Big Lessons from Small Books #2: Obadiah
(This series of articles is designed to reveal the beauty found within some of the smaller texts within our Bibles, and to whet our appetites for closer, more devoted study of every corner of our scriptures.)
Obadiah is the smallest book of the Old Testament, and while that fact alone often contributes to our ignorance of it, this book is located in the middle of the section we regard as the “Minor Prophets”, which is typically not well-read among many Christians today. There are several important lessons to be gleaned from this tiny book, and hopefully reading about one of these will cause you to go back, look again, and be benefitted by more time spent in this text.
A Story of Two Brothers
The history and conflict between the nation of Edom and the nation of Israel goes all the way back to the very beginning of their relationship, as twin brothers within the womb of Rebekah in Genesis 25.22. There the text shows an early sign of their relationship, as the two “struggled together within her”, and at their birth Esau emerges being grasped by the heel by his younger brother, Jacob. Their struggles only continued as both brothers grew in to large nations, with Esau’s family becoming known as Edom, and the family of Jacob we know becomes the nation of Israel.
The struggles between Israel and Edom are well-documented in scripture, with one of the most well-known being in Numbers 20, where the Edomites refuse the Israelites’ passage through their territory during the wilderness journey to Canaan. For Edom to come out against their near-kinsmen with a “heavy force and a strong hand” (Num. 20.20) during their time of need served only to deepen the divide between the two peoples.
The most tragic conflict between the Edomites and the Israelites would not happen for a few hundred years later. 2 Kings 25 records the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, which begins the period of the Exile of the southern kingdom of Judah. During this time of distress and calamity, Edom takes advantage of Judah’s weakness and actually assist the Babylonians in razing the city (Psalm 137.7), rejoicing at the downfall of Judah (Ezekiel 35), and actually taking Israelites captive as they fled from Jerusalem (Amos 1.6-8).
A Lesson on How NOT to Treat the Distressed
This brings us to the book of Obadiah. The prophet is sent to the nation of Edom with a message of judgment and destruction. This was to be rendered to the Edomites on account of their treatment of Judah during the siege and capture of Jerusalem. Verses 12-14 of Obadiah focus in on the three-fold evil that Edom committed against their brethren, the Israelites.
“But do not gloat over the day of your brother in the day of his misfortune; do not rejoice over the people of Judah in the day of their ruin; do not boast in the day of distress.” (Obadiah 12 ESV)
Note that all three “Do Not” statements are in regard to the same problem: Edom rejoiced and was prideful over the calamity that was befalling the Israelite people. This serves as a powerful reminder to all of us today: how do we feel when those we regard as our enemies are judged, or when misfortune befalls them? Do we smile and nod when our fellow human beings are made to suffer? As Christians, we are never to be pleased when our neighbors suffer, but rather be a people who are willing “to weep with those who weep” (Romans 12.15b ESV).
“Do not enter the gate of my people in the day of their calamity; do not gloat over his disaster in the day of his calamity; do not loot his wealth in the day of his calamity.” (Obadiah 13 ESV)
Edom didn’t just enjoy the suffering of Judah: they felt it was a good opportunity to take advantage and “get it while the getting was good”. They saw the weakness and vulnerability of their neighbors and took advantage. Again, notice the pattern of all three “do not” statements highlighting the same issue: Edom plundered Judah “in the day of their calamity”. As people of God, we can never seek to take advantage of others, and especially during the weakness and helplessness of our neighbors. Rather, we are a people who seek to help those who are weak, as the Samaritan of Luke 10 sought to do.
“Do not stand at the crossroads to cut off his fugitives; do not hand over his survivors in the day of distress.” (Obadiah 1.14 ESV)
The third and final series of “do not” statements in Obadiah highlight the worst offense of the three. The Edomites laid in wait for the fleeing people of Judah along the main highways and at the crossroads, seeking to capture the Israelite fugitives and hand them over to the conquering Babylonians. It is certainly evil to find joy and glee in the pain and suffering of another person, and it is also evil to use that moment to seek to gain materially from the situation. But to use the calamity of another person to seek to do further harm, to (as we sometimes put it) “kick them while they’re down”, is a depth of evil that is heartbreaking to see between two peoples so closely connected. One hopes that this sort of behavior would never be found among Christians, to use the opportunity of hardship and tribulations as an opportunity to promote oneself and demote another. Such behavior is the complete opposite of the humble servanthood commanded by our Lord Jesus Christ in passages throughout the gospels (example: Matt. 20.26).
What other lessons are there contained within this tiny book? Spend time with this tiny text (and with others, by all means) and you will find enormous nuggets of spiritual truth and insight valuable to you for your journey back to the Divine Author’s home!