Graeme Goldsworthy points out how Jacob was an unnatural choice for God, not simply because he was the younger twin.
Jacob is not a good person at all — quite the opposite. His election is not grounded on his merits foreseen by God (compare Romans 9:10-13). But Jacob is converted by the grace of God and becomes the father of the covenant people. (p. 69)
It’s easy to overlook this aspect of the story. We can get all hung up about Esau’s non-election, and mistakenly get it into our heads that Jacob was a goody-two-shoes, so God could naturally choose him. If all we had to go on was Abel, we might come to that conclusion, though, of course, we don’t know how peasant or obnoxious he might have been.
It reminds me of a recent discussion about God’s fairness in not saving many, but only a few. Of course, it is hard to substantiate the numerical balance without access to all the figures for human population, past, present and future. It appears to be unbalanced in our day, at least from where I live. But, if we lived in some parts of Africa, Asia, or South America we might have a very different perception of the balance.
But, to pick up on the point Goldsworthy makes about Jacob’s fundamental badness. If we concentrate on Esau, or the non-elect in general, we miss the more amazing fact. Esau was no more a good person than Jacob. Both alike stood under God’s just condemnation. as every human being does. The amazing fact is that God should choose any, not that God should not choose all. Undue emphasis on the latter will lead to frustration, despair, even anger, all because of imbalance. Remembering the former must lead to humility, thankfulness and praise.
God never picks the fit to be converted, only the unfit. That is just as well, since we are all unfit converts. But like Jacob we may be changed, conformed into the image of his Son (Romans 8:29).
Graeme Goldsworth, Gospel and Kingdom, (1981) in The Goldsworthy Trilogy (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2000)
(spelling corrected 22 Feb)