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.
Barton, John. 2001. Joel and Obadiah: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), pp. 120–123
Cork, R. 2003. ‘Bomberg, David’. Grove Art Online. http:////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
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.