the New Testament era. Such Christians might claim that while God dealt with Israel and the gentiles as political entities in the past, he is now only concerned with the eternal fate of individuals—their postmortem destinations. The national people of God (i.e. Israel) has, since Christ, become the spiritual people of God (i.e. Christians).
As should be expected, early Christian apocalyptic resists this severing of the political world from the spiritual world. For the first believers, God’s looming reign threatened Mediterranean civilization with major spiritual, and therefore major political, upheavals.
For example, Jesus announced the consequences of God’s wrath against Israel in decidedly political and historical terms. Like the Israelite prophets of old, he donned the prophetic mantle so as to condemn Jerusalem to destruction (cf. Luke 21:20-24, Matthew 22:7) and whole towns to a fate worse than that of Sodom and Gomorrah (Matthew 10:14-15). These cities would face not an otherworldly Hell after death, but catastrophic violence in the foreseeable future. The socio-political influence of such poleis would then, of course, dissipate.
Further, early Christian apocalyptic molded the exalted Jesus into the embodiment of God’s hatred against the pagan political order so that, as such, he might strike down “nations,” “powers,” “authorities,” “kings,” and “commanders” with war, plague, and famine (cf. 1 Cor 15:24-25, Rev 6:15-16, 19:15-18, Matthew 25:32). Along with Jerusalem, Babylon the Great—the capital of pagan power—would crumble under the finger of God. The Lord’s anointed—his agent of judgement and the rod of his wrath—would accomplish all this with “perfect hatred” for the enemies of God (Psalm 139:21-22). The divine disdain that long ago extinguished the Edomite political order would soon turn against the Roman empire when God’s son appeared from Heaven.
In turn, the community loved by God would come to inherit the political authority forfeit by the rulers of the age. The churches would “shepherd the nations,” “rule upon the earth,” and “judge the world” (Rev 2:26-27, 5:10, 1 Cor 6:2-3, cf. Matt 19:28, 2 Tim 2:12). At the coming of the son of man, faithful believers would be “put in charge” over all of their master’s “possessions” (i.e. the nations) (Matthew 24:45-51, cf. 28:18-20, Luke 19:17). In a word, Israel’s great-nation myth would finally materialize.
Stealing the birthright
The apostle Paul’s politically-motivated appropriation of Malachi’s Edomite doom-oracle in Romans 9:13 conforms to our expectations as well. Paul retools God’s hatred of Esau and his Edomite seed into God’s hatred of disbelieving Israel. For the Apostle, this portion of Jacob, like Esau, had been cut off from the divine promises sworn to the Patriarchs. The Lord would therefore act “quickly and decisively” to make faithless Israel like Sodom and Gomorrah, depriving them of “seed” (i.e. socio-political heritage) (Romans 9:27-29, cf. 1 Thess 2:15-16).2 The “beloved” of God—Christian Jews and ex-pagans—on the other hand, would inherit Israel’s great-nation promises as the rightful heirs of Abraham (Romans 9:25-26).
In sum, whereas the brutality of history had proven Esau and his nation to be “objects of [God’s] wrath made for destruction,” the fortunes of history would prove Jacob and his nation to be “objects of [God’s] mercy… prepared for glory” when Israel’s king came to overthrow pagan Rome and rule over the nations in accordance with Israel’s ancestral hope (Romans 9:23-24, 15:12-18).
Inasmuch as Jesus viewed himself as the heir of this prophetic tradition—itself a theo-political interpretation of past, present, and future history—he, with God, hated Edomites—not to mention Canaanites.
1—Even in the exceptional case of God’s love for an individual—David—the benefits of this divine disposition are political in nature—the Davidic reign prospers under God’s care (cf. Psalm 18). As the king pleases God, so God blesses the king’s nation and people.
In other cases, God’s love for righteous individuals functions to include such people in the great-nation covenant promises bestowed upon the holy community. Those who trust in the Lord, for instance, will “abide in prosperity” and their children will “inherit the land” (Psalm 25:12-13) while the wicked, those despised by God, are ultimately excluded from the blessings and from the nation. Their deaths are miserable and their names are forgotten.
2—Babylon’s destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE likely informs Paul’s expectations here. God will soon topple the religio-political structures that executed Jesus and continue to impede his gospel.