November 19 – Prophet Obadiah and Nerses the Great

The Prophet Obadiah (VI cent. BC(E)) was descended (whether in a straight line or a crooked one, our sources do not say) from Eliphaz, one of Job’s comforters (or afghans or duvets). Hailing from Edom (an ancient kingdom down south-a-ways from ancient Judah), he (Ob not Job) was a convert to Judaism (if that’s not an anachronistic word). A rich man, he provided a hiding place (two, actually) and sustenance for the 100 prophets who hid from Jezebel, in reward for which he received the gift of prophecy himself, albeit not in shiny foil paper, as Judaic metallurgy hadn’t progressed quite that far yet.

The Rabbis say that Obadiah’s fear of God was one notch higher than Abraham’s, which lets you know just how high (as measured in notches) his fear of God was. The Rabbis also say (and read closely because this is tricky and I’m not going to type it again) that he lived among the ungodly Ahab and Jezebel and yet was not converted to their wickedness, just as Esau, who lived among Isaac and Rebeccah, was not converted to their godliness. For this reason, and because he was actually from Edom, he was chosen to prophesy against that kingdom, long identified with the descendants of Esau.

We have 21 verses of his prophecy in the biblical Book of Obadiah, the shortest book in the Hebrew Bible. You gotta love a prophet who says just what he has to say, and then shuts up. He clearly didn’t learn his parsimonious style from his master Elijah, or indeed from his ancestor Eliphaz. (Our sources do not so much as hint at its source. I swear, some people have no curiosity.) He is revered in Judaism, of course, as well as in all of the Christian traditions of the east. His name means, “Servant of the Lord” and has been Hellenized, Latinized, Arabified, and Turkimated in more ways than I care to list. But nobody calls him “Ob.”

Nerses the Great (d. 373) (Սուրբ Ներսես Ա. Մեծ) (d. 373) was an Armenian nobleman who boasted St. Gregory the Illuminator as an ancestor. Actually he may have been pretty humble about it; who can say? For unknown (at least in my sources) reasons, he emigrated to Caesarea and married a local princess named Sanducht. They made a son named Sahak, who himself went on to become Catholicos (head of the Armenian Church). We will not mention the word “nepotism.” When Sanducht died, Nerses returned to Armenia, and became sword-bearer to the king. After a bit of this, he monasticized, and before you could say “the timing is all kind of murky, to be honest,” he was elected Catholicos.

As Catholicos, Nerses set out to broaden the Church of Armenia beyond the monarchy, where it had kind of gotten stuck, to embrace the whole of the Armenian people. At the Synod of Ashtishat (I won’t even try to parse that in English), he made laws that prohibited marrying first cousins, forbade mutilation (in mourning), prescribed fast days, and declared an official chocolate bar for the Armenian Church. (I made one of those up; guess which.) He also founded numerous schools, orphanages, and hospitals, and sent monks out into the countryside to preach the Gospel.

Nerses was exiled from Armenia for speaking against the Arianism of King Arshak; his appeal to Emperor “No One Called Him Liberty” Valens, himself an Arian, was to no avail. When King Pap replaced Arshak on the Armenian throne, Nerses was welcomed home, but Pap was an Arian himself, as well as a bit on the dissolute side, so Nerses excommunicated him. Pap invited Nerses to supper on pretense of seeking reconciliation, and poisoned him to death. You could say King Pap smeared the good name of the Armenian monarchy. You could. I certainly wouldn’t.