The book of the prophet Obadiah is the shortest book in the Old Testament. The book has only twenty-one verses. In our English Bible, Obadiah is the fourth book of the Minor Prophets. In the Hebrew Bible, the book of Obadiah is listed among the Latter Prophets. The book does not provide any information to identify who Obadiah was or where he lived. In addition, the book does not say anything about his family, and it provides little information to help establish the date for its writing. There is also little or no internal evidence to help establish the historical setting which informs the preaching of the prophet. The Hebrew name Obadiah can be translated as “the worshiper of Yahweh” or “the servant of Yahweh.”
Date of Composition
Scholars disagree about the date for the composition of the book. Dates for the ministry of Obadiah range from 850 B.C. to 400 B.C. The Babylonia Talmud (Sanhedrin 39b) identified the prophet Obadiah with the Obadiah who was in charge of Ahab’s palace (1 Kings 18:3), the king who ruled over Israel in the 9th century B.C. However, most scholars have rejected this view. Thompson (1996:841) has suggested that the historical background for the book of Obadiah was either the attack of the Arabians against Judah during the reign of Jehoram (2 Chronicles 21:16-17), or the attack of the Edomites against Judah during the reign of Ahaz (2 Chronicles 28:17).
The book of Obadiah does not provide sufficient information to establish the historical context for the formation of the book. Obadiah verses 1 to 6 closely resemble the text of Jeremiah’s oracle against Edom (Jeremiah 49:7-22) which is dated to the fourth year of the reign of Jehoiakim, king of Judah (604 B.C.). Obadiah verses 11-14 refer to the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the deportation of the people (587 B.C.). For these reasons, most scholars date the book after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.
The Message of the Book
The book of Obadiah is an oracle of judgment against the Edomites. The people of Edom are judged because of their inhumanity against the people of Israel, who were also judged by God. The Edomites were judged because of their cruelty against Israel. The people of Israel were judged because of their rebellion against God.
The book is focused on two individuals, Jacob and Esau, who represent two nations. Jacob is Israel and Esau is Edom. The issue that brought God’s judgment upon Edom was the enmity that existed between these two nations. This enmity is due to the fact that God chose Jacob, but he did not choose Esau.
“I have loved you, says the LORD. But you say, ‘How have you loved us?’ Is not Esau Jacob’s brother? says the LORD. Yet I have loved Jacob but I have hated Esau” (Malachi 1:2-3),
This enmity between the two nations began when Rebekah was pregnant. When the children began to struggle in her womb, Rebekah said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So, she went to inquire of the LORD (Genesis 25:22). At that time, an oracle was given to Rebekah: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). After Esau and Jacob were born, Rebekah tried to help God fulfill the oracle by deceiving her husband and obtaining Isaac’s blessing for Jacob, her younger son.
Another problem between the two nations was that Jacob stole Esau’s birthright. Jacob also stole the blessing that belonged to Esau. Because of this, Esau promised to kill Jacob: “I will kill my brother Jacob” (Genesis 27:41). The result of Esau’s desire to kill his brother lasted for centuries. Eight hundred years after the death of Jacob and Esau, the prophet Amos spoke about the problem that existed between the two nations.
The prophet Amos said that Esau (Edom) hated his brother Jacob (Israel): “Thus says the LORD: For three transgressions of Edom, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because he pursued his brother with the sword and cast off all pity; he maintained his anger perpetually, and kept his wrath forever” (Amos 1:11).
Amos’ statement, that Esau “maintained his anger perpetually, and kept his wrath forever,” is a reference to the Edomites, the descendants of Esau, who over the years caused much pain for the people of Israel.
The Treachery of Edom
The fall of Jerusalem was a tragic event in the life of Israel. The temple was destroyed and many of the great houses in Jerusalem were burned. The city was besieged, the people suffered because of the lack of food, and thousands of people were deported to Babylon. Those who could, fled the city to find refuge on the other side of the Jordan River.
It was at this time that the perfidy of the Edomites was seen as the people fled Jerusalem during the siege of the city. Obadiah said, “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 like one of them” (verse 11).
It was because of Edom’s atrocities against the people of Judah that Obadiah proclaimed his indictment against Edom, “But you should not have gloated over your brother on the day of his misfortune; you should not have rejoiced over the people of Judah on the day of their ruin; you should not have boasted on the day of distress” (verse 12).
Obadiah speaks about the cruelty of the Edomites in handing the fugitives of Judah into the hands of the enemies, “You should not have stood at the crossings to cut off his fugitives; you should not have handed over his survivors on the day of distress” (verse 14).
The Day of the Lord
A popular idea in Israel was that the Day of the Lord would be the time when God would intervene to deliver Israel from the hands of their enemies. On that day, God would judge his enemies and he would save his people. According to Obadiah, Yahweh was coming to manifest his power to judge the people who had helped the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem and deport the people. Obadiah proclaimed, “As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head” (verse 15).
The Day of the Lord would bring the humbling of Edom. Yahweh said to the people of Edom, “I will surely make you least among the nations” (verse 2). The Edomites lived in the Land of Seir. Mount Seir offered the Edomites protection from foreign invaders. Sela, today known as Petra, was the capital of Edom. The word Sela means “rock” and Sela’s strategic location offered protection to the Edomites. Because of that, the Edomites believed that they could not be conquered. But the Lord said, “Your proud heart has deceived you, you that live in the clefts of the rock, whose dwelling is in the heights. You say in your heart, ‘Who will bring me down to the ground?’ From there I will bring you down, says the LORD” (verses 3-4).
According to Obadiah, the judgment on Edom would come because of what they had done to Israel, “As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head” (verse 15). For the slaughter and violence done to the people fleeing Jerusalem and in retribution for their treacherous treatment of Israel, Edom will be pillaged (verses 5-7).
Obadiah’s message of judgment against Edom reflects the feelings of an individual who lived either during or shortly after the fall of Jerusalem and the deportation of the people of Judah. Emotionally and spiritually Obadiah had a reason to be harsh in his pronouncement against Edom. The suffering caused by the siege of Jerusalem and the anguish caused by the treachery of the Edomites took a toll on the people of Judah. The people of Judah longed for God’s justice. They wondered when God would judge the Edomites for their cruelty and violence. The message of Obadiah was an answer to their prayers.
According to Obadiah, the day of visitation had come upon Edom. The day of God’s visitation was approaching for Edom. Just as they have done to Israel, so it would be done them. Edom would get exactly what their deeds deserved, “your deeds will return upon your own head” (verse15).
But, the prophecy of Obadiah ends with a message of hope: the Lord will redeem his people, God will bring blessings to the world, and he will establish his kingdom on earth: “and the kingdom shall be the LORD’s” (v. 21).
Claude F. Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Thompson, J. A. “Obadiah, Book of,” The New Bible Dictionary. Ed. By D. R. W. Wood. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996.