Welcome to Bible Fiber where we are encountering the textures and shades of the prophetic tapestry in a year-long study of the twelve minor prophets, one prophet each month. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel.
So far, we have studied Hosea, a prophet whose commitment to an adulterous wife demonstrated God’s unrelenting love for his people. We studied Joel, the book that uses a locust plague to teach authentic repentance: the rending of our hearts, not our garments. We studied Amos, a prophet dedicated to the pursuit of justice and righteousness, and the living out of God’s commandments to love and serve each other. Yahweh’s central message throughout all these books is “Return to me, and I will return to you.” These prophetic voices acting as God’s mouthpiece call out, “Seek Yahweh and live.”
Now, in month four, we are studying Obadiah. Obadiah is only twenty-one verses, the shortest book in all the Hebrew scripture. So, as part of our Bible reading challenge, the length of Obadiah is not the hard part to tackle. But the content of Obadiah requires a history lesson that goes well beyond the twenty-one verses. Obadiah is an oracle of judgement against Edom.
How did a short prophetic book written about the sins and punishment of one neighboring nation make it into the cannon? Well, Edom is not your average ancestral enemy. With this first Bible Fiber on Obadiah, I am going to give you a biblical timeline of the Edomites that stretches from the birth of Jacob and Esau to the birth of Jesus. And that way next week, we put Obadiah’s oracle which seems only to be focused on the Edomite problem in the bigger context it deserves.
Obadiah is rooted in the brotherly feud between Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah. As told in Genesis 25, Rebekah understood even during her pregnancy that the two sons in her womb were at odds with each other. The Lord told her: “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” (Gen. 25:23).
At the birth of the twins, Esau came out first. Even as a newborn he was red and hairy. Jacob was the second born and came out of the womb gripping Esau’s heel. In the tribal culture of the age, where firstborns received a double portion of the inheritance, which twin came out first was an important technicality.
Jacob, more of an indoorsy type, was the favorite child of Rebekah. Isaac preferred Esau, a hunter. Even though Jacob was the son whose descendants carried on the Abrahamic covenant, the Bible honestly portrays the deceptive nature of Israel’s patriarch. Jacob convinced a hungry Esau to trade his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. For Esau’s part, he does not come out of the story looking virtuous either. He was hasty and reactionary. The Bible says after the episode where he relinquished his birthright for nothing but a bowl of lentils, Esau “despised his birthright” (Gen. 25:34).
Years later, on Isaac’s deathbed, Isaac asked Esau to go out and hunt game to make him his favorite dinner before he gave Esau his blessing. As the firstborn, Esau would have been due the more significant blessing. Rebekah and Jacob conspired together to trick the half-blind Isaac to utter the best blessing over Jacob instead of Esau. The Bible says Jacob put on Esau’s clothes and put lamb skin on his hands and neck so that Isaac would take him for his older brother. Rebekah made the savory dish that Isaac requested, but Jacob brought it into his father while Esau was out hunting. The ruse worked and Jacob received the blessing meant for his brother:
May God give you of the dew of heaven, and of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you and blessed be everyone who blesses you!” (Gen. 27:28-29)
When Esau returned from the hunt and discovered his brother’s trickery, he was livid. It seems strange to our modern sensibility the permanence of a misappropriated blessing. But as Esau wept, Isaac gave him the inferior blessing which was the only blessing he had left to give:
“See, away from the fatness of the earth shall your home be, and away from the dew of heaven on high. By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother; but when you break loose, you shall break his yoke from your neck” (Gen. 27: 39-40).
At first, Esau swore he would kill Jacob for his betrayal. At some level, Jacob must have understood his rage because he spent the next years in Haran where he had relatives and could live at a safe distance from his brother. In Haran, Jacob got a taste of his own medicine, plagued by the deceitful actions of his father-in-law Laban. Jacob, as part of his own growth and path to maturity, literally and figuratively wrestled with God. The passage of time healed the brotherly wounds but did not reunite them permanently. When the two brothers met again in the land of Canaan, Jacob was repentant and Esau was forgiving. Despite the warmth of their reunion, the two went their separate ways, Jacob towards Shechem and Esau to Seir.
Jacob married Rachel and Leah and his descendants went on to comprise the twelve tribes who eventually took possession of the land promised to Abraham. The descendants of Jacob later made up the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Esau had many wives, one of which was the daughter of Ishmael. The descendants of Esau became the Edomites. I am quoting the blessings of Isaac and summarizing the encounters of Jacob and Esau in Genesis, because these are the origin stories of the people of Judah and Edom. And because of that, this is the background to the book of Obadiah.
Ancient historians glean most of what we know about the Edomites from the biblical accounts, Egyptian inscriptions, the Assyrian records, and the archaeological remains of their capital city Busaira, or Bozrah. We have yet to find Edomite inscriptions that record their own version of history. The small kingdom of Edom covered the mountainous terrain southeast of Judah, “away from the fatness of the earth” as Isaac had spoken. The rocky cliffs had obvious advantages when it came to natural defenses.
According to the biblical account, Yahweh was directly responsible for the gifting of Mount Seir to Esau’s descendants (Deut. 2:5) and Yahweh aided the Edomites in defeating her enemies (Deut. 2:22).
The Torah relates two encounters between the Edomites and Israelites during the forty years of wilderness wanderings. In Deuteronomy 2, the Israelites needed to pass through Edom on the King’s Highway to enter the promised land. Yahweh instructed them to avoid battling with the Edomites. If they required any food or water during their passage, they were to purchase what they needed and to take nothing (Deut. 2:4-6). And they passed through without incident.
In Numbers 20:14-20, the story of the encounter goes differently. Scholars disagree if there were two attempts to pass through Edom but represented differently in the Torah or if these were two separate occasions, both probably occurring in the last year of the wanderings. In the account in Numbers, the Edomites did not respond in kind. They refused passage to Moses and his band of freed slaves. An armored Edomite force positioned themselves to make certain that the Israelites did not encroach on their land. The Israelites, following Yahweh’s earlier command to avoid battle with their kindred (Deut. 2:4), rerouted their march, but they never forgot Edom’s rejection.
Archaeological records confirm that during the Late Bronze Age, Edomites were a mostly nomadic people. Around the Iron Age, the Edomites began to settle in large numbers. Strategically positioned, the kingdom benefited from the international trade routes that passed through their territory. They also controlled the Red Sea port. By the ninth century BCE, or even earlier, the kingdom’s copper production industry thrived and prompted more permanent settlements and prosperity.
The sensitivity the Israelites showed Edom in the wilderness period did not last long. Here is where I give you the quick version of what we know about their ongoing rivalry from Kings, Chronicles, and Samuel. See the show transcript for the scripture references.
By the time of King Saul, the Edomite kingdom and United Monarchy of Judah and Israel were most often at odds, although there were brief times of peace (2 Kings 3:9). Saul defeated the Edomites to secure his border east of the Jordan, but we are not told the extent of the fighting (1 Sam. 14:47). King David defeated Edom in the Valley of Salt, killing 18,000 Edomites in battle, and making the survivors David’s servants (2 Sam. 8:13-14). David’s commander Joab remained in Edom for six months trying to kill every surviving male in Edom (1 Kings 11:15-16). Hadad, a prince from Edom’s royal household, managed to escape to Egypt where he found favor with the Pharaoh. During this period, Edom was an Israelite vassal. After the death of David and Joab, Hadad returned to Edom to lead a rebellion against Judah but to no avail. Edom remained under Judah’s thumb. At one point they allied with Ammon and Moab and tried to overwhelm Judah’s forces but Yahweh intervened on behalf of the righteous King Jehoshaphat so that the allies destroyed each other and never attacked Judah (2 Chron. 20:10-23). Edom rebelled successfully against Jehoram around 850 BCE. They were then able to appoint their own king and restore their independence on the highland plateau (2 Kings 8:20-22). During the reign of Judah’s ungodly King Amaziah (800-783 BCE), Judah and Edom met again for battle in the Valley of Salt. This time, Judah’s army killed 10,000 Edomites in battle; they pushed another 10,000 Edomites off a cliff (2 Chron. 25:11). In a strange scene that displays how far Judah’s monarchy had strayed from Yahwism, King Amaziah looted the gods of Edom and bowed down to them and sacrificed to them (2 Chron. 25:14).
When the Assyrian empire destroyed the Kingdom of Israel and quickly dominated all the Levant, Edom submitted to Assyria’s authority. Assyrian records list Edom as one of the vassals in Transjordan that paid tribute. The archaeological record indicates that the Assyrian takeover allowed for Edom to gain in strength while Judah got weaker. Military fortresses in the eastern Negev that had once belonged to Judah start to show signs around 670 BCE of Edomite occupation.
With the ascendancy of the Babylonians, Judah’s resistance to Nebuchadnezzar’s strongarming ensured her destruction. But Edom was not one of the neighboring kingdoms to join Zedekiah’s resistance against Babylon (Jer. 27:1-3), and as such they stood as a kingdom for a little bit longer. This marks the probable moment that Obadiah stepped onto the stage. The prophet seems to have been an eyewitness to the Babylonian’s destruction of Jerusalem and ravaging of the First Temple. Obadiah had no stomach for Edom’s participation in the destruction of her own kin. What Obadiah saw has many other biblical witnesses. Accounts of Edom’s lack of compassion are sprinkled throughout the Hebrew scriptures. Amos, Obadiah, Ezekiel, Lamentations, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Psalms 137 all tell the same story. They were disgusted by Edom’s lack of compassion, and her gloating over Judah in her weakest moment.
Amos’s oracle against Edom is rooted in how they took advantage of their old fraternal animosity to “pursue his brother with the sword and cast off all pity” (Amos 1:11). Ezekiel blames Edom for “taking vengeance” on the house of Judah (Ezek. 25:12). Because they “cherished an ancient enmity,” they “gave over the people of Israel to the power of the sword at the time of their calamity” (Ezek. 35: 5). They not only pillaged Jerusalem’s smoldering ruins, but they also blocked the way for the fleeing Jewish refugees and turned them over to Babylon. The Psalmist in exile held onto a haunting memory of Edom’s calls for further destruction in Jerusalem: “Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites, the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!’” (Ps. 137: 7).
Loyalty was crucial in the tribal culture of the ancient Near East. The language of brotherhood and kinship is used with every mention of Israelite and Edomite encounters. The Deuteronomist is the most explicit: “You shall not regard an Edomite with abhorrence, because he is your brother” (Deut. 23:7). So how does the Bible go from brotherhood language in reference to Edom to some of the strongest worded oracles of judgement? According to Amos, the Edomites are to blame for rejecting their “covenant of kinship” (Amos 1:9).
The prophetic oracles are united in their predictions of Edom’s complete doom. Amos predicts her fiery destruction (Amos 1:12); Obadiah points to complete pillaging (Obad. 5); Ezekiel elaborates on the extent of the desolation (Ezek. 35:3); Isaiah paints a picture of bloody slaughter (Isa. 34:5-8); and Jeremiah describes it all as drinking the cup of Yahweh’s wrath (Lam. 4:21). Ezekiel swears that because Edom did not hate bloodshed, “bloodshed will pursue you” (Ezek. 35:6). Within a few decades from Jerusalem’s fall, in 554 BCE, the prophecies came true. Edom’s fortress city Busaira (Bozrah) was captured by the last Babylonian King, Nabonidus, and set aflame.
By the fourth century BCE, nomadic groups pushed the Edomites out of their ancestral territory and they began migrating westward. During the Roman period, Nabateans settled in the mountain terrain that had once been home to the Edomite kingdom. The Nabateans built the now famous city of Petra, maximizing the strategic trading position of their new settlement for their own trade ambitions. By the Hellenistic period in Israel, Edomites were no longer mountain dwellers. The lived on as a distinct people group. They adopted the Greek form of the name Edom, which was Idumea and they became known as the Idumeans.
Since we are just coming off Hanukkah, it is important to note that the Maccabean leader John Hyrcanus went on a bit of a religious purge after shaking off the Greek oppressors. Part of his missionizing by the sword included the forceful conversion of the Idumeans, including their circumcision.
The most famous of the Idumeans from the Roman period is King Herod I, or Herod the Great. King Herod I is infamous to Christians because of his role in the nativity account in the Gospel of Matthew. After the birth of Jesus, the magi from the east paid a visit to King Herod I in their attempt to locate the “king of the Jews.” This would have been a threatening message to the king who was appointed by Rome as “king of the Jews,” but who in fact was a Jewish convert and descendant of Judah’s ancient enemy. The insecurity of his background may have something to do with his violent overreaction to the news of Christ’s birth. Some have even wondered if Herod’s fears may have been based on the chain of events he knew from the prophets would occur with the arrival of the Messiah. Did Herod want to avoid the ultimate fulfillment of the prophecies concerning Edom on the Day of Yahweh? No one can say for certain, but the background on his Edomite ancestry is certainly important when considering his reaction.
Obadiah may only be twenty-one verses. But the short text is rooted in the patriarchs and extends to the Messiah. I know this may not be the inspiring teaching that one would hope to find during the advent season. But as a student of the Bible, in its totality, I hope that at least you can appreciate how even the Edomite-centered short message of Obadiah connects to the events surrounding both Hanukkah and Christmas.
And speaking of, I wish all of you a joyful, hopeful, and inspirational advent season and leave you with my own family’s verse during December:
“The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” Romans 13:12
Please join me next week as we dive into the actual content of Obadiah, now that you are all Edomite experts. Bible Fiber is available on Youtube or all the major podcast directories like Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, iheart Radio, and the rest.