Haftarah Parshat Vayishlach (The Book of Obadiah)
November 28, 2015 / 16 Kislev 5776
This week’s haftarah is a one chapter prophecy/tirade against the nation of Edom. This prophecy has been associated by scholars since the Middle Ages with the nation of Edom’s association with the Babylonia in their conquest of Jerusalem in 586. It is attributed to a prophet named Obadiah of whom nothing is known other than his name. This purported “anonymity” seemingly troubled some among the sages in rabbinic times, since we see a trend among these sages to seek out some sort of concrete identity for him. (See Heineman, Darchei Aggadah, p. 28)
There seem to have been two attempts in the rabbinic tradition to try to pin down this enigmatic character. Each of them associates this book with earlier events and each of them is fascinating in its different investigative “detective work”. The first and more well-known of these attempts identifies Obadiah with a servant in the house of King Ahab by the same name. Ahab, a wicked king of the Northern Kingdom at the time of Elijah the prophet, sought to slaughter the prophets of God. Obadiah his servant, managed to save these prophets from his hands. (See 1 Kings 18) This episode prompted the following statement by a sage in the Talmud: “Said Rabbi Yitzhak: ‘Why did Obadiah merit prophecy? [He merited it] on account of his having hidden the prophets in a cave.’” (Sanhedrin 39b) This interpretation was obviously triggered by the association of two figures with the same name and Rabbi Yitzhak’s desire to see prophecy as a reward for meritorious behavior. All of this, even though the probable chronological time frame for the “historical Obadiah” does not fit Rabbi Yitzhak’s conjecture.
Another rabbinic work, Seder Olam, a rabbinic chronology from the period of the Mishnah takes a different tact: “’The vision of Obadiah. Thus said the Lord God’ – When did this war occur? In the time of Jehoshaphat (the king of Judea at the time of Ahab) – ‘There is no king in Edom, a viceroy acted in his place.’ (1 Kings 22:48) And further on, when the Edomites fell in the days of Amaziah, they did not appoint a king to replace him until this day. (See 2 Kings 14:8)” (Seder Olam 20) This chronology also does not fit what contemporary scholars assume to be the background for Obadiah’s prophecy. So, what clues prompted Seder Olam’s identifications? It is likely that Seder Olam was guided by truly historical considerations. It associated Edom’s defeat at the hands of the Judean king Amaziah with the call for its destruction found in Obadiah’s prophecy.
It is interesting to see these two different “mindsets” at work during rabbinic times, one governed by homiletic considerations while the other is guided by a seeming attempt to do “history”, albeit not in line with modern thinking. These differences should give us pause before attributing to the “Sages” determined ways of looking at the world.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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