The book of Obadiah is the shortest book in the Old Testament, just a single chapter in length. Because the prophet Obadiah frequently mentions Jerusalem, Judah and Zion, he was probably working in the southern kingdom of Judah (Obad 11, 12-13, 17, 21). His name means “servant of the Lord,” but nothing is known of his personal life and he is never quoted in the New Testament. In the book, the kingdom of Edom and its northern neighbor Judah are portrayed as brothers, with a sibling rivalry like that of Esau and Jacob, grounded in the Book of Genesis.
The dating of the prophecy is difficult to determine, although it seems to follow an Edomite assault on Jerusalem, described in Obadiah 10-14. As a result of this assault, “Thus says the LORD God concerning Edom … I will surely make you least among the nations, you shall be utterly despised” (Obad 1-2). This punishment is based on the violence and inhumanity that Edom showed in its attack on Jerusalem. “For the slaughter and violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever. On the day that you stood aside, on the day that strangers carried off his wealth, and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you too were like one of them” (Obad 10-11). In particular, Edom is criticized for acting as “one of them” — as one of Judah’s enemies — when Edom should have treated Judah as kin (Deut 23:7).
God’s judgment, according to Obadiah, is tied to three particular failures by Edom. First: Gloating. “But you should not have gloated over your brother on the day of his misfortune” (Obad 12). Second: Looting. “You should not have looted his goods on the day of his calamity” (Obad 13). Third: Mistreating fugitives and survivors. “You should not have stood at the crossings to cut off his fugitives; you should not have handed over his survivors on the day of distress” (Obad 14). Because of these crimes, “the day of the Lord is near against all the nations,” says Obadiah. “As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head. For as you have drunk on my holy mountain, all the nations around you shall drink; they shall drink and gulp down, and shall be as though they had never been” (Obad 15-16). Edom is forced to face the logical consequences of its actions and be annihilated, in line with the words of Jesus, “the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matt 7:2).
So, given the existence of hostility between close neighbors — in the ancient world and today — what can we learn from Obadiah about standards for behavior? Some of the lessons of this book fall into the Christian tradition of “just war theory.” According to the 13th-century thinker St. Thomas Aquinas, at least three conditions must be satisfied in order for a war to be considered “just”: It must be waged by lawful public authority in defense of the common good; it must be waged for a just cause; and it must be waged with the right intention — not vengefully nor to inflict harm.
So, was the assault of Edom on Jerusalem a “just war”? Clearly, it was not. The attack violated a number of standards for acceptable warfare. In a just war, looting is not allowed. “Private property must be respected and may only be taken when necessary to conduct the war,” writes Catholic Brother Lawrence Mary. “Looting is not justified.” Edom violated this standard when it “looted [Judah’s] goods on the day of his calamity” (Obad 13).
In a just war, there is no mistreating of fugitives and survivors. “Prisoners of war should not be tortured or placed as human shields to protect one’s own troops,” says Brother Mary. “Citizens must never be deliberately targeted. When prisoners are taken, they must not be harmed even if the enemy fails to make promised concessions or violates previous agreements.” Edom violated this standard when it “stood at the crossings to cut off [Judah’s] fugitives; you should not have handed over his survivors on the day of distress” (Obad 14).
In a just war, there is no gloating. According to Catholic theologian George Weigel, the peace that follows war “coexists with broken hearts and wounded souls. It is to be built in a world in which swords have not been beaten into plowshares, but remain swords: sheathed, but ready to be unsheathed in the defense of innocents.” When a time of war results in peace, there is no room for gloating, boasting or rejoicing on the day of another person’s ruin (Obad 12) — instead, participants live with “broken hearts and wounded souls.” We continue to live in a world in which there is hostility between neighbors, and we need standards for managing conflict.
This passage from the book of Obadiah is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because it tells us that God will always judge nations that wage wars in a manner that tolerates gloating, looting and the mistreatment of innocent people. Fighting often brings out the worst in people, but warfare does not require barbarity. Human rights must be protected, according to Obadiah, even in the middle of armed conflict.
1. When is gloating, looting, and mistreatment of innocent people tolerated today?
2. In your opinion, is war ever just? What conditions must be satisfied?
3. In today’s global war on terrorism, what particular challenges arise?
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