Why does the Bible say God hated Esau but He loved Jacob? Is that fair? Why would God love  one and not the other?
Selling Esau’s Birthright
The story of Jacob and Esau began to get interesting because Esau, as the firstborn, had actual privileges of the birthright but did he regard it very highly? It doesn’t appear so as we read in Genesis 25:29-34 “Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom). Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.” Thus, over one bowl of stew, Esau sold his birthright and this was no small thing. The firstborn typically had 2/3rds of the inheritance plus the blessing of their father but Esau satisfied his hunger and sold his birthright for one meal, which is why the Bible says “Esau despised his birthright.” This had serious implications but did it have anything to do with the way God felt about Esau?
Jacob is Israel
Sometimes in the Old Testament the names Jacob and Israel are used interchangeably, meaning when Jacob is mentioned by name, long after he had died, God was actually talking about Israel so when you see Jacob’s name mentioned in prophecy and in the New Testament, it almost always refers to Israel. The idea that God hated Esau but loved Jacob is found in both the Old and the New Testaments but why would some of the prophets mention this? Many of the prophets give a word of prophecy to Israel and remember that Jacob’s name was changed to Israel by God as we read in Genesis 32:28 “Your name will no longer be Jacob. You have wrestled with God and with men, and you have won. That’s why your name will be Israel.” Israel literally means “a man who wrestles with God” which is what Jacob had apparently done in Genesis 32 so frequently when the Bible speaks about Jacob, it is almost always talking about Israel. Malachi 1:2-3 records God speaking, “I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you ask, ‘How have you loved us? Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his hill country into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.” The father of the Arab people was Esau (and the Edomite’s) and today, as has been the case for thousands of years, they are natural enemies, perhaps stemming from the time when Esau sold his birthright to Jacob. They struggled in the womb (Gen 25:22) and they have struggled ever since they’ve been outside of the womb as separate, but related nations.
Paul on Esau and Jacob
Paul’s heart for his people Israel is evident as he would trade his own soul for that of his people (Rom 9:2-3) because “They are the descendants of Israel, and they are also God’s chosen people” (Rom 9:4) as “To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ” (Rom 9:5). Paul reminds the church at Rome, “though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose  of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Rom 9:11-13). Some will see this as unfair so Paul anticipates that argument and writes “Are we saying that God is unfair? Certainly not” (Rom 9:14) because God told Moses “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom 9:15-16). Paul actually quotes Malachi one when he writes in Romans about God loving Jacob but hating Esau. The word hate is not what we think it is in this context. The contrast is that God’s love for Israel (Jacob) is so great that it looks like hate toward Esau when you compare the two. A good example of this type of language is when Jesus said “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:37). Of course if we really hated our parents, Jesus would be teaching us to break the fifth commandment to honor our parents so as a way of extreme comparison, our love for Christ should look like hate as compared to our love for family. God is really telling us to put Jesus first and then family next and our affections will be so great toward the Lord that it might look like hate to those outside of the faith.
The Context of Romans Nine
The context of this entire chapter is about the sovereignty of God and the election of those whom He chooses. Paul asks the rhetorical question “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use” (Rom 9:21) and so “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles” (Rom 9:22-24)? Instead of questioning God and saying, “Why are some called and saved while others are not” I would say, “Why is anyone saved when we all deserve the wrath of God?”
The verses that show God loved Jacob (or Israel) and hated Esau is not that there was a personal vendetta against the descendants of Esau because many Gentiles were called and saved by God. It is more about God’s right to saved Who He desires to save? I know this is hard for many to wrap their mind around but Paul reminds us “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor” (Rom 11:34)? Can a clay vessel question the Potter Who created it? Doesn’t the Potter have power and rights over the vessels of clay? Job said “Can anyone teach knowledge to God, since he judges even the highest” (Job 21:22)? The answer is, no, we cannot. It’s not so amazing that only some will be saved but that anyone is!
Related reading: Jacob in the Bible 
Resource – Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.