Love, Hate, the Hebrew language, and Idioms

Jesus said that in order to follow him we must hate our parents, our spouses, our children, and our siblings.  How can this be reconciled with the Bible’s commands that we must love these people?  Here is a post from a forum called that explains what the Bible means when it speaks of hate.


Love, Hate, the Hebrew language, and Idioms

by Origen


One must always keep in mind the cultural and linguistic context of a passage. For example, Abraham was married to his half-sister. In Abraham’s cultural and historical context this was not strange at all. We, however, wonder how could anyone marry their half-sister. While that might be an important question to us, it in no way relevant to the context of a passage. The context tell us what it means and not the other way around. It is important that we do not force our social norms back onto the ancients. The same is true of language. What we think the English word means may not accurately reflect the Greek or Hebrew word or thought.


The sentence “I have hated Esau” seems very harsh, even cruel. But the truth is this type of speech is very common in Hebrew and need not reflect the harshness or cruelty of the English word. So then what does it mean when God says “I have hated Esau”? In order to understand how a word is used, and therefore its meaning, it is necessary to check other contexts in which the same word is used.

An excellent example comes from Gen. 29:30:

He [i.e. Jacob] loved Rachel more than Leah.

According to this verse both women were loved by Jacob, only Rachel is loved more than Leah.

The very next verse states:

When the Lord saw that Leah was hated…

On the face of it this might appear to be a contradiction. Verse 30 clearly states that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah, not that he hated her. It follows then that the word for “hate” (i.e. שָׂנֵא) in the next verse cannot be taken in an absolute or psychological sense. Keep in mind that Jacob has sexual intercourse with Leah. It is difficult to see how or why he would have sexual intercourse with someone he hated or despised. Leah was not the wife Jacob wanted. Thus Leah was not the chosen or preferred wife.

Note another context were the love/hate distinction is made. The Torah made provisions for the firstborn son of a so-called rejected wife.

If a man have two wives, one beloved, and another hated, and they have born him children, both the beloved and the hated; and if the firstborn son be hers that was hated: Then it shall be, when he maketh his sons to inherit that which he hath, that he may not make the son of the beloved firstborn before the son of the hated, which is indeed the firstborn: But he shall acknowledge the son of the hated for the firstborn, by giving him a double portion of all that he hath: for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his. (Deut 21:15-17)

Now either there were a lot of men marrying women they hated or the Hebrew word for “hate” in this type of context has more to do with being chosen or preferred over another. This passage makes provisions for the firstborn even if the mother is not the favored\preferred wife.


Lets examine another passage were the same Hebrew word for “hate” is used. This verse does not have the same type of love/hate distinction as the others passages but it serves to illustrate that a word need not always be understood literally.

Whoever spares the rod hates their children,

but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.” Proverbs 13:24

If we take this verse literally it can only means that any parent who does not use corporal punishment hates their child. Now I do not believe that is what this verse really teaches nor that it was ever necessarily meant to be taken literally. However on the face of it that is what the words mean. Surely the word “hate” here is not to be understood literally. I know many parents who do not use corporal punishment and love their child. My only point is that the word “hate” need not refer to an emotional feeling. In context, like any word, it is nuanced as to its meaning.


What we have is a common Hebrew idiom. And like any idiom it is a way of speaking peculiar to a people. Jesus himself uses this same idiom.

If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:26

Does anyone really believe that Jesus desired that we emotionally hate our father and mother? No, of course not. Jesus knew the commandment “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12). Did Jesus really want us to hate our spouse? No! Jesus himself taught that husband and wife are “one flesh” (Gen. 2:24Mark 10:8). It seems counterproductive for Jesus to suggest we hate our families when Jesus himself says we ought to care and love others.  As I pointed out above, what we have here is a common Hebrew idiom.


Israel was not isolated from its cultural context. This is important to remember. Many non-biblical documents help shed light on events, customs, and the language that are not always explained in the O.T.

(For more information see Readings From The Ancient Near East: Primary Sources For Old Testament Study (Encountering Biblical Studies) by Bill T. Arnold and Bryan E. Beyer, Ancient Israelite Literature In Its Cultural Context by John H. Walton, and Near Eastern Religious Texts Relating To The Old Testament The Old Testament Library by Walter Beyerlin.)

The Hebrew word for covenant is berith (i.e.בְּרִית). A berith is a treaty. However it is not necessarily a treaty between or among equals. Obviously the more powerful member would dictated the terms of the berith. George E. Mendenhall (Professor of Ancient and Biblical Studies and Semitic language scholar) demonstrated that the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy followed a form very similar to the treaties of the Hittite kings (See The Covenant Forms and Israelite Tradition).

This brings us to Malachi 1:2. The same type of terminology/language (i.e. love, hate) was used in treaties or covenants between kings and nations.  Eugene H. Merrill points out:

“Modern studies of covenant language have shown that the word ‘love’ (אָהֵב ‘aheb, or any of its forms) is a technical term in both the Biblical or ancient Near Eastern treaty and covenant texts to speak of choice or election to covenant relationship, especially in the so-called suzerainty documents” (Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi: An Exegetical Commentary, p. 391).

Thus the book of Malachi is using covenant language, treaty language. Just as in the cases of two wives or Rachel and Leah the English word “hate” alone does not convey the nuance of meaning. It is clear from the context in regard to Jacob, he did not emotionally “hate” Leah. The text states he “loved Rachel more than Leah.” Loving one person more than another does not mean the other person is hated. Rather Jacob’s favorite\preferred\chosen wife was Rachel.  If we apply this to context in Malachi, and given the fact it is covenant language, God told Israel that he chose Jacob over Esau.  Thus the terms “love” and “hate” refers to the covenant relationship God has with Israel but was lacking with Esau.  Jacob was chosen to be part of the covenant.  Esau was not.


In Romans 9:11-12 Paul states:

Not only that, but Rebekah’s children were conceived at the same time by our father Isaac. 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.” Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

First note that Paul makes it very clear that Jacob’s election had nothing to do with his deeds or works. Paul says that even before either Jacob or Esau was born, before either one had done anything good or bad, God chose Jacob. Now it might be suggested that God knew Esau was unfit to receive the covenant and therefore Jacob was chosen over Esau. That, however, has nothing to do with Paul’s point. For Paul clearly says it was not by works that Jacob was chosen but by “Him who calls.”

The second point that needs to be address is Jacob’s character. Jacob was far from a shining example of good morals. While it is true that Esau was not the pick of the litter, Jacob was no angel by any means. I need not recount some of the deeds of Jacob here. I am sure most of you have read the account of his life. So given Jacob’s character, which no doubt Paul knew, Paul’s point perfectly fits his statement that it was “not by works” Jacob was chosen or for that matter Esau was rejected.  It was by God’s election.

So what is Paul point? Paul states:

What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, 

“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,

and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.

It does not matter if it is Jacob, or Abraham, or David, or even Christians. They could not be good enough nor can anyone else. It is only by God’s mercy that they or we have any claim to be part of the covenant. God grants us the privilege of having a covenant relationship with him.

Malachi and Paul are emphasizing two different points.  Malachi’s point is that Israel was chosen to be the covenant people while Esau was rejected.  The love/hate distinction is covenant/treaty language in this context and does not reflect an emotional state.  On the other hand, Paul is emphasizing even though Jacob was chosen it was not because of good deeds or who he was.  Rather it was an act of election, a pure act of grace.  Jacob had done nothing to make himself worthy.

Love, Hate, the Hebrew language and Idioms


If you are interested in responding to this or want to discuss anything else in the Bible, you can join this forum.  I am a member and my username is theophilus.

Posted on November 11, 2019, in Bible study and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Love, Hate, the Hebrew language, and Idioms.

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