Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Obadiah 1: Damn that Edom

My summer tour of the Bible’s undiscovered countries brings me to a quaint little cottage: Obadiah. Obadiah is the littlest book in the Hebrew Bible—for all you trivia mavens and crossword buffs—weighing in at just 21 verses. (And he's just sooooo cute for his age.)

But in terms of its content, it’s also one of the more curious. Or perhaps “obsessive” is the better word, because Obadiah is totally—and maybe a little manically—devoted to calling for the destruction of Edom. Who or what is Edom? Well, I’m glad you asked. It’s kind of an interesting story. (And no, it’s a mild but delicious Dutch cheese, smartass.)

Edom is one of the small enemy nations adjacent to ancient Israel. (And yes, it’s long gone, so you needn’t consult a world map—though it is funny to think of “Edom” taking one of the rotating seats on the U.N. Security Council.) During the five-ish centuries of Hebrew monarchy, the Israelites would occasionally skirmish with the Edomites, winning their fair share of battles but losing a few as well.

Edom, however, was not alone in harassing Israel and Judah. During this time, national enemies were a dime a dozen—or a shekel per seven-fold, if you want—and the Hebrew armies went to war with the Ammonites, the Philistines, the Amalekites, the Persians, and the Cylons. (Okay, that last one is from Battlestar Galactica, but the rest are real, I swear.) So why is the author of Obadiah so pissed at Edom?

Well, it comes down to a question of deceit and family honor. Because our author isn’t just yelling at Edom for starting another pesky battle, but for abetting an imperial invader. And ignoring blood ties to boot.

Historians are pretty sure that when the Babylonians sacked Judah and Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E., the Edomites abetted—a crime made worse by the fact that, according to legend, they're related to the Israelites. So this isn’t just treachery—it’s internecine betrayal.

You see, while the Israelites trace their ancestry back to Isaac’s son Jacob, the Edomites trace theirs back to Jacob’s older brother Esau. You remember the story of Jacob and Esau, right? Two sons, sprung from the same womb, fight each other for their father’s favor? Dramatic fraternal rivalry? Delicious beef stew? (Seriously. Read Genesis.)

In any case, while Jacob and Esau, despite some early bumps, eventually bury the hatchet, the Edomites and the Israelites cannot … or perhaps they do—just in each other’s backs. That’s what Obadiah believes happened during the fall of Jerusalem; thus he berates Edom for the worst type of perfidy, “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 one of them. / But you should not have gloated over your brother / on the day of his misfortune; / you should not have rejoiced over the people of Judah / on the day of their ruin” (11-12).

Despite the peoples’ long-standing enmity, the Obadiah author believes that the Edomites should have stood with their brothers (and sisters) the Israelites when “strangers” and “foreigners” marched on Jerusalem. He just cannot get over the fact that they didn’t.

After you’re done reading Obadiah, you can kind of see his point. And perhaps forgive him his obsession.

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