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"Hear, O Israel" by David Bomberg
Al Khazneh (The Treasury)
Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime (La Justice et la Vengeance divine poursuivant le Crime) by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon

David Bomberg

"Hear, O Israel", 1955, Oil on panel, 91.4 x 71.1 cm, The Jewish Museum, New York; Purchase: Oscar and Regina Gruss Charitable Foundation Fund, 1995-33, © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London John Parnell / The Jewish Museum, New York / Art Resource, NY

Unknown Nabataean artist

Al Khazneh (The Treasury), 1st century CE, Architecture, Petra, Jordan, Pictures from History / David Henley / Bridgeman Images

Pierre-Paul Prud'hon

Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime, 1808, Oil on canvas, 244 x 294 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris, 7340, Scala / Art Resource, NY

The Day of the LORD’s Reckoning

Comparative Commentary by

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.

 

References

Longman III, Tremper, and Raymond B. Dillard. 2006. An Introduction to the Old Testament, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), p. 498