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Obadiah: Even in darkness there is hope

Obadiah: Even in darkness there is hope

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Sometimes powerful messages come in small packages. One example of this principle is one of the least well-known of the prophetic books. Although Obadiah's book is the shortest in the Hebrew Bible, containing merely one chapter, it packs a powerful message, especially for November when the world turns dark and yet Thanksgiving comes to lighten our hearts.

Obadiah provides us with a message that speaks to us today. His book is known in Hebrew literature as Sefer Ovadiah. It recounts the downfall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE (Before the Common Era). It is both a book of despair and a book of hope. This mini-book is a vignette that lives both inside and outside of history. In Obadiah's world, time is never just linear but also circular, the past and future blend into a tumultuous present. Reading the book more that two millennia after the author wrote it, we cannot but wonder if Obadiah was referring only to his time period or was he also speaking about our days?

As we who live in another place and era read The Book of Obadiah, we think of the modern (and postmodern) Italian writer Umberto Eco. Just as when we read L'Isola del Giorno Prima (translated into English as: The Island of the Day Before) we connect this circular concept of time with that of Obadiah's ancient text. Obadiah's does not deny history but suspends it. In his world history is a time that has passed and simultaneously it is also the time that has not yet occurred. In this smallest of Biblical works the tragedies of what had already happened live side by side with the hopes of an unborn future that, unbeknownst to the people of that period, is already in the process of coming to life.

On the simplest of levels, Obadiah's work is an historic condemnation of Edom for its part in the fall of Jerusalem. Yet even as the prophet recounts this catastrophe in the starkest of terms he also assures his readers that Israel will be restored and Edom will be destroyed.

When we read Obadiah from this perspective, we understand that despite the darkness he describes he is both Obadiah a visionary and a patriot. Obadiah reminds us that despite our failings in the end God will pass a negative judgment on those who oppose Israel.

Throughout the book we read the theme of sin and deliverance. Yes, Israel sins, but as in the book of Hosea, God does not abandon his children. Just as in much of Hebrew literature the theme of teshuvah, of personal and national repentance leading to Israel's ultimate redemption is ubiquitous. Obadiah emphasizes that Israel is His people and that due to God's grace Israel will be delivered and those who oppose her in the end will suffer.

Reading Obadiah we understand just how transparent are the books of Hebrew Scripture. They hide nothing, address openly Biblical Israel's failures, and then they give us a "road map" for both personal and national redemption.

The Book of Obadiah, as true of much of Hebrew Scripture, provides the reader with a consistent message, that denial of wrongs committed does no good and that both personal and national repentance occur only when we as individuals and as a nation accept responsibility for our personal and collective actions. Obadiah reminds us that blaming others or declaring oneself a "victim" never leads to personal or national healing or renewal.

Although Obadiah's book is rooted in particular historic circumstances, reading the text it in the original Hebrew and through the prism of Hebrew's grammar's unique ability to express a past future and a future past, it becomes clear that the prophet is pointing the reader not to the past but toward the future. Obadiah portrays this future period as a time when Israel shall be restored and God will reign on earth. Thus, Obadiah addresses the downfall of Jerusalem not as a past event but rather as an event that occurred in a "time outside of time".

Obadiah's message, simultaneously occurring both within and outside of historical time, is a message of hope in the midst of a national catastrophe. Obadiah never fails to remind his readers that in the end of time Israel shall receive back what others had taken from her. From Obadiah's perspective, the circularity of history then becomes linear.

Despite the fact that Obadiah was a clear patriot, he was also a Universalist. Obadiah understood that God was not only the king over Israel, but that He was also the creator and director of all peoples and places. Obadiah asks his readers to have faith in God, to be patient and to know that faith is a necessary component of human existence. From Obadiah's perspective, days of anguish are opportunities for new births, and the trials and tribulations of today may become the joys of tomorrow.

History has proven Obadiah in many ways to be correct. Almost 3,000 years after the fall of Jerusalem, Israel's people have come home. Nations that gloated then are now mere specks on the tablets of history. A walk through the streets of modern Israel reminds us that God has brought the Jewish people back to their indigenous homeland. Obadiah's work also reminds all of us that even in our darkest moments there is hope. As Obadiah's writes: "The day of the Lord is near upon all the nations, and as you have done it shall be done to you" (1:15). As we give thanks this Thanksgiving day for all of the bounties and liberties that so many people enjoy in this country, Obadiah's words are words to remember.

Peter Tarlow is the rabbi emeritus at Texas A&M Hillel Foundation in College Station. He is a chaplain for the College Station Police Department and teaches at the Texas A&M College of Medicine.

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