Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Why Obadiah?

The Book of Obadiah is the shortest book in the Hebrew Bible.  You might think that I could breeze through such a small book.  I would have though so, too, but I would have been wrong.  I have had a real problem with Obadiah.

The Book of Obadiah is basically a curse against Edom.  Calling down curses upon an enemy was a common practice in the ancient Near East.  Balaam tried to curse Israel, for example.  But what purpose does the Book of Obadiah serve to justify its place in the Bible?

What we have is Judah's side of the story.  According to Obadiah, the Edomites took advantage of the Babylonian invasion of Judah to join in the attack against Jerusalem.  For their part, the Judeans were completely innocent and had done nothing to provoke or justify the Edomite's dastardly attack.  I wonder what Edom's side of the story would have been.

As an attorney, I encounter stories such as Obadiah's all of the time.  "I was just standing there," my client will insist.  "All of a sudden this guy just comes up and starts beating on me for no reason."  I have found that there is usually more to the story than what I have been told.

My first question is, did Edom really do all of these things?  Extrabiblical accounts indicate otherwise.  The Babylonians rolled over, conquered, enslaved, and carried away all of the peoples in the area:  Judeans, Edomites, and everyone else.  I suppose that it is possible that Edom harassed Judah to curry favor with Babylon; if it did, it was a grave miscalculation.

My second question is, was Judah really blameless?  I do not have any evidence, but I suspect that, over the years, Judah gave as good as it got.

My concern is not really to defend a long-dead nation.  My ultimate concern is what the Book of Obadiah has to say about God.  Obadiah's God seems to be a heavenly big brother.  After the bullies at school have beaten you up and given you a bloody nose, you say, "Just you wait until I tell my brother!  Then you're gonna get it!  You'll see!"  Obadiah's God seems sort of petty to me.

I have struggled to learn the lesson of Obadiah.  For his hearers, Obadiah ultimately had a message of hope.  He predicted that the Babylonian invasion would not be the end of God's chosen people, even if that's the way it looked at the time.  Although it looked as if Babylon and its vassal state, Edom, had got the upper hand, God was still supreme and would return His people to Jerusalem and restore His temple.  The encouragement of the prophets probably played no small part in keeping the Babylonian exiles from losing faith and assimilating into the larger culture, as the Israelites had with the Assyrians.

Whatever the particular circumstances, Obadiah had confidence in a God of justice.  Injustice may seem to flourish now, but it would eventually be punished, according to Obadiah.  "Your deeds will return upon your own head."  Today, there is so much injustice that it seems difficult to imagine a time coming when wrongs will be righted.  A confident Obadiah still may be a good role model, after all.