The prophet Obadiah was a contemporary of Elijah the prophet. He lived in the days of King Ahab and his wicked wife Jezebel. In fact, he was the manager of their entire estate. We encounter him in the story of Elijah and his confrontations with King Ahab. When Jezebel began hunting down and killing all prophets of G‑d, Obadiah took it upon himself to hide one hundred prophets in two caves and to provide all their needs from his own pocket. The verse there calls him “a very G‑d-fearing man.”1 Albeit nameless, we also encounter him posthumously in the haftarah of Vayeira, with the miracle of Elisha and the oil (see there).

The book of Obadiah contains only one chapter, and it is entirely preoccupied with the fate of Edom—the descendants of Esau. Obadiah was specifically chosen to be the carrier of this message because he was in fact an Edomite who had converted to Judaism. Furthermore, “Obadiah, who dwelt amidst two wicked people (Ahab and Jezebel) and did not learn from their ways—let him come and prophesy the downfall of Esau, who dwelt amidst two righteous people (Isaac and Rebecca) and did not learn from their ways.”2

As we read in our Parshah extensively, Esau and his descendants lived in and ruled the region of Mount Seir known as Edom.3 The people of Edom were a continuous adversary of the Jews in the Land of Israel.4 What is interesting, though, is that Obadiah speaks of the doom that will befall Edom in the days of Moshiach. This is not unique to Obadiah—a number of other biblical prophets speak of this as well.5

The Mishnah6 states it as fact that the descendants of the biblical nations no longer inhabit their original places of origin. As far this prophecy is concerned, however, a fascinating observation is made by a number of commentaries. Rome was founded by the people and culture of Edom, the descendants of Esau. Thus the Romans, who destroyed the Second Temple, and those European nations who continued in their path with centuries of Jewish persecution and torture, are all included in the term “Edom.” It is for this reason that throughout rabbinic literature, the exile we are in now is referred to “the exile of Edom.” The book of Obadiah, then, refers to “Edom” in this broader sense.7 Although the details of how this prophecy might be fulfilled are mostly obscure, the obvious idea is that in time to come G‑d will take retribution upon Edom, who oppressed the Jewish people.8

The “Vision of Obadiah” begins with what might be a mocking statement directed at Edom’s arrogance. Notwithstanding their self-determination, G‑d will bring them down from the high place they considered themselves to be. Edom will be entirely overrun by its enemies and backstabbed by its allies. At that time it will lose both its wise and its mighty, rendering it a ridiculed and poor nation.9

Seeing far into the future, Obadiah tells of the future wrongs of Edom which would earn them this retribution. In the time of the destruction and exile of the Jews by the Babylonians, the Edomites stood by and happily watched the downfall of Israel and the exile of its people. There was not even a trace of the kinship that might have been expected from a nation who were in effect cousins to the Jews. Worse still was the destruction perpetrated by the Romans themselves some five hundred years later. The hate the Romans showed was so great that they were bent on destroying every last remnant of what once was the Jewish people.10

The prophet says that “the day is near” when all the evil done by Edom will be returned to it. (Radak explains that although this would happen in a long time from when these words were said, it could be considered “near” in the sense of “certain,” as this is a promise by G‑d.) At that time, not only will the Jews return to their rightful land and holy place, but they will also expand their territory into the lands of their former enemies. This will be the time when G‑d will be recognized as sovereign in the world.

No remnant of Esau

In verse 18 the prophet states that in time to come “there will be no remnant to the house of Esau”.

The Talmud tells many stories of the warm relationship between Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi (“Rabbi Judah the Prince,” also called simply “Rabbi” par excellence) and the Roman Emperor Antoninus (Pius?). Once the emperor asked the rabbi: “Will I enter the world to come?” “Yes!” said Rabbi. “But,” said Antoninus, “is it not written, ‘There will be no remnant to the house of Esau?’” “That,” he replied, “applies only to those whose evil deeds are like those of Esau.”11

In general, when the Talmud refers to “the world to come,” it can mean either the world the soul goes to after its passing, or the privilege of coming back to life at the resurrection of the dead.12 It seems that according to at least one source this passage does refer to the the resurrection of the dead, and that those descendants of Esau who do not follow in his ways will merit to be resurrected.13

The forest provides the axe’s handle

As mentioned before, the connection between Obadiah and his prophecy about Edom was due to the fact that he himself was originally an Edomite. The Talmud there comments: “It is regarding cases like this that people say, ‘From the very forest itself comes the handle of the axe.’” A descendant of Edom was the one found most suitable to prophesy its downfall.

Far from being just a quip, this statement is used as a guide in Divine service. Sometimes there are things that can be extracted from a domain of unholiness and used to destroy that very domain itself. An example for this is given in the Tanya, the primary book of Chabad chassidic teachings:

As a rule, any feeling of sadness is not associated with holiness. Being in G‑d’s presence, as we always are, must generate a feeling of inner joy. But there is one form of sadness which is different: the sadness over one’s lowly spiritual state. Provided that this feeling does not lead to depression, but on the contrary it is a feeling of bitterness that propels the person to improve, then it can be something positive. This feeling itself will push the person out of a spiritual state of apathy and get him or her back on track. So even though this attribute does not belong to a holy domain, it can be “extracted” and used to destroy the very unholy domain of which it is usually a part.

The Tanya explains that the reason this is so is because things are this way on a cosmic level. The truth is that everything, even an unholy attribute, ultimately comes from G‑dliness. In its source, this idea is actually something holy. It is only in an ungodly setting that this same attribute can become a force for unholiness. The way to undo this, then, is to bring to the fore this attribute in the way it exists in a holy setting. Once this attribute is brought to the fore in its original G‑dly fashion, the way it exists in a dark setting will automatically fall away.14