Sunday, July 16, 2017
Genesis 25:19-34 and Obadiah
© Stacey Steck
You can almost be forgiven for not having read the book of Obadiah lately or even knowing it is there, since it is the shortest book in the Old Testament, is only 21 verses long, and takes up only about a page and a half of your Bible, but since it is in the Table of Contents, you can only plead so much ignorance. Be that as it may, this morning we are looking at the words of Obadiah, and we’ll see if we can’t discern why it’s in the Bible at all, since it is not really even about the people of Israel, and only tangentially addresses them. But since it has survived to be in our Bibles today, there must be something worth keeping about it, and so let’s see what we can find.
The first thing we need to know about Obadiah is that it is a word of God’s judgment on the nation of Edom, not on just any nation, but on a nation favored by God because it was Esau’s nation. For all of Esau’s failures as Isaac’s son, God never despised Esau. He may have sold his birthright for a pot of red stew. He may have been at the wrong place at the wrong time while his brother Jacob tricked their father into blessing the younger son, instead of the rightful son. He may have vowed to kill his brother. But God did not forget him, nor did God despise him, and though Israel and Edom were often adversaries, they were also frequently allies, kindred nations who remembered their shared roots in Rebekah’s womb. Indeed, as the Israelites roamed the desert for forty years following their escape from Egypt, they encountered Esau’s descendants, the people now called Edom. And rather than fight the Edomites, Moses and his followers are called to remember that the Lord established Esau in his lands, and they are commanded to pass through in peace, and even to engage them in trade.
The nation of Edom lay south of the Dead Sea, in a region of some altitude. It was centered around Mount Seir, what we see labeled in Obadiah as Mount Esau. Esau is in fact a variation on the word “seir” which means hairy, as we heard Esau was, even at birth. As we also heard, Esau came out red, and craved that red stew, characteristics which led to the naming of his people Edom, the word for red. Esau took his people and settled in this largely barren land, and for centuries they were one of the region’s major players. The Edomites held a strategic advantage against their enemies, due to the heights of the territory, a geographical feature which gave rise to the first part of Obadiah’s prophecy against them: “Your proud heart has deceived you, you that live in the clefts of the rock, whose dwelling is in the heights. You say in your heart, ‘Who will bring me down to the ground?’ Though you soar aloft like the eagle, though your nest us set among the stars, from there I will bring you down, says the Lord.” Obadiah reminds them that although they were on top of the world geographically, they didn’t live up to those lofty heights morally and ethically, and it would lead them to the depths of despair. Perhaps if they had remembered that old wisdom to “Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping him up,” they might have avoided their fate. But instead, from their mountaintops, they let down their neighbors, their very kin, when they needed them most.
You see, it was in the aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC, that cataclysmic event in Israel’s history, that Edom sealed its fate in God’s eyes, as they not only watched the nation of Babylon sack the city Jerusalem and did nothing to prevent it, but took advantage of Israel’s weakness and joined in the plunder. The bonds of kinship that had prevented Edom’s defeat in the old days were long forgotten. Perhaps it was the legacy of Jacob’s deception that set the standard for the relationship between the nations for the future, but in the end it was the failure of Edom to come to Israel’s aid that led to their condemnation and eventual demise. Seven times in Obadiah, the refrain rings out, “You should not have…” each followed by one of the catalogue of sins against their kindred nation for which they are being condemned, each worse than the one before it—standing aside as strangers entered in, gloating over its misfortune, rejoicing in the ruin of the city, boasting on its day of distress, entering its gate on the day of its calamity, looting the goods of the people, handing over the survivors. “For the slaughter and violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever.” And they were. There is no historical mention or record anywhere of the nation of Edom from the fifth century BC onward. The rest of the book recounts how although Israel was laid low by the plunder in which Edom participated, it will not be cut off forever. Mount Esau will perish but Mount Zion will endure forever. Just like in the beginning, when Jacob ruled over Esau, “Those who have been saved shall go up to Mount Zion to rule Mount Esau; and the kingdom shall be the Lord’s.”
Well, we’ve now reviewed pretty much the entire book of Obadiah, and you may still be wondering why it’s here, in our Bibles, in our consciousness. As you have probably picked up, there isn’t much grace in Obadiah, at least not for those to whom the dire pronouncements are directed. Unlike the prophecies of doom brought to the Israelites, which always included a ray of hope for at least a remnant, no such good news shines through for the nation of Edom. The end is coming; you are out of luck; end of story. Perhaps the Israelites read this book as grace, since it announces their survival and the demise of an enemy, but let us hope they too were disturbed by the finality of the pronouncement against a kindred nation. Otherwise, it would be something like our nation rejoicing if every Canadian were to fall prey to a deadly virus, and for that country to be an emptied wasteland; for all their difficulties over the years, the two nations are bound up in a common history and there can be no joy at the suffering of a sibling. We do have to remember that this word from God is part of the Hebrew Bible, and not the Edomite Bible, if there ever was such a thing. Although our God is a jealous God, it would seem hypocritical of God to call Edom to account at the expense of Israel, only to allow Israel to do the same thing. And so, I think we are probably safe if understand the prophecy against Edom as a word of wisdom for Israel’s future, for that time when they would once again be in the position that Edom was in when they made their fatal mistake. Remember that in the grand Biblical scheme of things, Israel is not called to be the center of a great Empire, but a light unto the nations, not a military power, but the people who help the whole world recognize God as their creator and sovereign Lord.
And so if there is grace in Obadiah, it comes in the form of a warning, perhaps meant for the Israelites to overhear, and if not for them, than for us. You see, Edom’s sins are easy enough for another nation to repeat, easy enough for a church to repeat, easy enough for an individual to repeat. You see, the sins of Edom were hubris and cowardice, and the failure to stand up for another victim of injustice. The sin of Edom was kicking another while they were down, rather than offering that hand up. The sin of Edom was the betrayal of a common heritage, if not a common humanity. All of these are great, great temptations in every age, and especially when we find ourselves on the heights, with the opportunity to look down on others from our perches of health, wealth, and security.
I am reminded of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written in response to those who, like the Edomites, could look down on their “enemies,” and criticize them even while proclaiming their kinship. King’s letter was written in response to a letter published in the Birmingham newspaper by eight white clergymen in Alabama who decried the street-level non-violent actions of the civil rights movement as causing too much disorder and violence in their community. It was, of course, directed at King and other Christians, their kin, and they could only do it by virtue of their lofty positions in their community’s more prestigious pulpits. It is noteworthy that in response, God gave Martin Luther King, Jr. not a modern day version of the message of Obadiah, but rather the following words, which work more like a commentary on Obadiah. In justifying the protests, King wrote: “Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” We may not have read Obadiah lately, but it seems that neither did the esteemed clergymen of the Birmingham of the 1960s.
Sometimes the good news is news we’d rather not hear, a corrective tweak which hurts for a time, a pointed word which helps us see something in a new way. Even though it hurts, it is still good news, because it helps us to change our ways, or avoid a sin, or do something God is calling us to do. For the Edomites, it was more than a corrective tweak, to be sure, but Obadiah’s prophecy lingers on that we might not suffer the same fate, but be instructed by God’s vision for the welfare, the shalom, of our kin. We know now that our network of “kin” is far wider and deeper than Canada or the United Kingdom. The light of Jesus Christ has illuminated the common humanity of all the nations, and the common bond of the earth that sustains all those nation, and so too, we must pray, our sins against one another. Let it not be said seven times of us one day, “You should not have…” followed by a litany of our sins. Instead, let us be able to say, as Martin Luther King, Jr. did when he concluded his letter, “If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. [But] If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me,” for it is God to whom we, like the Edomites, must eventually answer. Amen.
Sunday, July 09, 2017
© Stacey Steck
There is an old joke, or maybe it’s really a parable, which you may have heard in a variety of forms, but I’d like to tell it again this morning because it speaks to our Genesis passage in a contemporary way. It seems that the flood waters were rising in a certain low lying area and the townspeople were getting nervous. They packed up their treasured belongings in case they had to evacuate and sure enough the evacuation order was given. The streets and bridges heading out of town were jammed with station wagons and minivans and there was a great sense of urgency and desperation in the town. Well, everywhere but at Mr. Smith’s house. You see, Mr. Smith trusted in the Lord and was sure that God would see him safely through this crisis. So Mr. Smith stayed in his home and when the waters began to rise, he said to himself, “The Lord won’t fail me,” and off he went up to the second floor of his house to wait out the flood. When one of his neighbors floated by in a canoe and offered him a lift out of town, he replied, “I’m trusting in the Lord, God will save me.” And as he sat on his roof when a Coast Guard rescue team came by, he told them the same thing, “I’m trusting in the Lord, God will save me.” Finally, the Navy sent a helicopter to Mr. Smith’s house and lowered down a rope ladder. “Climb up the ladder, Mr. Smith. We’ll get you out of here.” “No, I’m trusting in the Lord, God will save me.” And he remained on his roof as the waters swirled around his feet. A little while later, the waters rose still further and Mr. Smith was carried off his perch yelling, “I’m trusting in the Lord, God will save me.” But alas, poor Mr. Smith drowned.
Now, Mr. Smith was a God-fearing man and so the next thing he knew he was standing before St. Peter at the gates of heaven. Mr. Smith was understandably upset because he had trusted in the Lord so when Peter asked him if there was anything he wanted to add before he passed through into the great beyond, Mr. Smith let loose. “I trusted in the Lord and the Lord failed me. What kind of God would do such a thing.” And St. Peter calmly replied, “Well, Mr. Smith. I don’t know how many more opportunities we could have given you. I mean, we sent you a canoe, a Coast Guard rescue vessel, and a Navy helicopter. What more could we have done?”
I like to call that story “the parable of the trusting fool.” Mr. Smith can hardly be condemned for his faith and trust in God, but he surely can be considered foolish for his mindless myopia. Did he really believe that God would provide only for him and not for the rest of the town? Did he really think that his faith in God was superior to everyone else’s? Or did he just overlook the fact that God works in our lives in a multitude of ways, one of which is giving us a role to play in our own lives?
Perhaps Mr. Smith never read the twenty-fourth chapter of Genesis, as we have this morning. If he had, he might have climbed right into that canoe when it floated by his second story window. For this story about a dying man’s last wish, an arranged marriage, and a faithful butler tells us a lot about God’s design for human agency, about how faith and action intersect, and about how God trusts us while we are trusting God.
The portion of chapter 24 we heard this morning is about half the chapter, and it retells most of the first half. However, what is left out is significant for understanding the part of the story we have as our text. It seems that old Abraham has not fulfilled his patriarchal duty of finding a wife for his son, the miracle child, Isaac. As his last wish, he summons his servant, his trusted, loyal servant, to undertake this exceedingly important mission. There are three distinct parts of the mission. First, Isaac’s bride-to-be absolutely, positively, must not come from the Canaanites with whom Abraham is living. Second, the bride must come from Abraham’s own family — not just any family will do. And finally, the part that is not among our verses today, under no circumstances is Isaac to return to the land of Ur, to Abraham’s family, to get a wife should the servant fail in his mission to return with one. Isaac has to stay put in Canaan. Abraham even tells his servant that it would be better that Isaac did not have a wife at all than that he should go back to the place which Abraham has left to follow the call of God.
We must go back even further in Genesis to grasp the full import of what transpires in this passage. Abraham has been the recipient of a threefold promise: He will possess the land to be known as Israel, he will have offspring as numerous as the stars or the grains of sand on the seashore, and he will have the blessing of the Lord. But this promise is predicated on Abraham leaving the land of his family and becoming a sojourner, a pilgrim. Were Isaac to go back to the land from which his father had come, he would be doing the reverse of all that God had commanded, and risk nullifying the agreement between God and Abraham. Isaac simply cannot turn around and go back to the beginning.
But back to the story at hand. Abraham and Sarah have endured the anxiety of Sarah’s infertility and been rewarded with the birth of Isaac. Sarah has died, Abraham is near death, and Isaac has no wife. Abraham is desperate to make sure his line is continued through his son Isaac, rather than his son Ishmael, but he is unable to make the journey which is necessary to bring this off. So he calls in the trusty servant who goes off to find Rebekah and saves the day.
But why does Abraham need to send the servant on this mission? Why doesn’t he just trust God to provide a wife for Isaac? After all, it was God, not Abraham, who promised land, progeny, and blessing. In fact, isn’t Abraham’s commissioning of the servant essentially not trusting in God and taking matters into his own hands? Abraham has been repeatedly chastised by God for doing just that — taking matters into his own hands. The whole episode about Hagar, the Egyptian slave woman and her son Ishmael, is Abraham’s vain attempt at forcing the issue with God. And don’t forget Abraham passing Sarah off as his sister so that he wouldn’t get killed. Abraham has a long history of not trusting God. But we know from chapter 22 that Abraham has been cured of this little problem when he takes Isaac up the mountain and is willing to sacrifice him. From that point on, Abraham knows what it means to trust God. Abraham has learned to trust God and so it seems has God learned to trust Abraham for it is Abraham’s plan, unassisted, that results in a wife for Isaac.
This is why this story is so significant. It tells us the difference between trusting God and trying to control God. The promise has been given and Abraham recognizes that it cannot be taken away. He has come to realize that Isaac, who never should have been born in the first place, is ready to continue the story. But it is up to him to ensure that Isaac maintains the human part of the covenant. The English language Bible calls our hero a servant, but it is clear from the context that he is more than your average, run-of-the-mill lackey. What’s more, the Hebrew word used here indicates a servant of high standing, loyal and trustworthy, a confidant of the master. A comparable term from our recent past might be, of course, the butler, who maintains the household and is intensely faithful, often serving the entirety of his life with the same employer. I have to say that I have never really met a butler, but I’ve seen a lot of movies and for the sake of the story, let’s say that Hollywood portrays a pretty accurate picture of the butler — the faithful butler who is the pillar of the house and the person the master can turn to for good, sound advice.
It is safe to say then that “the butler did it.” Not, of course, in the cinematic sense where the crime is finally pinned on the smarmy servant, but in the sense that even without the angel that was promised him, he successfully completes his task. In fact, everything in this story points to the fact that the humans, not God, are responsible for continuing Abraham’s line. The outcome is uncertain until the servant tells Isaac what has transpired in his absence. But there is no divine dictation, according to the narrator, no magic or meddling, just the everyday affairs of a dying pilgrim, his faithful servant, a beautiful woman, her opportunistic brother and a mourning son who is the inheritor of a promise. Unlike so many other narratives, God is not active in this drama, even when the butler prays to him, which he does more than once. No, the crux of this story seems to be that human actions work in partnership with God’s actions when they are in synch with God’s plans. The agency of humans, seeking the aims of God, is to be retold through the ages, glorified, and celebrated.
God’s great promises to Abraham are the broad backdrop to the history of Israel. But it’s not the backdrop to a puppet show, after all. We are not God’s puppets. We are God’s children. We’ve got a role to play in the story. Indeed, God has given us the minds and hearts to mold our histories. God has given us the technology and the power to shape our surroundings. God has given us the capacity to love and to do justice and to demonstrate mercy. The human actions undertaken using these gifts of God are to be made responsibly, to the glory of God, not for our own aggrandizement. And as the ever-faithful but ultimately drowned Mr. Smith reminds us, to take no action would be irresponsible, and perhaps even foolish. So go ahead, be the butler. Rely on the promises of God, but don’t expect God to do everything for you. God’s got plenty for you to do. Amen.