Formations 08.07.2016: Obadiah

Obadiah 1-4, 10-21

"Obadiah the Prophet," Russian icon (Wikimedia Commons).

“Obadiah the Prophet,” Russian icon (Wikimedia Commons).

Joe Pug, one of my favorite singers, said in a recent podcast with Anaïs Mitchell, “I think the ultimate goal that any of us are trying to do right now… writing songs is, ironically, to write a song so good that 50 to 100 years from now, no one knows who wrote it. You know what I mean? And it just says traditional next to the side of it.” Obadiah pulled this off.

The truth is that we don’t know who Obadiah was. Some people even think that his name, meaning “servant of the Lord,” wasn’t his real name. Whoever he was, he came from a world that was falling apart. Judah had been utterly destroyed, the temple along with it, and the people still in Judah struggled to survive in a nation without walls to protect them against attacks from their neighbors.

But I must confess that before I ever read Obadiah, I played drums in a folk-punk band called Augustus Obadiah. And like any self-respecting folk-punk band, we played our share of angry songs.

For that matter, most music has its share of angry songs. You can hear them in blues and bluegrass as well as rap and punk. Flip though your hymnal and you’ll find them, too. Music comes from people and speaks to people, so it often expresses and responds to the fears and frustrations of its source. Preachers try to do the same thing. And the prophets of Ancient Israel were preachers, most of them speaking for the everyday Israelite, expressed the anger and pain while also instilling hope into their own community.

Judah was hurting and Obadiah was angry. You can’t blame him, but you still have to wonder if he directs his rage at the right people. He focuses on the Edomites, one of the neighbors that came after the Babylonians did the real damage. And the Israelites saw the Edomites as their brothers. They were descended from Abraham, too.

Obadiah, like most prophets, responded to a gap he saw in the world between what was and what should be. I bet Obadiah, like most Israelites and most of us, heard this growing up: siblings don’t betray each other. But what did this prophet see? Just the opposite, which made Obadiah angry.

Yet he was hopeful, too. And honestly, I’d rather him just rage against the system. But he didn’t. He looked forward to a day when God would destroy his enemies, when “the house of Jacob will be a fire, the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau straw; they will burn them up completely, and there will be no one left of the house of Esau” (v. 18). He couldn’t bring himself to hope for peace without conflict.

One of America’s folk heroes, Pete Seeger, said of his banjo, “This machine surrounds hate and force it to surrender.” This message is hopeful and redemptive, and implied underneath this song is the sense that something shall be overcome. There is conflict in hope, because, like anger, it rests in the tension between what is and what can be.

But Obadiah doesn’t sound like Pete Seeger. He focuses on his anger as Woody Guthrie, who inspired Seeger’s banjo message, did. Pasted on Guthrie’s guitars was a different message. It said “This machine kills fascists”, which sounds a bit more like Obadiah. In his rage, Guthrie might have gone too far, and so might have Obadiah. Maybe not, but one thing is certain:

Like all writers whose names are replaced by traditional, Obadiah says what is already there. He gives breath to anger already felt. And it makes me uncomfortable because Obadiah tells me that it might be important to give life to our anger and our hopes, as painful and extreme as they might be. I wish Obadiah had been silent because I don’t know how this venting doesn’t drive us farther apart.

But he wasn’t silent, so we’ve got to wrestle. And when Obadiah gets the final word, I hear him tell me that at least anger isn’t despair. Anger still hopes. It believes that the impossible is possible. And maybe, when we give life to our anger, we share our hopes with the world so that we can hope and dream together.

I’ll hope that we learn to let our anger ring out. I’ll pray that, one day, the rawness of our anger gives way and hope comes into focus so that, as we learn to be angry with our brothers and sisters, we learn to hope together too.

Joe Pug, “Anaïs Mitchell,” The Working Songwriter, April 29, 2016.

Discussion

• When do I keep myself from expressing my anger? When do I keep others from expressing their anger?
• What is the difference between an anger that hopes and an anger that gives in to despair? How can I choose a hopeful anger?
• What makes me angry? What does that tell me about my hopes?

Reference Shelf

Message of Obadiah

In view of Israel’s experience, these oracles against Edom would have been designed not to seek revenge (though this has been suggested) but to assist the people of God in moving through the crisis occasioned by the destruction of Jerusalem and the involvement of family members such as Edom/Esau in that debacle. This positive word about God’s future for Israel is announced (vv. 19-21), even though Israel is not portrayed as innocent (vv. 12-14, 16). Israel had been the object of divine judgment (reflected in the “you” of Obad 16), but a certain end will be visited upon Israel’s enemies, such as Edom and Babylon, and Judah will be restored.

The history of the relationship between Israel and Edom through the centuries presents a complex picture. It ranged from friendly (Num 20:14; Deut 2:4-8; 23:7-8) to antagonistic (see 2 Sam 8:12-14; 1 Kgs 11:14-22; 2 Kgs 8:20-22; 2 Chr 28:16-19; Isa 63:1-6), not unlike the relationship between their progenitors Jacob and Esau (see Gen 25–36). Edom and its progenitor Esau are used interchangeably in these oracles, though Esau is more common (see vv. 6, 8-9, 18; cf. Gen 25:30; 36:1). That the progenitors of the Edomites and Israelites were actual brothers (Jacob and Esau, Gen 25–36) probably intensifies the antagonism. Note the repeated use of the word “brother” (vv. 10, 12) and the personal names “Esau” and “Jacob” (vv. 6, 8-10, 17-19, 21). This is a “family feud” of no little consequence!

Terence E. Fretheim, Reading Hosea-Micah: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the Old Testament Series (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2013), 161.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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