Obadiah's Vision of Saviors on Mount Zion

By Gary P. Gillum

Gillum, Gary P., “Obadiah’s Vision of Saviors on Mount Zion” in Sperry Symposium Classics: The Old Testament, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo and Salt Lake City: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book 2005), 226–235.

Obadiah’s Vision of Saviors on Mount Zion

Gary P. Gillum

 

Gary P. Gillum is religion and ancient studies librarian at Brigham Young University.

The prophet Obadiah’s claim to fame among Latter-day Saints is the final verse of his twenty-one-verse prophecy against Edom: “And saviours shall come up on mount Zion to judge the mount of Esau; and the kingdom shall be the Lord’s.” Joseph Smith and succeeding latter-day prophets and other Church leaders are nearly unanimous in their interpretation of this scripture: Obadiah was referring to temple work for our kindred dead.[1] The purpose of this discussion is to explore a broader interpretation of Obadiah’s prophecy and enlarge upon the definition of saviors to include work for the living as well as for the dead. I believe that the great truths contained in Obadiah’s vision relate not only to the ongoing restoration of the Church but to individual restoration and progression as well.[2]

The book of Obadiah was probably written sometime after 587 B.C., when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians with the help of the Edomites. (While Edomite participation in the destruction of Jerusalem is not specifically described in the Old Testament, it is mentioned in the apocryphal 1 Esdras 4:45 and alluded to in Lamentations 4:21–22.) Nothing is known of the prophet for whom the book is named, although Obadiah most likely lived in Judah about the time of Jeremiah, Lehi, and their contemporaries. The Edom against which he prophesied is now known as Petra, the mountainous region southeast of the Dead Sea.

Christian scholars recognize that the name Obadiah is attributed to at least twelve different men in the Old Testament, none of whom fits the time and place of the author of the book. Obadiah, a Hebrew name, translates as “servant of Yahweh” or “worshiper of Yahweh.”[3] Thus Obadiah could be an appellation such as Malachi (“messenger”) or Theophilus (“friend of God”) instead of a personal name. If Obadiah is just an appellation, then almost any righteous servant of God could have been inspired to write this prophecy. This is possible, but it is more likely that a prophet named Obadiah wrote the text.

The twenty-one verses of Obadiah fall neatly into three main parts. In verses 1 through 9, Obadiah prophesies of Edom’s judgment and destruction. The following five verses, 10 through 14, give the reasons for this judgment and the fate of both Edom and Jerusalem. The final verses, 15 through 21, speak of the day of the Lord, which brings both judgment and salvation as well as the restoration of Israel. Although Obadiah’s prophecy represents the smallest book in the Old Testament, interpretation raises some difficult questions. Various Judeo-Christian commentaries on Obadiah present a microcosm of the many ways in which commentators of various denominations interpret Old Testament prophecies: fundamentalist versus mainstream, conservative versus liberal, higher criticism versus literary style. Many journal articles, as well as two recent book-length commentaries about the vision of Obadiah,[4] contain a rich store of theological, historical, and literary[5] studies; however, a spiritual assessment of the text is missing from all commentaries. This is a significant part of the message; the economy of scripture insists that it be so. Why else would Obadiah be included as part of the Old Testament, particularly when so much of the first portion of it is repeated almost word for word in Jeremiah 49:7–22? As the Reverend Ray C. Stedman noted, “The Scriptures have that beautiful faculty of appearing to be one thing on the surface, but on a deeper level, yielding rich and mighty treasures. That is certainly true of this amazing book of Obadiah.”[6]

Christian Perspectives

Obadiah’s use of the term savior has interested Christian scholars. Methodist reformer John Wesley identified the saviors-deliverers with Jesus Christ, His Apostles, and other preachers of the gospel, both past and present.[7] Etymologically, the Hebrew word yâsha is the root word from which the words Jesus and salvation are derived. They denote the saving power of God, which brings to the world salvation that “properly belongs to the divine sphere.”[8] Saviors are those who preserve or deliver from danger and destruction. In Nehemiah 9:27, saviors are probably judges. But saviors can also be wise men and women of spiritual insight and faith. The definition—along with work for the dead—that is closest to Latter-day Saint doctrine is that saviors are “the chosen instruments [of God] which go forth to teach all nations and make known the glory of the King in their midst.”[9] Raabe’s 1996 translation of Obadiah renders saviors as deliverers, giving a little more of the sense of “rescuer” or “liberator,” very similar to the deliverers raised up by the Lord in Judges 3:9. The meaning of Obadiah is related to a message of “faith in God’s moral government and hope in the eventual triumph of His just will”—a pastoral message to aching hearts that God is on the throne and cares for His own.[10]

Reverend Stedman discussed a spiritual teaching of Obadiah by examining the description of pride among the descendants of Esau, the Edomites. Stedman’s perspective parallels remarkably President Ezra Taft Benson’s oft-quoted talk on pride.[11] The proud look, self-sufficiency (to a fault), violence, indifference, gloating, and exploitation are all mentioned. Adding to that impressive list, Stedman further explains how this “pride of their heart” has deceived the Edomites and kept them from knowing the truth.[12]

Another perspective from Christian scholars relates to Obadiah’s themes of “judgment and salvation, of justice and restoration with a vision of history’s consummation.”[13] In this context, “the ‘holiness’ of Mount Zion . . . [v. 17] means its freedom from the violation of heathen invaders and from any ‘abomination of desolation.’”[14] Reformer John Calvin interprets this to mean that God would be mindful of His covenants. Concerning verse 17, Calvin states, “Obadiah clearly promises that there would be a restoration of the Church.”[15] A temple will once again be consecrated. Others interpret this verse as signifying “the conversion and restoration of the Jews, and that under Jesus Christ the original theocracy shall be restored.”[16]

Jewish Perspectives

Many Jews consider Obadiah one of the important “minor” prophets. The Babylonian Talmud insists that the prophet Obadiah was the same versatile man who somehow served both King Ahab and Elijah in the mid-800s B.C. and who hid one hundred righteous prophets (or believers in God) from Ahab[17] (see 1 Kings 18). Louis Ginzberg comments on Ahab’s Obadiah and the connection all of this has to a savior or deliverer on Mount Zion: “By birth an Edomite, Obadiah had been inspired by God to utter the prophecy against Edom. In his own person he embodied the accusation against Esau, who had lived with his pious parents without following their example, while Obadiah, on the contrary, lived in constant intercourse with the iniquitous King Ahab and his still more iniquitous spouse Jezebel without yielding to the baneful influence they exercised.”[18]

According to The Legends of the Jews, the Aggadat Bereshit 14, 32, relates that Isaiah and Obadiah “uttered their prophecies in seventy-one languages.”[19] This number is interesting, for the same source says that Obadiah was forced to prophesy against Edom “by the seventy-one members of the ‘heavenly Synedrion’ [sanhedrin].”[20] From this legend one may even imply that saviors on Mount Zion are not alone in doing their saving work: they are assisted by angelic messengers.

Although members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and many other Christians look at the broader perspective of Esau and the Edomites, one Jewish perspective accepts Obadiah’s narrow nationalism as he condemned Israel’s enemy, Edom, and the other pagan nations and looked forward to the exaltation of his own people, Israel. This anti-Edom sentiment is part of a continuum that runs all the way from the womb where Esau and Jacob wrestled (see Genesis 25:21–23), to the refusal of the Edomites to allow the Israelites of the Exodus to pass through their land (see Numbers 20:14–21), to the present-day political and religious difficulties. A Jewish apocryphal work, 1 Esdras 4:45, even insists that the Edomites not only helped the Babylonians conquer the Israelites but specifically destroyed the temple in Jerusalem.[21]

Latter-day Saint Perspectives

Like the prophetic messages of other minor prophets, Obadiah’s message becomes for Latter-day Saints both a literal scripture as well as an allegory of good versus evil—Mount Esau versus Mount Zion. Because of its wickedness and lasting hatred for Israel, Edom, like Babylon, becomes a symbol for the world and worldliness (see D&C 1:36). Latter-day Saints typically ignore the first twenty verses of Obadiah and his harangues against the Edomites, perhaps because other prophets, namely Jeremiah, wrote in like manner, or most likely because the exciting prospects in verse 21 outshine the negativity of the preceding verses. Latter-day Saint prophets and other General Authorities almost unanimously interpret verse 21 in a completely different manner from that of any other church. Saviors on Mount Zion are those who perform work for our kindred dead. The Lord counseled Joseph Smith on this matter in these words: “The keys are to be delivered, the spirit of Elijah is to come, the Gospel to be established, the Saints of God gathered, Zion built up, and the Saints to come up as saviors on Mount Zion. But how are they to become saviors on Mount Zion? By building their temples, erecting their baptismal fonts, and going forth and receiving all the ordinances, baptisms, confirmations, washings, anointings, ordinations and sealing powers upon their heads, in behalf of all their progenitors who are dead, and redeem them that they may come forth in the first resurrection and be exalted to thrones of glory with them; and herein is the chain that binds the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, which fulfills the mission of Elijah.”[22] Joseph Smith elaborated further: “A view of these things reconciles the Scriptures of truth, justifies the ways of God to man, places the human family upon an equal footing, and harmonizes with every principle of righteousness, justice and truth.”[23]

Elder Matthias Cowley gave another definition of saviors that was a direct result of missionary work: “The man who forsakes his father and mother for the Gospel’s sake has accepted something in the Gospel that will bring his father and mother, his sister and brother to him, and they will fulfill the words of the prophet Obadiah that ‘saviors shall come up on mount Zion.’”[24]

Finally, President Charles W. Penrose talked about saviors from the perspective of individual families: “Now, brethren, what I am after is this: Let us Latter-day Saints, called to be saviors of men, called to be saviors of this world, called to be saviors to introduce that which will save mankind and bring them up from their lowest state into a condition where they will be fit to hold converse with Deity, let us be careful that we plant in the minds of our children the truth and nothing but the truth so far as we can understand it. . . . The boundless universe is before us all to learn and to live and to come up to the standard occupied by our Eternal Father and to be fit for his society.”[25]

A Personal Perspective

Early in the morning on Wednesday, February 19, 1997, I had an extraordinarily vivid dream of a dilapidated truck full of eight abused and sad children, pleading with their eyes that I could rescue them from their pain and sorrow. The haunting details were seared in my memory deeply enough that I can still remember one teenager with a torn, checkered blouse, muddy skirt, and stringy, matted hair. I did not know the significance of this dream until I was in my office a couple of hours later, wondering whether I should work on this article or turn to more pressing needs in the library. It was then that I noticed a new title from the book cart, My Parents Married on a Dare by Carlfred Broderick. I thumbed through the book, and my eyes stopped on page 119, where the words “Saviors on Mount Zion” fairly leaped out at me. I quote from his chapter “Children Being Born into Abusive Families”: “In suffering innocently that others might not suffer, such persons, in some degree, become as ‘saviors on Mount Zion’ by helping to bring salvation to a lineage.”[26]

I immediately realized one of the chief reasons for my own passion for the gospel. Again, in the words of Dr. Broderick: “God actively intervenes in some destructive lineages, assigning a valiant spirit to break the chain of destructiveness in such families. Although these children may suffer innocently as victims of violence, neglect, and exploitation, through the grace of God some find the strength to ‘metabolize’ the poison within themselves, refusing to pass it on to future generations.”[27]

I also realized that I had fulfilled this mission four times: once by leaving my own abusive and alcoholic family; twice more by marrying first one and then another abused woman, both of whom died of cancer nine years apart; and most recently by marrying a widow who had, along with some of her eleven children, been abused before her husband died. Together, my wife and I could consider ourselves saviors on Mount Zion who have the opportunity to stop the cycle of abuse in both of our lineages.

From this perspective, I am interested in broadening the definition of saviors on Mount Zion to include that of Dr. Broderick. I discovered that compared to the perspectives of other religions, the Latter-day Saint interpretation of the word saviors is unique. This may be related to our distinctive belief that we are children of God, created in the image of our Father in Heaven, and that we are “joint-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17). The non-LDS perspective that is most similar to Dr. Broderick’s comes from the well-known Interpreter’s Bible: “Herein lies the painfulness of man’s relationship to man. One stands aside and lets another suffer. One takes pleasure in another’s distress. One capitalizes on another’s misfortunes. Despite all that can be said about the amiability of human nature, this is what happens again and again all down the line of human social life. It is not always so. But we need to be asking ourselves continually about our neutralities, our inward cruelties, our ruthlessness.”[28]

Conclusion

Several observations can be made concerning the book of Obadiah, its vision of the Edomites, and the saviors on Mount Zion.

In likening the scriptures to ourselves, Latter-day Saints can be saviors on Mount Zion not only for the dead but also for the living. At the very least, Latter-day Saints should spend a great deal of time repenting, forgiving, and enduring.

According to many Judeo-Christian scholars, the family of Abraham will become the saviors on Mount Zion when the Messiah finally comes. Like the tribe of Judah, we Latter-day Saints are a covenant people. Being saviors is a daunting task that we cannot do without help from above, even a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day. Whether Latter-day Saints look at the vision of Obadiah as history, as prophecy fulfilled, or as an allegory for the victory of good over evil, the message is clear that “only the Day of the Lord, which will establish once and for all the reign of God in history, will break this cycle of violence and insure Judah a future of self-determination and security.”[29] How remarkable it is that after twenty verses of condemnation, Obadiah concludes his prophecy with a clear message of hope for all men and women: that we can not only be saviors but will be judged by saviors as well and not by tyrants of the soul.

Latter-day Saints know from the Bible as well as the Book of Mormon that the Lord sometimes intervenes in human lives to set us straight (Alma the Younger), redirect our purposes for a greater good (the Apostle Paul), change the course of our lives (President Gordon B. Hinckley), or rescue a lineage (those who have been converted to the gospel). In discovering Obadiah’s message, I thus found another reason not only for my own conversion but for my wife’s as well: to deliver our families from the cycle of abuse and to save our lineages. Saviors on Mount Zion, among others, are those “who refuse to pass on the destructive, toxic parenting they received. . . . It gives meaning to the sacrifice and recognition to the courage of those who have committed their lives to purifying a lineage.”[30]

More than one hundred years ago, President Wilford Woodruff said that “saviors upon Mount Zion have been raised up, while the kingdom is the Lord’s, as the prophet Obadiah said they would be.”[31] These saviors are not only ordained missionaries but are also the many Saints who labor to help break the cycle of spiritual, emotional, or physical abuse and restore Zion and the purity of the gospel to individuals and families. Every Latter-day Saint, man or woman, young or old, should feel alive and awake to a duty to teach and live correct principles that prevent the miniholocausts that can and do exist at the family level.

Finally, by using and magnifying our spiritual gifts, Latter-day Saints can act as saviors on Mount Zion by helping the world overcome and eliminate the barbarisms of abuse, war, torture, force, genocide, poverty, ignorance, exclusion, bigotry, and hatred. That is the larger legacy of Latter-day Saints and children of Abraham: saviors on Mount Zion.

 

[1] Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1972), 330. Other Latter-day Saint comments on Obadiah: Ellis T. Rasmussen, “Zephaniah, Obadiah, and Micah: Prophets during Times of Crises,” Instructor, July 1963, 248–49; Church News, July 14, 1973, 15. The Scripture Citation Index on the Gospel Infobases Collector’s Edition 1997 CD-ROM lists Obadiah as quoted by four General Authorities in general conferences: F. Arthur Kay, April 1985; LeGrand Richards, October 1975; Theodore M. Burton, October 1970 and October 1972; and Russell M. Nelson, October 1994. Many additional uses are listed, including citations in the Times and Seasons and in Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1962), 678.

[2] The Restoration of the gospel is not just an event called the First Vision but an ongoing process in the dispensation of the fullness of times, both in the Church generally and for its members individually.

[3] James P. Boyd, The Self-Pronouncing Bible Dictionary (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman, 1924), 209.

[4] Paul R. Raabe, Obadiah, vol. 24D of The Anchor Bible, ed. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1996). This Missouri Synod Lutheran theologian has written a very understandable and perceptive commentary of 310 pages. Original Hebrew words are transliterated. Ehud Ben Zvi, A Historical-Critical Study of the Book of Obadiah (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1996) is a more scholarly treatment in which the author, presumably Jewish in background, uses Hebrew characters rather than Roman transliterations. Both commentaries have extensive bibliographies and scripture indexes.

[5] Robert B. Robinson, “Levels of Naturalization in Obadiah,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 40 (1988): 88, mentions anaphorae, chiasms, assonance, parallelism, and alliteration.

[6] Ray C. Stedman, “Obadiah: Death to Edom!” in World Wide Study Bible on Web site http://ccel.wheaton.edu/wwsb/obadiah/.

[7] John Wesley, “Notes on the Book of Obadiah,” on Web site http://wesley.nnc.edu/wesley/notes/031obad.txt.

[8] G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, eds., Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 6:462–63.

[9] Arno C. Gaebelein, Gaebelein’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1985), 692.

[10] Leslie C. Allen, “Obadiah,” in Holman Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 1991), 1035.

[11] Ezra Taft Benson, “Beware of Pride,” Ensign, May 1989, 4–7.

[12] Stedman, “Obadiah.”

[13] William P. Brown, Obadiah through Malachi (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 7.

[14] Carl F. Henry, ed., The Biblical Expositor (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1985), 2:316.

[15] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1950). Printed from the Internet: http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/ipb-e/epl-04/cvobd-04.txt.

[16] Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible . . . with a Commentary and Critical Notes (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1977), 696.

[17] Rabbi Dr I. Epstein, The Babylonian Talmud: Seder Nezikin III (London: Soncino Press, 1935), 253.

[18] Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1937), 4:240, 241. Epstein, Babylonian Talmud, reports the following on page 253: “Let Obadiah, who has lived with two wicked persons [Ahab and Jezebel] and yet has not taken example by their deeds, come and prophesy against the wicked Esau, who lived with two righteous persons [Isaac and Rebekah] and yet did not learn from their good deeds.”

[19] Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 5:195.

[20] Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 6:344.

[21] David W. Baker, Obadiah (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), 22.

[22] Smith, Teachings, 330; emphasis added.

[23] Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2nd ed. rev., (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1973), 4:599.

[24] Matthias Cowley, in Conference Report, October 1903, 55.

[25] Charles W. Penrose, in Conference Report, April 1918, 22.

[26] Carlfred Broderick, My Parents Married on a Dare (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996), 119; chapter originally published in “I Have a Question,” Ensign, August 1986.

[27] Broderick, My Parents Married on a Dare, 119.

[28] The Interpreter’s Bible, ed. George A. Buttrick (New York: Abingdon Press, 1953), 6:863–64.

[29] Kathleen Nash, “Obadiah: Past Promises, Future Hope,” Bible Today, 25 (January 1987): 281; emphasis added.

[30] Broderick, My Parents Married on a Dare, 117.

[31] Wilford Woodruff, in Collected Discourses, 1894–1896, comp. and ed. Brian H. Stuy (B. H. S. Publishing, 1991), 4:10.