The book of Obadiah is the shortest in the Hebrew Bible, comprising only twenty-one verses. The brevity of the book requires discussion. Perhaps it is a reflection of the relative lack of prominence of the figure of the prophet Obadiah among the literati responsible for the writing, reading, and rereading of the prophetic books. The figures of prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah were far more prominent in the social memory of ancient Israel than Obadiah. Yet the very brevity of the book of Obadiah also calls attention to itself—and did so already in ancient times. Does the book communicate something of particular importance in and through this extremely concise form? Does the book's concision draw attention to the importance of its message or does it complicate it? Even today, exegetes often refer to Jerome's words about Obadiah: “the shorter it is, the more difficult” (quanto brevius est, tanto difficilius).
Prophetic books asked their intended readers to imagine the person of the prophet with which they are associated. But ancient readers of Obadiah could not but notice that this particular book provided them with only the prophet's name, saying nothing explicit about his time, location, occupation, or even the name of his father. This unusually terse presentation invited readers to fill in the informational gaps. For instance, some wondered whether this Obadiah was the same Obadiah mentioned in 1 Kings 18 (cf. the later evidence in the pseudepigraphical Lives of the Prophets 9:1–5; as well as in Jerome's commentary on Obadiah on Visio Abdiae and b. Sanh. 39b. The book itself provided them with no solid ground for such an identification). The two Obadiahs shared only a common name and the fact that both were pious.
The search for the prophet's identity thus led to very incomplete answers. Only the two books of Obadiah and Malachi among the prophets contain no information about their namesakes other than their names. Significantly, both prophetic names evoke the very concept of “prophet,” since Obadiah means “servant of the LORD,” a term often associated with prophets (e.g., 2 Kgs 9:7; 17:13–15, 23; 21:10; Jer 7:25; Ezek 38:17), and Malachi means “my [the LORD's] messenger” (cf. Isa 42:19, 44:26; Hag 1:13; 2 Chr 36:15–16). Moreover, 2 Chronicles 36:15–16 uses “messengers” in lieu of what 2 Kings 17:13–15 calls “servants” and the terms are presented as semantically parallel in Isaiah 42:19, 44:26. In this light, that nothing is said explicitly about Obadiah and Malachi as individuals apart from their prophetic names suggests that their being prophets is enough to embody and symbolize their presence and importance in the social memory of ancient Israel. In other words, the memory of these figures in ancient Israel was (and likely intended to be) detached from clear temporal or personal data to signify an ideological and transtemporal conception of “prophet” and, correlatively, of “prophecy.”
If so, then these books become far more important than one might judge merely on the basis of their length. The conclusion of Malachi (Mal 4:4–6), among other things, may explain its importance in the Persian period; but what about Obadiah?
Content and Interpretation.
At the surface level, the book of Obadiah consists, for the most part, of a set of related announcements of divine judgment against Edom. Its main theme seems to be the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. and the putative actions of Edom against Judah at the time. These acts and the character flaws from which they stem, are presented as the grounds for the divine judgment of Edom. The existence of a prophetic book containing oracles of doom against only one nation, and a relatively marginal one at that, is unusual within the repertoire of prophetic books. The rarity of the case calls attention to itself and to a central issue raised by the seemingly narrow focus on Edom.
Edom is not only “Edom” but “Esau”—Jacob's (that is, Israel's) only brother (cf. Deut 2:4, 8). At the same time, Edom here represents not only a historical neighbor of Judah—as it certainly does—but also evokes the concept of “the other,” that is, “the nations” other than Israel (see v. 15 and the concluding contrast between Mount Esau and Mount Zion set for the time in which the LORD's kingship will be manifested in v. 21). Edom/“the nations” are thus close to Israel as brothers, but at the same time, Edom/“the nations” are “the other” or “the enemy” (cf. Edom's presentation in Malachi). This “brother” attacked Jerusalem—acted wickedly against his Israelite brothers (vv. 10, 12)—thereby becoming an enemy/other that stood against the LORD and will therefore be punished by God in the future. At the end of Obadiah, that judgment is correlated with the manifestation of the LORD's kingship. The day the Edomites acted against Jerusalem is rhetorically and ideologically presented as the necessary counterpart of the day of their own destruction. This presentation of Edom as both brother and enemy allowed ancient readers to associate “Edom” with Babylon. Note Psalm 137:7–9, where the characterization of Edom flows into that of Babylon and vice versa. In still later times, Edom became identified with Rome.
The contrast between Israel/Jacob and Esau also appears in Romans 9, where Christianity is portrayed as the true Israel. Still later, in rabbinic contexts, as “Rome” turned into “Christendom,” Edom became associated with it.
The book of Obadiah both shaped and reflected other ideas present and contested in postmonarchic Israel. Among these, one may mention social memories of the events of 586 B.C.E., along with utopian visions of the (re)settlement of the House of Jacob. These visions involved the settlement of different subgroups in specific regions. Among other things, this meant the future displacement of the inhabitants of Samaria; at the ideological center of these visions stood a purified Jerusalem that was not to be inhabited by its former residents. This utopian future and spatial reality was associated with a polity in which the LORD was king, but in which there would be no Davidic king.
The present form of the book of Obadiah is clearly postmonarchic and likely from the Persian period. Some scholars have proposed earlier sources or forerunners of its form. Thus, many scholars have considered, for instance, vv. 16–21 to be later additions that go back to one or more hands, which they have tried to associate with particular historical periods. It has also been proposed that the original core of the book consisted of vv. 8–18. The obvious similarities between Obadiah 1–7 and Jeremiah 49:7–22 (especially Jer 49:7A, 14–16, 9–10) have led some scholars to propose that the text in Obadiah is secondary to that in Jeremiah, while others maintain that the relation of dependence was the other way around, and still others argue that both texts worked with a common source and adapted it to their respective contexts.
- Ben Zvi, E. A Historical-Critical Study of the Book of Obadiah. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 242. Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 1996.
- Dicou, B. Edom, Israel's Brother and Antagonist: The Role of Edom in Biblical Prophecy and Story. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 169. Sheffield, U.K.: JSOT Press, 1994.
- Jerome. Commentary on Obadiah on Haec dicit Dominus Deus ad Edom. In S. Hieronymi Presbyteri Opera, Pars I Opera Exegetica 6; Commentarii in Prophetas Minores. Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina. Turnholti: Typographi Brepols Editores Pontificii, 1966. See p. 353. See also Patrologia Latina Database. Alexandria, Va.: Chadwyck-Healey Inc., 1996.
- Jerome. Commentary on Obadiah on Visio Abdiae. In S. Hieronymi Presbyteri Opera, Pars I Opera Exegetica 6; Commentarii in Prophetas Minores. Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina. Turnholti: Typographi Brepols Editores Pontificii; 1966. See p. 352. See also Patrologia Latina Database. Alexandria, Va.: Chadwyck-Healey Inc., 1996.
- Raabe, P. R. Obadiah. Anchor Bible 24D. New York: Doubleday, 1996.
- Renkema, J. Obadiah. Historical Commentary on the Old Testament. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2003.
- Sweeney, M. A. The Twelve Prophets. Berit Olam. Collegeville, Minn.: Glazier/Liturgical Press, 2000. See vol. 1, pp. 279–300.
- Wehrle, J. Prophetie und Textanalyse: Die Komposition Obadja 1–21 interpretiert auf der Basis textlinguistischer und semiotischer Konzeptionen. Arbeiten zu Text und Sprache im Alten Testament 28. St. Ottilien: EOS, 1987.
Ehud Ben Zvi