Obadiah

Like other prophetic books, Obadiah takes the name of the prophet who is its presumed author, either in spoken or written word. But it does not give any other details about him, and the name is a common one, meaning ‘servant (i.e., worshipper) of YHWH.’

In the Hebrew Bible, Obadiah is the fourth in order of the twelve ‘minor prophets.’ This is probably because early readers thought he prophesied in the pre-exilic period like Hosea and Amos. But other old versions of the Bible put the twelve in a different order: for example, in the Septuagint Obadiah is fifth, after Hosea, Amos, Micah, and Joel. The fact that this little book could be shifted around in the series of the twelve shows that it was always felt to be a text independent of the prophecies with which it was grouped.

The book attacks Edom, Judah’s neighbour to the south-east, denouncing its aggressive actions against Judah, and prophesies total disaster for it. Its last few verses (15a, 16-21) broaden the scope of the prophecy to include all nations, who will suffer judgment, while Israel will be saved and regain its traditional territory.

Date and authorship

Nothing is known of the prophet Obadiah. Many scholars date the book to the 6th century BCE, on the grounds that the conduct complained of in vv. 11-14 took place at the time of the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587/6 BCE. At some time a little later, the Edomites occupied the southern part of Judah (after being edged out of their traditional territory by the Nabataean Arabs). There is no direct evidence of the alleged aggression and support of the Babylonians at that time, but Psalm 137:7, which recalls the Edomites’ encouragement of the destruction of Jerusalem, supports it; see also Ezekiel 25:12. Other dates are possible. Hostility between Judah and Edom was of long standing, and for a time Edom was under the rule of Judah, before gaining its independence (see 2 Kings 8:20). There are several other bodies of prophecy against Edom in the Old Testament, including Isaiah 34 and 63:1-6; Jeremiah 49:7-22; and Ezekiel 25:12-14.

The main question of authorship concerns the fact that several verses in Obadiah also appear in Jeremiah 49, with slight differences. Jeremiah 49:14-16 are similar to Obadiah 1-4, and Jeremiah 49:9-10 to Obadiah 5-6. Have these verses been copied from Jeremiah into Obadiah, or the other way round, or are they both independently quoting from another writing? All three solutions have been argued for, but the majority view today is that both books are quoting from a third source, possibly material circulating orally rather textually, and then developing it each in its own way.

Many scholars hold that the end of the book (vv. 15-21), in which the judgment on Edom is placed in the context of judgment on the nations, is a later addition. This is doubtful, but it is worth noting that vv. 19-21 are prose as against the verse of vv. 1-18. It is possible that this passage alone is a later addition, prosaically expanding the point already made in v. 17b.

Interpretation

Unlike most of the prophets (except Nahum), Obadiah has no criticism to make of Israelites and is purely a denunciation of a foreign people. The fact that this people, Edom, was regarded as Israel’s ‘brother’ (Jacob and Esau were their traditional ancestors) only made its crime worse (v. 10). As a result the book has been characterised as mere nationalist propaganda. But Obadiah is not unique in its criticism of other peoples. Prophetic texts commonly link announcements of judgment against one or more foreign countries with the expectation of a general overturning of world affairs in the end time, when the nations will be defeated and Zion victorious. It is a firmly-rooted aspect of prophetic theology. Readers who cannot accept this will have little time for Obadiah, there is no doubt. But is the writing motivated by mere revenge, as perhaps in Psalm 137, or by devout hope for God’s overthrow of the powers of evil and creation of a better world, as in Isaiah 65? The final words are ‘the kingdom will belong to YHWH,’ not Israel.

Reception history

As one may imagine, the book has attracted little attention other than from Bible commentators, but it is interesting to see how they deal with the main question of interpretation. As examples, Calvin understands the prophecy as designed to comfort the Jewish people in their misery as contrasted with the prosperity of Edom; while George Adam Smith says ‘it seems but a dark surge staining the stream of revelation, as if to exhibit through what a muddy channel these sacred waters have been poured upon the world.’

Further reading

Allen, Leslie C. “The Book of Obadiah.” Pages 127-72 in The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah. NICOT 5. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976.
Barton, John. “Obadiah.” Pages 113-58 in Joel and Obadiah. OTL. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001.
Block, Daniel I. Obadiah: The Kingship Belongs to YHWH. Hearing the Message of Scripture 27. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013. Repr., Obadiah. Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.
Mason, R. “Obadiah.” Pages 87-118 in Micah Nahum Obadiah. OTG. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991.
Wolff, Hans Walter. Obadiah and Jonah: A Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986.