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Thus says the Lord God concerning Edom:
We have heard a report from the Lord,
and a messenger has been sent among the nations:
“Rise up! Let us rise against it for battle!”
I will surely make you least among the nations;
you shall be utterly despised.
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?”
Though you soar aloft like the eagle,
though your nest is set among the stars,
from there I will bring you down,
says the Lord……
18 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.
Obadiah is a one chapter ‘book’ written about a neighboring nation—Edom. It hardly mentions Israel or Judah and the question that comes to mind is ‘what is this book doing in the bible?’ Why was it chosen as part of scripture? My first reaction was to view the book as an ancient “God will get the bad guys in the end’ story.” Such stories are soothing when nations or individuals are facing hardship, loss or injustice. Faced with what we can not explain, we imagine God will finally balance the cosmic scales in a way that makes sense to us. We imagine the ‘good’ life includes an ultimate justice that is a justice that we understand. For us as individuals, justice is meted out in an afterlife filled with ‘good’ things for the good people and sheol of punishment for the ‘bad’ people. Or when viewed as a community, the chosen people are vindicated in the end when oppressors are defeated and wrongs are punished. Obadiah fits that narrative.
Edom is located on the southeast border of ancient Israel and there was a long history of border conflict. During the Exodus, the Edomites refused to allow Moses to pass through Edom. (Numbers 20:14-21). Later Edom opposed Israel’s first king, Saul, and were conquered by David. Throughout the monarchy, Edom rebelled, sometimes winning and sometimes becoming a vassal state to Judah. Then when Jerusalem was attacked, we read “On the day that you stood aside, on the day that strangers carried off his wealth, and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you too were like one of them….. you should not have gloated over your brother on the day of his misfortune;” (Obadiah 1:11-12). These offences and many more led to Obadiah’s words of divine judgment: “As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head.”…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.” (Obadiah 1:15b and 18)
The Edomites had been resentful brothers and bad neighbors who had rejoiced in the defeat of Jerusalem. They deserved punishment! And as long as we only read the history of Israel, it is understandable. The picture changes however, if we look at the same story from the Edomite side of the border.
Jacob and Esau were brothers, sons of Issac. Jacob tricked his older brother in order to steal Esaus’ birthright and blessing. As the story goes, Esau came in from hunting and was hungry. He asks his brother Jacob for a bowl of stew. Jacob says, “Sure, if you’ll give me your birthright in return.” Who in their right mind trades the family inheritance for a bowl of food? But Esau did. Later, to nail down his advantage, Jacob disguises himself so that his nearly blind father cannot distinguish between him and Esau in order to receive his father’s blessing. The descendants of Jacob became the ‘chosen’ through deceit and trickery. That is a piece of history that needs to be rationalized. Who wants to own up to deceit as the basis of our position in the world? No problem, first, commentators assure us that though Jacob’s behavior was unethical, it was not illegal. And second, some commentators will argue that Esaus’ bad decision making was God’s way of ‘proving’ that Esau, though the oldest, did not deserve to be the leader of the chosen people. It is hard to reconcile the knowledge that the chosen who stood for freedom of the oppressed could also be the nation that was willing to exploit a brother. That is a problem that is all too familiar in our current debates over teaching history.
The good news of such a perspective is the unshakable belief that God was and is steadfast with his people. God’s power extends to all nations and in the fullness of time, God will square the accounts in favor of the oppressed. The bad news is that this is a very egocentric view of God’s justice. It reflects a view of God that conveniently matches our human sense of justice. Obadiah views God as an avenging score keeper whose scorecard matches and validates Israel. He does not acknowledge, much less deal with the fact that Israel was an example of God siding with the oppressed. It was not a validation of a people who became oppressors.
There are competing narratives in the prophets and certainly from Jesus but Obadiah gives voice to a parochial jealous God who will protect Israel from the bullies. Only later was this same God understood as a God who seeks to protect all who are bullied, all who are marginalized. But unless that shift is made, we will tend to equate hard times with punishment and good times with blessing.
The human tendency is to explain life by what we like or don’t like—and then attribute that to God. We measure God’s favor or disfavor by the external circumstances of our lives is ultimately damning. There is life, even a good life, in the midst of terrible hardship. That is God’s promise and judgment. When we fail to see that, we are diminished. We lose the life we have. RG spoke of his grandmother who was both disfigured and in severe chronic pain because of her arthritis. This went on for years. She chose to continue to be mindful and caring when many would have cursed God and died. The question for her was not was she being punished by her hardships, it was how was she going to live with those hardships. God points the way to life—no matter what happens in our lives. Failure to see that means we lose life. That is not a punishment, it is a consequence.
Unfortunately, we have a long history of interpreting events as Obadiah did. It is always tempting to choose the narrative that best suits us. In the revolutionary war, the British complained that Americans were fighting dirty. They were ambushing the British, using snipers and refused to come out and fight. For the Americans, these same tactics were innovative and effective guerrilla warfare against a superior foe. Two hundred years later Americans complained that the VietCong were fighting dirty. They would not come out and fight. Who is a revolutionary and who is a subversive depends upon whose ox is being gored. When it suited us, we were heroes. When the same tactics were used against us, the Viet Cong were cheating.
When George Floyd was killed and our cities were burning, when are such actions fighting injustice and when are they riots? When the capitol was stormed, was that a legitimate protest or a group of thugs. As we all know, these questions are fiercely fought in the partisan arenas. And in real life, we argue based upon our politics rather than our Christian values.
History is written by the victors. There is always an interpretive lens and we need to struggle with that fact. Should we tell the story of the Edomites? Obadiah gives no credence to Edomite protests. His focus was God’s punishment of those who opposed Israel. Does it matter that the Edomites were cheated or does their defeat ‘prove’ and validate the Jews as God’s chosen. We often spend so much time rationalizing that we stop asking ourselves what God’s desire is for us. If ten generations after Jacob’s infamous deception, the sons of Esau and the sons of Jacob gathered to reconcile, what is justice?— none of Jacob’s ancestors were part of Jacob’s trickery—-but they all benefited from it. What is God’s Judgment? These are hard questions but ones we rationalize and avoid at our own peril.
Obadiah does not worry about such questions. For him, this is what God ordained—deal with it. (“…they shall burn them and consume them, and there shall be no survivor of the house of Esau; for the Lord has spoken.”) God’s name be praised. But Obadiah is part of a larger story. And though his narrative is familiar and all too human, God wants more from us.
God’s justice is quite different from our self serving view. Our story is that God affirms all people. He began with a bunch of slaves, displaced aliens in a foreign land and gave them value and worth in a world that did neither. That God of justice is all too easily co opted to suit ourselves. We do not want the criteria that the chosen are the people who seek God’s will to protect the oppressed. We do not want to consider that we might be the lost —those who insist upon validating our own way in the name of God.
We do not want to consider the exploitation of peoples that have given us the lives we have today. As Christians, we believe it actually doesn’t matter as much why people are marginalized, what matters is that such marginalization is not okay. God’s justice demands that we have a responsibility to others because all of us are children of God. Jesus refused to accept the justifications and explanations that had been used for centuries to define the pure and impure, the clean and the unclean, those deserving God’s care and those who did not. It is a sad commentary that so often our sin is our difficulty in accepting that God loves us—all of us.
God’s justice is inconvenient and difficult. It means telling the whole story. It means engaging in the uncertain and messy task of loving one another—whether or not it is our ‘fault’. It means escaping our self righteousness, removing our blinders and looking for a third way. Let it be so.