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Hearing the Message of Scripture: Obadiah, Reviewed

June 9, 2014

HMS Obadiah by Block

At less than 400 Hebrew words, Obadiah is shorter than many Words on the Word blog posts, including this one. But its literary and rhetorical sophistication is by no means lessened by its length. Obadiah is the prophetical incarnation of the axiom, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Or, in Obadiah’s case, “Brevity is the soul of calling out Edom and declaring God’s restoration of Jacob.”

Earlier this year Zondervan published the first two volumes of a new Old Testament commentary series, Hearing the Message of Scripture (HMS). If you want a brief overview of the series, I’ve posted about it here. Daniel I. Block is author of Obadiah: The Kingship Belongs to YHWH, as well as the general editor of HMS. I’ve had a chance to carefully work my way through the inaugural Obadiah volume, and review it in this post.

Block’s Introduction to Obadiah

The Introduction consists of three primary parts:

  1. Historical Background to Obadiah’s Prophecies–outlining some options for dating the book’s composition, as well as describing the historical setting of Obadiah’s oracles.
  2. Obadiah’s Rhetorical Aims and Strategy–the largest section in the introduction, with an excellent definition of “prophet,” as well as the idea that “Obadiah’s rhetorical aim was to rebuild his audience’s hope in the eternal promises of God.”
  3. The Structure of Obadiahhere Block outlines the book, the “climax” of which is highlighted by the “marked structure” of verse 17a (“But on Mount Zion there shall be an escape…”).

Block later summarizes Obadiah’s style as “terse elevated prose, the style being chosen for maximum rhetorical effect.” After “the climax” of verse 17, the final verse 21 “brings his proclamation to a triumphant conclusion.”

Particularly useful in the introduction was this diagram of the arc of the book, to which I frequently found myself referring:

Block's Plot Summary of Obadiah

Block’s Plot Summary of Obadiah

The Commentary Proper

Hearing the Message of Scripture intends to help its readers “to hear the message of Scripture as biblical authors intended them to be heard.” Obadiah is typeset and laid out quite a lot like Zondervan’s Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series (which I’ve reviewed–several volumes–here). Each passage of Obadiah includes this treatment:

  1. Main Idea of the Passage–a short paragraph overview, good for getting bearings on what the prophet is trying to do.
  2. Literary Context–Block explains the overall flow of Obadiah here and how the passage under consideration fits within the book. This might be the best section in the commentary.
  3. Translation and Outline–the author’s original translation and spacing of the text.
  4. Structure and Literary Form–this looks especially at the rhetorical aims of Obadiah in a given passage.
  5. Explanation of the Text–the longest section of each passage, and the bulk of the commentary.

Block divides the commentary into five “chapters” (8-14 pages each) that follow the five sections of his structural outline.

A good example of the kind of rhetorical analysis Block does appears in his comment on the first verse of Obadiah:

Obadiah’s preference for the name Esau reflects his rhetorical concern. As noted, he is not interested in the political history of Edom or Edom’s economic standing among the nations. To him Edom is a person, the brother of Jacob (vv. 10b, 12a), who shares a common ancestry in the first two patriarchs, Abraham and Isaac, but whose history of violence against his twin brother will finally be answered.

And again, on verse 5:

Obadiah’s penchant for cutting of a thought by inserting an erratic mid-sentence is also evident in v. 5c, “How you have been destroyed!”

One thing I really appreciated about the commentary is Block’s sense of the larger literary context of Scripture. He keeps the parallel Jeremiah 49 in view throughout the commentary, as well as other prophetical literature like Ezekiel and Daniel. Block helps the reader see how Obadiah fits into the larger sweep of the Hebrew Bible. Especially noteworthy is his elaboration of what other prophets in the Hebrew Bible had to say about Edom. As I read the commentary, in other words, I was able to reflect on and learn about much more than just Obadiah.

At the end of the commentary, there is a section called “Canonical and Practical Significance,” in which Block, having worked carefully through Obadiah, draws out some theological implications of the book.

Evaluation of Block’s Obadiah

A few observations, by way of evaluation:

The footnotes serve as an excellent source of references for a given word’s use elsewhere in the Old Testament. Footnotes also keep other versions such as the Vulgate and Septuagint in view.

I found the transliterated Hebrew throughout the book to be distracting. The ZECNT, which in many ways is the NT counterpart to this HMS series, does not transliterate its Greek. It also includes the full Greek text of the New Testament book under consideration, verse-by-verse, so it would have been nice to have had the full Hebrew text of Obadiah reproduced here, as well.The Series Introduction does note that “electronic versions of this commentary series will also include the Hebrew font.”

One intangible I appreciated–the margins are nice and roomy for notes. (I made quite a few to help me process Obadiah as I read.)

In an excellent commentary that is hard to fault for much else, it has an unusually large amount of typos. Many of these occur when the same verses from Obadiah are not consistently translated when they occur in multiple spots in the commentary. I heartily recommend this volume, but would suggest that those interested perhaps wait until the second printing, when corrections can be made.

Though this series aims to focus more on the rhetorical features of Obadiah, there is a good focus throughout Obadiah on the Hebrew syntax. My grammatical knowledge of Hebrew increased just by reading this commentary.

I didn’t fully agree with Block’s interpretation at every turn, but even in such instances I generally found his arguments to be reasonable and well-argued.

Bottom line: this is a really good commentary, and I like this series a lot so far. Even with its lexical, grammatical, and rhetorical details, Hearing the Message of Scripture: Obadiah is an engaging and page-turning read. Block explains the challenging book of Obadiah well at every turn. There are other good commentaries on Obadiah already in print, but pastors especially should start here, and academicians, too, will want to make sure to pick this book up.

You can look at the volume yourself–a sample PDF of Obadiah is here.

I am grateful to Zondervan for the gratis review copy of this commentary, which was offered for an unbiased review. You can find the book on Amazon here. The Zondervan product page is here.

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