The Elder shall Serve the Younger - Detraditionalized

A picture of Jacob and Esau embracing

Genesis 25:23; Romans 9:12

Some traditions of the church come from mistakes in the English translation of the Bible.

One of those mistakes is the statement "the elder shall serve the younger" (or "the older will serve the younger" in newer Bibles). How it is understood determines how the story is told.

I came across this problem in Genesis 25:23 and Romans 9:12 several years ago when I was studying the Greek and Hebrew texts.

Take a look at what English Bibles say and what the Hebrew and Greek texts say. Can you see the glaring problem?

What English Bibles Say


Genesis 25:23 And the LORD said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.

Romans 9:12 It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger.


Genesis 25:23 And the Lord said to her, "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger."

Romans 9:12 she was told, "The older will serve the younger."

What the Hebrew and Greek Texts Says

Genesis 25:23 And Yahweh said to her, "Two nations are in your womb, and two groups will be distinguished from your belly, and a group will have a higher position than a group, and the bigger group will be a slave to the lesser group.


Romans 9:12 It was stated to her, "The bigger group will be a slave to the lesser group."

The Setting

This all happened several thousands of years ago when Rebekah, the wife of Isaac, was pregnant. There was a lot of movement in her belly. She did not know why. So she went to God and asked Him (Genesis 23:22). His answer is the above verse (Genesis 25:23).

The verse in Romans (9:12) is a quote of the last part of Genesis 25:23.

The Problem

The fact is that the words "elder", "older", and "younger" are wrong. The Hebrew and Greek texts do not say that.

The Hebrew word for "elder" (or "older") is not in Genesis 25:23.

The Hebrew word for "younger" is not in Genesis 25:23.

The Greek word for "elder" or "older" is not in Romans 9:12, nor in the Greek translation (LXX) of Genesis 25:23.

And the Greek word for "younger" is not in Romans 9:12, nor in the Greek translation (LXX) of Genesis 25:23.

The Hebrew and Greek words in these verses are the words for "bigger" and "lesser". Anyone translating these verses without looking at the context would translate them with the words "bigger" and "lesser", not "older" and "younger".

The first English version of the Bible translated by John Wycliffe in 1395 has the right words in these verses, but almost all others do not.

Bigger does not Mean Older

In defense of this wrong translation some Bible commentaries state that bigger and lesser sometimes means older and younger in Hebrew and Greek. This is only true of the Hebrew word for lesser. Twelve times it is translated as "younger" in the Old Testament.

The Hebrew word for bigger is never translated as "elder" or "older" in the Old Testament other than in this verse (Genesis 25:23). And the Greek words for bigger and lesser are never translated as "elder", "older", or "younger" in the New Testament, except in this verse (Romans 9:12).

Two chapters after the incorrectly translated verse, Esau and/or Jacob are referred to as the older son and/or the younger son three times (Genesis 27:1, 15, 42). The Hebrew words used are not those used in Genesis 25:23 but the correct Hebrew words for older and younger.

The fact is that when God spoke to Rebekah in Hebrew, He said "bigger" and "lesser", not "older" and "younger".

The Truth

Rebekiak asked God about the baby in her (at the time she thought there was only one), but God answered her by telling her about their offspring. Read Genesis 25:23 again. God never mentions the babies. He makes it obvious that there are two in her, but He does not mention them specifically.

I was first tipped off to this by the gender of "bigger" and "lesser" in Greek. They are masculine. If they were referring to the children or babies, they would be neuter. "Child" and "baby" in Greek are neuter.

What is masculine? The Greek translation (LXX) of Genesis 25:23 answers this. "Group" (which is "people" in the KJV, the ESV leaves this word out twice) is masculine and is what these two words are referring to.

If the KJV had translated this correctly, it would have put, "the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the bigger people shall serve the lesser people."

When Rebekah and Isaac heard this, they did not know who would serve whom. The Hebrew text does not give any indication of who is who since "elder" and "younger" are not there.

Years later, when Isaac blessed Jacob whom he thought to be Esau, he made sure that he included what God told Rebekah. He thought that it was about Esau. His blessing said, "Let people serve thee, and nations bow down to thee: be lord over thy brethren, and let thy mother's sons bow down to thee" (Genesis 27:29 KJV).

A Major Problem

If God told Rebekah that the older would serve the younger (and not the bigger group would serve the lesser group), there is a major problem: Esau never served Jacob.

I have read the story of Esau and Jacob in the Bible several times. It never mentions a time when Esau served Jacob.

Just the opposite happened. There was an incident where Jacob addressed Esau as master (lord) many times (Genesis 32:4, 5, 18; 33:8, 13, 14, 15), Jacob said many times that he was Esau's servant (Genesis 32:4, 18, 20; 33:5, 14), and Jacob bowed down to Esau seven times (Genesis 33:3). The story never says that the reverse happened (Esau did not address Jacob as master, himself as Jacob's servant, or bow down to Jacob).

The Fulfilment

Two observations can be made from the main phrase in these verses: 1) one group will be bigger than the other and 2) the bigger group will serve the lesser group. Did this happen among the descendants of Israel and Esau? Yes.

Before the children of Israel entered the promised land (Numbers 20:20), Edom (the descendants of Esau) was bigger and stronger. There is no indication if they were still bigger when David was king, but most likely they were. During David's reign, all of Edom were David's servants (2 Samuel 8:14; 1 Chronicles 18:13). This lasted for about 160 years until the reign of King Jehoram (2 Kings 8:20; 2 Chronicles 25:8-10).

God's words to Rebekah were accomplished.

It is hard to say today who the descendants of Esau are (if they still exist). If they exist, when Jesus comes as king, Jesus' reign will also be a fulfilment of this phrase.