The phrase, “the elder shall serve the younger” in Genesis 25:23 talking about God’s plan for both Esau and Jacob has been the subject of much theological debate—especially when interpreted through Romans 9:11-12 which tells us “Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad–in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls–she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’”
Reformed theologians—many whom follow John Calvin—use these two passages together as a defense or explanation for the concept of predestination. According to Wikipedia, “John Calvin interpreted predestination to mean that God foreordained salvation for His elect church and foreordained eternal damnation for all those who aren’t elect,” so this is essentially what they believe exemplified here. However, along with many other theologians, I disagree with this interpretation.
According to Adam Clarke’s Biblical commentary on this passage, “The doctrine of unconditional predestination to eternal life and eternal death cannot be supported by the example of God’s dealings with Esau and Jacob, or with the Edomites and Israelites.” Clarke continues by explaining what the passage is actually referring to saying that “after long reprobation the Edomites were incorporated among the Jews, and have ever since been undistinguishable members in the Jewish Church. The Jews, on the contrary, the elect of God, have been cut off and reprobated, and continue so to this day. If a time should ever come when the Jews shall all believe in Christ Jesus, which is a general opinion, then the Edomites, which are now absorbed among them, shall also become the elect.”
Therefore, I believe it is safe to conclude that although Romans 9 speaks of “election” that doesn’t really support John Calvin’s idea of how certain people are chosen for heaven and others for hell. The election that is spoken of in Romans 9 is talking about how God had plans for both Esau and Jacob even before their birth.
Now that we understand what this passage in Genesis isn’t talking about, let’s look at what it’s really telling us. According to Matthew Henry, the phrase “the elder shall serve the younger” is speaking of how the Edomites (the descendants of Esau) were eventually in subjugation to Israel (the descendants of Jacob) “for many ages, to the house of David, till they revolted.” Henry says that we must observe how “God is a free agent in dispensing his grace; it is his prerogative to make a difference between those who have not as yet themselves done either good or evil.” He concludes by saying this is what Paul infers in Romans 9. “In the struggle between grace and corruption in the soul, grace, the younger, shall certainly get the upper hand at last.”
If you search the Bible, God does use this same pattern many times of putting the younger first. However, it seems like this is more descriptive than prescriptive in most situations. For example, we can look at how Jesus and John the Baptist were first-borns, yet Jacob, and Judah were younger siblings. Therefore, because of the inconsistency of it’s use, I believe that God primarily uses the policy or tactic of the “elder shall the younger” at times to hinder or try to subdue the pride or egotism that can so easily arise in people.
God knows each of our hearts. He knows each of our pros and cons as humans, and I’m thankful he cares enough about each of us that he uses the best methods for each of our situations to lead us more and more closer to Him.
Clarke, Adam. Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible.
Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary of the Whole Bible.