Posted by: mattcolvin | January 21, 2014

Last Supper in Egypt


My six-year-old daughter came to me this week as I was studying and asked me to read her a story. In her hand was a retelling of the Joseph story by Brian Wildesmith. One particular illustration forced me to visualize what I should have long since imagined in my minds eye. The scene was Genesis 43:31-34:

Then he washed his face and came out; and he restrained himself, and said, “Serve the bread.” So they set him a place by himself, and them by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves; because the Egyptians could not eat food with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians. And they sat before him, the firstborn according to his birthright and the youngest according to his youth; and the men looked in astonishment at one another. Then he took servings to them from before him, but Benjamin’s serving was five times as much as any of theirs. So they drank and were merry with him. (Genesis 43:31-34 NKJV)

Wildsmith’s illustration is a visual quotation or parody of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper:

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Is it an exact correspondence? No, of course not. There are only 11 brothers, and Joseph is not depicted sitting with his brothers as the Lord does with the disciples. Nonetheless, there can be no question that the angle of perspective, the arrangement of the figures, and the geometry of the background all combine to stand in the tradition of depictions of Christ’s Last Supper as it has been shown in Western art.

So it is connected?

Of course, the Twelve have been selected by Jesus to judge the twelve tribes of Israel, so the correspondence to the eponymous patriarchs of those tribes is not surprising. But there is more. One commentator titles his section on this pericope “The Dinner Designed to Make Joseph Known”. It is that. It is also designed to test Joseph’s brothers: by piling Benjamin’s plate with five times as much food, Joseph is singling the other son of Rachel out for preferential treatment of the same sort that Jacob had bestowed on Joseph himself. He does this in order to observe his brothers’ reaction: Will they persecute Benjamin as they had him? Like Hamlet’s play within the play, Joseph’s banquet for his brothers is a test.

These are two purposes served also by the Last Supper: Christ clearly discloses His identity as the Messiah in His words over the bread, and clearly indicates His coming death in the words over the cup: this is “making Him known” in the same way that He would later be known in the breaking of bread on the way to Emmaus. He also tests His disciples, giving the ψωμιον to Judas; Joseph in Egypt, no less than Jesus, could have truly said, “The hand of him who betrays me is with mine on the table.” (Luke 22:21)

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