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Book of Obadiah

The Book of Obadiah is found in both the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, where it is the shortest book, only one chapter long. Its authorship is generally attributed to a person named Obadiah, which means “servant (or worshipper) of the Lord”. Obadiah is classified as a "minor prophet" in the Christian Bible due to the brevity of the writing (only 21 verses) and the content (prophetic material). An Old Testament prophet was (professedly) not only a person who was given divine insight into future events, but a person whom the Lord used to declare his word.

The first nine verses in the book foretell total destruction in the land of Edom at the hand of the Lord. Obadiah writes that this destruction will be so complete that it will be even worse than a thief who comes at night, for not even a thief would destroy everything. The Lord will allow all allies of Edom to turn away and help chase Edom out of its land. What is the reason for such a harsh punishment? Verses ten through fourteen explain that when Israel (the Lord’s chosen people) was attacked, Edom refused to help them, thus acting like an enemy. What is even worse is that Edom and Israel share a common blood line through their founders who were brothers, Jacob and Esau. Because of this gross neglect of a relative, Edom will be covered with shame and destroyed forever. The final verses, fifteen through twenty-one, depict the restoration of Israel and the wiping out of the Edomites. Verse eighteen says that there will be no survivors from the house of Esau once the destruction is complete. Israel will become a holy place and its people will return from exile and inhabit the land once inhabited by the Edomites. The final verse of the prophecy places the Lord as King who will rule over all the mountains of Edom.

Historical context

The date of composition is disputed among scholars and is difficult to determine due to the lack of personal information about Obadiah, his family, and his historical milieux. The date of composition must therefore be determined based on the prophecy itself. Edom is to be destroyed due to its lack of defense for its brother nation, Israel, when it was under attack. There are two major historical contexts within which the Edomites could have committed such an act. These are during 853 – 841 B.C. when Jerusalem was invaded by Philistines and Arabs during the reign of Jehoram (recorded in 2 Kings 8:20-22 and 2 Chronicles 21:8-20 in the Christian Old Testament) and 605 – 586 B.C. when Jerusalem was attacked by King Nebuchadnezzer of Babylon, which led to the Babylonian exile of Israel (recorded in Psalm 137). The earlier period would place Obadiah as a contemporary of the prophet Elisha, and the later would place Obadiah as a contemporary of the prophet Jeremiah, both of whom were prophets in the respective time periods. The later period appears to be the scholarly consensus as Obadiah 1-9 parallels Jeremiah 49:7-22. The passage in Jeremiah dates from the fourth year of the reign of Jehoiakim (604 B.C.), and therefore Obadiah 11-14 seems to refer to the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzer (586 B.C.). It is more likely that Obadiah and Jeremiah together were drawing on a common source presently unknown to us than Jeremiah drawing on previous writings of Obadiah as his source. There is also much material found in Obadiah 10-21 which Jeremiah does not quote, and which, had he had it laid out before him, would have suited his purpose admirably. Despite everything, however, there are a number scholars who support both dates and even some who support dates other than the two major possibilities presented. Therefore, any date for the composition Obadiah must be held tentatively.

Themes

The overwhelming theme found in Obadiah is the destruction of enemies of God’s people. Unlike some other prophets, Obadiah does not present a “turn or burn” message, simply a message of inevitable doom as a consequence of previous actions. A Christian with a knowledge of the New Testament of the Bible would say that although God’s grace and forgiveness abound in situations, there are consequences which result from bad decisions. Even more than all this, Obadiah shows that judgment falls even within the family of God, as Israel and Edom descended from twin brothers, Jacob and Esau. One can therefore expect that Obadiah's purpose was to make it known that according to his God, Yahweh, if members of the same family were to treat each other in the same manner as Edom treated the Israelites, they too may be subject to the wrath of God.

There is a second theme which lies under the surface of Obadiah's writing which may be relevant for Christians as a faith group. Just as there is perpetual conflict between the two nations of Israel and Edom who once struggled together within a single womb, Christians may understand from New Testament teaching that there is a similar conflict found within their very lives. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians in the New Testament presents the idea that the spirit of God and the flesh are in a continual struggle within a person (cf. , ), just like the two nations in Obadiah’s prophecy. Either the spirit or the flesh will ultimately overcome and the other will fail (just as Israel overcame and Edom failed). It is the Christian perspective that the spirit will ultimately prevail in the resurrection of the dead (e.g. ) with the coming of a renewed heavens and earth (e.g. ).

Scholarly issues

Aside from this scholarly debate surrounding the date of the prophecy which is discussed above, there is also discussion surrounding verse eighteen which says that once judgment has been carried out, “There will be no survivors from the house of Esau” (NIV). The problem arises when that statement is compared with Amos 9:12. According to Obadiah there will not remain even a remnant after Edom’s judgment; however, Amos talks about such a remnant whose possession will be given to Israel. Some scholars have suggested that Amos’s reference to Edom is symbolic of all nations who were once enemies of Israel and not meant to literally mean Edomites in the flesh. This is certainly the perspective of Luke as he recites the passage from Amos in Acts 15:17. Edom is symbolic of the remnant of men and Gentiles who will eventually bear God’s name. Moreover, Frederick A. Tatford in Prophet of Edom’s Doom says that Obadiah’s prophecy is fulfilled today as there is currently no trace of anyone who may be identified as an Edomite.

There is also scholarly discussion about the captivity of Israelites in Sepharad mentioned in verse twenty. It is believed that, in ancient times, "Sepharad" was a name for the modern day land of Spain. Sepharad is also the name of Spain in Rabbinical (and modern) Hebrew. The same verse also speaks of Tzarfat which is identified with France and is the name of France in Rabbinical (and modern) Hebrew. These may have referred to places in the Middle East and later came to refer to countries in Europe. This may be due to the fact that Rabbinic literature identifies Edom with the Roman Empire. If there was a Jewish colony of captives there, however, nothing is otherwise known of it; nor are any circumstances evident which would point to the existence of a colony of sufficient importance to be referred to in Obadiah. Therefore the location of Sepharad remains without a conclusive determination.

Parallels within Scripture

Although there are no direct parallels from Obadiah found within the New Testament, there are thematic parallels which were discussed previously. Elsewhere in scripture, we can note that verses 1-8 appear with minor changes in the Book of Jeremiah 49:7-16, and the style and language found in Obadiah is very similar to the Book of Joel, particularly the end. Obadiah frequently uses the term "the Day of the Lord," which also appears in the Book of Joel, as well as in Isaiah 13, Amos 5, Zephaniah 1, and Malachi 3.

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