(The Book of Obadiah)
December 13, 2003
The connection between the Book of Obadiah and this week’s parashah is readily apparent. The parashah recounts the enmity between Jacob and Esau (Edom), the progenitors of two neighboring peoples. Obadiah, in turn, is a prophecy announcing the downfall of one of these nations – Edom, which over time had become a bitter enemy of Israel. Rabbi Isaac Abrabanel, the 15th century Spanish statesman and commentator, asked an important question about the context of this prophecy: “When did the events prophesied by Obadiah occur? Did they take place when Nebuchadnezer, the Babylonian king, conquered Judah and its surrounding nations, including Edom or did Obadiah prophesy about the later conquest of the Edomites by Hyrchanus, the Hasmonian king (descendent of the Maccabees) about a hundred years before the beginning of the common era? Perhaps Obadiah’s prophecy has yet to occur and will happen at some future time?” (abridged translation)
Abrabanel’s concerns raise a more general question. How are we to determine what was the intent of the prophet’s message? Was the prophet speaking to his immediate audience and their issues or were the prophet’s words meant to deal with future events and problems? Maybe the prophet’s message was intended to be eschatological in content, concerned with the ultimate aims of God at the end of time?
With regard to the book of Obadiah, there is no consensus among scholars, neither pre-modern or modern, on this question, since Obadiah’s prophecy contains no chronological or biographical details about its author or the events described. The only perceivable clue found in the text itself is the fact that the opening verses of Obadiah’s prophecy are also found in a parallel passage in the book of Jeremiah 49:14-16, 9. It remains an open question though which of the prophets borrowed from the other. If, however, Obadiah is preaching about the same events as Jeremiah then the context of his prophecy would concern the Edomites of the period of the destruction of the first temple who abetted the Babylonians in the destruction of the kingdom of Judah before the Babylonians destroyed their kingdom as well.
Rashi, however, concludes that Obadiah’s prophecy concerns the period of Ahab and Jezebel, the king and queen of the northern kingdom of Israel in a much earlier period. His conclusion is based on the rabbinic association between the prophet Obadiah and Obadiah, the servant of Ahab who saved the prophets from Jezebel in the times of Elijah. (see Sanhedrin 39b) This association is based on the rabbinic tendency to identify unknown Biblical characters with more well known figures. (see Y. Heineman, Darchei Agadah, p. 28) Seder Olam (chapter 20), a rabbinic chronological work from the period of the Mishnah, associates Obadiah’s prophecy with a war between Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah at the time of Ahab and the Edomites. Rabbi Saadiah Gaon follows this opinion. (see Emunot v’Deot 3:8)
Rabbi David Kimche, the 12th century Provencal commentator, assumes that the prophecy concerns Hasmonean times when the Maccabean king, Hyrchanus, conquered the Edomites and converted them to Judaism. Abrabanel, himself, adopts the opinion of Rashi since Rashi’s opinion represents the tradition rabbinic viewpoint. However, he does not preclude the possiblity that this prophecy might be speaking about future times when the destruction of Edom will ultimately lead into Messianic times.
It is likely that the association of Obadiah’s prophecy with the destruction of the first temple represents the intent of the author but it is fascinating to see how each generation found its own answers to the questions posed by Abrabanel. It is a clear message that the significance of religious literature is to be found as much in the reader as it is the work itself.