The Framing of Binyamin in Art
The three pictures displayed here, the engraving from the LaHaye Bible,1 Alexander Ivanov's painting,2 and the illustration from the Mortier Bible,3 all portray one of the most critical junctures of the Yosef narratives, the moment when Yosef's cup is found in Binyamin's sack. The artists differ in their depiction of Binyamin, Yosef's servants, and the silver goblet, and their contrasting perspectives reflect some of the ambiguities in the story of Bereshit 44.
This engraving is the most sinister of the depictions. Yosef's men are dressed in full battle gear and armed with spears. Yosef has not only sent his chief of staff to accuse the brothers, but has apparently dispatched an entire militia. One of the men shackles the young, helpless, Binyamin, who is reaching pleadingly towards his older brother. The brother, holding the huge silver goblet in one hand, gazes back. His face is a mixture of bewildered surprise and disappointment.
In contrast to the LaHaye engraving, Ivanov depicts just two servants of Yosef, clothed not in armor but in everyday garb. The men point their fingers accusingly at the small, innocent looking, Binyamin and the fateful sack. The focus of the painting, though, is on the distress of the brothers. One brother rends his garments in anguish, while another grasps the tearful Binyamin protectively. A third scratches his head and holds out his hand, wondering how this could have happened.
The illustrator of this etching, unlike the other artists, chooses to depict Binyamin not as a child but as an adult, only slightly younger than his brothers.4 He kneels at his sack, his hand clutching the goblet and his gaze directed at Yosef's servant. His brothers stand just behind him, their faces filled with dismay at the turn of events. One looks beseechingly up to the heavens, while another lifts his hand towards Yosef's servant as if to keep him at bay.
Relationship to the Biblical Text
The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:
While both Ivanov and the illustrator of the Mortier Bible depict just one or two emissaries of Yosef, both dressed in servants' garb, the artist of the LaHaye Bible portrays a group of men in full military gear. Though a simple reading of Bereshit 44 suggests that Yosef sent but one servant, "the supervisor of his household," the different portrayals might relate to each artist's understanding of what Yosef was hoping to accomplish through his scheme. Was Yosef intentionally harsh, trying to punish his brothers for their deeds, measure for measure?5 Or was this simply a ruse to get Binyamin to stay in Egypt, with no intent of harming the other brothers or causing them undue suffering?6 See Why Did Yosef Frame Binyamin? for more.
Age of Binyamin
In both Ivanov's painting and the LaHaye Bible etching, Binyamin is shown as a young boy, not yet a teenager. In Mortier's Bible, in contrast, he is portrayed as an adult. How old was Binyamin at this point in the narrative? Was he significantly younger than his brothers?
Throughout the story, the brothers continuously refer to Binyamin as their "little" brother and Yaakov, too, seems to treat him as a child, leading the reader to view him as such.7 On the other hand, Binyamin was born when Yaakov was on his way back to Chevron, at some point before Yosef was sold into slavery. This would make him at least in his mid-twenties when our story takes place.8 The exact age differential between him and the brothers, though, is unknown, as the chronology of both their births and the events that take place after Yaakov's return to Israel is murky. See The Births and Relative Ages of Yaakov's Children for details.
In the LaHaye engraving, Yosef's cup is depicted as a large silver goblet, similar in shape to a typical wine glass. In Mortier's Bible, in contrast, it resembles a small teapot. The contrasting depictions might relate to different understandings of the function of the goblet. Was it mainly a drinking cup or was it a magical object used for divination? Yosef has his servant tell the brothers: "הֲלוֹא זֶה אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁתֶּה אֲדֹנִי בּוֹ וְהוּא נַחֵשׁ יְנַחֵשׁ בּוֹ". The phrase "וְהוּא נַחֵשׁ יְנַחֵשׁ בּוֹ", though, is ambiguous, and can be understood to refer either to the cup's divining powers9 or, alternatively, to Yosef's own abilities to guess its whereabouts.10
In both engravings, the cup is found in a large, bulging sack, whereas in Ivanov's painting, the sack is quite small. Did the servant hide the goblet in Binyamin's big sack of grain or in his personal knapsack which contained his provisions for the journey? The size of the sacks raises a second question as well. How much wheat would Yosef sell any individual at one time? Was it rationed? Or, if you had enough money, could you buy as much as you want?