Saturday, November 11, 2023

Mining the Minors: Obadiah (3)

When we read Bible history or doctrine, we take for granted that the tenses used by the writers are important. “Don’t do it” is different from “You did it”. However, when we come to Bible prophecy, that ordinary rule of thumb goes right out the window. Prophetic tenses are all over the place.

Even secular observers can’t miss this odd feature of the genre.

Prophetic Perfection

Wikipedia has an entry on the “prophetic perfect tense”, which it defines as “a literary technique used in the Bible that describes future events that are so certain to happen that they are referred to in the past tense as if they had already happened”. As a result, unlike the rest of scripture, we can rarely count on the tense of a prophetic passage to provide us with 100% reliable information about the timing of its writing, of the past events it describes and/or the future events it foretells. The prophetic perfect is not the only kind of “tense distortion” that occurs in the prophets, but it is the most common.

Occasionally you will come across a commentator who has yet to discover this feature of the genre, and will argue strongly for a particular date for a described event because of the tense used about it. Let’s just say there are sufficient examples of tense distortion in the well known passages of the Major and Minor Prophets to make us wary of such dogmatism. Obadiah has a few of these worth remarking on.

2. Reasons for Edom’s Judgment

Obadiah 1:10-11 — Violations of Fraternity

“Because of the violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever. 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 one of them.”

Psalm 137 records the guilt of Edom in standing outside Jerusalem crying, “Lay it bare down to its foundations!” when the Babylonians were sacking the city. Jeremiah also testifies against Edom and warns of its eventual demise. In Lamentations, he invites Edom to carry right on rejoicing over Judah’s destruction but warns the cup of God’s judgment will pass to them as well. Ezekiel also mentions Edom’s opportunism on the day of Judah’s judgment. But up to this point in history, only Obadiah has reflected on why Edom’s taunting and violence against a fallen Judah was so odious to the Lord (Malachi would do so much later). He says it was because it was a violation of fraternity. Jacob was a brother, and Edom were Judah’s closest kin.

It’s one thing for unrelated and distantly related nations to despise, mock, betray and take advantage of others. It’s another thing entirely when brothers do it.

Love of kindred is not a sentiment we hear much about today. We are encouraged to think globally (the “acting locally” part is considerably rarer) and to reject tribalism in favor of concepts like multiculturalism and “America as an idea” (as opposed to the “ourselves and our Posterity” of the US Constitution). Any suggestion we ought to have concern for our own kindred brings foaming accusations of racism. Instead, the media encourages us to embrace trendy, abstract charitable causes thousands of miles away while we turn a blind eye to the needs of people suffering right in front of us. But hey, the guy in front of Tim Horton’s waving a used coffee cup can’t give us a tax receipt. This is backwards to say the least. The death of brotherhood as a value prompts Kenneth Taylor to write about how America is no longer a nation, only a state.

In scripture, love of our own kind is natural. All men have a biblical duty of care to our own families first, to our extended families next, and then beyond even to our more distant kin. Ethnic tribalism and love of our own kind are only bad things when we prize them over and above our more urgent responsibilities, including those to our families and brothers in Christ.

Edom’s problem was not that they were racist, it’s that they weren’t racist enough.* They chose the side of the Babylonians over their own close relatives. One of Obadiah’s more important themes is the importance of loyalty to family.

Obadiah 1:12-14 — Eight ‘Do Nots’

“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. 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. Do not stand at the crossroads to cut off his fugitives; do not hand over his survivors in the day of distress.”

Now Things Get Tense

Remember my comment about the weirdness of prophetic tenses? Here we go.

In normal narrative, it is reasonable to assume a command not to do a particular thing (or in this case eight particular things) indicates the option not to violate it still exists; that the offense has yet to be committed. I do not tell my cat “Don’t vomit on the bed!” when she’s already soiled the sheets. (I go straight to “Bad kitty!” when that happens.)

So then, if we were not familiar with Bible prophecy, we might imagine Obadiah is writing at a time when both Edom’s violation of fraternity God’s punishment for it are still in the future. Then we might read verse 10, where the violation at least is in the past tense, and go, “Oh.” It is not “Because of the violence you will do to your brother Jacob.” No, the deed is already done.

(The most alert readers are already asking, “How do you know the tense of verse 10 is definitive then?” Good question. I don’t. But I spent a fair bit of time analyzing the rest of Obadiah’s prophecy to try to pin down when he wrote it using clues other than the tenses, as described in part one of this series, so I’m fairly confident Edom’s offenses had already been committed when Obadiah wrote about them.)

The Importance of Loyalty to Family

Anyway, that’s just how Bible prophecy rolls. If the “prophetic perfect” is future events described in the past tense, we might say this may well be an example of the reverse. For all practical intents and purposes, we could read the eight “do nots” in verses 12-14 as “you dids”. That’s really what they are. A Hebrew scholar could probably help us better understand the reasons for this linguistic quirk and maybe even help us coin a cool name for it that Wikipedia would use as an entry about it, but if we just recognize it’s a common feature of prophecy and go with it, we’ll be fine.

Alternatively, the eight “do nots” may also serve as a warning to the “future Edom” referenced in Isaiah and hinted at later in Obadiah. How this future manifestation of Edom will connect back to the biblical children of Esau can only be a matter of speculation. It could be a direct physical connection geneticists have yet to discover. The prophets could also be referring to the future inhabitants of what is presently the nation of Jordan, where Edom was once located, in language intelligible to their original readers. Or they could be figuratively describing future disloyal brothers of Israel, men and women with the Edomite spirit, as Isaiah does when he refers to Judah as “Sodom” and “Gomorrah”. I lean toward the first of these three options, primarily because of the use of the words “house of Esau” for Edom twice in verse 18. That seems to imply literal lineage.

I guess the more important thing is that when a prophet says not to do something eight times, it’s a good indication that it’s sin to be avoided. Loyalty to our brothers and sisters is important. Gloating over their misfortune and taking advantage of them when they’re down is epically bad form.

Just Don’t Do It

The eight “do nots” are really seven; it is hard to see how there is any substantive difference between warnings one and five (the “do not gloats”). They are as follows:

  1. Do not gloat over the day of your brother in the day of his misfortune. Schadenfreude is a wonderful word, like so many expressions coined by Germans. It means taking joy in harm done to others. Christians, who are to love our enemies, should not delight in anyone’s misfortune, still less in that of our kindred.
  2. Do not rejoice over the people of Judah in the day of their ruin. This goes beyond an attitude into the realm of public celebration such as we have seen in Gaza and around the world recently. No follower of Christ should ever be associated with such evil.
  3. Do not boast in the day of distress. Whenever we see a brother down and out, there is a temptation to think, “Well, at least I’m okay”, or worse, to say it our loud. Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. If our first reaction to suffering is not to weep with those who weep, we are not in a good place.
  4. Do not enter the gate of my people in the day of their calamity. Edom really had three problems. Pride and fraternal disloyalty were the first two. But in addition, they were trespassing on the territory of God. Here it is the “gate of my people” they presumed to enter. Of course there would be consequences. God’s name was there.
  5. Do not gloat over his disaster in the day of his calamity. Similar to point one.
  6. Do not loot his wealth in the day of his calamity. N.N. Taleb has nothing good to say about stock traders who take advantage of market disasters to plunder the wealth of strangers. Even wise agnostics understand how evil that is, and it’s much worse to take advantage of a relative.
  7. Do not stand at the crossroads to cut off his fugitives. Edom not only gloated and rejoiced over Judah’s demise; they got actively involved in preventing Judeans from escaping the Babylonian invasion. Disloyalty in thought and word is bad enough. This is disloyalty in action.
  8. Do not hand over his survivors in the day of distress. Dante’s ninth circle of hell was reserved for the treacherous. He was not far off. This is the sin of Judas, an absolute betrayal.

* When the French first coined the term racisme, they used it favorably to describe the spirit of wishing to defend your own culture against adulteration and outside influences. There is nothing wrong with that sort of protective “racism”. The problem is not with loving your own kin too much, but with loving strangers too little.

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