Written by Pastor Ed
Obadiah – How we Treat Others
June 14, 2015
Books of the Bible Series
“Farther along, we’ll know all about it;
Farther along, we’ll understand why.
Cheer up my brother, live in the sunshine.
We’ll understand it, all by and by.”
That chorus from an old Gospel song that my dad often sang with a male quartet became a favourite of my brothers and me growing up. It, of course, was written to provide comfort in times of distress. However, when it is sung to a brother who has just been scolded or punished for something they did – particularly if they did it to you – well, then it became less of a comfort and more of a taunt!
Several weeks ago, Loren Johns noted during the Faith Studies series that we clearly value some parts of the scripture over others. And Obadiah is clearly not a book that we spend much time with. No verses from Obadiah are used in the 3 year Common Lectionary and there are no hymns that use the book as a basis. Its theme is not one that we particularly like. As one commentator noted Obadiah sounds “mean” right from the start.
We don’t usually think about things like sibling rivalry when we are reading the Bible, but as we read the little book of Obadiah, it’s something we need to keep in mind. We know very little about the author, place, or even time of this shortest book of the Old Testament. There are a number of people by the name of Obadiah mentioned throughout the history of the children of Israel, although it is not clear which, if any, of them are the author of this book. There are also numerous times when this book might have been written, although current consensus seems to place it sometime shortly after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.
What is clear is the message that Obadiah directs at Edom, which is that they will be destroyed, totally wiped out, because of the way they treated Judah. Edom was the kingdom just to the south of Judah and the rivalry between Judah and Edom can be traced all the way back to Jacob and Esau, for the people of Judah were the descendants of Jacob while the people of Edom traced their lineage back to Esau.
And you may recall, those two brothers did not have the best of relationships. Esau sold his birthright to Jacob, according to the official history written by Jacob’s descendants, and then Jacob stole their father’s blessing and had to flee. And while they eventually met again and embraced, they each went their separate ways and never crossed paths again as far as we know. Esau went south and took the less desirable land, while Jacob got the fertile plains along the Jordan. And the stories of their history were kept alive and the animosity certainly continued.
When the children of Israel were on their way back to the promised land from Egypt they asked permission to travel through Edom, even offering to pay, but were refused and had to go the long way around. When treaties were being made, Judah and Edom were often on the opposite sides. And clearly, when Jerusalem fell, Edom was one of the first to take advantage. And Obadiah takes them to task.
But you should not have gloated[c] over[d] your brother
on the day of his misfortune;
you should not have rejoiced over the people of Judah
on the day of their ruin;
you should not have boasted
on the day of distress.
You should not have entered the gate of my people
on the day of their calamity;
you should not have joined in the gloating over Judah’s[e] disaster
on the day of his calamity;
you should not have looted his goods
on the day of his calamity.
You should not have stood at the crossings
to cut off his fugitives;
you should not have handed over his survivors
on the day of distress. (Obad. 12-14)
Edom saw an opportunity and took advantage of it, as is often the case. Here was a chance for gaining new territory, for picking up the spoils, and for a bit of taunting. “Cheer up my brother, live in the sunshine, you’ll understand it, all by and by.”
But, says Obadiah, while you think you are safe, the truth is that you will get yours in the end. Because Edom was built in the hill country, they had carved their fortresses and cities out of the rock. Petra, the capital of Edom is a marvel of engineering and craftsmanship built into the side of a mountain.
“Your proud heart has deceived you,
you that live in the clefts of the rock,[a]
whose dwelling is in the heights.
You say in your heart,
“Who will bring me down to the ground?” (v. 3)
Well, says Obadiah, you may think you are safe, but God is mightier than any human army and no one is safe from God’s judgement. And God will destroy Edom. While you may gloat now over the destruction of Judah, in the end Judah will come out on top and Edom will disappear forever.
“The house of Jacob shall be a fire,
the house of Joseph a flame,
and the house of Esau stubble;
they shall burn them and consume them,
and there shall be no survivor of the house of Esau;
for the Lord has spoken.” (v.18)
Obadiah’s message to Edom was and is clear. As Ed Blair says in his commentary on the book, “Edom’s basic sin was unbrotherliness in a time of misfortune” (Abingdon Bible Handbook, pg. 176) and for that they would be punished by God who chose Jacob over Esau right from the start.
So what shall we do with this little book? We could just say, “ok, now we know what Obadiah’s message was and leave it at that”, and that’s what most people do. But let me venture a few lessons from Obadiah that we might bear in mind.
The first lesson is the message that Obadiah himself delivers to Edom. It’s not right to gloat and take advantage of someone else’s misfortune, even if it’s just singing a seemingly harmless little chorus at your brother. We see it happen time and time again. While we often hear of the hardship many endured during the Great Depression of the 30’s, what we don’t often hear about are those who made their fortunes during the same period by buying up land at cheap prices or hiring workers at low wages to run their factories.
And how often do we hear people cheering when a supposed enemy goes down to defeat. People cheered over the fall of Saddam Hussein and gloated when he was found hiding in a hole in the ground. The abuses of victors in a war are legendary. But Obadiah warns us that we shouldn’t be arrogant as Edom was.
But he perhaps doesn’t go quite far enough in his thinking. For while Obadiah takes Edom to task for taking advantage of Judah’s demise, it seems to me that Obadiah is in danger of falling into the same sin that he condemns Edom for. Jesus reminds us of the Golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” All too often we fail to recognize that when we cheer at another’s misfortune, we may find ourselves in the same place at some point.
Joan Baez used to sing “there but for fortune go you or I.” Jesus said, “Be careful how you judge others, because you will be judged by the same measure.” When I was a Conference Minister I often had people call me and wonder what I was going to do about such and such a church that wasn’t upholding the Confession of Faith in a particular area. Of course, they didn’t have much to say when I would point out places where they weren’t upholding the Confession either.
While Obadiah may have been convinced that God was on the side of Judah and therefore only Edom would be punished for their sin, certainly other prophets were less sure of that. And certainly today we would not claim that only the sins of others would be held against them. And even the Old Testament itself offers a counter-point as we will see next week. As one commentator pointed out, even though the order of the Old Testament books was quite fluid for many years, Obadiah and Jonah were always kept together.
So Obadiah will remain one of those books that is there as a reminder that sibling rivalries can have long and painful consequences, and that we need to be careful how we treat those whose misfortunes we may hope for.