What Every Catholic Should Know About Obadiah
Obadiah is a prophecy of God’s coming judgment on the nation of Edom for its wrongs against Judah.
A Short Book
Obadiah is only 21 verses long, which makes it the shortest book of the Old Testament.
Because it’s so short, it doesn’t contain as much data as other books, and that means we have less to work with when answering important questions about it, like who wrote it and when.
As a result, scholars have taken a wide variety of positions on the book, and the debate has been vigorous.
Obadiah doesn’t tell us anything about its author except his name, and even that is uncertain, because vowels can be added to the Hebrew letters in more than one way, so that it either means “Worshipper of Yahweh” or “Servant of Yahweh.”
Obadiah was a very common name in the Old Testament, and scholars think that the Obadiah who wrote the book is not mentioned elsewhere. We know him only from his own book.
He apparently was a prophet from the southern kingdom of Judah, for reasons we are just about to see.
What Is This Book About?
Obadiah consists of a single, sustained prophecy of God’s coming judgment on the nation of Edom for its wrongs against Judah.
Edom was a kindred nation to Israel. The latter was descended from the patriarch Jacob (aka Israel), while the former was descended from his brother Esau (aka Edom).
The sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau are reflected in the subsequent history of the nations that sprang from them, and they were often hostile toward each other—a hostility made more bitter by the fact they regarded each other as kindred.
At one point, King David conquered them (2 Sam. 8:14), but they later rebelled (2 Kings 8:22).
The Edomites lived in a mountainous hill country to the south of Israel. But, in the 400s B.C., another people—the Nabateans—invaded their territory and pushed them west (this will be important later).
When Alexander the Great conquered the area, the name Edom was Hellenized to become Idumea.
Relation to Other Books
In the Hebrew Bible, Obadiah is part of the collected edition known as The Twelve (i.e., the 12 minor prophets).
At some point, someone selected these 12 short works and put them together to form a whole.
The number 12 in this case is significant: The compiler likely picked these 12 books out of a larger body of prophetic writings in order to reflect the 12 tribes of Israel, and thus a kind of wholeness.
The Twelve—in a certain way—stand for the whole of the prophetic tradition, or at least the whole of the lesser prophets God sent to his people.
There are also clear links between Obadiah and other books. It contains passages which clearly echo things said in other prophetic books.
This could mean:
- Obadiah is quoting from one or more other prophets (making his ministry later than theirs)
- Other prophets are quoting from Obadiah (making his ministry earlier than theirs)
- The prophets are quoting from a common (lost) prophetic tradition
- God revealed the same thing more than once
Each of these is possible, and the parallel passages have to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
In doing so, the passages that show the greatest degree of verbal similarity are most likely taken to indicate some form of literary dependence. If the similarities of wording and structure of the parallels are extensive, it suggests option 1 or 2.
The most significant parallel is between Obadiah 1-9 and Jeremiah 49:7-16. The two passages extensively share themes and wording, suggesting that one author is writing with direct knowledge of the other.
But who’s cribbing? Is Obadiah copying Jeremiah or the other way around?
Various factors, which we will cover below, suggest that Jeremiah is the earlier text, and Obadiah is writing in light of it.
The date of the book is highly debated, with some scholars placing it as early as the ninth century B.C. (i.e., the 800s) and as late as the fourth century B.C. (i.e., the 300s).
Both of these extremes are unlikely, and we will look at the date of the book further as we proceed.
The Prophecy Begins (v. 1)
The book begins as follows:
The vision of Obadiah.
Thus says the Lord GOD concerning Edom:
We have heard tidings from the Lord, and a messenger has been sent among the nations: “Rise up! let us rise against her [i.e., Edom] for battle!”
The opening phrase—“the vision of Obadiah”—could mean that Obadiah only had this one vision or that this was the most significant vision of his ministry.
The latter possibility seems more likely since, if Obadiah only had a single vision in his whole career as a prophet, it would be less likely that this vision would become well-known enough to stand out against other revelations of the time and be included in The Twelve.
There were many minor prophets in this historical period—including many mentioned in Scripture whose works were not included in the Bible—and the fact Obadiah achieved such high status suggests that the prophet in question had a more substantial career, even if this was his principal (or only) literary work.
What we have is thus Obadiah’s most important vision, and possibly the only one that was ever committed to writing.
In Obadiah, God announces a coming judgment: A coalition from “among the nations” will rise up to do battle against Edom.
Taking the verse in a straightforward sense, word has already spread that the nations are gathering against Edom (“we have heard . . . a messenger has been sent among the nations”).
This suggests that the book was written after the attack (or preparations for it) were in motion but before its final outcome was accomplished.
The Predicted Outcome (v. 2)
The next verses announces what the outcome of the invasion will be: God will make Edom “small among the nations” with the result that it “shall be utterly despised.”
Smallness can be understood in terms of numerical size (depopulation), loss of influence (economic or political), or both.
In the ancient world, loss of these forms of status resulted in contempt. Numerically large, economically powerful, and politically influential nations despised numerically small, economically weak and politically impotent ones.
Edom’s Self-Deception (vv. 3-4).
God now reveals the arrogant self-deception that accompanies Edom’s fall.
The Edomites have prided themselves on the natural defenses their homeland has: They “live in the clefts of the rock” and their “dwelling is high.”
Having the high ground has always been a military advantage, which is why fortresses are often built on hills and why defensive structures are built with high walls: It is easier to project force down onto an attacker than up onto a target.
Various cities in Edom also could only be reached through narrow, winding passes with stone walls on both sides (i.e., “the clefts of the rock”). (There is also a mocking pun here; the Hebrew word for “rock”—sela‘—sounds like the name of the Edomite capital city, Sela. More puns will follow.)
In view of the inaccessible heights they occupied, the Edomites thus reasoned, “Who will bring me down to the ground?”
The answer is: Yahweh will. In fact, he had done so before, when David conquered the Edomites, so their homeland is not an impregnable fortress.
The prophet thus declares, poetically, “Though you soar aloft like the eagle, though your nest is set among the stars, then I will bring you down, says the Lord” (v. 4).
Edom’s Treasures Lost (vv. 5-6)
Obadiah describes the extent of the economic devastation that Edom will suffer by making two comparisons.
First, he notes that if thieves or plunderers suddenly strike a location, they will only steal what they can carry off with them.
Second, he notes that when grape gatherers harvest a vineyard, they inevitably leave behind some of the fruit.
By contrast, those who attack Edom will defeat it so thoroughly that they have time to make a thorough search for anything valuable. Edom’s treasures will be “sought out” and carted off, leaving the natives destitute.
Betrayed by Allies (v. 7)
In the ancient world, alliances could change suddenly, and this has happened to Edom.
The prophet declares how the nation’s own allies have deceived it and set a trap for it—something which they had not expected and which seemed to make no sense to the Edomites (“there is no understanding of it”).
This surprise reversal of affairs thus brings about a bitter defeat for the Edomites as their former confederates prevail against them.
The Wise and the Mighty Destroyed (vv. 8-9)
God indicates that “on that day” (i.e., when Edom is attacked and defeated), he will “destroy the wise men out of Edom”—a phrase which is poetically paralleled with the statement that he will destroy “understanding out of Mount Esau.”
“Mount Esau” is more wordplay. There was a famous mountain in Edomite territory known as Mount Seir (Gen. 36:8-9, Ezek. 35:2-3), and the prophet has rearranged the first two Hebrew letters of “Seir” (sin and ayin) to make it “Esau,” the patriarch from whom the Edomites descended.
Edomites had a reputation for being wise (cf. Jer. 49:7), and the loss of their wise men would be bitterly ironic.
The fundamental message here is that Edom’s wisemen—i.e., its leaders—will be killed, resulting in its army being “decapitated” in modern terms. As a result of this loss of leadership, its army will be disorganized and its mighty men “shall be dismayed” and will be “cut off by slaughter.” The death of the wise thus leads to the death of the mighty.
This passage invokes “Teman,” who was originally a grandson of Esau (Gen. 36:10-11). However by Obadiah’s time, his name had been given to either a city or a region within Edom (Ezek. 25:13, Amos 1:12).
The Cause Revealed (vv. 10-14)
The prophet now reveals the cause of Edom’s misfortunes: They are being betrayed by their allies because they first betrayed their own kinsmen in Judah. Calamity is coming upon them “for the violence done to your brother Jacob” (v. 10).
Obadiah speaks of an earlier time when strangers carried off Jacob’s wealth and entered Jerusalem’s gates. This is a probable reference to the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. Instead of acting like kinsmen on that day, the Edomites refused to help and acted like foreigners (v. 11).
Worse, they undertook a series of positively hostile actions toward their Judahite kinsmen. In the day of Jacob’s calamity, the Edomites gloated, rejoiced and boasted (v. 12), they entered Jacob’s gates and looted (v. 13), and they stood at the crossroads to “cut off” (intercept? kill?) Judahite fugitives and “deliver up” those who survived the Babylonian assault (v. 14).
Precisely what is meant by the reference to Edomites entering Jacob’s gates and looting is unclear. Edom did not have the power to overcome Jerusalem by itself, which is why their allies (the Babylonians) are presented as the active agents in the siege of Jerusalem.
Consequently, some have proposed (1) that the Edomites assisted the Babylonians with the siege or (2) that they entered and looted after the Babylonians were finished with their own looting or (3) that they attacked and looted other Jewish settlements but not Jerusalem itself.
Judgment on the Nations (vv. 15-16)
Obadiah announces that “the day of the Lord is near upon all the nations.”
In the New Testament, the phrase “the day of the Lord” is associated with the end of the world (cf. 1 Cor. 5:5, 2 Cor. 1:14, 2 Pet. 3:10, etc.). However, in the Old Testament it has a much wider range of usage.
Most fundamentally, “the day of the Lord” refers to a time when Yahweh decisively intervenes in the affairs of men—either to carry out a blessing or a curse.
Notice that the day of the Lord in this case is said to be “near” and “upon all the nations.” In other words: God will soon mete out justice to the nations that have harmed Judah.
Obadiah thus declares to the nations, “As you have done, it shall be done to you, your deeds shall return on your own head.”
He then uses the metaphorical image of drinking both to signify what the nations have done wrong and how judgment shall be brought upon them. He first alludes to how the nations “have drunk upon my holy mountain” (i.e., Mount Zion in Jerusalem) and predicts that they will drink further: “all the nations round about shall drink.”
This continued drinking shall become the means of their own punishment, for “they shall drink, and stagger, and shall be as though they had not been.” The image is of a person who starts drinking and proceeds to get so drunk that he passes out and dies.
What does the image of drinking signify in this passage? It could be violence: The nations indulged in violence on Mount Zion, and they will keep indulging in violence until they are overcome by it. In that case, the thought would essentially mirror Jesus’ warning that those who live by the sword will die by the sword (Matt. 26:52).
However, there is another possibility. Drinking is also used as a metaphor for judgment, and the thought here may be that the nations executed judgment on Judah for its sins, but now they will experience judgment for their own sins.
This may reflect a thought elsewhere in the minor prophets—that God was only a little angry with his people and that the nations he used to punish them went too far and sinned by inflicting too much damage (Zech. 1:15).
Mount Zion Restored (vv. 17)
Although the nations will experience violent destruction, God assures his people that “in Mount Zion there shall be those that escape”—a surviving remnant will be left.
Furthermore Mount Zion “shall be holy”—a prediction of the restoration of the Temple.
And God’s people will reclaim their homeland, for “the house of Jacob shall possess their own possessions.”
Here “the house of Jacob” could be restricted just to the southern kingdom of Judah or it could refer to the entire family of Jacob, including Judah along with the northern kingdom of Israel.
Israel’s Military Might (v. 18)
Here we are told that the house of Jacob will be a fire and the house of Joseph a flame.
Joseph was one of Jacob’s most prominent sons and the patriarch of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, who were dominant in the northern kingdom of Israel. “The house of Joseph” thus refers to the northern kingdom.
In contrast, “the house of Jacob” could be used either to refer to the southern kingdom or to both kingdoms. Regardless of whether “the house of Jacob” is here used in the more restrictive sense, both kingdoms are clearly under discussion.
The fact they are said to be fire and flame indicate that they will have military might and will be used to punish the Edomites for their transgressions, for “they shall burn them and consume them.”
Obadiah then concludes that—in contrasts to the houses of Jacob and Joseph—“there shall be no survivor to the house of Esau.”
This is a case of hyperbole. Edom will not be fully destroyed, for the prophecy began merely by saying that Edom will be made small (v. 2), and it will end by saying that God’s people will end up ruling Mount Esau (v. 21).
Territorial Expansion (vv. 19-20)
Obadiah now covers in more detail the people’s recovery of their land predicted in v. 17. To understand this, we need to grasp several geographical terms:
- The Negeb: A desert region in the south of Israel, near Edom.
- The Shephelah: A lowland or foothills region bordering the land of the Philistines.
- The land of the Philistines: Part of the coast of Israel that had been conquered by the invading sea people, the Philistines.
- The land of Ephraim: Specifically, the territory of the tribe of Ephraim, but more generally the whole of the northern kingdom of Israel.
- The land of Samaria: Another way of referring to the northern kingdom, which had Samaria as its capital city.
- Gilead: A region on the east side of the Jordan river, originally occupied by the Hebrew tribes of Manasseh, Reuben and Gad.
- Halah: A region in Assyria where some Israelites had been deported (2 Kings 17:6).
- Phoenicia (lit., “Canaan up to Zarephath”): A coastal region to the north of Israel.
- Zarephath: A city in the southern part of Phoenician territory, between Tyre and Sidon. This territory was within the ideal limits of the tribe of Asher’s territory (Josh. 19:24-29).
- Sepharad: Most likely, a Median city where some Hebrews had been deported, though also possibly Sardis in Asia Minor.
With these terms in mind, we can understand how Obadiah describes God’s people reclaiming their land.
Jews who have been forced to live in the Negeb desert will come to control Edomite territory (“Mount Esau”), while those in the Shephelah lowland will recapture the territory taken by the Philistines, as well as the rest of the territory of the northern kingdom (the land of Ephraim/Samaria).
Scholars have generally thought that the last part of v. 19 contains a textual corruption. Benjamin was a tribe in the southern kingdom of Judah and had no historic claim on Gilead.
Hypothetically, this could indicate an expansion into new territory, but most interpreters have seen it differently and proposed alternate readings. One suggestion is that it refers to the retaking of parts of both Benjamin’s traditional territory and Gilead (Douglas Stuart, Word Biblical Commentary at v. 19). There are also other suggestions.
The beginning of v. 20 is understood in different ways. In the RSV, it speaks of “the exiles in Halah who are of the people of Israel” taking territory that rightfully belonged to Asher (Phoenicia as far as Zarephath).
However, the Hebrew of this verse is notoriously hard to translate, and others render the verse differently. One alternative is “the exiles in this army who are of the people of Israel.”
Either way, the first half of the verse refers to returning exiles from the northern kingdom retaking land that is rightfully theirs. By contrast, the second half of the verse speaks of returning exiles from the southern kingdom doing the same thing.
Thus it says that “the exiles of Jerusalem who are in Sepharad” will take the cities in the Negeb.
In this effort, God’s people are retaking land that is properly theirs—and that was once part of their land in David’s time.
The one possible exception is the reference to the inhabitants of the Negeb taking “Mount Esau”—i.e., Mount Seir. The status of Judah’s claim to this territory is unclear.
On the one hand, Deuteronomy 2:4-5 assigns Mount Seir to the Edomites as their rightful territory. On the other hand, Judah’s ideal border is said to extend to Mount Seir (Josh. 15:10).
Balaam also prophesied that Israel would dispossess Seir (Num. 24:17), and the principle of retributive justice is in play here: Edom took Judean territory, so Judah can legitimately take Edomite territory.
It also should be pointed out that the reference to the Judeans “possessing” Mount Esau does not necessarily mean annexing it to their territory. The Hebrew verb (yarash) has a variety of meanings, and it could simply refer to having military victory over it or reducing it to the status of a client state.
The Kingdom Shall Be the Lord’s (v. 21)
The final verse of the book refers to a group of people who “shall go up to Mount Zion.”
In many translations, this group of people are described as “saviors” or “deliverers”—the idea being that they are mighty men through whom God provides deliverance from enemies.
However, other translations describe this group as “those who have been saved.”
Both groups have been mentioned before, with mighty military men being in focus in vv. 18-20 and with surviving exiles mentioned in vv. 17 and 20.
Whichever way the verse should be translated, it says that this group will “go up to Mount Zion to rule Mount Esau”—i.e., the Edomites will become subject to God’s people.
The book concludes with the affirmation that “the kingdom shall be the Lord’s”—that is, God will be in control of all, and his people can look forward to his just and merciful reign.
Dating the Book of Obadiah
Now that we have reviewed the contents of Obadiah, we are in a better position to address the controversial question of its date.
While we can’t be certain on this issue and other dates—both earlier and later are possible—the following seems to be the most reasonable option.
The earliest possible date for the work is the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. Obadiah speaks of there being exiles from both Israel and Jerusalem (v. 20), indicating that it took place after the Assyrian conquest of Israel in 723 B.C. and the Babylonian conquests of Jerusalem in 605 and 597 B.C.
The latter conquests are the only ones in which the Edomites are known to have played a role (see Psa. 137:7, Lam. 4:18-22, Ezek. 25:12-14, 35:5, 15; cf. 1 Esd. 4:45).
The latest possible date for the book would be the betrayal and conquest of Edom by its allies (vv. 1, 7), and in particular by the Babylonians.
This event is not recorded in the Bible but it is found in Babylonian records, which indicate that the last full king of Babylon—Nabonidus—undertook a military expedition against Edom in late 553 B.C (see Paul Raabe, Anchor Yale Bible: Obadiah, 54-55).
The probable date for Obadiah is thus sometime between 597 and 553 B.C.—and probably closer to the latter date since v. 1 seems to indicate that the campaign against Edom is already in preparation.
Obadiah thus seems to be later than the prophecy of Jeremiah, who ceased prophesying shortly after the conquest of Jerusalem in 597 B.C.
The Fulfillment of Obadiah’s Prophecies
Beyond the betrayal of Edom by its former allies, Obadiah also predicts:
- the day of the Lord to repay the nations for their misdeeds (v. 15)
- that exiles of Israel and Judah will return (v. 20),
- that they will reclaim their former territories (vv. 17-19)
- that they will defeat and of Edom (v. 18, 21).
The Day of the Lord
The first of these is often taken to be a reference to an eschatological event, where God metes judgment to all the nations all at once, but this is an unnecessary supposition.
Given its context, the passage is most naturally understood to mean that whenever a nation commits wrongs (and in particular, against God’s people), the Lord will soon bring them to justice—a phenomenon we see played out repeatedly in Scripture.
The Return of the Exiles
The exiles of Judah began to return in the 530s B.C., during the reign of Cyrus the Persian (2 Chr. 36:22-23, Ezr. 1:1-11).
The return of exiles from Israel requires more study to document:
- We do have indications that many natives of the northern kingdom remained in their land at the time of the Assyrian Captivity (Amos 5:1-3, cf. 2 Chron. 34:1-6). This is to be expected since no deportation is likely to completely depopulate a land, especially in the less-efficient ancient world. Almost certainly, any deportation would involve removing the citizens with higher social status while leaving behind the small and the weak (cf. 2 Kings 24:14).
- We also have indications that, later on, God’s people included members who were descended from the northern tribes (Luke 2:36), and that the overall community regarded itself as still having 12 tribes (Acts 26:7, Jas. 1:1).
While the Bible documents that there were Israelites still living in Palestine after the fall of the northern kingdom, it is harder to document a return of some of these exiles.
Nevertheless, the Chronicler speaks of the time when—after “Judah was taken into exile in Babylon because of their unfaithfulness”—the exiles began “to dwell again in their possessions in their cities,” and he remarks that “some of the people of Judah, Benjamin, Ephraim, and Manasseh dwelt in Jerusalem” (1 Chron. 9:1-3; cf. Ezra 6:17, 8:35). Ephraim and Manasseh were two of the northern tribes, and they were so prominent among them this passage likely uses them as symbols of the entire northern confederation.
Josephus also mentions a return of northerners. First, he records that members of these northern tribes were living in Media (Jewish Antiquities 9:14:1[278-279]). He later recounts the letter in Cyrus’s successor Xerxes (aka Artaxerxes, Ahasuerus) commissioned the scribe Ezra to take others and return to Jerusalem (Ezra 7). Josephus notes that Ezra had this letter read to his coreligionists in Media and that, although the majority stayed there, “many” rejoiced at the prospect of returning to their homeland and did so, coming first to Babylon to join Ezra’s company of returnees (Jewish Antiquities 11:5:2[132-133]). He thus records a body of Israelites returning with the Judahites at the time of Ezra.
We also know of later travel by Median Israelites to Judah and Jerusalem. Indeed, it was common in the Second Temple period for pilgrims from Media to come to Jerusalem for the festivals (cf. Acts 2:9). Some of these travelers undoubtedly would have decided to resettle in their homeland.
Returns of these kinds may be seen as fulfilling Obadiah’s and the other prophets’ predictions of Israelite exiles returning. (For more on the status of these tribes, see Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women, ch. 4).
Reclaiming the Territories
This occurred over a period of time as exiles came back to the land, and it culminated after the Maccabees began their rebellion, which threw off foreign government and re-established an independent Jewish state.
For example, Gilead was conquered by Judah Maccabee (1 Macc. 5:24-52), and the land of the Philistines was included in the coastal area given to Simon Maccabee to govern (1 Macc. 11:59).
Judgment on Edom
This judgment received at least a partial fulfillment in the time of Judah Maccabee, who defeated “the sons of Esau in Idumea” (1 Macc. 5:3).
There was a complete conquest of the Edomites in 125 B.C. by the Jewish ruler John Hyrcanus, who then required them to convert to Judaism or leave their land. They chose the former (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 13:9:1[257-258]). This is why Herod the Great—an Idumean—could become the king of the Jews in Jesus’ time.
New Testament and Christological Significance
The book of Obadiah is so short that it is not quoted in the New Testament, and the fact its prophecies are so specific to Edom means that their literal fulfillment lies in the past.
However, with regard to the spiritual sense of the text, various interpreters have seen Edom as a symbol of evil and have thus understood the book as containing a typological prophecy of the ultimate defeat of evil.
In particular, the statement in the book’s final verse that “the kingdom shall be the Lord’s” has been taken as a prophecy of the Lord’s ultimate conquest of all evil in the final kingdom of Christ.