Obadiah: Man Between a Rock and Elijah

Poor guy. His name means “servant of the Lord” and now he’s about to find out just what that service requires.

Chapter 18 of 1 Kings, like chapter 17, also deals with the God-Baal contest on one level and the intricacies of the God-prophet-human relationships on another. The structure is kind of like those nested Russian dolls. The over-arching story is the ending of the three year drought imposed by the word of Elijah in 1 Ki 17:1. The opening (18:1-20) and closing (18:41-46) verses deal directly with this topic. Sandwiched in the center is the contest on Mt. Carmel (18:21-40).

The opening cycle (18:1-20) is itself subdivided: Obadiah and Ahab in vv. 2b-6, Obadiah and Elijah in vv. 7-16, and Ahab and Elijah in vv. 18-20. The chapter opens, however, with another word for Elijah from the Lord: “Go, present yourself to Ahab, that I may send rain upon the earth.” Just why God thinks Elijah needs to talk to Ahab before he’ll send rain is something we’re left to discover.

Obadiah is Ahab’s steward, literally the person “over his house.” As part of his duties, Ahab calls on him to join a search for a water source and associated vegetation in order to preclude slaughtering the royal animals for lack of food. Sounds like Ahab is a nice guy, eh?

The narrator, however, has other ideas. First, he reports that Obadiah is zealous, literally, someone who “feared the Lord greatly.” Second, Ahab’s queen, Jezebel, has been slaughtering the prophets of the Lord. Obadiah has covertly opposed her, hiding one hundred of these worthies in two caves and sending food despite the drought.

So the queen is running around slaughtering prophets, Obadiah is hiding some refugees from her depredations, and Ahab is worried about the livestock. Sounds like somewhere I’d like to work. Not!

The second scene (vv. 7-16) opens as Obadiah happens upon Elijah, recognizes him, greets him by falling on his face, and says “Is it really you, my lord Elijah?” Now you’d think Elijah would have something nice to say to this respectful salutation, even if he didn’t know about the refugee prophets. And you’d be wrong.

Elijah is terse to the point of rudeness. His answer is one word, “Yes,” and then he continues by ordering Obadiah to “Go tell your lord, Elijah is here.” Two things should be noted. First, Elijah has rejected Obadiah’s greeting by implying that Ahab, not Elijah, is Obadiah’s lord.

Second, in order to understand Obadiah’s upcoming response to Elijah, you need to know what Elijah’s command entails in Hebrew. What Obadiah is to say is hinnēh ‘ēlîyăhā, which in Hebrew means both:

1) “Elijah is here” and
2) “Behold, the Lord is my God!”

Neither of these two announcements is likely to improve Ahab’s temper when he gets back from a day of fruitless searching for fodder for his precious mules and horses, which is why Obadiah answers as he does:

“What is my sin, that you give your servant into the hand of Ahab, to kill me?

So Obadiah first mentions the possibility that Ahab will kill him. Then he continues:

10 As the Lord your God lives, there is no nation or kingdom where my lord has not sent to seek you; and when they would say, ‘He is not here,’ he required an oath of the kingdom or nation, that they had not found you.

11 And now you say, `Go, tell your lord, “Behold, Elijah is here.”‘ 12 And as soon as I have gone from you, the Spirit of the Lord will carry you whither I know not; and so, when I come and tell Ahab and he cannot find you, he will kill me, although I your servant have revered the Lord from my youth.

Another mention of the potential for death by frank speech, as well as the interesting news that Elijah the prophet doesn’t always meet his appointment schedule when dealing with his fellow humans. And finally:

13 Has it not been told my lord what I did when Jezebel killed the prophets of the Lord, how I hid a hundred men of the Lord’s prophets fifty each in a cave, and fed them with bread and water? 14 And now you say, `Go, tell your lord, “Behold, Elijah is here”‘; and he will kill me.”

The three repetitions of his fear, sandwiched between two rather unorganized arguments, suggests that Obadiah is seriously worried! The point to note, however, is that his arguments are not strictly self-centered. He’s also the sole support for those hundred or so prophets…

Well, to make a long story short Obadiah does as asked and Elijah actually makes his appointment with the king. Obadiah is never heard from again, so maybe Ahab did kill him, but the text doesn’t say so.

The interesting thing here is Obadiah. Like the widow in chapter 17, he’s respectful of the Lord, but there’s that business of working for Ahab and Jezebel openly while taking care of the refugee prophets covertly. Should he have openly declared for the Lord and then died with the prophets? Or is he picking his battles wisely, so to speak? Elijah seems to warm up to him a bit right at the end, at least enough to reassure Obadiah that’ll Elijah will, in fact, meet the king (v. 15), but otherwise he cuts no slack.

I really don’t have a problem with Obadiah’s choices, so I began to think about other aspects of this story, things that are more relevant to life in modern America.

I do not wake up thinking of the bad things I want to accomplish each day. I wake up thinking of the good I’m going to accomplish. And I plan carefully to make sure that I balance all the different good things I need to do, and so that I actually accomplish as much goodness as I can.

But what happens when I get interrupted while doing the good I planned by someone who insists that I do the good they planned? I’m not Obadiah and I don’t fear for my life, so the comparison is not really apt. But sometimes I feel like I’m between a rock and Elijah, forced by someone else to chose between two good things and then accept the consequences of that choice.

And I can’t say that I always handle the situation as well as I should.

3 Replies to “Obadiah: Man Between a Rock and Elijah”

  1. For folks who are into the poetics of biblical narrative, there are two rather common traits on display here:

    1) Stories are typically composed of interactions between two, and only two, “characters.” It’s clearly on display in this story. Another example can be seen in the deception of Isaac. There are exactly seven scenes, each of which features interaction between precisely two individuals.

    2)Many scenes end with a notice of movement by the characters. In this case, the first scene ends with Obadiah and Ahab moving in opposite directions, the second with Obadiah moving at the command of Elijah, and the third with movement of the people and prophets to Mt. Carmel.

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