Straying From the Straight and Narrow Path: ‘The Disobedient Prophet’

Reaching Within: What traditional art offers the heart
November 28, 2020 Updated: November 30, 2020

The story of the disobedient prophet is told in the Bible in the book of 1 Kings. The story goes as follows:

A man of God traveled from Judah to Bethel. God spoke through him and cursed an altar where King Jeroboam made an offering. Jeroboam ordered the man of God to be arrested, but Jeroboam’s hand shriveled up when he pointed to identify him.

Jeroboam asked the man of God to pray to God to restore his hand. The man of God granted Jeroboam’s wish and Jeroboam’s hand was restored. Then, Jeroboam invited him to eat and drink, but the man of God responded that God had commanded him to not eat and drink on this journey nor return home the way he came.

An old prophet, who lived in Bethel, heard about what the man of God did and sought him out. The old prophet found the man of God sitting under an oak tree and invited him to eat and drink with him. Again, the man of God explained God’s command. 

Then, lying, the prophet told the man of God that God spoke to him also and that God informed him to bring back the man of God to eat and drink. The man of God listened and returned with the old prophet.  

While they ate, God, through the old prophet, informed the man of God that he had disobeyed God’s orders and therefore would not be buried with his ancestors. 

After their meal, the man of God got on his donkey and rode away but was attacked and killed by a lion. His body was left on the road, with the lion and donkey next to it. 

The old prophet heard about the attack and went to find the man of God’s body. He took the body home and buried it in his family’s tomb.

‘The Disobedient Prophet’ and the Underpainting

Jean-Léon Gérôme was a 19th-century French academic painter who had recently regained popularity.

In his painting “The Disobedient Prophet,” Gérôme reveals to us the part of the story from 1 Kings and part of the painter’s process.

The focal point, to the left in the composition, is the lion and the lifeless figure of the man of God. The lion stands with its head high and with a paw on the man’s chest. The direction of the lying figure, painted foreshortened, draws our eye toward the right side of the composition.

“The Disobedient Prophet,
“The Disobedient Prophet,” circa 1895, by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Georges-Garret Museum, Vesoul. (Public Domain)

On the right side, in the distance, we see the old prophet riding his donkey and waving his arms. Other, unidentifiable figures are visible in the distance. The man of God’s lone donkey is at the far right of the composition, but it faces back toward the old prophet to keep us from leaving the picture plane. 

This is an unfinished painting by Gérôme, and we’re looking at an underpainting. The foreground is painted in sepia-like colors, most likely burnt umber, white, and black. The sky and distant background have pastel colors applied for the purposes of atmospheric perspective. 

These details reveal certain qualities about Gérôme’s painting process. Gérôme was a formalist and not a colorist. In other words, his primary concern was the three-dimensional form of the objects and not extravagant color. 

Gérôme would accomplish the three-dimensionality of the whole composition in lights and darks and then glaze (apply a thin, transparent color) and scumble (apply a thin opaque color) over this three-dimensional foundation. 

This three-dimensional foundation would have influenced the future decisions that Gérôme made and the painting’s overall look.  

Keeping to the Righteous Path

A good journey starts with a good question, and I’m left asking how the story from 1 Kings, the painting, and the painter’s process can possibly guide us to become better people. 

The story about the man of God is about straying from the straight and narrow path of truth. The man of God is tricked by the old prophet who pretends to be a man of God also, and the man of God suffers for confusing the truth of God with the lie of the prophet. 

In Gérôme’s painting, the man of God’s dead body is foreshortened to lead our eye to the old prophet, and the man of God’s donkey faces the old prophet as well. The old prophet, instead of God, becomes the centerpiece, the deciding factor of the man of God’s fate.

To me, the old prophet’s actions only appear to be kind; they are actually symbolic of how the appearance of kindness can lead people of God to disobey God. To get to the truth of the matter, we must ask ourselves how the old prophet’s lies affected the man of God.

The man of God is lied to and lets this one moment decide his fate, a fate that leads him away from God. God makes it a point to punish the man by having him not buried with his ancestors; ancestors, whom I presume, were also people of God.

I take this to mean that the man of God, for his disobedience and lack of faith, will not dwell with his ancestors or God in the afterlife. Instead, he will dwell with what he ultimately followed: the old prophet and his lies. 

To me, the fact that the old prophet first lies to the man of God to get him to disobey God and then takes the man of God’s body and buries it in his own family tomb, instead of with the man’s ancestors, is symbolic of the idea that the old prophet is a false prophet. He leads doubtful souls to an afterlife outside of God’s realm. 

The old prophet’s supposed kindness, a lie masked by the beauty of kindness, does tremendous harm to the man of God: His life ends, and his very soul is separated from God.

How often are we led astray by people, objects, interests, and so on? How often do we let kindnesses veiled in untruths lead us away from following the righteous path, a path made specifically for us?

The man of God had God with him the whole time. God spoke to him and God’s message was within him, yet the man was led astray the moment he doubted God’s direct message to him. 

Form and Color

How does Gérôme’s underpainting tie into this? The underpainting is the truth, the basic foundation of the painting in that it sets a path for everything else that will be added to it. The colors are later applied to adorn the forms, the truths, to which they are attached. 

The underpainting, in which only form is depicted, addresses—for the formalist painter—the most important aspect of painting: the effects of light on the world. Light illuminates the object’s sensuous reality, its truth. All else is secondary.

A good painting is imminent if a good foundation is laid. I think we are similar to this, as human beings: We will lead a good life if we have a righteous foundation guiding us. If God is the creator of our underpainting—the underlying truth of our lives—and illuminates our path with divine light, then our future will be one in which we are joined with our ancestors, which I see as being symbolic of that which is authentic to us.

If our foundation accepts lies as truth, disregards righteousness, and is misled by colorful expressions instead of searching for the underlying truth, we may instead find our future—like the man of God who was unable to be buried with his ancestors—as a constant reminder of our inauthenticity in the presence of God.

The 1 Kings story “The Disobedient Prophet” and Gérôme’s process are, for me, a warning to discern colorful lies from the truth in our hearts and minds. Having this discernment can steer us toward our authentic and righteous path.

Art has an incredible ability to point to what can’t be seen so that we may ask “What does this mean for me and for everyone who sees it?” “How has it influenced the past and how might it influence the future?” “What does it suggest about the human experience?” These are some of the questions I explore in my series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart.”

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).