Am I my brother’s keeper?

What will you say in heaven when Obadiah asks you if you liked his book?  I can remember that question being issued as a challenge at some conference I attended a long time ago.  I think its quite a good challenge to any of us who profess to follow Jesus, to think about how much of the Bible we have read.

Recently I reached Obadiah in my read through of the minor prophets.  It is a strange prophecy.  It doesn’t seem to focus on Israel at all, it’s more aimed at declaring God’s judgement on Edom, one of the surrounding nations to Israel.

It seems to relate to  Amos 1, where Edom is condemned for attacking Israel, his brother.  Obadiah (servant of YHWH) declares God’s judgement on Edom. Edom was the nation descended from Esau, Jacob’s brother.  The prophesy that the brothers would struggle was amply fulfilled in Israel’s history.  Right at the end of the OT (or at least right at the end of the prophets) Malachi confirms that judgement on Edom/Esau: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” – which essentially means “Israel are my chosen people, not Edom” (think of Jesus talking about “hating” one’s family – it is a similar hyperbolic use of ‘hate’ here).

Edom might prosper, they might attack their local rivals, their brother, but ultimately they would not last.  Israel was the nation of the promise.  From Genesis that was the way it was. Isaac, not Ishamael, Jacob not Esau.  But that was no excuse for Edom to attack Israel.  Edom was a brother nation to Israel, and should have supported her.  And yet, just as in the actual sibling relationships in Genesis, the sibling rivalrywas such that Edom never supported Israel and took delight in her downfall.

Esau was the older son, the one who “should” have inherited the blessing, but sold it, and lost it by Jacob and Rebekah’s trickery.  Reading Genesis as an eldest child is interesting.  It always seems to be the younger who is favoured – Joseph, Jacob, Isaac – going right back to Cain and Abel, where the eldest spectacularly fails.  Cain’s defense “am I my brother’s keeper?” did not get very far with God in Genesis 4, and it wouldn’t work for Edom in later history.  Edom should have acted as a brother to Israel. But they didn’t, and so God announces judgement on them through his prophets.

One day, Obadiah says there will be a day when Edom will be judged and Israel will rule. The exiles will return – indeed “saviours” will rule over mount Esau.  Is that it for Edom? Is there any hope offered for non-Israelites in these words.  Amos 9 hints at some hope:

  “In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name,” declares the Lord who does this.

These verses are quoted by James in Acts 15 to justify the welcome of the Gentiles – in Acts 15 the version quoted is the Greek translation, which has a slightly different emphasis:

“‘After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will restore it,
17 that the remnantof mankind may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
says the Lord,

“possess” has become “seek”, and “Edom” has become “Adam” to bring out the reality that when Israel is restored – in Jesus’ death and resurrection, he fulfils Israel’s mission – mankind as a whole can now come to seek YHWH.

It is this reality that Paul speaks of in Romans 9-11, where he gives “Jacob I have loved, and Esau I have hated” a whole new twist.  Unrepentant Israel have become “Edomites”, and the Gentiles who respond in faith (rather than seeking righteousness by torah observance) are those who become Israel.  Is God unjust to work in such a way Paul asks?  Is he unrighteous?  No – because it has always been about God’s mercy.  God’s people are those who cast themselves on his mercy.

Jacob or Edom therefore becomes Christ or Adam.  The way to avoid being an Edomite is to cast ourselves on to Christ – the perfect older brother.  In Genesis every older brother spectacularly fails – although “replacement” eldest Judah eventually seems to learn something.  By Jesus’ day the people of Israel – God’s “firstborn” have spectacularly failed. But Jesus – the Son, the firstborn – he is the one who succeeds.  As Hebrews puts it in Hebrews 2:

10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. 11 For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, 12 saying,

“I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.”

He is our perfect older brother, the brother who keeps all his brothers (and sisters – word used inclusively – remember the ancient context, sons=heirs) to the end.  And so, knowing that he keeps us, we are to keep our brothers. We are to watch out for other people, reflecting the character of Christ.

We are not to be Edomites, not to be those who break faith and use violence against those we live alongside. At a personal level – we keep our words, we don’t take advantage, we don’t cheat or rob people – financially or of time – and we try to seek to live that out in the global community we are part of.  We remember that God will judge, and that it is our deeds that will show who we truly belong to. And so we run back to Christ, seeking to truly repent, and know the mercy of God to give us a new start, and enable us to live out lives as true brothers to those around.

I think that’s what Obadiah would want us to get from his book – and I’m pretty sure that’s at least part of why God has made sure it is in our Scriptures.  Obadiah finishes by saying that on that day of judgement “the kingdom will be the LORD’s”.  Remember that above all else.

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This entry was posted in Bible.

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