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.
This month we are studying the book of Obadiah, which I will admit is unfortunately coinciding with the month of December and not the most natural fit for a holiday message. But I committed us this year to a Bible Reading Challenge, one minor prophet each month for twelve months in the order of the canon. So even though I wish the December prophet was Micah, we will press on!
As I talked about last week, the short book of Obadiah is an oracle against the Edomites. The book says so explicitly at the start: “Thus says the Lord God concerning Edom.” Obadiah begins by calling up an army to fight Edom. But let me remind you that Obadiah is rooted in a much longer story woven throughout the Hebrew scripture: the fractured relationship between Israel, the descendants of Jacob, and Edom, the descendants of Esau. Genesis 25 is the preface to Obadiah.
The descendants of Jacob became the people of Israel and the progenitors of the Abrahamic covenant. The descendants of Esau became the Edomites, a distinct people group that sometimes allied with her Judahite neighbor and sometimes warred against her. Thus, they fulfilled the message of the Lord, given to Rebekah while the twins were still in utero: “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).
Obadiah makes sure to remind the hearers of his oracle that the Edomite problem has persisted over many generations. He does so by often referring to Edom not by the contemporary name of her cities but as “the house of Esau” or “Mount Esau.” Listen to last week’s podcast on Obadiah and the Edomites for the full history.
As always, we first have to address the dating of the prophetic book. Obadiah was most likely composed after the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem, since the prophet writes as if he were an eyewitness to the horrific events. Jeremiah 49 includes an oracle against Edom with some of Obadiah’s very same language. The two prophets likely lived close to the same time, but which prophet influenced which, no one can know for sure. So, why is Obadiah’s book placed after Amos in the order of the canonized books if Amos probably ministered two hundred years before Obadiah? Because Amos’s book both starts and ends with a message for the Edomites.
When the books of the prophets came to their traditional order, they were not so much organized by chronology as they were common theme. As often as possible, one minor prophet book picks up where the previous one left off, even if it isn’t always obvious. Remember that in the Jewish Tanakh, the minor prophets are all one book: the Book of the Twelve. Amos, a prophet most known for his calls for justice, began his book with seven judgement speeches against Israel’s neighbors. Out of all seven, Edom gets the most press time in Amos, partially because of Edom’s propensity for kidnapping Judahites and Israelites. Edom is also called out for her gratuitous violence, continuous rage, and unchecked fury (Amos 1:11). And yet, in the hope-filled Messianic prophecy at the end of Amos, in reference to the restoration of David’s tent, a remnant of Edom gets incorporated into the possessions of Israel in the Messianic Age. Therefore, Obadiah’s oracle, which is only about the Edomites, naturally picks up on Amos’s closing Edomite theme.
Obadiah’s message is a mere 291 words. In the first nine verses, he systematically calls Edom out for every area of false pride. They have misplaced their confidence in their natural security, their wealth and agriculture, their military alliances, and their own wisdom. In the end, Obadiah warns, none of those things will prevent their destruction. The later part of Obadiah names the reasons for Edom’s punishment and the means which God will deliver their punishment.
Obadiah says, “your proud heart has deceived you, you that live in the clefts of the rock, whose dwelling is in the heights” (vs. 3). If you have ever had the great experience of going to Petra, the biblical lands associated with Edom in Jordan, you understand the full awe and wonder of the natural rock fortresses that the mountain terrain produces. Edom was well positioned on those cliffs and likewise the kingdom felt impregnable.
I will tell you that I was in my first trimester with our oldest child when I had the chance to visit Petra. I walked the 800 steps to the monastery, stopping to throw up twice along the way. The view of the rose-red city was the most stunning wonder I ever had the privilege to visit. So, when I read Obadiah, and his condemnation of Edom’s pride of place, I get it. I would probably have been guilty of an equal sense of pride and misplaced trust if I had grown up in the House of Esau. But Obadiah warns that even if the kingdom’s “nest is set among the stars,” (vs. 4) God will snatch them down. No nation is secure that opposes the will of God.
Obadiah then warns Edom that she will soon be robbed. As I mentioned in the last podcast, Edom was strategically positioned along the King’s Highway (Num. 20:17) and controlled access to the Red Sea port. Edom evolved into a thriving international trade center, and therefore benefited from wealth and status. Archaeological evidence also has shown that Edom had a large copper production center. Obadiah, however, assures that Edom will be pillaged to the point that not even her hidden treasures would remain. The vineyards on her slopes would be so completely raided that not even gleanings would be left. The prophet’s dramatization demonstrates the inevitability and thoroughness of her destruction.
Edom’s allies are predicted to betray her and turn against her. Instead of coming to Edom’s aide in the face of an attack, they set a trap for the House of Esau. Obadiah leaves the allies nameless. Either the Ammonites and Moabites turned on Edom in her moment of distress or they were too weakened themselves to join a coalition. They would all soon be swallowed up by the advancing Babylonians.
Biblical clues give the idea that Edom had a contingent of wise elders. In the book of Job, the wise friend Eliphaz was from Teman (Job 2:11). Teman, a trading center in Edom, would have been exposed to international customs and lore and perhaps because of that had a wisdom tradition. Obadiah’s oracle promises that on the Day of Yahweh the “wise of Edom” will be destroyed and the understanding of Mount Esau will be cut off (vs. 8).
The middle portion of Obadiah explains why all these punishments, previously listed, would be inflicted on Edom. In case there was any confusion as to the source of Edom’s downfall, the prophet wanted to make clear that this was the wrath of Yahweh as a result of Edom’s violence towards Judah. Obadiah uses “your brother Jacob” (vs. 10) as a synonym for the Kingdom of Judah, as a way of once again reminding Edom of the broken fraternal covenant.
Commentaries on Obadiah take one of two positions on dating the books composition: an early-date (852-716 BCE) or a late-date (587 BCE). The argument for an early date comes from two different mentions of Edomite revolts in 2 Chronicles. One of the revolts happened during the reign of King Jehoram (2 Chron. 21:8-10) and the other was during the reign of King Ahaz (2 Chron. 28:16-18). In the second incident, the Edomites carried away prisoners. The argument for the later date of Obadiah around 587 BCE stems from the fact that many other biblical passages recount the betrayal of the Edomites during the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. While the Edomite revolt in the days of Jehoram got a passing mention in Chronicles, the Edomites manner of attack and gloating over Jerusalem’s ruins is referenced in Psalms 137:7; Jeremiah 49:1-16; Lamentations 4:21; Isaiah 34:5-17; Ezekiel 25:12-14, 35:5; and Amos 1:11. They all tell the same story of the Edomites vulturous behavior pillaging what remained of Jerusalem and encroaching into the land of Judah. They even blocked the way for refugees from Jerusalem trying to flee eastward, and they turned them over to the Babylonians. While Edom should have felt empathy for the once great city turned to ash and rubble, their greed overtook them. Obadiah’s ultimate insult was accusing the Edomites of behaving “like one of them,” ‘them’ being the Babylonians (vs. 11).
I lean toward the later date, putting Obadiah as an eyewitness to Jerusalem’s fall or what he calls Judah’s misfortune, ruin, distress and calamity (vs. 12-13), stretching the Hebrew vocabulary to its maximum limits for synonyms to describe devastation. His language is so intense that the wound seems fresh. Obadiah’s outline is better suited for one of the most horrific moments in Jewish history, rather than a smaller Edomite revolt that only got passing mention in Chronicles. Also, the way in which Obadiah describes Edom’s treatment of the refugees parallels the other accounts specific to the tragedy of the Babylonian siege. He says, “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” (vs. 14). Picking through a city remains and stealing goods is offensive enough, but blocking escapees from finding safety is an especially grim image.
The last third of Obadiah reiterates the reason for Edom’s coming punishment. This is divine retribution: “As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head” (vs. 15). Even though Yahweh allowed for Jerusalem’s destruction because of her unfaithfulness, it was not the prerogative of Edom to gloat over her calamity. As a result, Edom would be handed her own cup of Yahweh’s wrath and she will “drink and gulp down” (vs. 16).
Obadiah ends with the triumphant return of a surviving remnant of the “house of Jacob.” The saving of a righteous remnant, the promise of their return, and repossession of the land is an eschatological theme that we already know from Hosea, Joel, and Amos. By the time of Obadiah’s witness, prophets had been speaking of a remnant for two hundred years.
That hope is partially placed in the near term and partially looking into the distant future, the Messianic age. In the Day of Yahweh, Judah will be victorious, expansive, and no longer vulnerable to her enemy neighbors like Edom. The prophecies at the end of Obadiah describe a restored Israel that will push to the north, south, east and west. They were destined to take back the Negev, the Shephelah, and Ephraim, the territory that once belonged to the ten northern tribes. Obadiah ends, after describing the full extent of the restored Judah, with the promise: “the kingdom shall be the Lord’s.”
Imagine the exiled people of Judah reading the prophecies of Obadiah soon after Jerusalem was destroyed. Licking their wounds and recalling the betrayal of Edom, they would have wondered why Yahweh let Mount Esau survive while Mount Zion perished. If the promises of the covenant were supposed to pass down through the descendants of Jacob, then why was it Esau who remained in their ancestral lands? Nations in the ancient near east judged the strength of one another’s gods by the success of their military, expansion of their borders, and size of their temples. What did it say about the God of Judah if her people were in exile, her military was defeated, and her temple a smoldering ruin? That is the importance of Obadiah’s closing notes. Yahweh will be exalted with the return of His people and their repossession of His land. Restoration is not just a nationalistic notion. It is an object lesson for the world on the sovereignty of God.
Obadiah’s words would have reassured the exiles, knowing that God was not ignorant to Esau’s sins and He would not let her get away with her actions. Her punishment was coming too, and in a way it would be more definite than Judah’s. Obadiah’s prophecies against Edom began to unfold soon after their utterance. The last King of Babylon, Nabonidus, destroyed Edom’s capital city at Bozrah. By the fourth century BCE, nomadic Arab tribes pushed the Edomites out of their ancestral territory. The Nabateans settled in the mountain terrain that had once been Edom and the surviving Edomites had to migrate westward into Judah. But they were never again an independent people. By the time of the prophet Malachi in 312 BCE, Edom was nothing but a “desert for jackals” (Mal. 1:3).
To any outside spectator living in the post-Babylonian destruction, Judah’s punishment and Edom’s punishment looked the same. But we know the rest of the story. We know that after seventy years of exile, the Jewish deportees were allowed to return. And slowly, and in waves, they rebuilt their walls, their capital city, and their temple. Edom, like Israel’s other rival neighbors, never restored their independent status. They remained conquered peoples while Israel had a chance to rebuild. It all played out just like Balaam the prophet had foreseen centuries before when the Israelites were a nation without land: “Edom will be conquered. Seir, his enemy, will be conquered, but Israel will grow strong” (Num. 24:18).
Obadiah is surprising to Bible readers for its narrowness of focus: a whole book devoted to the destruction of one longtime rival. But Edom is also representative of all the nations that have come against Yahweh, and the manner in which He holds them accountable. In fact, Edom is spelled with the same consonants as Adam, the Hebrew word for humankind. So, in some ways Edom, represents humankind as they relate to one of the very first promises God gave to Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.” Chosenness is a mystery, but it is at the very heart of how God first began to interact and intercede in the world of His creation.
Please join me next month for the book of Jonah! And remember Bible Fiber is available on Youtube or wherever you listen to your podcasts!