Entire Text Here.
Congratulations. You’ve now read the entire book of Obadiah. Add that to your list of books read. When I was younger and I’d get bored during church, I’d turn to the smallest books in the Bible and read them. Then after church I’d think I was really hot stuff cause I’d read a whole book of the Bible or maybe even three!
I was a little off kilter when I was young.
Gloating about Bible book reading must have been a sure-tell sign that I was born to be a biblical nerd or a maybe a scholarly minister but now you too can join our ranks because you too just finished a whole book of the Bible.
Placed between Amos and Jonah, Obadiah serves as a bridge between these Minor Prophets. Other than that, we know very little about Obadiah. Because Obadiah translates, “servant of the Lord,” we don’t even know if Obadiah was the prophet’s real name or if it is just a title. Neither do we know in what time period Obadiah wrote or to what exact situation Israel was experiencing.
In general the prophets wrote during one of four time periods. They wrote during the United Monarchy, to either Kings Saul, David or Solomon. Or they wrote during the Divided Monarchy when God’s people were split into two nations: Israel and Judah. And the prophets during that time wrote to one specific group of people, either Israel or Judah. Or the prophets wrote during the Exile, after Babylon had come along and carted everyone away from their beloved promised land. Or the prophets wrote during the reign of the Persians when the Israelites were allowed to return home after Exile.
Scholars guess that Obadiah was written during the Exile, but there’s no definitive on that, so I feel uncomfortable pinning Obi down on that either.
So if we don’t know who he was or when he wrote or to whom he wrote, what do we know?
We know that Edom and Israel, the two nations to whom the vision or speech is primarily addressed, had a very tumultuous relationship. It started, as you may have guessed, with Jacob and Esau. From Jacob’s lineage we get the people-group of Israel and from Esau’s lineage we get the people of Edom.
Jacob and Esau were born twins and from the beginning they came out struggling. Jacob started it by holding onto Esau’s heel while they travelled from the womb into the real world as if trying to yank Esau back in so he could come out first. Then as teens, Jacob stole the birthright from his brother and later his blessing too. Fearing for his life, Jacob takes off for his mother’s homeland as robbing Esau of all his rights as the firstborn son would surely be tantamount to a death sentence. We don’t hear about Esau again until much later. By the time Esau enters the story again, Jacob’s got four wives, eleven sons and at least one daughter and is terrified to meet up with his brother whose hate for Jacob should have surely boiled to brimming by now. However, instead of a brotherly brawl or worse yet, a war between the two huge families, Esau grabs Jacob in a bear hug and Jacob describes looking into his brother’s eyes as seeing the face of God.
But potentially five to seven hundred years later, that spirit of forgiveness is gone. Israel has spent much time ruling over Edom, much to Edom’s chagrin, and probably for the not so noble purposes of controlling the port on the Gulf of Aqabah rather than in the spirit of keeping the family together.
So when Assyria conquers the nation of Israel and then Babylon comes in and finishes off Judah, the Edomites are more than ready to help retaliate against their former brothers and sisters.
And that makes God mad.
Sometimes God gets mad at Israel and sometimes God gets mad at Israel’s enemies. It just depends on which prophet you’re reading and who’s been misbehaving. Hyun Chul Paul Kim says that “Edom’s failure to keep kinship solidarity with Israel, especially during the time of calamity, is forcefully portrayed in Edom’s cruel cowardice and atrocities.” But that’s in Obadiah.
Lest you think that God’s only on Israel’s side, let’s not forget why Babylon was able to conquer the Israelites in the first place. The book of Amos clearly states that when “justice rolls down like a might water,” it rolls down against the Israelites. They had been sitting around like lazy old cows, enjoying their wealth, oppressing the poor and not providing for the widows or orphans. And so God lets the Israelites be conquered by Babylon and carted off to a foreign country where they would almost lose all hope and all faith in their God and in their place in the world.
Of course, they don’t lose all hope and despite singing multiple refrains of “Please don’t make us sing this song,” under the Persian rule of King Cyrus, they return to their homeland to rebuild the Temple only now with the understanding that indeed their God doesn’t only live in a Temple, in a certain land, but also lives in their hearts.
In Obadiah though, it’s the Edomites who are misbehaving. It’s Edom who operates with a “who’s in and who’s out” mentality that shuts out those who at one time were their brothers and sisters. It’s Edom who’s forgotten the love of their forefather, Esau towards his disobedient and manipulative brother Jacob. Edom has forgotten their roots.
And now, they’re in big trouble. You can’t be prideful and gloat over your neighbor’s misfortune and expect to get away with it. You can’t go in and take whatever’s leftover after your neighbor has already been robbed. It’s wrong and you will be held accountable. I picture Edom in this text a little like M. and Mme. Thenardie the innkeepers and thieves in the musical Les Miserables. After the battle in the second act, they are found in the sewers stealing the watches and jewelry and boots and gold teeth off the men, even the boys who died. They have no sense of loyalty to one class or another; they’ll steal from anything or anyone who can’t catch them. And that’s what Edom is like. With no sense of loyalty to the Israelites, no sense of right and wrong, they out their neighbors as soon and the going gets tough and then they go on over and steal what hasn’t already been stolen.
We understand that today I think. In general, what goes around comes around. I mean, even Martha Stewart went to jail. You can’t make terrible decisions for yourself or decisions that hurt the people around you and not get busted. And while the IRS may not discover that you cheat on your taxes, or you wife may never find out that you cheated on her with the babysitter, the guilt of what you’ve done will likely give you enough grief to make it not worth it. Passing on to your children a lifestyle of take-what-you-can-now may come to bite you in the pants when you’re old and they’re arguing over which nursing home will cost them less while you’re still in the room. If you do enough finger-pointing, eventually someone’s going to point back. We reap what we sow. Especially with our families. What we teach each other and our children and how we act towards our loved ones changes the course of history. Literally.
What we do and who we are affects the people around us and if we don’t choose to live a lifestyle based on the truth that we are all one in God, then inevitably, we become like Edom: angry, bitter, prideful, deceitful, stab-you-in-the-back no-gooders who would sell out even their brothers.
In ancient cultures, like some of the most primitive instincts in men and women, when they wanted something, they fought over it. They went to war to get what they wanted whether it was land or power or people or access to water or better animals. Like children, they saw and they took. And often they attributed winning to God being on their side and losing to God not being on their side. It seems simple enough, but kind of infantile too.
And so I invite us tonight to look at this story beyond the world of war and justice and God punishing one group or another. I invite you to read the story of Obadiah the way you would read your own family history. Your family tree has lots of branches. Some of them you love and put their fruit or flowers in vases to show off their beauty, others, you’ve just chopped off entirely and thrown in the “burn pile”. Some come straight from the trunk of the tree while others stem of limb and branch and twig. This is how our families work: we privilege some, ignore others and even others we manipulate or cruelly work evil toward for our own prideful reward. This is the story of humanity. This is our story. This is the story of the church fathers and mothers. This is the story of the New Testament church. This is the story of Israel and Edom and this is the story of Jacob and Esau.
What we could accomplish in the world if we quit fighting and getting back at one another and instead fought to love each other with the entire depths of our being. What if we fought to give each other the best even if it costs us the most. What if instead of going to war with Iraq, we showered it’s common people with food and school supplies and medical instruments and education and love? What if instead of fighting over the health care bill, we accepted it and worked to help our neighbors learn how to sign up for healthcare, choose a doctor, eat right and exercise? What if instead of giving money to affluent schools with primarily white middle class children and parents, we gave the same amount of money to every school in the city of Austin? What if instead of name-calling and finger-pointing between nations and states and religions and denominations, we all worked together to see the good that everyone has to offer? What if what if what if… what if we began treating our neighbor like they were our own brother or sister?
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth and God created humanity. Men and women God created them. And God called them very good.
What if we believed that?