At various points in the history of Israel, God’s prophets declare a time in the future when he will judge his people or the nations surrounding Israel. The prophet Isaiah captures this notion well, ‘For the Lord of hosts has a day, against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up and high’ (Isaiah 2:12). The first nine verses of Obadiah—together with the artworks in this ‘exhibition’—may be read as reflecting three aspects of this divine judgement: the object against which it is unleashed, its inevitability, and the aftermath of its unleashing.
Petra’s Treasury, as this construction is most commonly known, can be read as an inflated proclamation of self-worth. The extravagant features of the façade accentuate the structure’s claims to royal splendour and grandeur. Designed at least in part by Greek architects, its Corinthian columns are fine and intricate in their details, and there are eagles of Zeus perched atop each side of the broken pediment. If we understand pride as a hubristic sense of importance, then the Treasury exemplifies the idea. This same sense of pride echoed amongst those who dwelt in this region 600 years before the structure was carved: the sons of Edom, the object of God’s judgement. It was Edom’s pride that ultimately led to their destruction, as Obadiah states, ‘The pride of your heart has deceived you’ (v.3). For all of its captivating external magnificence, this royal tomb was still in the end a tomb: a place where the bones of the dead were housed.
Although God’s judgement may at times seem slow in coming, Obadiah is sure that eventually it will arrive; Pierre-Paul Prud’hon’s work generates this sense of determined inevitability. He captures an instance in which a brutal murder and robbery have taken place, as the perpetrator begins his escape. The portrayal of the robber’s garments flowing behind him draws attention to the speed of his flight. Although the perpetrator works under cover of darkness and looks around for anyone who may have witnessed the crime, his attempts to conceal his actions are futile. Justice and Divine Vengeance have located and overtaken him, and he will inevitably be brought low. As the painting makes evident, there can be no escape.
The prophesied destruction of Edom was not instantaneous, and we know that Edom still occupied Judaean villages during the early Persian period (c.538 BCE). In 1 Esdras 4:50, Darius, at the request of Zerubbabel, ordered the Edomites to return the villages of the Jews that they held. However, we also know that by 450 BCE, God’s judgement had been executed. The prophet Malachi (who prophesied between 475–450 BCE) writes concerning Edom: ‘I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert’ (Malachi 1:3). Though it may not have come in the days of Obadiah, God’s judgement was executed against the proud.
David Bomberg’s Hear, O Israel presents a stark contrast to the photograph of the ‘Treasury’. Instead of pride and arrogance, the near-abstract subject of Bomberg’s painting presents an image of humility. There is nothing glamorous or flamboyant about this man; nothing that screams of great material wealth and riches. His clothes appear simple, and even the Torah scroll in his arms lacks any visible ornamentation. If it is a self-portrait, the blurred figure suggests a desire on the part of the artist to appear obliquely rather than to display himself proudly. Likewise, the subject’s head seems to be inclined downwards rather than being held high.
The painting opens a pathway to an interpretation of the prophet Obadiah, and the nation of Israel at the time the prophet penned his oracle. The people of Judea had once demonstrated pride in the perceived security and position they held before God, expressing confidence that they would never be moved (see Jeremiah 7:2–4). But after 586 BCE, even though they were his people, they experienced the judgement of God via the Babylonian army.
Obadiah was well aware of the inescapable nature of God’s judgement since he and his people had been humbled for their pride and arrogance. This in itself would have created a sense of comfort, knowing that the words of his prophetic utterance against Edom—judging them for their brutality towards Judah—would eventually be fulfilled.
Longman III, Tremper, and Raymond B. Dillard. 2006. An Introduction to the Old Testament, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), p. 498
1 The vision of Obadiʹah.
Thus says the Lord God concerning Edom:
We have heard tidings from the Lord,
and a messenger has been sent among the nations:
“Rise up! let us rise against her for battle!”
2Behold, I will make you small among the nations,
you shall be utterly despised.
3The pride of your heart has deceived you,
you who live in the clefts of the rock,
whose dwelling is high,
who say in your heart,
“Who will bring me down to the ground?”
4Though you soar aloft like the eagle,
though your nest is set among the stars,
thence I will bring you down,
says the Lord.
5If thieves came to you,
if plunderers by night—
how you have been destroyed!—
would they not steal only enough for themselves?
If grape gatherers came to you,
would they not leave gleanings?
6How Esau has been pillaged,
his treasures sought out!
7All your allies have deceived you,
they have driven you to the border;
your confederates have prevailed against you;
your trusted friends have set a trap under you—
there is no understanding of it.
8Will I not on that day, says the Lord,
destroy the wise men out of Edom,
and understanding out of Mount Esau?
9And your mighty men shall be dismayed, O Teman,
so that every man from Mount Esau will be cut off by slaughter.