"Hear, O Israel" by David Bomberg

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

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Divine Comfort Amidst Despair

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
David Emanuel

With predominantly thick and vertical brush strokes, the English painter David Bomberg created an indistinct image of a shrouded man clasping his hands, with a Torah scroll tucked between his right arm and body. The figure—whom many believe to be Bomberg himself—appears to be looking downwards, perhaps immersed in some personal grief. This sadness may reflect the artist’s disillusionment towards the end of his career, as he found his work critically dismissed or ignored.

The painting’s title, Hear, O Israel, captures the opening words of the Shema, ‘Hear O Israel the Lord our God the Lord is one’, (Deuteronomy 6:4) which is recited daily by devout Jews. The colours employed by the artist—predominantly light browns, beige, and rustic reds—bring to mind those of the Judaean desert in Israel, landscapes with which the painter was familiar (Cork 2003).

Like Bomberg’s painted figure, Obadiah’s life and ministry are indistinct. Even the meaning of the name Obadiah remains disputed. Depending on the Hebrew vowel pointing, it could either mean ‘worshipper of the Lord’ or ‘servant of the Lord’. Although Rabbinic literature (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 39b) connects him to the prophet ministering during the days of Elijah (1 Kings 18:3), contemporary scholarship leans towards a ministry during or soon after the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE (Longman and Dillard 2006: 436).

The grief and introspection that may be discerned in Bomberg’s possible self-portrait help to evoke the deep-seated despair experienced by Obadiah in exile. The prophet’s land lay desolate and his people had been exiled to Babylon. In this grief, Obadiah’s only hope, the thing to which he would have clung, was the word of God. Obadiah would have been familiar with the words of Torah together with words we also find in Jeremiah, which parallel Obadiah’s prophecy (cf. Jeremiah 49:9–10, 14–16; Obadiah 1–6) and foretell judgement against Edom, who joined with the Babylonians in their sacking of Jerusalem and Judea (cf. Psalm 137:7; Ezekiel 25:12). For both Bomberg’s subject and for Obadiah, the nearness of God’s word (as suggested in the painting by the scroll) may have generated a sense of divine comfort, even amidst despair.

 

References

Barton, John. 2001. Joel and Obadiah: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), pp. 120–123

Cork, R. 2003. ‘Bomberg, David’. Grove Art Onlinehttp:////www.oxfordartonline.com/groveart/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7000009782 [accessed 14 Oct. 2018]

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

Niehaus, Jeffrey J. 2009. ‘Obadiah’, in The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary, ed. by Thomas Edward McComiskey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic), pp. 496–502