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Too proud to bury the hatchet

I wonder, do you have any long standing family disagreements? Do you have anything in your wider family circle which may be classed as a feud? If you do then you will know how horrible such things are. The formation of two sides in opposition, harbouring long held resentment over past injustices or even perpetuated ill-will is the stuff of war and human conflict.  Many wars have been triggered by family disputes, most particularly wars of succession where rival family members fight over the right to succeed as the next rightful ruler.

The Book of Obadiah reflects the results of a long standing feud between two families, that of the descendents of Jacob and Esau.  In the light of his prophecy and from our gospel reading we are reminded of the dangers of harbouring resentment and hatred. We are also given a timely reminder of the command by Jesus to love our enemies and to set aside disputes.

Obadiah is the shortest book in the Old Testament, but has nonetheless won the right to a place amongst the canon of scripture. Along with Habakkuk which we have been studying for the past three weeks, Obadiah is amongst the body of scripture known as the twelve Minor Prophets. That does not mean that his work or contribution to the religious life of God’s people were any less than Isaiah, Daniel and others, but along with Hosea, Joel, Amos, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi their entire works collected together fit on one scroll, in contrast to the prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel and Daniel which required an entire scroll for each.

Dating and authorship of Obadiah presents the biblical scholar with real difficulties. Throughout biblical history  there have been at least 13 different people with the name Obadiah who could have written this work. Obadiah could have been a palace administrator to King Ahab who unlike his employer was a devout believer in the Lord and who was a contemporary and supporter of the prophet Elijah (1 Kgs 18:3). On the other hand he could have been an individual listed in 1 Chron 3:21 as being a distant member of the Royal Line of Judah after the Exile or even a tribal chief with 36,000 men ready for battle listed in 1 Chr 7:4.  The list of possible candidates seems to go on and on, some scholars favour Obadiah as having been written after the Babyolonian Exile. Even so a reference to a war on two fronts by Judah against the Edomites to the south and east and Philistines to the west in Ob v 19 possibly pin points to the writing during the reign of King Ahaz of Judah recorded in 2 Chr 28. This discussion is largely academic and the matter of authorship and date remains unresolved, but the content and context is far more valuable to study.

It is here that we return to the subject of family disputes. You will recall from the Book of Genesis the bitter rivalry between Jacob and his brother Esau, sons of Isaac and grandsons of the patriarch Abraham.  We read this story of betrayal and deception between Gen 25-27.  After petitioning the Lord, Isaac and his barren wife Rebekah were blessed with twin boys. A prophetic word came to Rebekah that:

Two nations are in your womb,

    and two peoples from within you will be separated;

one people will be stronger than the other,

    and the older will serve the younger.” (Gen 25:23)

When the two boys were born, the older son who was later named Esau was born first, but only by a matter of minutes. Literally hot on his heels emerged the second boy who was named by his parents Jacob which means “Grasp the heel” or “Deceiver.” 

You will no doubt recall how Jacob, aided and abetted by his mother twice cheated his older brother firstly out of his birthright and secondly the all important paternal blessing conveying his inheritance as head of the family.  The first occasion arose when in a foolish act of impetuosity carefree young Esau gave up his birthright for a bowl of red stew and the second when aided by his mother, Jacob deceived his old blind father in blessing him instead of his older brother.

Esau vowed that later once his father had died and the period of mourning for Isaac was over he would take revenge upon Jacob by killing him. Rebekah warns her younger son and he flees the family settlement, spending the foreseeable future with Rebekah’s family in Harran.

Time passes and heals as the two young men grow and mature and independently they both become wealthy. After a terrifying night of soul searching recorded in Gen 32 and during a heart warming act of reconciliation recorded in Gen 33, the two brothers embrace and their differences are forgotten. Isaac lived to be ‘old and full of years’ after his death Jacob and Esau bury their father together (Gen 35:29).  Although Esau does not carry out his threat against his brother they recognise that the pasture in the region would not sustain both families and the two brothers separate, Esau settling in the Mountains of Seir and Jacob the land of Canaan.

Esau was also known as ‘Edom’ meaning ‘Red’, possibly because of the colour of his hair or ruddy complexion. In Gen 25:30 the author in an editorial comment connects the name ‘Edom’ with Esau’s predilection to Jacob’s red stew with which he relinquished his birthright. 

The descendants of Esau became known thereafter as the Edomites and it would seem that although the two brothers had become reconciled, their descendants perpetuated the family feud and the two nations of Israel (Jacob’s descendants) and the Edomites (Esau’s descendants) became bitter enemies.

If you were to look at a map of Palestine during the period of the Old Testament you would see that Edom is located south and east in what is today southwestern Jordan, between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. The Edomites probably occupied the area about the 13th century BC. 

The original occupants of the region were called the Horites or Hurrians who were a non-semitic people who archeologists have reason to believe migrated there in 2000 BC. The name Horite is derived from the Hebrew word ‘Hor’ meaning a ‘cave.’ Deut 2:12 records:

Horites used to live in Seir, but the descendants of Esau drove them out. They destroyed the Horites from before them and settled in their place, just as Israel did in the land the Lord gave them as their possession.” 

It would seem from the text of Obadiah that the region was notorious for its mountain refuges, caves and fortifications, v 3-4:

The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rocks and make your home on the heights, you who say to yourself,

‘Who can bring me down to the ground?’ Though you soar like the eagle and make your nest among the stars, from there I will bring you down,”

declares the Lord.”

The Edomites were a real threat to Israel.  We read in Nu 20:14-20 that upon arrival at their borders, Moses was refused peaceful passage through their territory by the Edomites, despite appealing to their common ancestry with the Israelites: “Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom, saying:

“This is what your brother Israel says: You know about all the hardships that have come on us” (Nu 20:14). 

The Edomite King further threatens Moses with force if he attempts to transit through his territory.

War broke out between the two nations during Israel’s first Monarchy under King Saul and then King David.  We read in 2 Sam 8:13 -14 that King David subdued the Edomites and “put garrisons throughout Edom, and all the Edomites became subject to David.”

For a period of time it looks from 2 Kgs 3 that the Edomites fought alongside Judah, but in chapter 8 they mount a rebellion during the reign of King Jehoram King of Judah installing their own king once again.  In an editorial comment to the author they write: “To this day Edom has been in rebellion against Judah.” (2 Kgs 8:22)

The most significant conflict between the Edomites and descendants of Israel is recorded in 2 Chr 28:16-18 which may link our Obadiah to this ongoing family dispute.  In Ob v 10-14 we read:

Because of the violence against your brother Jacob,

    you will be covered with shame;

    you will be destroyed forever.

On the day you stood aloof

    while strangers carried off his wealth

and foreigners entered his gates

    and cast lots for Jerusalem,

    you were like one of them.

 You should not gloat over your brother

    in the day of his misfortune,

nor rejoice over the people of Judah

    in the day of their destruction,

nor boast so much

    in the day of their trouble.

 You should not march through the gates of my people

    in the day of their disaster,

nor gloat over them in their calamity

    in the day of their disaster,

nor seize their wealth

    in the day of their disaster.

 You should not wait at the crossroads

    to cut down their fugitives,

nor hand over their survivors

    in the day of their trouble.”

Consider this in the light of what happened according to 2 Chr 28: 16 -18:

At that time King Ahaz sent to the kings of Assyria for help. The Edomites had again come and attacked Judah and carried away prisoners, while the Philistines had raided towns in the foothills and in the Negev of Judah. They captured and occupied Beth Shemesh, Aijalon and Gederoth, as well as Soko, Timnah and Gimzo, with their surrounding villages.”

We get the picture of opportunism.  The Edomites seized their opportunity to carry out Esau’s threats to his brother Jacob. While the forces of Judah are fighting a war to the west they not only slip in the backdoor from the south and east, but serve as a cut-off to prevent their enemy’s escape.

During the period that Obadiah was writing we can see that the Edomites had become proud and believed their mountain hideouts to be impregnable. They had thought themselves greater than they actually were; great enough to mock, steal from and harm God’s chosen people. But the “Lord God,” a name Obadiah used to stress God’s sovereign power over the nations, will not stand idly by and let His people suffer forever. Through Obadiah, God reminded Edom of their poor treatment of His people and promised redemption, not to the Edomites but to the people of Judah. The nation of Edom, which eventually disappeared into history, remains one of the prime examples of the truth found in Proverbs 16:18: “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before stumbling.” Edom was later conquered by the nomadic Arabs called Nabataeans and the Edomites migrated to southern Judaea, where they were known in New Testament times as Idumaeans, the most famous of all had an ignominious history of their own, the Herod dynasty. The capital city of the Nabataeans in former Edomite territory was the legendary Petra, Jordan’s most famous tourist attraction and now a world heritage site.

Obadiah’s name means “worshipper of Yahweh,”. His prophecy focuses on the destructive power of pride. It reminds us of the consequences of living in a self-serving manner, of following through on our own feelings and desires without considering their impact on those around us. It also reminds us of the destructive quality of unforgiveness. The family dispute between Jacob and Esau is a common story throughout history. When power and prestige take precedence over justice and equality. Out of it springs such dangers as labelling where people are despised and abused because of long held cultural, religious and racial bias. 

Dr Martin Luther King Jr once said in a sermon :

Some people will not like you, not because of something you have done to them, but they just won’t like you.” 

Many organisations now incorporate ‘Unconscious Bias’ into its mandatory training for their employees for this very reason. Our study of Obadiah reminds us of the dangers of such bias and an overly long memory of the past hurts,  Such hurts are self-perpetuating until someone calls an end to it all.

We do this by obeying the command of Christ to love our enemies and before we even deign to approach God in worship, to be reconciled to our neighbour . Martin Luther King offered really sound advice on how to implement this:

Firstly, he says ‘Look at yourself.’  The very things that annoy us about other people are things we do ourselves. Self-reflection may reveal that we are the root cause of the discord and not the other party. It was Jacob who originally wronged his brother and not the other way round.

The next piece of advice given by Martin Luther King was to look for the good in our enemies. This is where labelling is so harmful. It depersonalizes another and can dehumanize them. I have often counselled soldiers not to refer to local people in Afghanistan or Iraq as ‘rag heads.’ Jesus specifically warns against labeling and verbal abuse in Matt 5:21-22. If we look for humanity and good in people we are less likely to judge them.

The third piece of advice offered by Dr King is that if an opportunity arises to defeat your enemy ‘loving them’ means that we do not take it.  We noted in Obadiah’s prophecy v 14 that the Edomites exploited Judah’s conflict with the Philistines to make their move when they waited at crossroads “to cut down their fugitives [and] hand over their survivors in the day of their trouble.” If we have an opportunity to defeat our enemy, do not take it.  Instead St Paul counsels us: 

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;

if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom 12:17-21) 

I chuckle sometimes when I read this because of the ‘burning coals’ imagery, but it is reasonable to suppose that refers to causing them to burn with guilt and remorse.

So how about you? Has any of this talk about family feuds, long held grudges or resentment ring true in your family or situation? Perhaps you feel that your position, like that of the Edomites, is unassailable. You are in the right and they are in the wrong. Remember:

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

We love our enemies practically and deliberately in obedience to the commands of Christ by first looking at ourselves, (Matt 7:5), by looking for the good and not labelling (Matt 5:22) and by not taking revenge even if the opportunity arises. (Rom 12:19)

Obadiah was a man of his time. Clearly he felt passionate about the suffering of his people and foresaw God’s revenge upon the Edomites. Obadiah’s prophecy may not seem to have an edifying message for us today, but that is not an excuse for ignoring it. Indeed, what our study into the background of it has shown, is that there are always two sides to a story.

Amen 

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