Rorate Caeli

Saints of the Old Testament: St. Abdias, prophet

Today, the traditional Roman Martyrology's roll of saints commences with the heavenly birthdays of three Christian saints. The fourth name in this day's roll of holy witnesses, however, is that of another saint of the Old Testament, as we see here:

This Day, the Nineteenth Day of November

At Marburg, in Germany, the demise of St. Elizabeth, widow, daughter of Andrew, king of Hungary, of the Third Order of St. Francis. After a life passed in the performance of pious works, she went to Heaven, having a reputation for miracles.

The same day, the birthday of St. Pontian, Pope and martyr, who, with the priest Hippolytus, was transported to Sardinia, by the emperor Alexander, and there, being scourged to death with rods, consummated his martyrdom. His body was conveyed to Rome by the blessed Pope Fabian, and buried in the cemetery of Callistus. 

At Samaria, the holy prophet Abdias.

St. Abdias -- that is, Obadiah (Hebrew Obadyah, "servant of the Lord") -- was a prophet of the Old Testament, author of the Prophecy of Abdias, which is the fourth book of the 12 Minor Prophets. His book is the shortest in the Old Testament, consisting of but a single chapter of only 21 verses. The book's own title for itself is "The Vision of Abdias," and what the holy prophet saw in his vision was divine wrath and humiliation visited upon the nation of Edom as well as the vindication and restoration of Israel.  Through Abdias, God warns the Edomites -- who were descendants of Esau, older brother of Jacob, father of the Israelites -- that when He takes action to punish Israel for their wickedness and disobedience, they should not celebrate the downfall of the Jews, nor opportunistically aid in the plunder and spoiling of Jerusalem. On the contrary, the calamities that were to befall Israel would also bring about Edom's ruin (for Nabuchodonosor attacked Edom just a few years after he destroyed Jerusalem) -- and then in turn God would restore Israel and then wield the nation of Israel as a weapon of his wrath against the children of Esau, so that "there shall be no remains of the house of Esau, for the Lord hath spoken it."  This prophecy was fulfilled in the days of the Hasmonaean priest-kings, who subjugated the Idumeans (that is, the Edomites) and compelled them to become Jewish proselytes, after which the Edomite people ceased to exist, being absorbed by their cousins the Israelites. The Book of Abdias culminates with a Messianic vision of salvation in Mount Sion, when "Saviours shall come up into mount Sion to judge the mount of Esau: and the kingdom shall be for the Lord." Beyond the historical sense of this vision, of course, the prophet's words about Israel have the fullest application in allegorical reference to the Church, which is the kingdom that is for the Lord, and the words about Edom apply allegorically to the Church's enemies throughout the ages.

Of St. Abdias himself, there is virtually nothing that is certainly known -- though tradition has much to say. From his book we know his name, but the book contains no biographical details, and his vision affords little that might enable a student of Holy Scripture to determine when the prophet may have lived. One may consult the old Catholic Encyclopedia to learn of the opinions that Catholic commentators and critics have offered regarding the identity and historical setting of St. Abdias. Leaving aside the prophet St. Abdias, a total of 12 men named "Obadiah" appear in the historical and genealogical writings of the Old Testament. However, ancient Jewish and Christian tradition has only ever identified one of them as the prophet of that name: an official who served as the royal steward of King Achab of Israel during the 800s B.C., as is told in III Kings 18:1-16 --

After many days the word of the Lord came to Elias, in the third year, saying: Go and shew thyself to Achab, that I may give rain upon the face of the earth. And Elias went to shew himself to Achab, and there was a grievous famine in Samaria. And Achab called Abdias the governor of his house: now Abdias feared the Lord very much. For when Jezabel killed the prophets of the Lord, he took a hundred prophets and hid them by fifty and fifty in caves, and fed them with bread and water. And Achab said to Abdias: Go into the land unto all fountains of waters, and into all valleys, to see if we can find grass, and save the horses and mules, that the beasts may not utterly perish.  And they divided the countries between them, that they might go round about them: Achab went one way, and Abdias another way by himself. And as Abdias was in the way, Elias met him: and he knew him, and fell on his face, and said: Art thou my lord Elias? And he answered: I am. Go, and tell thy master: Elias is here. And he said: What have I sinned, that thou wouldst deliver me thy servant into the hand of Achab, that he should kill me? As the Lord thy God liveth, there is no nation or kingdom, whither my lord hath not sent to seek thee: and when all answered: He is not here: he took an oath of every kingdom and nation, because thou wast not found.  And now thou sayest to me: Go, and tell thy master: Elias is here. And when I am gone from thee, the spirit of the Lord will carry thee into a place that I know not: and I shall go in and tell Achab, and he not finding thee, will kill me: but thy servant feareth the Lord from his infancy. Hath it not been told thee, my lord, what I did when Jezabel killed the prophets of the Lord, how I hid a hundred men of the prophets of the Lord, by fifty and fifty in caves, and fed them with bread and water? And now thou sayest: Go, and tell thy master: Elias is here: that he may kill me. And Elias said: As the Lord of hosts liveth, before whose face I stand, this day I will shew myself unto him. Abdias therefore went to meet Achab, and told him: and Achab came to meet Elias.
In The Lives of the Prophets, a Jewish work written in the first century A.D., the holy prophet St. Abdias is identified as a pupil of the great prophet St. Elias, and is spoken of in such terms that it is clear the author of this compilation of ancient Jewish tradition agreed with the later tradition attested in rabbinical writings -- that King Achab's steward Abdias was none other than the prophet who wrote the Book of Abdias.  According to this work,

He was from the region of Shechem, of the field of Beth-hakkerem. He was a pupil of Elijah, and having done much in his service he was saved from death by him. He was that third captain of fifty whom Elijah spared, and went down with him to Ahaziah. Afterward, leaving the service of the king he became a prophet, and upon his death he was buried with his fathers.
"Saved from death by him" refers to the events of III Kings 18:1-16. As for the reference to "that third captain of fifty whom Elijah spared," that is the episode found in IV Kings 1:9-15. Similarly, rabbinic tradition maintains that Achab's steward Abdias remained in the service of the kings of Israel until the reign of Ochozias, son of Achab, after which he became a prophet. If this traditional identification is correct, then it could be that in verse 11 of the Book of Abdias, the prophet was alluding to the sack of Jerusalem during the reign of wicked King Joram of Judah (who was a contemporary of Ochozias and Joram, the sons and successors of Achab), of which we read in II Paralipomenon 21:16-17. Others believe, however, that verse 11 refers to the Fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. -- but we need not (and indeed ought not) think that St. Abdias was speaking of a past event, for he was uttering the words of his vision, and thus would have been foreseeing Jerusalem's sack, whether in Joram's reign or in that of Sedecias. In any case, the Roman Martyrology's brief statement that St. Abdias died at Samaria, the royal citadel of the dynasty of King Omri, father of Achab, is no doubt an allusion to the ancient traditional identification of the prophet Abdias as Achab's steward of that name.

Another ancient Jewish writing from around the same period as The Lives of the Prophets was IV Esdras, an apocryphal work found in an appendix to the Latin Vulgate Bible, one that was held in high regard by many Fathers and Doctors of the Church. The book's first chapter decries the unfaithfulness of the nation of Israel and proclaims that the disobedient Israelites would be dispossessed, superseded by "a people that shall come; which not having heard of me yet shall believe me; to whom I have shewed no signs, yet they shall do that I have commanded them. They have seen no prophets, yet they shall call their sins to remembrance, and acknowledge them." (IV Esdras 1:35-36)  The book then looks to a time when the "people that shall come" (penitent Gentiles) would receive the Jewish Patriarchs and the 12 Minor Prophets -- including St. Abdias -- as their own leaders:

And now, brother, behold what glory; and see the people that come from the east: Unto whom I will give for leaders, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Oseas, Amos, and Micheas, Joel, Abdias, and Jonas, Nahum, and Abacuc, Sophonias, Aggeus, Zachary, and Malachy, which is called also an angel of the Lord.

All ye holy patriarchs and prophets,

Pray for us!

Haydock notes on Abdias

St. Jerome's Commentary on Abdias (Latin)