Obadiah and Jonah: A Commentary

By Hans Walter Wolff
Minneapolis : Augsburg (1986). 191 Pages.

Reviewed by
1.2 (Fall 1990) : 218-219

The author, professor emeritus of OT at the University of Heidelberg, views Obadiah and Jonah as addressing issues between Israel and the Gentile world by interpretation and the church and all humanity by application (p. 11). Yet in spite of this surface similarity, the books, the people addressed, and their contemporary counterparts differ considerably. Obadiah gathers prophetic sayings and has in view the suffering people of God, but Jonah is couched in narrative and struggles conversely with the duration and extent of God's mercy.

As the prophetic composition indicates, Obadiah was probably delivered as a sermon to the despondent few left behind in Jerusalem after the Babylonian armies had pillaged the city. Obad 1-14 could be a commentary on Joel 3:19, and Obad 15-21 a commentary on Amos 9:12 (p. 17). The relationships of these three books with Jer 49:14-16 have generated much discussion. If Obadiah is an exposition of portions of Joel and Amos respectively, it may have been proclaimed during special services of worship, such as the ones spoken of in Zech 7:3, 5; 8:19. It may also have been accompanied by the recitation of Lamentations as a prayer lament (p. 19). Obadiah's sermon does not reflect, as it may first appear, a primitive hatred toward Edom but rather punitive justice, because the brother nation had broken its covenant by look, word, and act (pp. 22-23). Only a careful reading of the book will clarify the context from which the message arises:

Anyone who is prepared to enter imaginatively into the historical hour in which these sayings were written discovers a wretched people in a ruined city, in dire need of comfort. It is only if we try to picture the service of mourning in the rubble of Jerusalem after the days of catastrophe in 587 that we can begin to understand the proclamation of the prophetic spokesman (p. 22).

Jonah's message, like Obadiah's, was directed toward a violent foreign people, but Jonah, unlike Obadiah and the other ten prophets, is a self-contained story about the prophet himself with only one brief prophecy (3:4b) (p. 75). In fact, the book more strongly resembles the narrative portions of two other prophets (Isaiah 36-39; Jeremiah 37-43) or such narratives as those about Elijah in Samuel and Kings. Yet Jonah is more of a specialized didactic form similar to the genre called "the novella" (p. 82) as in Job, Ruth, and Esther. In contrast to the opinions of many commentators,

What we have here is not really a story about Jonah at all. It is a story about Yahweh's dealings with Jonah. Yahweh has the first word (1:1f.) and the last (4:10f.). It is what he does that thrusts the story forward from phase to phase (1:4; 1:17; 3:1; 4:6ff.), even at the points where Jonah recedes completely into the background for the time being (1:15f.; 3:10) (p. 81).

The final question and closing line of the book, a question directed not only to Jonah but also to all who read of his struggles, evidences the book's didactic character.

The commentary's format is very pleasing. Treatments of both books have introductions dealing extensively with issues such as canonical order, composition, and date. An extensive and wellorganized bibliography encourages further research into these areas.

Each section of the biblical text has its bibliography, the author's translation, philological notes, discussions of form, setting, commentary, and purpose. The reader may differ with the author on issues of composition, theological synthesis, points of interpretation, and the like, but Wolff's philological insight and general thoroughness make this commentary attractive for pastors, teachers, and other students of the Bible.