Day 8 – Four Hundred Years: Reflection, Questions, and Art During Advent

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About the Art: Rembrandt van Rijn, Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, 1656, oil on canvas, 173 x 206 cm, Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel (de), Kassel, Hesse, Germany  Click here to learn more about this painting.

Rembrandt was the master of chiaroscuro, the use of light and shadow to tell a story. In this painting, Rembrandt trains our eye to move about the canvas in a certain sequence by putting his characters in varying degrees of light. Our eyes gravitate toward the brightest areas first, which in this case are Jacob and Ephriam, who appears to have a sort of a halo around his head as he receives the patriarch’s blessing.

The angle and apparent source of light in the image are not what we would naturally expect, but we don’t notice this because the image unfolds too quickly for us to wonder why such a bright light is coming in from the lower left hand side of the frame.

This painting depicts a scene from Genesis 48, a text which helps us figure out who these characters are. Genesis 48:13 tells us that Abraham blessed Ephriam with his right hand and Manasseh with his left, which was unusual since Ephriam was the younger brother and the right hand was used for the patriarchal blessing which typically went to the older brother. Joseph, thinking his father was making a mistake, tried to switch Jacob’s hands. But Jacob refused. He meant to pass down his blessing to the younger brother, just as God’s blessing had passed over Esau and down to him.

In this painting, we are naturally drawn to Jacob and Ephriam first because the action of the scene takes place between the two of them. Then we see Manasseh’s head poking up between them, as though he has been skipped over. After that, we notice the woman, presumably Asenath, the daughter of the Egyptian priest who was given to Joseph as a wife by Pharoah himself in Genesis 41. She has one of the brightest faces in the painting, but she stands apart, a distant observer to the line of Abraham’s blessing. Finally, we see Joseph, dressed as royalty but fading more into the background as the covenant promise advances.

 

Consider

“The pharaoh died and Egypt found a new king, one who didn’t know Joseph. He said to his people, ‘Look at them. The people of Israel are too many. Our economy needs them, but if they ever decided to rise up against me, they would be too mighty to control. We need to deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply even more and decide go to war, or worse, leave.’

“So the new king set taskmasters over them and made them slaves. Generations before any of this took place, the Lord had told their great-grandfather, Abraham, ‘Know this. Your offspring will sojourn in a land that is not theirs, and they will be slaves there, afflicted for four hundred years.’

“Now they were living out his words. This slavery would last for four centuries. During those years, they would multiply even as that first generation who came in under Joseph’s protection died out completely. Four hundred years was enough time to convince the people they were meant to be slaves of Egypt.

“But this was not who they were. Late in the evening when the workday was done, the parents settled in around the fire and told their children the old, old stories of the generations before. The kids imagined the red-headed Esau with his beard in a bowl of stew. Or giggled at the thought of Jacob staring, undone by the beauty of Rachel. Or shuddered at the image of Abraham raising his knife over Isaac’s chest. Though they’d heard that story a thousand times, they still prayed that God would spare him, every time.

“The children could sense in their parents that these were more than stories from the past. They were somehow still connected to the present and pushing forward to the future. From the stories, it seemed like the God of their fathers used to appear to them on a regular basis. He used to shake the earth. He even wrestled with Jacob on the banks of the Jabbok, wherever that was. And all of this, they were told, was because God had promised to take Abraham’s descendants as his people—to love them with an everlasting love and to never, ever leave them.”[1]

 

Examine

The people of Israel were slaves in Egypt, as the Lord foretold to Abraham, for 400 years. What would it take to hold on to faith in a promise made four hundred years ago? How familiar would you say most people are today with events that happened four hundred years ago? What challenges do you think the passage of that much time presented to God’s people as they sought to believe in him?

Do you think God failed his people by permitting them to become Pharaoh’s slaves? What does God owe his people?

We read the story of the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt knowing how the story would turn out. How do you think you would see the story of your own life if you knew what would come of it one hundred years from now. What would you trust in? What would you dismiss that you give weight to now?

____________________

[1] Ramsey, Russ. Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative. Nashville: Rabbit Room Press, 2011. pgs. 54-55.

 

Rembrandt_-_Jacob_Blessing_the_Children_of_Joseph_-_WGA19117

Russ Ramsey
Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003). Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.

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