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Bible Commentaries
Obadiah 1

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-21


Obadiah 1:1-21

IF the Book of Obadiah presents us with some of the most difficult questions of criticism, it raises besides one of the hardest ethical problems in all the vexed history of Israel.

Israel’s fate has been to work out their calling in the world through antipathies rather than by sympathies, but of all the antipathies which the nation experienced none was more bitter and more constant than that towards Edom. The rest of Israel’s enemies rose and fell like waves: Canaanites were succeeded by Philistines, Philistines by Syrians, Syrians by Greeks. Tyrant relinquished his grasp of God’s people to tyrant: Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian; the Seleucids, the Ptolemies. But Edom was always there, "and fretted his anger forever." From that far back day when their ancestors wrestled in the womb of Rebekah to the very eve of the Christian era, when a Jewish king dragged the Idumeans beneath the yoke of the Law, the two peoples scorned, hated, and scourged each other with a relentlessness that finds no analogy, between kindred and neighbor nations, anywhere else in history. About 1030 David, about 130 the Hasmoneans, were equally at war with Edom; and few are the prophets between those distant dates who do not cry for vengeance against him or exult in his overthrow. The Book of Obadiah is singular in this, that it contains nothing else than such feelings and such cries. It brings no spiritual message. It speaks no word of sin, or of righteousness, or of mercy, but only doom upon Edom in bitter resentment at his cruelties, and in exultation that, as he has helped to disinherit Israel, Israel shall disinherit him. Such a book among the prophets surprises us. It seems but a dark surge staining the stream of revelation, as if to exhibit through what a muddy channel these sacred waters have been poured upon the world. Is the book only an outbreak of Israel’s selfish patriotism? This is the question we have to discuss in the present chapter.

Reasons for the hostility of Edom and Israel are not far to seek. The two nations were neighbors with bitter memories and rival interests. Each of them was possessed by a strong sense of distinction from the rest of mankind, which goes far to justify the story of their common descent. But while in Israel this pride was chiefly due to the consciousness of a peculiar destiny not yet realized-a pride painful and hungry-in Edom it took the complacent form of satisfaction in a territory of remarkable isolation and self-sufficiency, in large stores of wealth, and in a reputation for worldly wisdom-a fullness that recked little of the future, and felt no need of the Divine.

The purple mountains, into which the wild sons of Esau clambered, run out from Syria upon the desert, some hundred miles by twenty of porphyry and red sandstone. They are said to be the finest rock scenery in the world. "Salvator Rosa never conceived so savage and so suitable a haunt for banditti." From Mount Hor, which is their summit, you look down upon a maze of mountains, cliffs, chasms, rocky shelves and strips of valley. On the east the range is but the crested edge of a high, cold plateau, covered for the most part by stones, but with stretches of corn land and scattered woods. The western walls, on the contrary, spring steep and bare, black and red, from the yellow of the desert ‘Arabah. The interior is reached by defiles, so narrow that two horsemen may scarcely ride abreast, and the sun is shut out by the overhanging rocks. Eagles, hawks, and other mountain birds fly screaming round the traveler. Little else than wild-fowls’ nests are the villages; human eyries perched on high shelves or hidden away in caves at the ends of the deep gorges. There is abundance of water. The gorges are filled with tamarisks, oleanders, and wild figs. Besides the wheat lands on the eastern plateau, the wider defiles hold fertile fields and terraces for the vine. Mount Esau is, therefore, no mere citadel with supplies for a limited siege, but a well-stocked, well-watered country, full of food and lusty men, yet lifted so high, and locked so fast by precipice and slippery mountain, that it calls for little trouble of defense. "Dweller in the clefts of the rock, the height is his habitation, that saith in his heart: Who shall bring me down to earth?" {Obadiah 1:3}

On this rich fortress-land the Edomites enjoyed a civilization far above that of the tribes who swarmed upon the surrounding deserts; and at the same time they were cut off from the lands of those Syrian nations who were their equals in culture and descent. When Edom looked out of himself, he looked "down" and "across" down upon the Arabs, whom his position enabled him to rule with a loose, rough hand, and across at his brothers in Palestine, forced by their more open territories to make alliances with and against each other, from all of which he could afford to hold himself free. That alone was bound to exasperate them. In Edom himself it appears to have bred a want of sympathy, a habit of keeping to himself and ignoring the claims both of pity and of kinship-with which he is charged by all the prophets. "He corrupted his natural feelings, and watched his passion forever. {Amos 1:1-15: cf. Ezekiel 35:5} Thou stoodest aloof!" {Obadiah 1:10}

This self-sufficiency was aggravated by the position of the country among several of the main routes of ancient trade. The masters of Mount Se’ir held the harbours of Akaba, into which the gold ships came from Ophir. They intercepted the Arabian caravans and cut the roads to Gaza and Damascus. Petra, in the very heart of Edom, was in later times the capital of the Nabatean kingdom, whose commerce rivaled that of Phoenicia, scattering its inscriptions from Teyma in Central Arabia up to the very gates of Rome. The earlier Edomites were also traders, middlemen between Arabia and the Phoenicians; and they filled their caverns with the wealth both of East and West. {Obadiah 1:6} There can be little doubt that it was this which first drew the envious hand of Israel upon a land so cut off from their own and so difficult of invasion. Hear the exultation of the ancient prophet whose words Obadiah has borrowed: "How searched out is Esau, and his hidden treasures rifled!" But the same is clear from the history. Solomon, Jehoshaphat, Amaziah, Uzziah, and other Jewish invaders of Edom were all ambitious to command the Eastern trade through Elath and Ezion-geber. For this it was necessary to subdue Edom; and the frequent reduction of the country to a vassal state, with the revolts in which it broke free, were accompanied by terrible cruelties upon both sides. Every century increased the tale of bitter memories between the brothers, and added the horrors of a war of revenge to those of a war for gold.

The deepest springs of their hate, however, bubbled in their blood. In genius, temper, and ambition, the two peoples were of opposite extremes. It is very singular that we never hear in the Old Testament of the Edomite gods. Israel fell under the fascination of every neighboring idolatry, but does not even mention that Edom had a religion. Such a silence cannot be accidental, and the inference which it suggests is confirmed by the picture drawn of Esau himself. Esau is a "profane person"; {Hebrews 12:16} with no conscience of a birthright, no faith in the future, no capacity for visions; dead to the unseen, and clamoring only for the satisfaction of his appetites. The same was probably the character of his descendants; who had, of course, their own gods, like every other people in that Semitic world, but were essentially irreligious, living for food, spoil, and vengeance, with no national conscience or ideals-a kind of people who deserve even more than the Philistines to have their name descend to our times as a symbol of hardness and obscurantism. It is no contradiction to all this that the one intellectual quality imputed to the Edomites should be that of shrewdness and a wisdom which was obviously worldly. "The wise men of Edom, the cleverness of Mount Esau" {Obadiah 1:8 cf. Jeremiah 49:7} were notorious. It is the race which has given to history only the Herods-clever, scheming, ruthless statesmen, as able as they were false and bitter, as shrewd in policy as they were destitute of ideals. "That fox," cried Christ, and, crying, stamped the race.

But of such a national character Israel was in all points, save that of cunning, essentially the reverse. Who had such a passion for the ideal? Who such a hunger for the future, such hopes or such visions? Never more than in the day of their prostration, when Jerusalem and the sanctuary fell in ruins, did they feel and hate the hardness of the brother, who "stood aloof" and "made large his mouth." {Obadiah 1:11-12; cf. Ezekiel 35:12 f.}

It is, therefore, no mere passion for revenge, which inspires these few, hot verses of Obadiah. No doubt, bitter memories rankle in his heart. He eagerly repeats the voices of a day when Israel matched Edom in cruelty and was cruel for the sake of gold, when Judah’s kings coveted Esau’s treasures and were foiled. No doubt there is exultation in the news he hears, that these treasures have been rifled by others; that all the cleverness of this proud people has not availed against its treacherous allies; and that it has been sent packing to its borders. But beneath such savage tempers, there beats the heart which has fought and suffered for the highest things, and now in its martyrdom sees them baffled and mocked by a people without vision and without feeling. Justice, mercy, and truth; the education of humanity in the law of God, the establishment of His will upon earth-these things, it is true, are not mentioned in the Book of Obadiah, but it is for the sake of some dim instinct of them that its wrath is poured upon foes whose treachery and malice seek to make them impossible by destroying the one people on earth who then believed and lived for them. Consider the situation. It was the darkest hour of Israel’s history. City and Temple had fallen, the people had been carried away. Up over the empty land the waves of mocking heathen had flowed, there was none to beat them back. A Jew who had lived through these things, who had seen the day of Jerusalem’s fall and passed from her ruins under the mocking of her foes, dared to cry back into the large mouths they made: Our day is not spent; we shall return with the things we live for; the land shall yet be ours, and the kingdom our God’s.

Brave, hot heart! It shall be as thou sayest; it shall be for a brief season. But in exile thy people and thou have first to learn many more things about the heathen than you can now feel. Mix with them on that far-off coast, from which thou criest. Learn what the world is, and that more beautiful and more possible than the narrow rule which thou hast promised to Israel over her neighbors shall be that worldwide service of man, of which, in fifty years, all the best of thy people shall be dreaming.

The Book of Obadiah at the beginning of the Exile, and the great prophecy of the Servant at the end of it-how true was his word who said: "He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him."

The subsequent history of Israel and Edom may be quickly traced. When the Jews returned from exile they found the Edomites in possession of all the Negeb, and of the Mountain of Judah far north of Hebron. The old warfare was resumed, and not till 130 B.C. (as has been already said) did a Jewish king bring the old enemies of his people beneath the Law of Jehovah. The Jewish scribes transferred the name of Edom to Rome, as if it were the perpetual symbol of that hostility of the heathen world, against which Israel had to work out her calling as the peculiar people of God. Yet Israel had not done with the Edomites themselves. Never did she encounter foes more dangerous to her higher interests than in her Idumean dynasty of the Herods; while the savage relentlessness of certain Edomites in the last struggles against Rome proved that the fire which had scorched her borders for a thousand years, now burned a still more fatal flame within her. More than anything else, this Edomite fanaticism provoked the splendid suicide of Israel, which, beginning in Galilee, was consummated upon the rocks of Masada, half-way between Jerusalem and Mount Esau.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Obadiah 1". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/obadiah-1.html.
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