A Prophet of Holy Rage
Obadiah’s 21 verses comprise the shortest book of the Hebrew Bible. The experiences, feelings, and dreams packed into these 21 verses are familiar to queer people.
- They express the holy rage of a people run out of their homes, exploited for the amusement of others, and lost in exile.
- The prophet casts a vision of divine anger expressed through the total destruction of the people of Edom in return for what they have done to the people of Judah.
- Obadiah dreams of a day when things are set right, when those who have borne the pain of alienation and oppression are brought to a new place of belonging and justice.
Obadiah addresses a time of crisis and chaos for the people of Judah. The Babylonians invaded Judah, destroying Jerusalem, its temple, and its political hierarchy. The Judean people were captured and held by force in a land that was not their own.
A third group of people, those of a nation called Edom, stood by while the Babylonians oppressed Judah. They participated in the looting and destruction. These Edomites and their passive complicity are the objects of Obadiah’s anger.
Verse 11 lays out the charge that the Edomites might as well have been the invaders themselves:
On the day that you stood aside,
on the day that strangers carried off his wealth
and foreigners entered his gates
and cast lots for Jerusalem,
you, too, were one of them.
You may notice that the above text refers to Judah with he/him pronouns. The inhabitants of both Judah and Edom are closely tied to two individuals who are important in the family story of the Jewish people. Judeans claimed their identity as the descendants of Jacob, while Edomites drew their identity from Jacob’s twin, Esau.
Jacob and Esau were the children of Rebekah and Isaac. In the book of Genesis, the first thing we learn about these siblings is that they fought before they were even born (Gen. 25:22-23). Their quarreling in the womb caused so much discomfort that Rebekah questioned why pregnancy was considered a blessing. As they got older, each sibling expressed their gender differently. Jacob, the favorite of Rebekah, had smooth skin, was quiet, and enjoyed household tasks like cooking. Esau was covered in hair, and preferred to spend time outdoors hunting, which pleased Isaac. The story of Jacob and Esau is of a sibling relationship that included deceit, anger, and separation.
Obadiah’s holy rage speaks into the legacy of this broken family relationship: the betrayal of Jacob’s people, Judah, by Esau’s people, Edom.
Two Kinds of Pride
Obadiah castigates the Edomites for their pride. They live on a high mountain that functions like a fortress and rely on military might for their existence. The people of Edom have taken to heart their invincibility, their self-sufficiency, and their power. Their pride is rooted in violence and domination.
We see this kind of pride in our modern context, too. It is expressed in exceptionalism, the belief in our own superiority. This exceptionalism is lived out in nationalism, a way of living devoted to our own nation’s interests, at the expense of the interests and rights of others.
Queer people offer an alternative kind of pride to the one about which Obadiah writes. The pride that undergirds our community is an antidote to the shame that has been a sad part of too many of our stories. The loud spectrum of color on our pride flag counteracts the invisibility to which we have been relegated through much of our history. Pride is the name of the yearly celebration of our own lives and of the forebears whose liberating work brought forth our right to be and be seen.
This healthy pride comes under attack from people who are our obvious enemies, but also from those who are our friends and family. Queer people are often subjected to messages like:
- “I don’t hate gay people, but they need to keep their private lives to themselves.”
- “I like you because you’re not one of those loud queer people.”
- “I’m glad our church welcomes LGBTQ+ people, but I wish we didn’t have to keep hearing about it.”
Many of us have been taught that there is virtue in taking a moderate stance on issues. There can, indeed, be value in gleaning wisdom from both sides of an argument, and from finding solutions through compromise. However, when the issue at hand is the full humanity of a group of people, moderation has the same impact that the vile words of hate-filled extremists might. These moderate “allies” are like the Edomites who stood by passively and even profited while Jerusalem was looted. They are not allies at all.
Coming Out as Angry
In verse 15, the prophet cries out for a repayment for evil that other passages of scripture speak against:
As you have done, it shall be done to you;
your deeds shall return on your own head.
The fierce, divine enmity that Obadiah relays leads us to a question that is core to our living: how do we deal with our anger?
There is plenty to be angry about, especially for the queer community. In the United States, the trajectory of increasing acceptance and equity has been interrupted by a flurry of rhetoric and public policy that seeks to do us harm. Trans people, in particular, have become the target of the latest attempts to win political gain by exploiting prejudice and fear. Laws have been passed banning gender affirming healthcare. Companies with any association to trans people or drag performers are being boycotted. People are openly dehumanizing LGBTQIA+ people in ways that they may not have been comfortable doing a few years ago, often demonizing queer people as a threat to children.
Obadiah does not give any clear, fully-developed model to modern people about how we should deal with the anger that justifiably wells up within us. However, the prophet does give us a good example of where to start: expressing anger.
Many of us live in a culture of toxic niceness. This culture teaches us to keep our anger inside, to continue taking it in but not to let it out. Niceness Culture leads to unchanged hearts, continued injustice, and even violence inflicted on ourselves or others.
Psalm 137 was written to address the pain that is the subject of Obadiah’s anger:
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!”
This psalm even tells of the humiliation of being asked to sing songs to entertain the people holding them captive. This is reminiscent of the many, many churches that accept the gifts of their queer musicians while asking them, explicitly or implicitly, to remain quiet about their sexuality.
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down, and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
The people hung up their musical instruments in the trees as a memorial to their anger, a tangible and communal way of expressing the rage that had built up within them.
A Day of Wholeness, Justice, and Joy
At their best, prophets do not only speak divine anger, but they give us a glimpse of God’s dreams. Obadiah’s prophetic vision is of a day when an exiled people is brought home to Jerusalem. The new community built on Mount Zion is like a flame that burns away all of the forces of injustice and oppression. This scorching fire leaves no traces of the sadness and betrayal the people of Judah have known so intimately. Their powerlessness and humiliation are transformed into empowerment and pride.
Queer people also dream of lives in which they find a community of belonging, where injustice is destroyed, where the sorrow inflicted on us no longer defines us, and where we are empowered to love ourselves and freely use our gifts in the world. We dream of a life that is free from the captivity of shame and filled with holy pride.
We, ourselves, become prophets of hope when our own queer lives reveal this vision of wholeness. And, like Obadiah, God sends us out into a time of crisis and chaos as messengers of this sacred dream.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition.
Jeff Moles (he/him) serves as Director of Christian Education and Mission at First Presbyterian Church in Owensboro, Kentucky. An ordained ruling elder and deacon in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Jeff has served the church at local, regional and national levels. The PCUSA Young Adult Volunteer Program led him to Nashville, Tennessee, where he spent 13 transforming years working at Room In The Inn, a nonprofit serving Nashville’s homeless community. Using his skills as a worship leader and musician, Jeff has served three congregations as music director & organist and he has also served as worship leader at conferences and retreats. He enjoys spending time with his friends and family, especially his three wonderful nieces.