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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on Obadiah

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(1 ab) Superscription

See OB B.I. ‘Vision’ is a technical term meaning ‘prophetic revelation’ or ‘prophetic message’.


An oracle threatening (or reporting) an attack against an apparently impregnable enemy.

(1 bcd )

Although the parallel in Jer 49:14 and LXX have the singular, ‘I have heard’, the plural ‘we’ suits this context better. It may suggest the sense of the prophet's identity with his hearers but is far more likely to be an allusion to the ‘council of Heaven’, admission to which was the sign of a true prophet (cf. Jer 23:22; 1 Kings 22 ). The call to battle is a literary device (Bach 1962 ).

(v. 2 )

First-person speech of YHWH shows it is he who is actually attacking the power: the human confederates, ‘the nations’, are only his instruments.

(v. 3 )

This human power typifies human pride. The height and apparent inaccessibility of its strongholds which God brings down is a familiar prophetic theme, particularly of Isaiah ( 2:6–19, cf. Ezek 35 ). The power is unnamed in these verses but some see in the use of the word ‘rock’ an allusion to the name of the Edomite city Sela (cf. 2 Kings 14:7 ). Irony marks the question of the power ‘Who will bring me down to the ground?’—the answer comes in v. 4 .

(v. 4 )

For the same imagery see Num 24:21 and cf. Isa 14:12–15 .

(v. 5 )

NRSV follows many when it marks a break between vv. 4 and 5 because of the ‘concluding’ prophetic formula at the end of v. 4 , ‘says the LORD’. Yet see OB B.4. v. 5 really continues the thought of the threatened downfall of the apparently impregnable city. There is a play on words here. The verb which gives the noun ‘grape-gatherers’ also means to fortify a city or, literally, to make it ‘cut off, inaccessible’. It also forms the first three letters of the name ‘Bozrah’, an Edomite town (Am 1:12; Isa 34:5–7 ).

(vv. 6–9 ) The application of the threat to Edom

The tenses throughout are past, but see OB B.3, C. v. 6 , Edom is here called ‘Esau’ just as Judah/Jerusalem is referred to as ‘Jacob’ thus linking the relations between the two countries to the patriarchal stories which portray them as brothers. In these Esau is the ‘elder brother’ and it is Jacob who cheats him. Yet this book shows that God ‘chooses’ the younger and the trickster, and why. It is a theme also found in Mal 1:2–5 and in the NT (Rom 9:6–13 and, in a general way, in the parable of the Prodigal Son). vv. 7–9 , it is an irony that Edom's allies betray them. Edom, for all its wise men (v. 8 ) has shown extraordinary folly in its military alliances, the futility of which in the face of YHWH's judgement is another familiar prophetic theme (e.g. Isa 31:1–3 ). The Hebrew has only ‘your bread’ in v. 7d . NRSV follows a suggestion of Davies (1977 ) here, but the word alone may suggest this anyway. The meaning of the word ‘trap’ is uncertain but there is no doubt of the general thrust. The last phrase, ‘There is no understanding of it’, is another ironic dig at Edom's vaunted wisdom, and is echoed in v. 8 , which says that God will destroy such wisdom and understanding as might be there. ‘Teman’, another Edomite town, gives its name to Edom as a whole here.

(vv. 10–14, 15b ) The reasons for Edom's fate

Usually the grounds of accusation are given before the announcement of judgement in prophetic oracles of this nature (Westermann 1967: 142–62), but this order gives added dramatic force. v. 10 , NRSV follows many in seeing the last word from v. 9 , ‘for the slaughter’ as really the beginning of v. 10 . Note that it is the betrayal of fraternal obligations which is at the heart of the accusation. This opens up a wider concern of YHWH's judgement than any merely one-off historical incident between two nations. The irony is that Edom's ‘allies’ behave in the same way to her. v. 11 , Edom is charged with lack of action so perhaps the ‘slaughter and violence’ done to Jacob (v. 10 ) was that Edom allowed it to happen by such callous indifference. vv. 12–14 have a series of lines all beginning with a construction which would normally be rendered as a prohibition, ‘Do not gloat’ etc. (see REB, JB, and NIV). Since most commentators feel that this reflects a situation which has happened and of which the prophet was an eyewitness they translate it as NRSV has, ‘You should not have gloated’. Again, however, there may be a studied ambivalence here suggesting that this now embodies a timeless truth about just and compassionate behaviour towards ‘brethren’ (see Ben Zvi 1996: 144–6).

Note also the recurrent theme of ‘the day’ in these verses. In this case it is YHWH's ‘day’ of judgement against Judah for their sins. But that in no way excuses Edom or the ‘nations’ who will know their own ‘day’ (vv. 8, 15a ), which will also be a ‘day’ of salvation for God's people (‘my people’, v. 13a , my emphasis). v. 15b , the simplest explanation is that this summarized vv. 10–14 with its theme of a divine lex talionis against Edom.

(vv. 15a , 16–18 ) The day of YHWH

Now ‘the day’ is a day of judgement for ‘the nations’, of which Edom is taken as typical, and of salvation for the people of God. v. 16 , Judah is now addressed. The imagery of judgement as ‘drinking a cup’ is a familiar one, cf. Ps 75:8 (HB 9). In a reversal of roles it will now be ‘the nations’ which drink it. v. 17 parallels Joel 2:32 (HB 3:5 ). The Hebrew word for ‘remnant’ is a feminine singular noun. By rendering it as ‘those who escape’ NRSV makes ‘it shall be holy’ refer to the city. The text, however, here and in Joel, suggests that it is the ‘remnant’ which will be holy. Thus the reader is not being incited to wallow in a sense of nationalistic revenge and superiority but in a belief in the overthrow by God of all that is represented by Edom/the nations, that is of all evil, and the establishment in his kingdom of only that which is holy. The same Hebrew word, pointed differently, can mean either ‘will possess their possessions’ or ‘dispossess those who dispossessed them’ (so NRSV). v. 18 , God, in his judgement against ‘Esau’ and all she stands for will make use of ‘the house of Jacob’ and (for the first time in this book) ‘the house of Israel’. Perhaps this is to suggest that the ‘remnant’ will represent the ‘true Israel’.

(vv. 19–20 ) Geographical details of the possessions of God's people

This is a prosaic and laboured addition to the book trying to give the readers some details of just what will be ‘their possessions’. NRSV renders the text as it stands, but it appears to be in such disorder that it is very difficult to know just what is being predicted. There is a similar expansion in Zech 14:10–11 , in a chapter which also stresses the ‘kingship of YHWH’ as v. 21 does here. Parallels with Joel and Zech 9–14 may suggest that this represents the latest part of Obadiah.

(v. 21 ) Conclusion

Again a Hebrew word may be pointed differently to mean ‘those who have been saved’, so NRSV, or ‘saviours’ (NRSV marg.). It is interesting that the author, in his picture of the future, goes back to the era of the Judges before the monarchy in Israel. The only king here is YHWH. The kingdom is his, not Israel's.

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