Saturday, November 04, 2023

Mining the Minors: Obadiah (2)

C.S. Lewis called pride “the essential vice, the utmost evil … the complete anti-God state of mind”. Solomon wrote, “Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished.”

Obadiah is the shortest book in the Hebrew Bible, so it doesn’t take the prophet more than two verses to get to Edom’s problem. Yes, it’s pride. Pride that metastasized into hatred of their brothers. Pride that pulled the wool over their own eyes and made the Edomites believe they were untouchable. Pride that convinced them they could put one over on the God who had decreed “the older will serve the younger”. “Not so,” said Edom.

It was the word of God. Of course they were wrong.

Outline of Obadiah

Obadiah takes the form of a single chapter with four obvious subject matter divisions:

  1. The coming destruction of Edom (1:1-9)
  2. Reasons for Edom’s judgment (1:10-14)
  3. Edom as a cautionary tale for the nations (1:15-18)
  4. The former territory of Edom during the millennial reign (1:19-21)

1. The Coming Destruction of Edom

Obadiah 1:1-4 — Down to the Ground

“The vision of Obadiah. Thus says the Lord God concerning Edom: We have heard a report from the Lord, and a messenger has been sent among the nations: ‘Rise up! Let us rise against her for battle!’ Behold, I will make you small among the nations; you shall be utterly despised. The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rock, in your lofty dwelling, who say in your heart, ‘Who will bring me down to the ground?’ Though you soar aloft like the eagle, though your nest is set among the stars, from there I will bring you down, declares the Lord.”

The Vision of Obadiah

Obadiah means “worshiper [or servant] of YHWH”. Scripture is full of Obadiahs; it must have been a very common name in Israel. A quick concordance search shows as many as twelve different Obadiahs spanning a period of more than 600 years. His prophecy tells us nothing more about him than his name — no mention of father, tribe or timeframe — so we have no certain way to connect him to any of his historical namesakes mentioned in Kings or Chronicles.

Taken literally, the word “vision” suggests Obadiah’s revelation was visual as well as audible, but it’s also possible ḥāzôn had come to be used in a more general sense to refer to any form of prophetic experience.

A Messenger among the Nations

Verse 1 tells us God would shortly stir up “the nations” against Edom. That probably requires explanation. After all, we tend to think of the Babylonian invasion as, well, Babylonian.

Around the time Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem, destroyed Solomon’s temple and carried off its people into exile, the Neo-Babylonian Empire controlled and collected tribute from many nations. At one point, the Empire extended from Assyria to Egypt. For slightly less than a century, everyone in Babylon’s path became vassal states or worse. Jeremiah lists Babylon’s eventual conquests, confirming Edom would be among them. God also warned Edom and several other nations through Jeremiah that Nebuchadnezzar would be coming for them in due course, and promised that any nation that would submit to Babylon would be left in its own land rather than exiled. History suggests Edom took Jeremiah up on his offer. Judah did not.

When Babylon came against Judah (which happened on at least three occasions), the armies of other nations were part of the package. During the reign of Jehoiakim (608-597 BC), for example, bands of Syrians, Ammonites and Moabites joined the Chaldeans to raid Judah. “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” 2 Kings 24 tells us the Chaldeans came against Judah not just at that time, but also during the reigns of Jehoiachin and Zedekiah, each time carrying off thousands of craftsmen, metal workers, officials and men of valor. Any of these occasions may have given Edomite onlookers the opportunities described in verses 10-14 to prey on and rejoice over their humiliated brothers in Judah.

In any case, it was only a matter of time until a similar coalition of nations to that which destroyed Jerusalem would rise up against Edom too, probably less than sixty years.

The Clefts of the Rock

One of the most memorable features of Edom is its 200 meter-high red rock cliffs at Sela (Petra), located near Bozrah in modern-day Jordan, which provided unusually effective defenses against foreign invaders and still attract tourists today. Its ancient residents carved staircases, water systems, cisterns and shelters out of the cliff face or made use of existing caves, and built fortifications and towers atop it. Cliffs also surround the city of Bozrah, Edom’s ancient capital, on all four sides.

Nevertheless, the best-designed defenses cannot withstand a determined and well-provisioned siege. Obadiah indicates these spectacular natural features became a source of pride and overconfidence to those who lived there. They felt themselves invincible, which turned out not to be the case. Scholars believe a Mesopotamian-style relief carving in eastern slope of the cliff face at Sela depicts a conquering Babylonian monarch, inconclusively identified with Nabonidus (555-539 BC).

A successful siege of Sela by Babylon and its allies would certainly constitute a short-term and at least partial fulfillment of Obadiah’s prophecy. 

Obadiah 1:5-6 — Edom Picked Clean

“If thieves came to you, if plunderers came by night — how you have been destroyed! — would they not steal only enough for themselves? If grape gatherers came to you, would they not leave gleanings? How Esau has been pillaged, his treasures sought out!”

This is the passage-in-common with Jeremiah 49, though Jeremiah reverses the order of the grape gatherers and thieves. He also provides greater insight into the destruction of Bozrah and Sela. Evidently, shortly after the Chaldeans and their allies moved on, the Nabateans overran Edom, and they did it very violently indeed. “Edom shall become a horror,” said Jeremiah. “Everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its disasters.” Each prophet who touches on the destruction of Edom offers bits of information the others do not, but all are basically in accord, and probably refer to the mid-sixth century BC events described below.

The line “If grape gatherers came to you, would they not leave gleanings?” probably explains why archeologists looking at Sela and Bozrah associate all their significant finds with the later Nabatean civilization rather than with the Edomites. There is very little physical evidence of an ancient Edomite civilization in Jordan. The primary proof Esau’s children ever lived in Edom is the plausibility and consistency of the biblical accounts.

Obadiah 1:7 — Westward, No!

“All your allies have driven you to your border; those at peace with you have deceived you; they have prevailed against you; those who eat your bread have set a trap beneath you — you have no understanding.”

Some time after Nabonidus had his likeness carved in Edom for posterity, roving bands of Arabs pushed the remaining Edomites out of their ancestral home entirely, as prophesied by both Obadiah and Ezekiel. These Nabateans then took possession of Sela and the other cities of Edom and built them up. There is some indication the Nabateans had been dwelling in the area previously, but perhaps took advantage of the opportunity afforded by the temporary Chaldean presence to make the country their own. They drove the Edomites westward to their border just as Obadiah promised, and beyond. Edom then settled at a reasonable distance from its enemies in the former territory of Judah south of Beth-Zur (later called Idumea). John Hyrcanus (164-104 BC), high priest and ruler of Judah for thirty years during the intertestamental period, finally conquered Idumea and forcibly converted the Idumeans to Judaism, after which time the former Edom had no national presence at all. The remaining Idumeans were subsumed into Judea over the next few hundred years.

Today, Edom has effectively disappeared as an identifiable people group, though the Lord knows where those genes are. It may be that Esau’s distant descendants have some part to play in the battles of the last days. The prophets certainly mention them.

Obadiah 1:8-9 — Cut Off by Slaughter

“Will I not on that day, declares the Lord, destroy the wise men out of Edom, and understanding out of Mount Esau? And your mighty men shall be dismayed, O Teman, so that every man from Mount Esau will be cut off by slaughter.”

Neither secular history nor the scriptures tell us precisely how “Mount Esau” or Sela was lost to the Nabateans, but the implication in Obadiah is that their tacticians were deceived. Perhaps they underestimated their Arab neighbors, or got too comfortable living side by side with them peacefully for so long. At any rate, Obadiah promised, the trap would be set, the trap would be sprung, and Edom would fall to its enemies in one mighty blow.

From all the available evidence, that is exactly what happened.

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