The Minor Prophets: Obadiah, part 1

16 May

This is part of an on-going series on the Minor Prophets; a bible study I wrote two years ago. For more information on this study, including permission to use it for your own group, please read the introduction


We know almost nothing about the author of Obadiah. The name “Obadiah” itself is translated “servant of Yahweh” or “one who serves or worships Jehovah”. This leads many scholars to believe that it was a pseudonym – the pen-name of an anonymous prophet.  It’s assumed that he lived in Judah, and many Jewish traditions hold that the prophet was not an Israelite but an Edomite – it’s a very interesting idea but there is no evidence to prove it.


No one knows for sure, but there are two main schools of thought. One group (which seem to form the majority of scholarly opinion) believe that Obadiah was written at about 845 BC. This was during the reign of King Jehoram (848-841), when Israel was attacked by the Philistines and Arabians, probably assisted by the Edomites.  The date is based on the rebellion of Edom in 845, when they set up their own king. A second group believes that Obadiah was written much later, at about 585 BC – after the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon.

Jeremiah 49:7-22 is very similar to the beginning of Obadiah (compare Jeremiah 49:9 with Obadiah 5, and Jeremiah 49:15-16 with Obadiah 2-4). It can be reasonably assumed that one of the prophets was paraphrasing the other. Jeremiah prophesied around the time of the fall of Jerusalem, so if Obadiah was written in 845 then it came first.


Obadiah is the shortest book in the entire Old Testament. It’s not even divided into chapters! The whole thing is only 21 verses long.  The entire book is a prophecy against the nation of Edom. There is no “repent and be saved” clause included, it’s just a straight out “you will be destroyed” message. This is very unusual in Scripture. No other nation gets this sort of treatment – their very own book of doom. Amos, another of the minor prophets, gave messages of doom to a bunch of nations (Edom included – see Amos 1:11-12) but the majority of the book is directed to Israel. Most of the prophetic messages recorded in the Bible are messages to Israel. God disciplines his children, and Scripture contains a clear record of his fatherly correction. So what’s the deal with Edom? Why do they get this sort of “special treatment”? To understand the book of Obadiah it’s essential to understand the long history of the nations of Edom and Israel.


The Edomites descended from Esau, the big brother of Jacob – later known as Israel, father of the Israelites. There is serious history between these brother nations. The story of Jacob and Esau is long and complicated. To understand Obadiah better, I recommend reading the stories recorded in Genesis 25:19-34, 26:34-28:8; 32:1-33:17.

From the very beginning these brothers fought against each other – even before they were born! They had different skills, different strengths, and different temperaments. They were favoured by different parents. Jacob twice got the upper hand over his older, stronger brother through quick thinking – by deceiving (this is even foreshadowed by the meaning of his name).  As a kid in Sunday School I thought of Jacob as the villain of the piece, scheming to deceive his naive older brother, but I’ve changed my mind a bit on that.  Jacob was sneaky – there is no excuse for his deception – but Esau was not blameless.

Esau didn’t care. He gave away what should have been his most precious possession for a bowl of soup. He cared more about his present hunger than about his future inheritance. Even more telling is his response after the fact – “he despised his birthright”. What should have been a blessing to him was instead a curse – his lawful right to a double share of his father’s estate was hateful to him because he had given it away. He held on to resentment and anger. When Jacob then received the father’s blessing from Isaac, stealing that from Esau too, he did get upset, and even cried. Again, though, he soon turned to resentment and anger. He held a grudge, and the bitterness was enough that he was ready to kill his own brother. Esau is used as a negative example (what not to do) in Hebrews 12:14-17 – definitely worth a read.

When the two brothers met up later in life, Esau chose reconciliation over revenge. This peace did not last. The descendants of Esau continued to have issue with the descendants of Jacob. The Edomites hated the Israelites.

Jacob took his family to Egypt while his son Joseph in power there. Eventually they were enslaved by the Egyptians, and centuries after first arriving there God sent Moses to get them out. After 40 years in the desert God was leading the nation of Israel up to the land he had promised to give them and they came to Kadesh, on the border of Edom. While the Israelites had been slaves in a foreign land for centuries, Edom had become a solid nation, holed up in cities they had carved from red cliffs, such as the city of Petra – anyone else remember “Raiders of the Lost Ark”?  Despite the centuries that had passed, the Edomites would not allow Israel to pass through their land. They threatened the Israelites with military might. Instead of welcoming the Israelites as long lost brothers, they watched them warily as enemies. (This story is in Numbers 20:14-22).

Through the centuries that followed there was constant war and rivalry between these brother nations. Israel conquered Edom – the older brother again served the younger, as God had spoken to their mother, Rebekah and as their father Isaac had prophesied. Various Israelite kings lead wars against Edom – Saul (I Samuel 14:47), David
(II Samuel 8:13-14), Solomon (I Kings 11:14-22), Jehoshaphat (II Chronicles 20:2), Jehoram (II Chronicles 21:8-10), Amaziah (II Chronicles 25:11-14), Ahaz (II Chronicles 28:16-17). Edom even joined other enemies of Israel, so great was their hatred – it’s even recorded in song, in Psalm 137:7.

As always happens with humans, what’s in our hearts comes out in our actions. Sibling rivalry is often very fierce, but that doesn’t make it at all right. It is something we ought grown out of as we mature. Holding a grudge always hurts ME, not the one I’m angry at. As I hold on, stuck in unforgiveness, that resentment grows and grows until I am so caught up in it I am willing to do things I would never dream of otherwise. Bitterness changes who you are, and ultimately destroys you.

Holding a grudge caused one man to want to kill his own brother.

Holding a grudge caused one nation to desire the annihilation of another.

Obadiah is God’s word to the descendants of Esau, the Edomites, the people of Teman.

Read Obadiah in the NIV
Read Obadiah in the NLT

Continue to part 2 of the Obadiah study


Posted by on May 16, 2011 in Bible Resources


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3 responses to “The Minor Prophets: Obadiah, part 1

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