Torah reading: Genesis 32:4-36:43
Haftorah: Obadiah 1:1-21
Obadiah, the shortest book in the Old Testament, is an amazing little book whose theme is the pronouncement of doom against an ancient and long-forgotten nation, Edom. Written millenia ago, nevertheless, this book while appearing to say on thing on the surface, has a deep message for the 21st century reader.
Obadiah was one of the minor prophets, a contemporary of Jeremiah. The name Obadiah means “the servant of Jehovah;” he fulfills the position of a servant. He comes and delivers his message, then fades into the background; that is about all we know of the man behind this book.
The book of Obadiah tells the story of two nations, Israel and Edom, the country to the south of Israel. Through this ancient land of Edom the Israelites marched as they came into Israel out of the captivity and slavery of Egypt. As they came into the land they had difficulty with the Edomites who were enemies of Israel from its very beginning. Why?
Behind the story of these two nations is the story of two men, twins actually, Jacob and Esau. Jacob was the father of Israel, and Esau, his twin brother, became the father of the Edomites. Jacob and Esau were in perpetual antagonism. According to Genesis even before they were born, they struggled together in their mother’s womb. That hostility marked the lives of these two men, and, subsequently, the lives of their descendants, the two nations of Israel and Edom. From Genesis to Malachi the struggle and antagonism between them continues.
What is so important about these two men and these two nations? That is precisely what the book of Obadiah explains to us.
God is a great storyteller. He uses pictures so that we can understand truth more easily, more graphically. We like to have a picture. We would rather see something than hear it, so God has many pictures. He has taken these two men and the subsequent nations that came from them and used them throughout the Bible as a consistent picture of the conflict between the natural man and the spiritual man — Jacob and Esau, Israel and Edom.
Obadiah first turns the spotlight on Esau, who typifies a fleshly man concerned primarily with his personal wants, desires and passions. The trouble with Esau, the prophet says, is this (verse 3):
The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rock, whose dwelling is high, who say in your heart, ‘Who will bring me down to the ground?’ 1:3
Esau’s problem is a self-focused pride or conceit. Proverbs 6:16 says: “There are six things which the Lord hates, seven which are an abomination to him.” And what is number one on the list? A proud look. And everything else that follows is a variation of pride. Those that are swift to run after mischief, he that spreads lies and slander and discord among brothers; all these things are manifestations of that single basic evil, human arrogance or conceit. Man’s undisciplined ego evaluates everything only in terms of its importance or its un-importance to oneself. Esau typifies the character that thinks the universe revolves around him or her.
Here is the man who says, “Nobody can touch me. Who is going to upset me? My plans are all laid out. I am able to carry through what I set out to do.” This attitude of self-sufficient ability is a mark of pride. And the Lord says to Esau/Edom: “though you soar aloft like the eagle, though your nest is set among the stars, yet I am able to bring you down.”
Here is the man who says, “I don’t need God. I can run my own life without God, in my own wisdom, my own strength, my own abilities, my own talents — that is enough. that is all I need to make a success in life.”
Esau/Edom is condemned for yet another type of arrogance. Look at verse 10:
For the violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever.
Violence is a fruit of arrogance and conceit that is centered only on self and strikes out against anything that dares to challenge its supreme reign in life.
Obadiah’s prophecy also condemns Esau/Edom for indifference towards others.
On the day that you stood aloof, on the day that strangers carried off his wealth, and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were like on of them. vs. 11
One of the character traits of Esau/Edom is an inability to have empathy or compassion towards others; to be unmoved by the pain or suffering of one’s fellowman.
There is yet another form of pride that we read about in Obadiah (verses 12,13):
But you should not have gloated over the day of your brother in the day of his misfortune;
you should not have rejoiced over the people of Judah in the day of their ruin;
you should not have boasted in the day of distress.
You should not have entered the gate of my people in the day of his calamity;
you should not have gloated over his disaster in the day of his calamity;
you should not have looted his goods in the day of his calamity. Obadiah 1:12-13
Gloating over the misfortune of others is abhorrent to God and should be to us. What is behind this perverse delight we take in another person’s failure or his faults? It is Esau in us. In our pride and unconcern we don’t care what happens to someone else, as long as everything is all right with us. How selfish can we be?
The prophet goes on to say at the end of his short book that God has determined destruction for Esau but triumph for Jacob, who typifies the spiritual man, focused on God and caring towards others. The message is clear: he who lives for himself will suffer loss in the kingdom of God; he who spends his life loving God and serving others pleases God in this life and looks forward to life in the world to come.
Selfishness in its various forms is a challenge for all of us. If our goal in life is to honor God and to walk in His ways, selfishness is an “enemy” within that we must conquer. Part of our responsibility to obey the commandment – ‘You shall be holy as I am holy‘- involves a day by day decision to live a life that reflects God’s generosity, kindness and love towards us by showing those same attitudes in our relationships towards others.