The Book of Ovadiah is the smallest book in the Tanach. It consists of a single chapter of 21 verses, making it the perfect length for a Haftarah[1]. It is one of the books of the Trei Assar, the twelve prophets whose short books were collected into a single compilation precisely because small scrolls such as Ovadiah would otherwise have gotten lost.

Ovadiah’s prophecy is not addressed to the Jewish People, but rather to the nation of Edom. This is not unusual; there are many examples of prophecy directed at other nations, such as Egypt[2], Assyria[3], and Aram[4]. The purpose of such prophecies is two-fold. First, the nations also need to know how they fare in the eyes of G-d. The second purpose is for us, so that we should know that G-d judges other nations, and that He has plans for all of humanity.

Some prophets are introduced with their name, their father’s name, their city, and the kings to whom their prophecy was directed[5]; some give only their name; and some[6], not even that.

When it comes to Ovadiah, we are given his name, but not his era:

(א) חֲזוֹן עֹבַדְיָה כֹּה אָמַר אֲדֹנָי ה’ לֶאֱדוֹם

1) The vision of Ovadiah: This is what the Lord Hashem says to Edom…

There’s no “who prophesied during the reign of King So-and-So” to pin him down, and there are no references to current historical events to give us a hint. Chazal, who always try fill in gaps left by the Mikra (“Text”), provide several options for this prophet’s origins based on his name and his topic.

Radak presents two distinct opinions in his introduction to Ovadiah:

חזון עובדיה זה הנביא לא ידענו באיזה דור התנבא ודעת רז”ל שזהו עובדיה שהיה עם אחאב ועוד אמרו כי עובדיה גר אדומי היה והתנבא רע על אדום היינו דאמרי אינשי כפא דחק נגרא בגויה נשרוף חרדלא אמר בו בעל הערוך האומן שחק הכף אותו הכף עצמו שורף פיו בחרדל חזק

1) The vision of Ovadiah: We don’t know in which generation he prophesied. The opinion of our rabbis was that it’s the same Ovadiah who worked for Ahav; and they also said that he was a convert from Edom and prophesied evil that would come to Edom. As people say, the tree itself provides the handle for the axe that chops it down.  (Radak on Ovadiah 1:1)

One opinion is that Ovadiah was a convert from Edom. Since there is no reference to Ovadiah being a convert from Edom in the text of his book, it must therefore be Mesorah, a tradition that the rabbis received from their teachers.

As an Edomite convert, Ovadiah would carry greater moral weight: the prophet who is descended from Edom is uniquely qualified to prophesy against it. One might imagine a contemporary case: if a Catholic priest would convert to Judaism, and be sent as an ambassador to the Vatican with a harsh message from the government of Israel. Someone who had been there, and chose a different path, is in the position to say to the rest of the nation: “You, too, could have acted differently”.

The second opinion that Radak quotes is that Ovadiah the prophet is the same person as Ovadiahu the servant of King Ahav, who rescued one hundred prophets from Queen Izevel’s (“Jezebel”) purges (Melachim I 18).

This identification is perplexing for several reasons. First, if Ovadiahu was himself a prophet, he would have been in as much danger from Izevel as the prophets he was harboring. Secondly, the time period does not work out – if the prophecy was given during the SecondTemple, as Radak maintains elsewhere in his commentary, or even near the end of the First, then the prophet lived several hundred years after Ahav. Therefore, when Chazal say that Ovadiah the prophet is Ovadiahu the chamberlain, it is not meant to be taken as historical fact. There must be more to it than the similarity in names; we need to look deeper to find their real meaning and purpose.

The Radak continues, quoting the Midrash:

אמר הקב”ה יבא עובדיה שדר בין שני רשעים אחאב ואיזבל ולא למד ממעשיהם ויפרע מעשו הרשע שדר בין שני צדיקים יצחק ורבקה ולא למד ממעשיהם

G-d said, Ovadiah who lived with two such villains as Ahav and Izevel, and didn’t learn from their deeds, let him settle scores with Esav the villain, who lived among two such righteous people as Yitzchak and Rivka, and didn’t learn from their deeds.

This Midrash frames both Esav and Ovadiahu against the backdrop of their environment. If we take it as a given that a person is influenced by the company he keeps, then Ovadiahu should have been as evil as Ahav and Izevel and Esav should have been as good as Yitzchak and Rivka.  Neither of these were true. That means that the original supposition is false – while a person may be influenced by his environment, for good or for evil, the outcome is far from inevitable. Just as Ovadiahu was able to choose not emulate the deeds of Ahav and Izevel, so, too, Esav could have chosen to emulate the deeds of Yitzchak and Rivka.

If Ovadiahu, who was in the worst possible company, and had the best possible excuses to turn away from G-d, instead became the “Servant of G-d” (“oved Y-ah”) his name implies, then Esav, who was in the best possible company and had no reason to turn away from G-d, must have made the choice to leave deliberately.  Ovadiah then becomes the ideal person to send as a messenger to Esav’s descendents, then nation of Edom.

And if it is not the actual person from the time of Ahav, but rather another one of the same name, he would be carrying the same message: serving Hashem is a choice that one can make, regardless of where you were born.


[1] Ideally, a Haftarah is made up of 21 verses – 3 verses for each of the 7 Aliyot of Shabbat. Most are longer, and a few are shorter, but this one is just right.

[2] Yechezkel 29

[3] Yeshayahu 11, Yonah 1

[4] Amos 1

[5] Hoshea 1:1, Yeshayahu 1:1

[6] Malachi – it is not clear if it is a name, a pseudonym, or a title

Copyright © Kira Sirote 
In memory of my father, Peter Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ז”ל

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