The vision of Obadiah is more a political slam than most of the prophets. Obadiah stands beside Nahum as a prophecy about another nation, one which will feel the wrath of God for how they have treated God’s people. Nahum was against Assyria and was reflecting on the captivity of the northern kingdom of Israel. Obadiah is against Edom and is reflecting on the way Edom treated the southern kingdom of Judah as Babylon enslaved them into the exile. The use of the word “exiles” at the end of the text to characterize the army who would retake the land and overtake Edom as an expansion of God’s kingdom is a strong indicator that Obadiah was written amidst the struggles with Edom in the return of the Jews to Jerusalem during the late-6th and early-5th centuries BCE.
Obadiah wastes no time beginning to pour his vehement anger against Edom. Edom is the kingdom formed by the children of Esau, the twin brother of Jacob (who was renamed Israel). The vision from has is that Edom, which is already a small nation, will be made smaller by Israel’s god. The Creator god is calling the nations against Edom and will bring them down to destruction by calling other nations’ armies to wage war against them. Edom’s allies would turn against them and they would be trapped, and Edom would know that God himself was destroying them.
This judgement from God was occurring because Edom had turned against the people of Israel by refusing to come to Judah’s aid when Babylon came to destroy Jerusalem and take the people into exile. Edom is depicted as doing violence to Israel by gloating at the demise of Judah, looting Judah in the midst their destruction (probably by extending Edom into Judah’s land as their kingdom fell), and even stopping refugees trying to escape the Babylonian army in order to give those survivors to Babylon to become slaves.
God’s judgment is that Edom’s punishment will come in the same form as how they treated Israel. Their actions will turned around and brought upon themselves, a judgement that sounds very similar to God as Creator punishing the nations. This judgment is not only against Edom. It is against all the nations who came against Jerusalem and allowed for the destruction of God’s holy city of Zion. Using Habakkuk’s imagery of the nations drinking the consequences of their actions, the nations who began to drink of the glory of God in Zion will be forced to drink until they have been purified out of existence! God as Creator will force his created nations into their consequences to the fullest extent and it will result in self-induced un-creation.
There is still hope. Even though the nations will be forced to accept their own self-destruction God as Creator is gracious allowing some to withstand these judgements and will become purified through judgement to be made holy. There is a twist, Israel is the fire that God will use to bring about purification. God will use Israel to destroy the nations, particularly Edom, and it does not seem like Israel will leave any survivors to be purified from these brother-hating children of Esau. In fact, the end of the book simply describes the returning Jewish exiles conquering the whole region, and this conquering is the establishment of the kingdom of God. The Jews will become the saviors of the nations, even of Edom/Esau, by being the blazing fire which purifies them, so they might live under the kingship of Israel’s Creator god.
- What initially jumps off the page in Obadiah to me is the use of Israel as the fire of God which will purify the nations. This is imagery that has already been used by the other prophets but it is always a reference to God being the fire as Creator forging the nations into a purer form to live correctly in his creation. This is a strong change in the prophetic material that sees Israel as the tool by which God will act again amongst the nations to bring about the goodness he desires for his Creation.
- The language of fire seems to be linked again to the idea of human sacrifice. The use of “fire” and “flame” connected to the terms “burning” and “consume” brings in the image of eating, but in the context of Mount Zion, the place of worship to the Creator god of Israel, such language is recognized as sacrificial. This use of these same words in Zephaniah 1:18 and that section begins with the explicit statement that “the Lord has prepared a sacrifice,” explaining that his sacrifice is kings and officials of the other nations. Now the human sacrifice of judgement on the nations shifts into the hands of the Jews as they return to Jerusalem and have rebuilt the temple on Mount Zion.
- There is also a renewed aspect of the judgement on the nations, which is that the nations will be judged and purified based on their relationship to the people of God. Edom is going to be made small because it did not help Judah, or Israel, in her day of need. In fact, the all the nations will who have treated Jerusalem wrongly will be purified through judgement by Israel’s salvific conquering. The nations’ relationship with the people of God becomes the location of and the reasoning behind God’s judgement on the nations!
- What is more, this reference to the kingdom’s establishment in Obadiah is that the Lord will be king and does not mention David or even allude to the Davidic lineage!
- The last observation is the implicit knowledge assumed in the relationship between Edom and Israel as the children of Esau and Jacob. While the political relationship between these nations is at the forefront we know that ancient nations used the language of brotherhood to express their treaties. This political relationship between Edom and Judah (as the kingly tribe of Israel) would sure have been heightened with the etiological stories about Esau and Jacob. These alliance between Israel and Edom was not simply one of geopolitical benefit but reflected a distant, but real, familial connection between their people groups. The hatred espoused in Obadiah against Edom is made more understandable by the background knowledge that Edom’s traitorous behavior was one of a brother turning against his brother, revealed in abandoning a political alliance. This hints at the widespread commonality of these patriarchal stories among the Jews who have returned to Jerusalem from Babylon.
This post is a part of a Read-Through project in which I am reading through biblical and extra-biblical literature. I’m reading the texts in an order based on a couple of timelines I compiled. If you would like to join me on this journey the timelines are available, as well as my prior posts. Each one gives some historical background, a literary synopsis, and a few observations I found interesting enough to share about the examined text.
 1:12, 13b.
 Hab. 2:12-17
 Zeph. 1:18, 3:8; Isa. 4:4-5; Zech. 2:5, 9:4. Even Habakkuk’s drinking metaphor uses “fire” as God allowing the nations to weary themselves into self-formed destruction, and I would link this to Habakkuk’s creation of the nations poem in 3:2-15.
 The whole book expresses this prophetic understanding, but particularly 1:15-18.