Haftorah: Ovadiah 1:1-21
November 19, 2021/15 Kislev 5782
In the absence of much historical information in the book itself, one compelling theory is that the prophet Ovadiah was a contemporary of Yirmiyahu/Jeremiah, and responded to the political events surrounding the exile of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezer of Babylonia. This places Ovadiah’s life and career as a southern prophet in the 6th century BCE. This makes good contextual sense for understanding Ovadiah’s prophecy against the nation of Edom, fortelling their downfall and ultimate destruction. He levels two main criticisms against Edom. He decries their arrogance, and chastises them for standing by and watching the destruction and exile of the Jewish people without raising their voice in protest or coming to Israel’s defense. The Book of Ovadiah is only a single chapter, the shortest book of prophecy in the Tanach.
With this skeletal outline of Ovadiah’s life in the background, the collected rabbinic traditions about Ovadiah transform Ovadiah’s diatribe against Edom into a retelling of the struggles between Yaakov and Esav on a national scale set within a geopolitical context. What happened to the brothers recurred again between nations during Ovadiah’s lifetime. This comparison suggests a paradigm with disastrous consequences. Ovadiah already appears in the Book of Kings as the steward serving the house of the wicked King Achav and his wife, Izevel (Jezebel/Isabel):
Achav had summoned Ovadiah, the steward of the palace. Ovadiah revered Hashem greatly. When Izevel was killing off the prophets of the LORD, Ovadiah had taken a hundred prophets and hidden them, fifty to a cave, and provided them with food and drink. And Achav had said to Ovadiah, “Go through the land, to all the springs of water and to all the wadis. Perhaps we shall find some grass to keep horses and mules alive, so that we are not left without beasts.” They divided the country between them to explore it, Achav going alone in one direction and Ovadiah going alone in another direction. Ovadiah was on the road, when Elijah suddenly confronted him. Ovadiah recognized him and flung himself on his face, saying, “Is that you, my lord Eliyahu?” I Kings 18:3-7
This section of narrative is fascinating. With the paucity of tales about Ovadiah’s life, here is an event in which Ovadiah, coming to the rescue of the 100 prophets, divides them into two “camps,” hiding each group in a separate cave. He then provided them with food and water. The murderous persecution of the prophets of God was part of Izevel’s attempt to consolidate absolute power. In recounting this story, the narrative echoes a moment in Yaakov’s life, when he strategically divided his family into two “camps” to protect them from fearful, murderous persecution at the hands of his brother, Esav. Yaakov not only divided his family, but he also collected food and gifts to offer Esav in order to assuage his anger, “nourishing” further his safety, just as Ovadiah gathered nourishment for the prophets. In his comments on this section in Bereshit, Rabbeynu Bachya compared Yaakov to Ovadiah explicitly:
“then the remaining camp would survive.” The second camp contained Rachel, Leah, and their respective children. In order to explain this verse completely, we have to understand it as follows: “Yaakov divided the children to Rachel and Leah respectively and to the two maid-servants and their children respectively in order for them to survive attempted murder by Esav.” The expression occurs in that sense in Jeremiah 51,50 “fugitives from the sword.” This verse is also the source which taught the prophet Ovadiah to divide the fledgling prophets whom he hid by separating them into two groups, each in a different cave. This is why Jeremiah wrote in I Kings 18:13 quoting Ovadiah: “I have hidden 100 of the Lord’s prophets, 50 each per cave; and I have fed them bread and provided them with water.” (Rabbeynu Bachya on Bereshit 32:9)
The rabbis develop this comparison between Yaakov and Ovadiah further by comparing their shared strength of character and spiritual integrity. This might seem forced, since the formative experiences of Yaakov’s life include trickery and deceit. On that note, even though there are rabbinic traditions that Yaakov did not technically deceive Esav, nevertheless, all commentators were at pains to paint a positive picture of Yaakov’s interactions with his brother. Indeed, there are powerful midrashim that explicitly indicted Yaakov for being deceitful and cowardly. For example, the midrash in Bereshit Rabbah states that when Yaakov awoke to discover Leah, he reprimanded her for her deceitfulness. Leah responded, “I learned from the best of them! When your father, Yitzchak, asked you, “You are you, my son?” you replied, “I am Esav, your bechor.” (see, Midrash Tanchuma Buber, Bereshit 29:25) All agree, however, that while tragic, Esav did not have the temperament, vision, or introspective potential to carry the family’s covenantal mantle into the next generation. That responsibility was left to Yaakov. Rivka saw in Yaakov the capacity for deep spiritual growth and reflection required for the family to grow into a nation living in covenant with God. It is this deeper potential and strength of character that rabbis see shared between Yaakov and generations later, with Ovadiah. Even though Yaakov suffered physically and psychically, and his dreams were not fulfilled, and he did not have “nachas fun der kinder,” and he lived much of his life in exile feeling ashamed, betrayed, and heartbroken, his life was fundamentally characterized by the struggle for inner growth and spiritual awakening. After his dream of the ladder he exclaimed, Whoa! God is in this place, and I did not realize it!
The rabbis saw Ovadiah the prophet’s life as a national projection of Yaakov’s. In the Talmud, the rabbis compared Ovadiah to Yaakov explicitly, emphasizing their shared capacity for refusing to be influenced by corrupting influences surrounding each of them. Here is a statement about Ovdiah’s integrity and resilience, illustrated by comparing his life to Yaakov’s family circumstances:
Rabbi Yitzḥak says: The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: Let Ovadiah come, who dwells among two wicked ones, Achav and Izevel, but did not learn from their actions; and he will prophesy concerning Esav the wicked, the progenitor of Edom, who dwelled among two righteous ones, Yitzchak and Rivka, but did not learn from their actions. (Sanhedrin 39b; see also, Rabbi Don Isaac Abrabanel on Ovadiah 1:1)
The parallelism between both figures not only includes similar actions and sensibilities. The rabbis see Ovadiah as a direct descendant of the line of Esav, making Yaakov Ovadiah’s great nephew many generations later. According to Rabbi Meir, Ovadiah himself was an Edomite convert:
Efrayim Miksha’a, a student of Rabbi Meir, said in the name of Rabbi Meir: Ovadiah was an Edomite convert. Consequently, he prophesied with regard to Edom. And this is as people say: From and within the forest comes the ax to it, as the handle for the ax that chops the tree is from the forest itself. (Sanhedrin 39b)
This tradition is particularly powerful. Rabbi Meir is implying that despite Esav’s nature, the potential for righteousness, vision and loyalty were embedded in his family as well, and emerged in his direct descendants. Ovadiah, according to this tradition, perpetuated as radical a revolution of spirit as Yaakov himself. In fact, acting with greater spiritual courage and audacity than Yaakov, Ovadiah did not run, hide, or deceive Edom. He confronted Edom directly, something that Yaakov himself never did with his own brother, Esav, the progenitor of Edom. This is precisely what the popular saying means that the rabbis quoted above: From and within the forest comes the ax to it, as the handle for the ax that chops the tree is from the forest itself. Ovadiah, the wood from the “forest of Edom,” became the handle of the axe that prophesied the destruction of the entire forest.
The rabbis draw an even more direct lineage from Esav to Ovadiah, through the line of Eliphaz. In the Book of Job, three “friends” confront Job, attempting to convince him to confess his sins, thereby offering a rational explanation for his suffering. One of those companions is Eliphaz: When Job’s three friends heard about all these calamities that had befallen him, each came from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. (Job 2:11) Rabbi Abrabanel quotes the Rabbis and identifies that Eliphaz’s relationship to Ovadiah through Esav:
…Chazal have a tradition from generations that he was the Ovadiah that was mentioned in the Book of Kings, in the days of Achav who served Achav’s household and that he was an Edomite convert descendended from Eliphaz (the character found in the parable of Job). The Midrash Tanchuma says about Ovadiah’s vision, Hashem said to Eliphaz, you rebuked my servant Job in a vision saying “In thought filled visions of the night…” (Job 4:13). I will bring from you a prophet that will exact punishment on your father’s house, the House of Edom, in a vision. (Abrabanel, Ovadiah 1:1)
The connection between Esav and Eliphaz is even more direct in Bereshit: Timna was a concubine of Esav’s son Eliphaz; she bore Amalek to Eliphaz. Those were the descendants of Esav’s wife Adah. (Bereshit 36:12) Even if the chronology is literally impossible, the literary association between Esav, Elpihaz, and Ovadiah secures the comparison between Ovadiah and Yaakov’s family history. Here is a person whose legacy should have cast his destiny with Esav, with a limited capacity to see a bigger picture, unable to withstand the struggles of inner self-understand, unwilling to see the experiences of challenge and pain and suffering as opportunities for meaning and growth. That legacy from Esav through his son, Eliphav, and Timna is well-known:
“The chief of Timna” (Genesis 36:40), and each chief is a member of a monarchy, albeit without a crown. That is why they are called chief and not king. Timna sought to convert. She came before Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, and they did not accept her. She went and became a concubine of Eliphaz, son of Esav, and said: It iwould rather be a maidservant for this nation, and not be a noblewoman for a foreign nation. Ultimately, Amalek, son of Eliphaz, emerged from her, and that tribe afflicted the Jewish people. What is the reason that the Jewish people were punished by suffering at the hand of Amalek? It is due to the fact that they should not have rejected her when she sought to convert. (Sanhedrin 99b, see also, Yalkut Shimoni 129:1)
Ovadiah converted from being Edomite to Israelite. That was his legacy; his ancestor Timna chose a similar path, choosing to cast her lot with the Jewish people despite the indignities they caused her to endure. In the end, that suffering returned to Israel through the enmity and resentment of Amalek, middah k’neged middah. This midrashic teaching is particularly prescient. The rabbis chastised the Jewish people for not acting on the quality of rachamim and empathy, for being closed, narrow, and judgmental, and for not having a vision of who they needed to be in the world. That narrowness affected the historical destiny of the entire nation; Amaelk became the paradigmatic enemy of the Jewish people, and the rabbis were acknowledging that our ancestors played a role in fashioning, shaping and nourishing that enmity.
Ovadiah’s short diatribe against Edom is now deeply poignant. He was himself a convert from Edom. He had the courage to turn to his roots, to the people he disowned, to the part of the Jewish family that came from Esav, and chastised them for the tragic flaw in their character: arrogance and self-serving egocentrism.
The composite portrait of Ovadiah that the rabbis portrays a person who stepped back from his circumstances, gained perspective, was discerning about the people surrounding him, gained self-knowledge, was resilient in the face of adversity, and who spoke the truth from the heart. It took Yaakov his entire life to start to acquire these qualities of character. Ovadiah resembled Yaakov in another way: he became very wealthy. Just as Yaakov grew wealthy by working for the deceitful and manipulative Lavan, Ovadiah was blessed while working for the wicked king Achav. Yaakov pledged to tithe his wealth for God. Ovadiah, however, became indigent as a result of helping the poor in a society that had turned its back on those in need! Ovadiah essentially indentured himself to Achav’s son, Yehoram, as a result of the extent of Ovadiah’s commitment to tzedakah. (see, Shemot Rabbah 31:4)
This comparison between Yaakov and Ovadiah provides a lens for appreciating the courage, fortitude, power, and integrity of Ovadiah’s speech against Edom:
Your arrogant heart has seduced you, You who dwell in clefts of the rock, In your lofty abode. You think in your heart, “Who can pull me down to earth?” (Ovadiah 1:3)
The phrase, “arrogant heart,” is z’don libecha, literally, “the willful trangressings of your heart.” In other words, “you believe that you can do whatever you desire and avoid all repercussions and consequences.” Any reflective, discerning person knows this to be a false belief that ultimately can lead to a set of chaotic, destructive, violent, immoral, self-serving conditions. In the eyes of the rabbis, this was Esav and Lavan’s limitations. Yaakov struggled constantly with the implications of his behavior, and his life was transformed into a person who wrestled with himself and understood what God ultimately expected from him.
For Ovadiah, Edom represented the lineage of Esav, and for the rabbis and subsequent commentators, Edom represented Rome, the most powerful force in the Western world at the time. Ovadiah, therefore, is speaking against and calling out the arrogance and destructive power of world powers, and of their leaders.
If thieves were to come to you, marauders by night, they would steal no more than they needed. If vintagers came to you, they would surely leave some gleanings. How utterly you are destroyed! How thoroughly rifled is Esav, how ransacked his hoards! All your allies turned you back at the frontier; your own confederates have duped and overcome you; [Those who ate] your bread have planted snares under you. (Ovadiah 1:5-7)
Alliances have been uneasy with Edom, there has been constant turmoil. I read these lines to imply that when Esav, when Edom, when Rome destroyed, Rome destroyed completely, mercilessly. Rome acted only with her own destructive self-interests.
The worst criticism that Ovadiah levels against Edom, is that when push came to shove, when a “brother” needed help, when Israel was attacked and defeated by Nebuchadnezer of Babylonia, Edom stood aside and watched. Edom did not lift a finger, did not come to Israel’s aid, did not protest or raise a voice of outrage:
For the outrage to your brother Yaakov, disgrace shall engulf you, and you shall perish forever. On that day when you stood aloof, when aliens carried off his goods, when foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were as one of them. On your brother that day, on his day of calamity! How could you gloat over the people of Judah on that day of ruin! How could you loudly jeer on a day of anguish! How could you enter the gate of My people on its day of disaster, gaze in glee with the others on its misfortune on its day of disaster, and lay hands on its wealth on its day of disaster! How could you stand at the passes to cut down its fugitives! How could you betray those who fled on that day of anguish! As you did, so shall it be done to you; your conduct shall be requited. Yea, against all nations the day of the LORD is at hand. (Ovadiah 1:10-15)
Rabbi Don Isaac Abrabanel interpreted these particular verses as a lens for understanding patterns in the history of empires and civilizations. He compared the prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ovadiah, referenced Avraham ibn Ezra’s interpretation, and described a vision of history that included Edom, Rome, and the Persian, Byzantine and Ottoman (the “Turkey”) empires. (see, Abrabanel on Ovadiah 1:10) He concluded that empires fall as a result of arrogance and the callous indifference to the suffering of others–particularly those with whom there had been an alliance.
I find this reading of Ovadiah very powerful. Arrogance, the belief that one can behave with impunity, and indifference to the suffering of others, destroys civilizations as well as families. If the leadership of our present world does not learn this lesson, we run the risk of destroying not only the quality of human life, but the well-being of the planet itself. Ovadiah’s warnings speak not only to Edom in the past. Edom was our relative. Ovadiah is speaking to us, and to our future.