Haftarah Parshat Vayishlach
(The Book Of Obadiah)
November 23, 2002
The 8th-9th century midrash, Agadat Bereshit (chapter 14), notes a peculiar problem with the book of Obadiah: “[The book of Obadiah mentions] neither the name of the prophet’s father nor his place of residence.” These questions, in fact, have engaged the early sages and remain a problem which stymies even modern Bible scholars. Abraham Ibn Ezra, the 12th century Spanish exegete, in his implacable search for pshat – the plain meaning of the text, echoes this claim. He rejects any identification of Obadiah with other known Biblical characters.
In rabbinic times, however, several attempts were made to associate Obadiah with more well-known Biblical figures, following the rabbinic tendency to establish definitive identities for lesser known Biblical characters. One such attempt claims that Obadiah was an Edomite convert, one of the sons of Eliphaz – Job’s friend, who chastised Job harshly during the period of Job’s suffering. This midrash claims that Obadiah’s prophecy against Edom was compensation – “midah kneged midah – measure for measure” for Eliphaz’s harsh and unfair condemnation of Job. (see Tanchuma Buber Vayishlach 8) This midrash asserts that it is sinful to cause pain to those who are struggling with suffering.
Elsewhere, the Talmud makes an effort to associate Obadiah the prophet with King Ahab’s servant of the same name, who was responsible for saving God’s prophets from the treacherous hands of Ahab’s wife, Jezebel. (see 1 Kings 18:3) One of the messages of this association is expressed in these terms: “Scripture writes: “The vision of Obadiah: Thus spoke the Lord God about Edom…” Why [did God choose] Obadiah to prophecy about Edom? Rabbi Yitzchak said: ‘The Holy One Blessed be He said: ‘Let Obadiah, who dwelled amongst two wicked people [King Ahab and Jezebel] and did not learn from their wicked deeds prophecy about Esau [the founder of the nation of Edom] who dwelled amongst two righteous people [Isaac and Rebecca – his parents] and did not learn from their deeds.’” (Sanhedrin 39b)
In this midrash, Rabbi Yitzchak uses Obadiah and Esau as literary foils to offset each other’s behavior. Obadiah attains prophecy as a reward for his exceptional behavior while the nation of Edom suffers as a result of its forefather’s negative behavior. Rabbi Yitchak’s lesson is clear. Righteousness must persevere over evil and moral tenacity cannot succumb to wickedness. This effort takes great human strength and courage. In order to encourage these qualities Obadiah is portrayed as the victor over Esau. The strength of his character, as portrayed by Rabbi Yitchak, should serve as a paradigm for each of us in the constant struggle of good over evil.
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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