Blessing Ephraim and Menashe in Art

Introduction

Bereshit 48 recounts how Yaakov blesses Yosef's two sons, Menashe and Ephraim. Both Jan Victors' painting (c.1635)1 and Owen Jones' illustration2 portray a reclining Yaakov whose hands stretch forward to bless his grandchildren, while their father, Yosef, looks on. The artists, though, differ in their rendering of the garb and age of Yosef's sons and the positioning of Yaakov's hands. These choices reflect varying interpretations of both textual and larger conceptual issues.

Contrasting Images

Victors

Victors sets the scene in a heavily draped room. All the characters are clad in rich velvet attire, more befitting Victors' contemporary homeland than ancient Egypt. An elderly Yaakov sits in bed, propped up by pillows. He stares vacantly in front of him as Yosef guides his hand to bless the proper child. The young Ephraim and Menashe kneel at their grandfather's side. One of the two looks up at his father, while the other bows his head in respect.

Jones

Jones' painting has more obvious Egyptian overtones. Menashe and Ephraim sport shaved heads while their father wears an Egyptian headdress. All three wear clothing which marks them as Egyptians. Yaakov, in contrast, wears a simple green cloak. He reclines on a sofa as he crosses his hands to bless his teenage grandchildren.

Relationship to the Biblical Text

The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:

"שִׂכֵּל אֶת יָדָיו"

Victors portrays Yaakov with one hand resting on his stomach and the other being guided by Yosef. Jones, in contrast, paints Yaakov crossing his hands to bless Menashe and Ephraim. The difference relates to an unknown in the story. What does the phrase "שִׂכֵּל אֶת יָדָיו" mean? Though the more well-known interpretation suggests that it refers to a switching of the right and left hands,3 others have proposed that it refers to an act done with wisdom.4

Did Yosef and His Sons Assimilate?

While Victors dresses Yaakov and family in contemporary garb, Jones portrays Yosef and his sons in Egyptian garments and accessories. This relates to a question regarding Yosef's religious outlook after being sold. Did he raise his sons according to the customs of Yaakov and his ancestors or were they assimilated into Egyptian culture and society? What about Yosef himself? To what extent had he acculturated? Bereshit Rabbah suggests that he maintained his religious identity throughout,5 but the verse's explanation of Menashe's name, "כִּי נַשַּׁנִי אֱלֹהִים אֶת כָּל עֲמָלִי וְאֵת כָּל בֵּית אָבִי" might suggest otherwise. See Yosef's Religious Identity for more.

How Old?

Jones renders Menashe and Ephraim as older teens while Victors depicts them as much younger boys. How old were the two during the episode? The context of the story suggests that it is occurring near the end of Yaakov's life, at which the point the boys would be close to twenty or older.6 Yet the text states, "וַיּוֹצֵא יוֹסֵף אֹתָם מֵעִם בִּרְכָּיו", evoking an image of youngsters emerging form their grandfather's legs. Was the blessing given close to Yaakov's death, or much earlier, soon after his arrival in Egypt when Menashe and Ephraim were still young boys? See When Did Yaakov Bless Ephraim and Menashe? for elaboration.

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