December 17, 2005
Obadiah\’s prophecy speaks much of the fear of the politically arrogant and their rise to indomitable power. The weak are overwhelmed by them and those who have attained this sense of power feel themselves impervious to all attempts to rock their rule. Obadiah expresses God\’s message to oppressors in the following words: \”Your arrogant heart has seduced you; you who dwell in the clefts of the rock, in your lofty abode. You think in your heart, \’Who can pull me down to earth?\’ [God responds:] \’Should you nest as high as the eagle; should your nest be lodged among the stars, even from there I will pull you down – declares the Lord.\” (1:3-4)
The immediate context of Obadiah\’s message was Judea\’s constant battle with their intractable enemy, the Edomite nation which lived across the border on the other side of the Dead Sea and later in the Negev. When this nation ceased to exist, their identity was transferred by Jews in Rabbinic times to another obdurate enemy – the Romans, whose persecution they felt acutely. Obadiah\’s prophecy spoke to these Jews as well.
This is reflected in the 4th century midrash, Pesikta deRav Kahana 23:2 (Mandelbaun ed. p. 335) which attempts to explain the significance of Jacob\’s dream where angels ascend and descend a ladder from earth to heaven: \”Said Rabbi Samuel ben Nachman, \’These angels represent the angelic princes of the nations of the world.\’ He continued: \’This teaches that God showed Jacob the prince of Babylonia going up seventy steps and then going down (the number of years that the Babylonians ruled over Israel), the one of Media (Persia) going up fifty-two steps, the one of Greece one hundred and eighty steps. And as for the prince of Rome, he kept going up and Jacob (representing the Jewish nation) did not know how many [steps he was going to ascend – how many years he was going to rule]? At this moment, Jacob became frantic and said: \’Is it possible that he will never descend?\’ To this the Holy One Blessed Be He responded: \’Though you make your nest as high as the eagle, and though you set it among the stars, I will bring you down from there, says the Lord.\’\” (adapted translation)
The message of this midrash to the haughty is that their day will come and its message to the oppressed is that there is no need to despair because no individual or nation will be exempt from God\’s justice. Nations or individuals, who in their narcissism, deify themselves, oppressing and harming others in the process, will ultimately pay the price, because their struggle is not just with men but with God and God will ultimately triumph.
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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