E. Tod Twist
My favorite picture of my parents sits on the mantle of my fireplace. Whenever I look at that photo, I remember them in the best possible way—as I thought of them in my childhood. I’ve looked at that picture for so long that I’ve forgotten the moment it was taken. My brother, though, remembers it keenly. Mom and Dad were at each other, and he and I were trying to stay out of the way. Pictures can be like that—almost timeless, but capturing a moment in time. The truth lies in the tension between the picture itself and the story behind it.
So it is with the book of Obadiah. The book includes a snapshot of an ongoing family dispute between the nations of Judah and Edom. This national rivalry has its roots in the ancient sibling rivalry between Jacob (Judah) and Esau (Edom). While Edom is mentioned several times in the Old Testament, it’s in Obadiah that the nation is judged for its sin:
Because of the violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever. On the day that you stood aloof, on the day that strangers carried off his wealth and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were like one of them (Obad 1:10–11).
Several verses of this brief book reinforce the familial connection between Edom and Judah. For instance, Obadiah 1:8 connects Edom to “Mount Esau,” and Obadiah 1:18 contrasts the “house of Jacob” with the “house of Esau.” To better understand what is going on in this snapshot of family history, we can consult resources using the following interpretive steps.
STEP 1: Briefly survey the appearances of Edom in the Old Testament.
To understand the background of Obadiah, we need to get an overview of Edom in Scripture. A good way to survey a narrative is to search for a term using Bible software, such as Logos 5. Doing so enables you to quickly see how often “Edom” appears in Scripture and then check the full quotation of the passages where it occurs.
Most of the biblical references to Edom describe friction between the nations of Edom and Judah, and some of them cast that animosity in familial terms. The rivalry that begins with brothers Esau and Jacob (Gen 25:19–34) eventually culminates in Esau’s bitter hatred of Jacob (“Then I will kill my brother Jacob,” Gen 27:41). The book of Numbers later alludes to this troubled relationship, as Moses mentions “your brother Israel” when addressing Edom and its subsequent refusal to help Israel (Num 20:14). Ensuing references to Edom lack familial language, but it resurfaces in the prophetic books. Although Ezekiel 25:12 and 35:5 condemn the vengeful intensity of Edom’s animosity toward Judah—without using specific familial language—Amos 11 describes Edom as having pursued his “brother.”
STEP 2: Use a Bible dictionary to understand the historical context of Obadiah.
Obadiah prophesies against Edom after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians (586 bc). Obadiah 10–14 tells the story of Edom’s crimes. The nation is rebuked for standing by and watching as Jerusalem is destroyed (Obad 12). They participate in looting the city and then help the Babylonians round up stragglers (13–14). The prophet pronounces judgment on Edom in Obadiah 15–18, but then presents a salvation oracle about Judah’s future restoration—but not Edom’s (19–21).
We don’t know all the details of the relationship between Judah and Edom. Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary points out that texts like Jeremiah 40:11, and others, imply that people of Judah found refuge in the areas surrounding the nation, which included Edom. Yet, there is a story behind the picture of Edom that we see in Obadiah, and that story is complex, with many unanswered questions.
STEP 3: Explore later biblical developments involving Edom and Esau.
This story of historical animosity is used later in the Bible as a doctrinal reflection. In Romans 9:13, Paul summarizes God’s favor of Jacob/Israel by saying, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” Hebrews 12:16 explains God’s rejection of Esau by saying that he was “unholy” because he had “sold his birthright for a single meal” (see Gen 25:29–34).
When we read Obadiah, we see a family portrait with a bitter backstory. From the biblical authors’ perspective, Esau and Jacob were at each other from the beginning. Their rivalry formed a platform for God’s message of salvation—and one of the reasons God’s grace extends to us.
Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).