Geography and history play important roles in this prophecy, with sharp hostilities evident between Israel and its neighbour to the south-east, Edom. This ill-feeling had deep roots. Esau, Isaac’s eldest son and the grandson of Abraham, saw himself as cheated by his younger brother Jacob, losing the privileges which were his due as eldest son (Gn. 25:27–34; 27:1–29, see v 41), though according to the writer of Hebrews, Esau himself was in the wrong (Heb. 12:16). While not exonerating Jacob, the episode shows that a sinful person can still receive God’s blessing (cf. Heb. 11:9, 21). During their lives, both brothers received other names; Esau was also known as ‘Edom’ (Gn. 36:1, 9) and Jacob as ‘Israel’ (Gn. 32:22–32). These names were adopted by the nations of which the two men were the ancestors. The animosity beginning with these two brothers continued between the two nations as well.
After the exodus from Egypt, the Edomites would not let the Israelites pass through their territory in Transjordan (Nu. 20:14–21; Jdg. 11:17–18). Their own conquest was prophesied by Balaam (Nu. 24:18). King Saul fought against Edom (1 Sa. 14:47), and David conquered it (2 Sa. 8:13–14, but see the nrsv and niv mg.; 1 Ki. 11:15–16). Solomon had the run of Edom (1 Ki. 9:26–28), though not with Edom’s approval (11:14–22). During the reign of Jehoshaphat (ninth century bc), Edom, in a military alliance, raided Judah (2 Ch. 20:1–2). They rebelled against Jehoram (Joram), freeing themselves from the Judean yoke for some forty years, until late that century (2 Ki. 8:20–22; 2 Ch. 21:8–10). (See map in Joshua.)
Early the next century, Amaziah of Judah recaptured Edom with much bloodshed (2 Ki. 14:7; 2 Ch. 25:11–12), moving into its territory as far as Sela, the capital. Tables were turned later that century when Edom raided Judah when Ahaz was king (2 Ch. 28:17), taking prisoners of war and permanently freeing itself from Judah’s domination.
Edom became an Assyrian vassal, and later came under Babylonian domination, though it did periodically consider rebellion (Je. 27). Biblical and extra-biblical sources are relatively quiet regarding Edom’s activities at the time of Judah’s destruction by the Babylonians in 587 bc, but 1 Esdras 4:45 places the blame for burning the temple upon Edom’s shoulders. This is not confirmed elsewhere (cf. La. 4:21–22).
In the sixth century bc, Edom itself was waning, as is revealed by archaeological sources. Towns were abandoned and populations shifted (cf. 1 Macc. 5:65). Arabs gained control of this geographical area between the sixth and fourth centuries bc (cf. Ne. 2:19; 4:7; 6:1). The Nabateans, in particular, displaced the Edomites, forcing some of them into southern Judah, which became known by the Hellenized name Idumea (1 Macc. 4:29), based on the Hebrew ‘Edom’.
This prolonged antagonism between Judah and Edom is in evidence in Obadiah, serving as the prophecy’s framework.
Geography also plays a role in the prophecy. Edom’s location east of the Jordan was among the rocky crags towering above the Dead Sea. The famous rock city of Petra, built by the Nabateans, is a model of the natural defences upon which Edom was able to rely. Their inaccessibility to attack led to arrogance and self-centred assurance in their own invulnerability, and this ultimately led to their downfall.
Obadiah is not only the shortest OT book, it also has one of the shortest titles, providing little information about its author. No genealogy, birthplace or residence are indicated. We are told only that this is a ‘vision of Obadiah’. Even the prophet’s name could be simply a title, since its meaning, ‘servant of Yahweh’, is often used to describe OT prophets (e.g. 1 Ki. 14:18). The proper name ‘Obadiah’ is not rare in Hebrew, however, so there is no compelling reason to deny it to the author of this short prophecy.
Since we have no further information explicitly supplied about the author’s identity, it is difficult to provide an accurate date for the prophecies. Any suggestion must be based on evidence in the book itself (and see the chart ‘The prophets’in The Song of Songs).
It would seem that the background to the prophecy is an attack upon Israel by Edom (10–14), but as the brief overview of the history of the relations between the two nations shows, this could have been at any of a number of times in Israel’s national life. The most likely reference of these verses in Obadiah is to the fall and destruction of Jerusalem in 587 bc. This is the clearest event in which Israel was defeated and looted (2 Ki. 25; 2 Ch. 36:17–21) and for which there is at least some evidence of Edomite involvement (1 Esdras 4:45). If this reconstruction is correct, the prophecy would be a cry of judgment upon Edom for their misdeeds against God and his people, and also a message of hope to God’s own that their enemies would not go unpunished.
Though the shortest of the prophetical books, with only twenty-one verses, Obadiah is divided into two interrelated sections. The first oracle is directed specifically against Edom and itself is made up of three smaller oracles: the perils of pride (2–4), treacherous behaviour (5–7), approaching judgment (8–9), and a list of reasons for Edom’s punishment (10–15). The second major oracle in the book describes the tables being turned against the nations who opposed Judah (15–18), and the final restoration of her kingdom (19–21).
The two oracles are unified by sharing such key terms as ‘day’ (8, 11–15), Yahweh as speaker and actor (1, 4, 8, 15, 18, 21) and the concept of the mountain, that of God (Zion, vs 17, 21) ultimately gaining superiority over those in which the Edomites placed such confidence (8, 9, 19, 21). The theological concept of ‘tit-for-tat’ also unites the brief book, occurring at least five times: the proud will be humbled (2, 3); passive observers of pillage will suffer that fate themselves (5–9, 11–14); because survivors of attack were molested, Edom will have no survivors of her own (14, 18); and dispossession will face those who dispossessed others (7, 14, 19). The concept is spelled out explicitly in the transitional v 15.
J. M. Boice, The Minor Prophets, 2 vols. (Zondervan, 1983, 1986).
D. W. Baker, Obadiah, in D. W. Baker, D. Alexander and B. Waltke, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, TOTC (IVP, 1988).
P. C. Craigie, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, DSB (St Andrew Press, 1984).
———, in USA, Twelve Prophets, Vol. 1, DSB (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1984).
L. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, NICOT (Eerdmans, 1976).
R. J. Coggins, Israel among the Nations: Nahum, Obadiah, Esther, ITC (Handsel, 1985).
———, published in USA as Nahum, Obadiah, Esther: Israel among the Nations (Eerdmans, 1985).
D. Stuart, Hosea–Jonah, WBC (Word, 1987).
nrsv (New) Revised Standard Version
niv New International Version
OT Old Testament
TOTC Tyndale Old Testament Commentary
DSB Daily Study Bible
NICOT The New International Commentary on the Old Testament
ITC International Theological Commentary
WBC Word Biblical Commentary