Minor Prophets VIII: Obadiah
Obadiah is the smallest book of the Old Testament. Obadiah is a book dedicated to the descendants of Esau, Jacob’s older twin brother. Obadiah is a little book, but it has an important message for brothers.
Amos mentions Edom in his litany of judgments at the beginning of his prophecy (1:11-12), and he closes with the promise that Yahweh will come and find the exiles of Israel and raise back up the tabernacle of David on Mt. Zion, possessing the land of Edom, and the whole land will flow with new wine. So in some ways, Amos introduces what Obadiah fills out: Edom will be judged and yet somehow in the restoration of Israel, Edom will also be delivered.
So what is the message of Obadiah and what does it mean for us?
The book of Obadiah is a prophecy against the nation of Edom, the family of Esau, and specifically their treatment of Judah when Jerusalem was attacked and carried into exile. This likely places Obadiah’s prophecy in the mid sixth century BC – 570s or 560s BC.
In order to understand Obadiah’s prophecy, we should get a running start by remembering who Edom was: Edom is Esau (Gen. 36:1, 8). Esau was a grandson of Abraham, who was not chosen by God to carry the line of promise. There was a fierce rivalry between him and his younger, twin brother Jacob. He despised his birthright, was tricked out of his father’s blessing by Jacob, and promised to kill Jacob, but the last time Esau appears in the story of Genesis, he meets his brother Jacob by running to him, embracing him, and kissing him. It seems that he repented of his bitterness and anger and completely forgave Jacob. In fact, it seems like an early echo of the story of the prodigal son, only this time the blessing has gone with the prodigal brother and the older brother has responded rightly. The story ends with Jacob blessing his brother Esau and promising to come meet him soon in Mt. Seir (Gen. 33:14).
The story of Edom continues after the Exodus when the Israelites are traveling to the Promised Land, and the Edomites refuse to let Moses lead the people through their land (Num. 20:14-21). Later, David built garrisons in Edom in 2 Sam. 8:13-14 and apparently made the Edomites some kind of slaves. These episodes suggest that despite Esau’s repentance, Edom and Israel continued to clash and struggle to be at peace.
One of the other most famous Edomites was Job. In Genesis 36:33, he is listed among the kings of Edom as Jobab, and the Septuagint identifies this as the same Job who was a great king in the east who was struck by God. Another clue confirming this is where Job is from: the land of Uz. Lamentations explicitly identifies the land of Uz as being in Edom: Rejoice and be glad, O daughter of Edom, you who dwell in the land of Uz! (Lam. 4:21) But the story Job gives us an additional flavor for the way God continued to be with Esau and his descendants. Job is a Jacob like character who wrestles with God and man seeking the blessing of God in the face of mistreatment and injustice. Job was a king who learned wisdom through his sufferings.
Another part of the backstory is that the name Edom is a play on the word for “red.” Esau was born red and hairy (Gen. 25:25), and this is where both names come from. Esau means hairy. Edom means red. But there’s a running red theme through the story, and so Genesis particularly underlines this play on his name by connecting it to the incident with the stew that Jacob made. Esau comes in from the fields famished and literally says, please feed me with that “red red” – “adom, adom.” Therefore, Genesis says, “his name was called ‘red’ – “Edom” (Gen. 25:29). Ever after, when we hear or read the name Edom, we are to remember the soup incident. Jacob asks for Esau’s birthright, and Esau despises it and swears that it now belongs to Jacob.
But we really shouldn’t stop there either. The name is much too close to the name “Adam” to ignore the connections there. It’s the same letters just different vowels. Adam was named after the ground, the adamah, that he was formed out of. But when Adam sinned, he was cursed. And instead of bringing blessing to the ground by cultivating it and glorifying it, the ground was cursed for his sake. Now it would grow thorns and thistles and in the end every man would return to the ground. Very early after the fall, the story of Cain and Abel seems to illustrate something of this curse. Cain grows up out of the ground like a great thorn, a weed, and strikes his brother, and now the ground is full of blood. And again, the words are related. The word for blood is dam. The ground is red with blood. In this sense, Esau is another Adam and another Cain, a man who sells the blessing of God for immediate satisfaction, for immediate gain, and he is red with blood.
Obadiah brings God’s word concerning Edom probably sometime in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem. Word is going out among the nations, messages are being sent, and a conspiracy is in the works to turn against Edom, to go to war with Edom (1). The prophet says that whatever stature they have gained will be lost (2), and that Edom is particularly blinded by their pride, thinking they are safe from these kinds of threats (3). They think they are safe because they have hidden themselves in the flefts of the rock, high in the mountains (3). This is most likely a reference to mountain fortresses like Petra. At the end of Amos, God had said He would hunt down all the wicked beginning with his own people. He would chase them to the bottom of the sea if He had to (Amos 9:3), which he actually does with Jonah. And here Obadiah reports that God can also reach up to the stars and find the Edomites in the heavens (4) – so it’s not like they’re safe in the mountains.
The judgment will be thorough and complete. God will not leave any scraps behind (5-6). It’s interesting that this judgment is going to come as a great surprise to Edom. Twice they are told they will be deceived (3,7). This reminds us of the serpent’s deception of the woman in the garden (the same word in Gen. 3:13), but perhaps even more pertinent is the story of Jacob’s deception and trickery of Esau and his father Isaac. Esau still hasn’t learned the lesson. In Genesis, we are told that Esau was Isaac’s favored son. Perhaps Esau rested in that favored position. He thought he was safe, invincible. But Obadiah says that those closest to him will pull the wool over his eyes yet again, even those he eats with (7). Related to Edom’s pride and obliviousness is his apparent strength and wisdom (8-9). He apparently has valiant warriors (mighty men), and Edom was known for it’s men of wisdom (1 Kgs. 4:30). Certain clever men had been able to arrange treaties with the surrounding nations. But David had mighty men, and he was not invincible. Pharaoh had wise men and an impressive army, and he and his wise men were swallowed up by God’s might.
Edom is not the humble Esau running to meet Jacob, running to embrace him, eager to bless him. Edom has reverted to the old ways, the old jealousies, the old hatred, the old feud. But we know what happens when Esau trusts in his status, trusts in his strength and wisdom. And now there is another Jacob on the prowl, and his name is Yahweh (8-9).
The prophecy of Obadiah takes the story of the destruction of Jerusalem and overlays it on top of the story of Jacob and Esau, but it’s as if Obadiah sees in the destruction of Jerusalem an alternate, contrasting ending. In the original story, Esau threatened to murder Jacob, promised to kill, promised to do violence but later repented, later turned from his threats. But here, Obadiah says that the violence has occurred, the threats have been fulfilled. Esau has committed violence against his brother Jacob (10). They are like the sibling that rejoices when a little brother or sister is getting disciplined. They stood outside the city and did nothing while strangers carried Jacob away into captivity (11). They watched and did nothing to help (12). Then they went in to the city and stole whatever was left (13). And finally, they even helped the conquerors by killing some stragglers and handing others over to their oppressors (14).
What Edom has done to his brother Jacob will come back on his own head (15). God is the Lord of all the nations. Judgment begins with the house of Judah, but it doesn’t end there. His justice will fill the earth. But the closer you are to His blessing, the fiercer the wrath. If Judah and Israel got the worst of it, Edom is a close third. He will drink the cup of God’s judgment like all the nations. They will drink and swallow and be as though they had never been (16).
But though Jacob has been slain, though violence has been done, though Jacob like a Joseph has disappeared into the death of exile, he will suddenly appear again when you do not expect it. Jacob will again possess his possessions. He will again inhabit Mt. Zion (17). And the house of Jacob will be a fire, the house of Joseph, a flame (18). Not only will Jacob rise from the ashes. Not only will Joseph be found on the throne. But Edom will find himself at the mercy of God’s people. Israel will inhabit all the lands (19), the captives will become the conquerors (20), and then judges will come judging in Mt. Zion and the mountains of Esau, and all the earth (21).
It’s hard to miss the fact that Obadiah ends exactly where Amos ended, with a prophecy of justice coming from Mt. Zion. The point was that David’s tent previewed New Covenant worship in some wonderful ways, such that James references it at the Council of Jerusalem in defense of including the Gentiles in worship. And the underlying point was the grace of God that purifies the hearts of men when they trust in Christ – so that all the distinctions, all the divisions, all the tensions, all the failures, all the different cultures – are harmonized, are blended in justice and equity.
Here, Obadiah seems to be applying the same lesson to a very particular scene, a story of sibling rivalry, a story of striving brothers – where there was a distinct lack of grace shown — and God’s determination to overcome it with His own unstoppable grace. And this seems to be the point of so many of the other famous/infamous brother stories in Scripture just under the surface: Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brothers, and of course here, front and center, Jacob and Esau: brothers fighting, brothers striving.
It’s not an accident that so much of the New Testament is taken up with addressing sibling rivalry, brotherly love, striving, divisions: Remember the disciples quarreling on their way with Jesus to Jerusalem, arguing about who would be the greatest in the kingdom. And most of Paul’s letters include some kind of reminder or exhortation or rebuke about infighting, striving, arguing, quarreling (Rom. 13:13, 1 Cor. 1, 2 Cor. 12). But Paul has the answer. The answer is grace.
And James agrees: “Where do wars and fights come from? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures… Therefore He says: God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Drawn near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you doubleminded… Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord and He will lift you up…” (Js. 4).
How does this work? Notice that James identifies the same root causes of strife as Obadiah: pride, greed, and violence. And they feed on each other. They snowball. Pride is insidious and masquerades as piety, as humility, as justice. But at its root, pride loves self, serves self, seeks pleasure for self.
Do you rejoice when your brother succeeds? When your brother gets promoted ahead of you, gets a bigger raise than you? Do you rejoice when your friend is blessed with a child before you, with a husband or a wife before you? Do you resent the hardships God has given you? Do you resent the story God is telling in your life? Are you frequently worried that someone thinks less of you? Do you measure your security by how wise people think you are? That’s pride. James says that this is the origin of all kinds of conflict. Maybe it’s very subtle: Have you built fortresses of wealth, humor, respectability, intellectualism, health and fitness? That’s pride. And God resists the proud, but He gives grace to the humble.
There is another set of brothers, another little brother. Adam has a little brother named Jesus. He is a Jacob who wrestles his enemies and tricks them. He came to wrestle and trick sin, Satan, and death. But ultimately He comes to wrestle and trick all of us proud older brothers. He comes as our judge, our Samson, our Ehud, and He has a message from the Lord that brings us low, in order to restore us. And the message is this: you must die. You are the problem. You must lose your pride. You must let go of your defenses, your swagger, your good looks, your smarts, whatever you trust in apart from Christ. You must lose it in Christ, or else you will lose it forever. The world says you’re pretty good on your own, that you can make it on your own, but the mission of Jesus is to point out all the holes, to show you all the cracks, to insist that you have a problem that only He can fix. You can’t fix yourself, you can’t make it on your own.
Jesus prayed until He sweat great drops of blood (Lk. 22:44). He was beaten to a bloody pulp before being crucified on the cross. Jesus became red in His struggle for you. He was Jacob wrestling, but He was also Edom, He also became an Esau for us. He who was the faithful little brother became the faithless older brother for all our resentments, all our pride, all our hatred, all our envy, all our anger. He bore our sins in His body on the tree; by His stripes we are healed. He knows all of it. He knows your petty grievances. He knows how you have resented your spouse, your parents, your friends. He knows it all. And yet, in all the ways you have to fear meeting Jesus, in all the ways you have to be ashamed, He comes like the Greater Esau, He comes out of nowhere, completely unexpected, out of the grave, running to embrace you and welcome you as His long lost little brother.
And that’s the grace of God.