I’m going to start by looking at the haftarah for this week, which consists of the entire book of Obadiah. Fortunately, the entire book is only 21 psukim long:
כֹּה אָמַר ה׳ לֶאֱדוֹם
It’s a נבואה not for Israel but for Edom, which is unusual but not unheard of:
בָּזוּי אַתָּה מְאֹד
The navi starts by describing the punishment of Edom, how it will be lain waste and left desolate, abandoned by its friends. There’s no description of what Edom did wrong.
בְּיוֹם עֲמָדְךָ מִנֶּגֶד
The description of Edom’s sin doesn’t start until פסוק י. First the navi accuses Edom of standing by and not helping the refugees, then of cheering on the destruction of ירושלם, then of actually participating in that destruction.
כִּי קָרוֹב יוֹם ה׳
But the day of reckoning will come and the punishment will be meted out by the resurgent Jewish people who will return from exile. רש״י translates צָרְפַת as פרנצא (quoting anonymous פותרים) and סְפָרַד as אספמיא (citing תרגום יהונתן). It’s not clear if that’s what Obadiah meant; צָרְפַת is mentioned in ספר מלכים as a city in Phonecia, which would be a lot closer. It’s also not clear what אֲשֶׁר כְּנַעֲנִים means; all the translations and commentators I’ve seen interpret it as “with the Canaanites”; that somehow the Canaanites were exiled from the land and the Jews followed them. I would translate it the way we do in אשת חיל (משלי לא:ד), סדין עשתה ותמכר; וחגור נתנה לכנעני. בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר כְּנַעֲנִים means “Jews who were itinerant peddler as far as צָרְפַת”; certainly a well-known phenomenon in American Jewish history.
Be that as it may, in the final יוֹם ה׳ הַר צִיּוֹן will triumph over הַר עֵשָׂו and ה׳ will rule the world.
Why Edom and why Obadiah? Why does he get only one נבואה, and why this one?
There’s no source in תנ״ך for the idea that עבדיה is from Edom, but we do know some of his back story. He was an officer of Ahav, king of Israel:
And the aggadah tells us of his fate:
So חז״ל saw Obadiah as an anti-Edom. He saved refugees; Edom rejected them. He was the one good man in Ahab’s court of idol worshippers; Esav was the one who lived with Yitzchak and Rivka and still turned out wrong:
So what did Edom do that was so bad? Let’s look back at its history:
So Esav is not upset at the “theft” of the blessings. Why would he? They clearly did not come true; Esav has plenty of money and power. He is in no way subservient to Yaakov. The blessings from 20 years ago were just a bunch of words from an old blind man.
Note that he is described as “going back to Seir”, in the Negev. That seems inconsistent with what we read later:
Again, Esav has no need for the spiritual legacy of Avraham. But what about his moving to Seir? Didn’t he already live there?
Esav married a girl from Seir. I think at the beginning of the parasha he was just “working” down there, with his father-in-law. Seir is a barren wasteland; its only commercial importance is being the crossroads from Egypt to the Fertile Crescent. I imaging Esav with his 400 men as a provider of “protection” for the caravans passing through.
It was only after Yaakov returned that he actually moved with his family down there, and his descendants eventually conquered it and made it their country:
The next time we meet Edom, it is as בני ישראל are leaving Egypt:
And Edom and Israel have an uneasy relationship (similar to Israel and Egypt today) until they are conquered by David:
They remain a vassal state of Judah until the time of יהורם בן יהושפט of Judah, one generation after אחאב of Israel:
Edom would continue to be independent of Judah, with some active fighting (more of a hot peace than a cold war). Obviously the first part of the prophecy came true; Edom watched as Judah was despoiled. But later generations would go back and re-read Obadiah’s words at the time of the final destruction of Jerusalem. Then Edom did not figure in the actual destruction but cheered on the Babylonians:
So Obadiah’s prophecy may have been heard by his contemporaries as referring to the impending rebellion of Edom against Judah, but in the long term it looks like he is describing their role in the חורבן. As we have said before, a נבואה will always come true; we just have no way of knowing how it will come true. The words (especially of eschatological נבואות) can apply in every generation.
As the Gemara says:
So the message of עבדיה was important for future generations, even to the point that חז״ל canonized it to be part of תנ״ך. Why? If Edom didn’t actually destroy the בית המקדש, why are all these נבואות so dire, why is their punishment so terrible? I think it is because they are identified as אחיך; they should have been brothers, partners in the overriding goal of תקון עולם, but chose to reject that. But even that shouldn’t be so bad. It is the eventual identification of Edom with Rome and the destruction of the second בית המקדש that gives חזון עובדיה its power.
Let’s look at that identification. It’s not clear where it comes from; the earliest mention seems to be about the time of the Bar Kochba revolt. Some (see Zeitlin, S (1970) “The Origin of the Term Edom for Rome and the Roman Church”, Jewish Quarterly Review 60:3, 262-263) feel it was a code to hide the Jews true intentions about the Romans. Others attribute it to Herod, who was Idumean (from the Roman province in the area of ancient Edom).
Rashi says Rome is directly descended from Esav:
But he seems to contradict himself:
I understand it the way the Malbim does, that Rome as Edom is a cultural identification, not a genetic one:
I don’t know if the Malbim, when he says נתיסדה אמונתם, means Christianity itself or the weltanschauung of Rome, as the nation of עולם הזה. Esav is the “self-made” man; he has no need for בכורה or ברכה. חז״ל saw in their experience with the Romans that same attitude, and saw in the interaction of Israel and Rome the eternal dialectic that was foretold to Rivka (בראשית כה:כג): ולאם מלאם יאמץ. And the נבואה of עבדיה morphed from a vision of a small lost nation in the desert south of Israel to a reflection of 2000 years of history leading to the final destiny of mankind.