Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

Tonight – for the first time in my life – I will be a Philadelphia Eagles fan. The reason why should come as no surprise: football creates strange alliances.  I have been a Bills fan since I was nine years old and moved to Buffalo.  Over the past 39 years in western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio, I have come to embrace the Steelers as well – when they aren’t playing the Bills.  But the common enemy is the Patriots – so I would root for the River High School Girls Water Polo team if they were playing New England tonight.

Because families are supposed to stick together, and the Bills Mafia and the Steelers Nation are family.  We are family.  Wait – that was the Pirates – but you get the point.  Nothing would make me happier than to see the Eagles humiliate the Patriots.

Which brings us to the prophetic poetry of Obadiah: it’s the smallest book of the Hebrew Bible, with only one chapter and just 21 verses.  There is a lot in those 21 verses about family ties – and responsibility to others in the family.

Obadiah means “Servant of Yahweh” in Hebrew.  The name is used at least a dozen times in the Hebrew Bible, and each refers to a different person.  We don’t know when he lived – other than he delivered his poetic prophecy after Judah and Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 586 BC. 

The poem reads like a court transcript – with God as both Prosecutor and Judge, the nation of Edom as the accused and the nation of Judah as the victim of a crime.

The nations of Judah and Israel were made up of the descendants of Jacob – while the descendants of his twin brother, Esau, became Edom.  The two had been competing for first place since they wrestled in their mother Rebekah’s womb – as we read in Genesis 25:

The LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”

Esau was born first, but Jacob came out clinging to Esau’s foot – so Jacob’s name means “he grasps.” 

Esau was nicknamed Edom, which means “red”, because of his ruddy complexion.

Years after Jacob swindled Esau out of his birthright and blessing, Esau forgave Jacob and the two were reconciled – but the peace between their families was fragile.  Jacob’s family settled between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, while Esau’s settled in the rugged hill country south of the Dead Sea.  That location was profitable, because the trade route known as The King’s Highway ran north-and-south right through it.

The most famous tourist destination in what used to be Edom is the city of Petra – which is Greek for “rock.”  The Edomites called it Selah – which is Hebrew for “rock.”  The city sat on a plateau above a sheer 2000-foot cliff, which was approached by a narrow ravine.  If they were attacked, they could retreat to the top of Selah and fire down on their enemies.  This gave the Edomites a false sense that they were invincible.

The two nations coexisted rather peacefully until Saul’s army defeated the Edomites and David stationed troops there.  The Edomites later revolted against the occupation, but lost again.  They eventually became a satellite of the southern kingdom of Judah, but sided with the Babylonians when King Nebuchadnezzar’s army conquered Judah and destroyed Jerusalem. 

Instead of coming to help their family in Judah, they joined in plundering Jerusalem, tried to stop refugees who were fleeing from the city, and even captured some and turned them over to the Babylonian soldiers.  This is the “violence against your brother Jacob” in verses 10-14.  Instead of being his brother’s keeper, Edom swooped down like a vulture to capitalize on Judah’s suffering – and then gloated over Judah’s destruction.

The Lord God found this to be indefensible, so He promised a harsh judgment would come on Edom: (v.2)

“I will make you small among the nations; you will be utterly despised.” (v.4) “Though you soar like the eagle and make your nest among the stars, from there I will bring you down …”  That was a reference to their seemingly impregnable fortress at Selah, and the source of their arrogance and pride – which God despises.

Since Edom showed no compassion for Judah, then Obadiah’s prophecy offers no compassion for Edom:

(v.6-9)   “But how Esau will be ransacked, his hidden treasures pillaged! All your allies will force you to the border; your friends will deceive and overpower you; those who eat your bread will set a trap for you, but you will not detect it. In that day,” declares the LORD, “will I not destroy the wise men of Edom, men of understanding in the mountains of Esau? Your warriors, O Teman, will be terrified, and everyone in Esau’s mountains will be cut down in the slaughter.”

Jeremiah also prophesied against Edom – in practically the same words in chapter 49: “At the sound of their fall the earth will tremble; their cry will resound to the Sea of Reeds.”  This day of reckoning is what the prophets often refer to as “The Day of the Lord.”

In the fifth century B.C., an alliance of Arab nations – descendants of Isaac’s half-brother Ishmael – overtook Edom.  By 312 BC, the Nabetaeans dominated their land.  Many of the people of Edom migrated to the western side of the Dead Sea and settled around Hebron – right in the heart of Judah. 

God’s judgement can result in some powerful irony, can’t it?   They were now in the midst of the extended family members they had tried to destroy two and a-half centuries before.  Herod the Great – the tyrant who ordered the slaughter of the baby boys in Bethlehem in an effort to kill Jesus – was an Edomite who lived in Judah.  He wanted to be known as “The King of the Jews” so he could lord it over the descendants of Jacob.

But God wasn’t done with the Edomites yet.  When the Roman army under Titus destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD, the people of Judah were dispersed all over the known world.  While the Jews maintained their identity wherever they went –the Edomites seemed to disappear.  The Day of the Lord had come for them.  It was more than just a day – it was about 500 years of punishment.

When they should have raced to help their extended family – they chose instead to settle old scores.  When they should have been their “brother’s keeper” – they sided with the enemy.  When they should have provided food, water, and comfort to victims of the invasion – they joined in the plundering.  When they should have helped those who escaped – they sold them out.

We are revolted by the behavior of the Edomites.  But do we ever act like Edomites?  Do we profit from other people’s suffering?  Or do we tolerate profiting from other people’s suffering – asking the rhetorical question,

“Am I my brother’s keeper?”  God’s answer in Obadiah’s prophecy is a resounding “Yes.”

So God – through Obadiah – is challenging me now NOT to gloat if the Pats get smacked down tonight. 

I would be profiting from another’s suffering.  Even though they are not close family – except for James Harrison – they are family.  Every human being is part of our family, when you think about it.

But a football rivalry is trivial compared to the profit from suffering that goes on all around us. 

What can you think of that involves profit from other people’s suffering? 

Drug dealing. Prescription peddling. Child sex trafficking. Much of prostitution and pornography. 

Other forms of using slave labor – often taking advantage of undocumented aliens.  Institutional gambling. 

Many corporate policies that put profit above people – like cutting corners on safety, abusing the environment, and leveraged buyouts.  That’s the financing scheme that took a profitable company like Toys R Us and drove it into bankruptcy – leaving thousands of works jobless and making millions for a handful of top executives.  And 17-hundred dollars an hour for some lawyers.

God never said it was wrong to make a profit.  But God is enraged when some people profit from the suffering of others.  It’s time that more of us ask our stockbrokers about the kinds of companies our money is invested in – and take a more active role in fighting drug trafficking in our communities – and ask God to shine His light so we can see the sex trafficking around us and join forces to stop it.  We cannot turn a blind eye to suffering in our human family – and we certainly should not profit from it.

Because we are our brothers’ keepers.  Amen.