(The Book of Obadiah)
November 27, 2004
Why did the Sages choose the book of Obadiah as the haftarah for Parshat Vayishlach? The answer to this question is to be found in the rabbinic approach to the stories about Jacob and Esau. The tension which existed in the relationship between Jacob and Esau even before their birth served as the backdrop for the rabbinic understanding of the relationship between the Jews and their Roman oppressors. They projected the tension between these two conflicting civilizations onto the conflict between these twins. For them, the conflict was cosmic in proportions. Rebecca’s prophecy concerning the birth of her two sons implied to the sages that the battle between Jews and Judaism, on the one hand, and Roman imperialism and its world view, on the other, was primordial in nature. This conflict informed the rabbinic interpretation of every Biblical passage that dealt with this pair. Even the famous wrestling match between Jacob and the angel, found in this week’s parashah, was interpreted in this light.
Consequently, it should be no surprise that the book of Obadiah, which originally served as a prophecy against the original nation of Edom for joining up with the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem and the First Temple in 586 BCE, came to be seen as a prophecy regarding the nation of Rome. This happened, in part, because the original prophecy ultimately came true and the nation of Edom disappeared as a separate entity soon after the destruction of the First Temple. The Edomites moved into the southern part of Judea and with time became absorbed into the Jewish people. In addition, once the Jewish tradition started to associate Edom and Esau with Rome, it became natural to see the book of Obadiah as a prophecy foreshadowing the downfall of this terrible and seemingly indestructible enemy. The words of the prophecy rang true to the ears of an oppressed people: “Should you nest as high as an eagle, should your nest be lodged among the stars, even from there I will pull you down – declares the Lord…The House of Jacob shall be fire, and the House of Joseph flame, and the House of Esau shall be straw; they shall devour it…” (Obadiah 1:4;18)
This attitude informed the rabbinic interpretation of almost every verse of this small but powerful book. In the following midrash, a direct connection is found between the event of the prophetic “wrestling match” in Genesis and Obadiah’s prophecy of Edom’s downfall: Said Rabbi Huna: “At the end of the struggle, the [ministering] angel [of Rome – Jacob’s adversary] said [to himself]: ‘I will inform Jacob who he is really battling.’ Thereupon, he took his finger and plunged it into the ground and the earth gushed fire. Jacob retorted: ‘From that, he expects to scare me, I am totally made of fire, as it is written: ‘The House of Jacob is fire…’” (Adapted from Genesis Rabbah 77:2)
The rabbis saw, in this midrash, the ultimate triumph of a small people with ideals and determination over a larger seemingly invincible despot who sought to obliterate the small people’s identity and independence. Rome sought to impose itself on Israel through fer and intimidation. The Jewish people, however, persevered. This is not an inappropriate message as we close in on the Festival of Hanukah.