Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

Johan Renkema, Obadiah (trans. Brian Doyle; Historical Commentary on the Old Testament; Leuven: Peeters, 2003).  Pp. 224.  Paper.  ISBN 90-429-1345-2. US$33.00.

Johan Renkema’s exegesis of Obadiah, newly translated from the Dutch original of 2000, is a welcome addition to the commentary literature on this most diminutive of minor prophets.  The author provides a sensible description of Obadiah’s historical context and message, a thoroughgoing poetic analysis and translation of the book, and successive, detailed treatments of the contents of each of the book’s poetic cola.  The volume conveniently includes transcriptions of the five Greek manuscripts employed in researching the study (pp. 94-105). 

Renkema understands Obadiah as an essentially unified composition, lacking a long history of development.  Only v. 20, he concludes, is a later interpolation, added a century after the original prophecy.  Obadiah witnessed the atrocities of vv. 10-14 at Jerusalem’s destruction in 587 B.C.E., Renkema believes, but only constructed the book’s present message three decades later on the eve of Nabonidus of Babylon’s attack on Edom (554/3 B.C.E.)  His original audience was his fellow countrymen and women, either in the exile or in Judah, directly under Edomite oppression.  As implied in the form of the future-oriented prohibitives of vv. 12-14, Obadiah’s theological message transcends its original context.  Future generations should take Edom’s behavior as an example of what is unacceptable and damning for any of earth’s peoples. 

Readers unfamiliar with the Kampen School of poetic analysis may find striking the commentary’s extensive, multi-leveled treatment of Obadiah’s literary structure.  Renkema isolates a whole series of interrelated tiers of poetic coherence in Obadiah, including cola, strophes, canticles, sub-canto’s, canto’s, and, finally, the cantata as a whole.  Most American scholars will probably be most interested in the reconstructed sub-canto’s, which we normally think of as “strophes.” 

Probably the most distinctive feature of this commentary is Renkema’s intricate use of ancient Greek and Syriac textual traditions in analyzing Obadiah’s poetry.  Alongside a close use of the Masoretic accentuation of the book, he relies on a study of the separators (paragraph divisions, rosettes, and dividing points of varying strength) in the texts of ancient versions such as Alexandrinus and Marchalianus in interpreting Obadiah’s colometric arrangement.  The approach often serves him well.  He aptly places strong section breaks after both v. 4 and v. 7, for example, buttressed by a major divider in Marchalianus in the former case and by two rosettes in each of two Syriac manuscripts in the latter case. 

At other points, the evidence of the text tradition leads Renkema to some unique and even problematic conclusions.  I doubt we should follow Alexandrinus, for example, in placing v. 12 in a separate sub-canto from the similarly worded prohibitives of vv. 13-14.  By the same token, I believe Alexandrinus has misled Renkema when he groups v. 16 with preceding verses of Obadiah rather than subsequent ones.  Before v. 16, the text prophesies Edom’s judgment in its own land; starting with v. 16 it describes a more global judgment of all nations on God’s holy mountain.  Verse 15a is a hinge line between these two halves of the book. 

In his section on detailed exegesis, Renkema proceeds through Obadiah colon by colon, devoting one to four pages to each of these verse-line components.  There is plenty of room for detailed interpretive comments.  Discussion here consists of both lower and higher critical matters, often including considerations of text and translation issues, grammar, formulaic language, flow of argument, geography, historical context, and theological intention. 

Scholars will surely debate various of Renkema’s interpretations.  One sure point of contention will be his assertion of only one day of YHWH in Obadiah’s book, a day lacking real eschatological dimensions.  Certainly, Edom experienced an initial day of YHWH in its historical defeat by Nabonidus in 554/3 B.C.E., but that event hardly encompassed the fullness of Obadiah’s prophecies.  It entailed neither a divine judgment on all earth’s nations (vv. 15-16) nor an establishment of YHWH’s reign (v. 21). 

 The Historical Commentary on the Old Testament aims to emphasize the history of interpretation of biblical tradition.  In this vein, Renkema does make a distinctive use of the Greek and Syriac presentations of Obadiah, as noted above.  Aside from that, however, the only other way this commentary fulfills the series goal is in giving persistent attention to Obadiah’s careful adaptation of Jeremiah 49:7-22.  When in v. 1 Obadiah proclaims, “We have had word from YHWH,” the “we,” Renkema argues, refers to Jeremiah and Obadiah, twin biblical witnesses to a divine word against Edom.  Obadiah, close to the circumstances of Edom’s doom, adds details of which Jeremiah could not have been aware.  He goes beyond Jeremiah in v. 3, for example, adding that Edom, impervious to all that is transpiring around it, continues to ask, “Who will bring me down to the earth?” 

 The volume includes helpful bibliographies, including a list of Obadiah commentaries current through 1997 (thus Ben Zvi’s and Raabe’s recent work is present but not Barton’s commentary of 2001).  The book’s usefulness would be improved through the addition of indices.  There are about a dozen spelling and typographical errors in the work, not enough to be a great distraction.   

All told, I have no hesitation recommending this commentary as an accessible, thoroughly researched, and carefully considered volume.  It is a fine credit to the scholarly tradition of Kampen. 

Stephen L. Cook
Virginia Theological Seminary