Haftarah Vayishlach (The Book of Obadiah)
December 6, 2014 / 14 Kislev 5775
Obadiah is the shortest of the books of the prophets – a single chapter, a total of twenty one verses, all of them a prophecy aimed at the nation of Edom, the nation associated with Esau. Judea’s animosity for Edom stemmed from Edom’s role as an ally of Babylonia in the destruction of the southern kingdom and the First Temple. The authorship of the prophetic reproach is attributed to Obadiah who is otherwise unknown to the tradition.
Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra states with regard to this attribution that “we do not known his generation and we are unable to say that this is the same Obadiah mentioned in the book of Kings [as living] in the days of Ahab, for there it is written: ‘And Obadiah was a God fearer’ – for if this reference was to the prophet why did it call him a God fearer and not a prophet since prophecy is a more honorable status than that of God fearer? Rather, in my opinion, [from the words] ‘We have received tidings from the Lord’, we can deduce that he was a prophet similar to Jeremiah and Isaiah and Amos [who also] prophesied regarding Edom.”
Still, the rabbinic tradition liked to identify him with the Obadiah from the book of Kings because of a tendency on their part to want to establish a concrete identity for otherwise unknown characters in the Tanakh. This identification also opened up some great homiletic possibilities for the sages, like the following:
Why should Obadiah have been chosen to prophesy against Edom? Rabbi Isaac responded: The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Let Obadiah, who has lived among two wicked people (King Ahab and his wife Jezebel) but did not learn from their wicked deeds, come and prophesy against the wicked Esau (Edom), who lived along with two righteous people (Isaac and Rebekah) and yet did not learn from their good deeds. (Sanhedrin 39b)
This midrash is a display of the rabbinic theology known as “middah k’neged midah – measure for measure” or what we might call in “poetic justice”. Obadiah, a figure in this midrash who possessed a strong sense of moral rectitude is poised to be the agent of punishment for a figure whom the sages identified with the exact opposite characteristics. The sages’ intent was to have one character act as a foil for the other, making Obadiah into a role model to be emulated while Esau or Edom’s behavior was to be avoided.
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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