As our cohort continued its preparation to head into Romans 9-11 this week, we were tasked with doing some basic research on the names and events Paul mentions from the Old Testament. Unsurprisingly, Paul is quite prolific in his quotations, allusions, and references. What was surprising, though, was how Paul begins to explain his theology of election in Romans 9. He does this by using people in Israel’s history, such as Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and more, as examples how God choses those who are his chosen people in creation.
Paul starts out by making a bold claim that “not all of these who are from Israel are Israel.” What on earth could such a claim mean? Paul doubles down by explaining that just because a person is a physical descendent of Abraham does not mean that person is a child of Abraham. He then quotes Genesis 21:12 where God chooses Isaac and promises that he will name, or call, the children of Abraham through Isaac. The promise to Abraham will come through Isaac because God chooses, or elects, Isaac. Paul summarizes this quite matter-of-factly; those who are physical descendants of Abraham do not have an automatic claim on receiving the blessing promised to Abraham. The true children of Abraham are those who are connected to him by means of the promise, which is carried by whoever God chooses (elects) and names (calls).
The text is silent about who is being passed over in the election of Isaac. Abraham’s oldest son, Ishmael, is looked over by God. This does not mean Ishmael is discarded by God, and he is not way punished for not being the chosen son. In fact, God tells Ishmael’s mother that he will bless her son to be great nations as well. Even still, the true blessing of Abraham is passed through Isaac because he is the promised and chosen son.
Isaac’s twin sons, Esau and Jacob, also face the election of God. God chooses the younger son, Jacob, even before the boys are born. Paul makes clear this is not a choice based on the actions of the two. Election is not about morals or goodness, as the trickster life of Jacob that should not be imitated would remind us. Instead, election is about God moving his promise to Abraham into creation through his chosen people. Through Jacob the promise of Abraham would continue to move into the world among the nations. And God’s choosing of Israel was proven true. Malachi the prophet points out God’s faithfulness to Jacob when he compares how Edom, the children of Esau, have come to ruin while God has stayed faithful to Israel even through the Exile.
Paul asks if God’s election is an unjust way of treating other not-chosen nations? I don’t believe any Jew listening to Paul’s argument would have actually posed a claim of injustice against God based on anything in this theology of election so far. I think this is Paul’s way of getting Jewish Christians to agree with him. They would agree that Ishmael and Esau, even though they were fleshly children of Abraham and Isaac, did not receive the promise. Fleshly descendants did not inherit the promise of Abraham simply in their fleshly nature. Rather, the promise continued by election within the fleshly nature of Isaac and Jacob. Lacking the election meant the fleshly connection to Abraham was simply an empty vessel that did not carry the promise of God into the future.
So it is not unjust for God to bless the chosen children of Abraham because he is not choosing Isaac or Jacob over their brothers on account of an evaluation of goodness or evil. He has chosen them in order to create a people through them. I believe Paul then uses a rather extreme example to ensure that his Jewish audience agrees with him. He asks them if it was unfair for God to bring judgment against Pharaoh, and the nation of Egypt he represents, when mercifully liberating Israel in the Exodus? Of course, not! Paul explains that God as Creator is allowed to form nations (vessels) and patiently endure their evils until he decides to judge them, revealing his glory and showing his faithfulness to those he gives mercy, Israel.
A little more simply, Paul’s theology of election is that Egypt was an evil nation who deserved punishment, and God patiently waited to bring judgment on them. Israel is the chosen (elect) people of God who are promised to become a great nation. In order to reveal to Israel his commitment and faithfulness to them, God liberates Israel from their Egyptian oppressor. Paul’s theology of election explains why the Exodus occurred, not because Pharaoh and Egypt were evil, but rather because their evil stood in the way of Israel fulfilling the promise God made to Abraham. The Exodus was not about destroying Egypt, even though God used the opportunity to do so, but revealing himself to Israel and forming them into a nation according to his promise.
There are two things that jump out about Paul’s theology of election. 1) Paul is using examples to express a theological answer the question, Who is Israel/the children of Abraham/the people of God? The individuals in Paul’s examples of Romans 9 represent entire peoples in Israel’s history with God. Election theology is therefore communal in nature. Its end goal being to explain the formation of the corporate reality of God’s people. 2) Election has nothing to do with morals or acts of worship to entice God to act, whether by people or nations. Instead, a proper theology of election is about how God is moving his promise forward into fulfillment. Election might have disastrous consequences for other nations who seek to inhibit the promise of God, such as Egypt’s enslavement of Israel, but God’s lack of election towards other nations does not mean they are judged as worthless. Not being chosen simply means the other nations are not specially elected for the purpose of bringing God’s promise into creation.
A quick last point, it would be a wrong interpretive move to use these texts to teach an election theology about individuals going to heaven or hell. The concepts of heaven and hell are just nowhere within these verses. Furthermore, as pointed out above, election doesn’t have anything to with directly punishing people or nations simply because they are not chosen by God. Since election is about God remaining faithful his people throughout history and forever, it is best not to individualize the idea nor make it about an afterlife the text doesn’t seem to mention.
 Rom. 9:6