Saturday, January 12, 2008

Fun with Obadiah

When I was a student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the early 1980s, Dale Moody was my Systematic Theology professor. Moody would rail against what he termed our “kangaroo” approach to Bible study; he said that the Sunday School literature that our churches used hopped around from passage to passage too much.

It is a fact that large sections of the Bible are characteristically omitted from the canon of most churches and I dare say of most Christians. I say that if we’re going to be people of the Book then we ought to pay attention to the Book in its entirety. So, occasionally I afflict my parishioners with a study of one of the obscure books in the Bible.

We’re about to embark on a Sunday evening look at the book of the prophet Obadiah.

It should be fun.

With that in mind, here are some fun facts about Obadiah.

First, there are two significant men in the pages of the Hebrew Bible named Obadiah. One is a government official in the administration of King Ahab of Israel who pops up in the course of Ahab’s dealings with the prophet Elijah. Since that Obadiah lived in the ninth century B.C.E. and since the book of Obadiah dates from sometime well after 587 B.C.E., Ahab’s Obadiah is not the one who produced the book.

Second, the book of Obadiah is made up of one chapter containing only twenty-one verses. It is the shortest book in the Hebrew Bible.

Third, I have never, so far as I can remember, preached a sermon based on the book of Obadiah. It may be the only book out of which I have never preached. Wait—I may have never preached out of Nahum, either. I’m ashamed.

Fourth—and this is the most interesting fact of all—Obadiah is basically a prophecy of vengeance against the Edomites, a long-time enemy of the Israelites. Now, the prophet had his reasons. The feud between the Israelites and Edomites went way back; it is symbolized and immortalized in the stories about the rivalry between their respective forebears, the brothers Jacob and Esau. Also, when Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E., the Edomites—kin people of the people of Judah, remember—had participated in the sack of the city. Of course, conflicts flow both ways, and Israel had inflicted its fair share of misery on Edom as well.

Still, here is a book in our Bibles that says this: “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). That’s one of those verses and this is one of those books that makes you think, “Now, should that be in the Bible?”

It is not our place, of course, to try to reason something out of the Bible; it is our place to come to terms with what is there. So what do we make of such a book?

First, it is an honest book; it expresses openly and honestly the desire for vengeance that people—even godly people—can sense.

Second, it makes us ponder the judgment and justice of God.

Third, it should make us understand that a “flat Bible” approach is inappropriate. There are far loftier hopes for the role of “foreigners” in God’s future in other Old Testament books. And, as a Christian who must read everything, including Scripture, in light of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, I have to acknowledge that such a desire for vengeance is never appropriate in my life. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” If I am his follower, how can I say instead, “I hope they burn”?

I’m looking forward to having fun with Obadiah over the next few weeks!

No comments: