A Tale of Two Visitors – An introduction to a different way of seeing the Bible

Tale of Two Visitors

Tale of Two Visitors

Excerpted from:
The Story of Joseph and Judah
The Masterpiece Study Series, Volume 1

A Story of Two Visitors

Imagine that you are a scientist who specializes in the analysis of very old paintings. Imagine also that you have been granted permission to analyze what many consider to be the greatest painting ever created, Leonardo da Vinci’s depiction of the Last Supper. You have read much about this masterpiece, and you know that it is not on canvas in a gold frame at a museum, but was painted more than 500 years ago directly on the wall of a dining hall in a church in Milan, Italy. To your great joy you have been personally invited by the church to study this incredible painting. The opportunity to learn more about this great work is overwhelming. You can’t wait.

After the long flight to Milan, you hurry quickly to Santa Maria delle Grazie, the church where the Last Supper awaits. Showing your credentials to security, you are ushered into the church’s refectory. Suddenly, you are in the presence of the masterpiece. Rather than stopping for long to admire it, however, you announce that you want to begin your work. The security guard leads you past the ropes and the on-gazing art lovers. You approach to within inches of the painting. You remove a specially ground magnifying glass along with a notepad and pen from your satchel, and focus on a small section in the lower left-hand corner of the masterpiece, no more than three inches square. Through the glass you can faintly discern the master’s delicate brush strokes, and subtle use of color.

Slowly, methodically, you proceed across the bottom of the painting in the same manner, pausing every few inches to inspect closely. Reaching the right-hand side, you raise your head several inches, and slowly proceed back towards the left. As you move, you can make out dabs, color splotches, indications of technique, all of which show you something of the artistry of Leonardo. Occasionally you pause to notice particular aspects of the painting. You see the faces of several of the disciples.

You can see John’s face. Peter’s features are clearly depicted. And there is Judas, reaching for the bread at the same time as Jesus. After several hours you reach the end, put your magnifying glass away, turn your back on the Last Supper, and leave.

The question we must ask at this point, and which will help to frame the focus of this entire study, is this: Did you miss something? Yes, you gained a detailed knowledge of microscopic portions of this incredible work, and through them learned much of the amazing talent of this great artist. You observed the entire painting, piece by piece, but was there something you couldn’t see with your nose three inches away from the surface of the painting?

To help answer this question, let’s return to Milan . . .

Imagine now that you are an art lover. You love to visit museums and stand in awe of the work of the great masters. Your coffee table is stacked with art books. Your favorite artist is Leonardo da Vinci. You’ve made special trips to see the few paintings of his which remain in existence in art museums of the world; yet there is one you have not yet seen in person–the Last Supper. You’ve dreamed of seeing this work because you know that the photographs in your art book cannot do it justice, if for no other reason than it is immense, almost 30 feet wide.

Imagine also that at last you’ve scheduled your visit to Italy. After the long flight you arrive at your hotel in Milan. Though you’re exhausted, your excitement gets the best of you and you hail a taxi, with instructions to make straight for the church. You can hardly believe this day has arrived. Your heart beats faster as you nervously follow directions into the refectory, knowing you are about to enter the presence of the masterpiece you’ve most longed to see.

Passing through the doorway of the room, you are immediately struck by the massiveness of the painting. You stand as far away as possible and try to take in Leonardo’s capturing of the moment when Jesus announced that one of those seated with Him would betray Him, displayed in the looks of astonishment on the disciples’ faces. Your eyes roam over the painting, and you try to focus on the entire work at once, but quickly sense you are being drawn in. You look at the faces of John, Peter, and Judas. You see all the disciples and how they recoil at the shock of Jesus’ announcement that a traitor is in their midst. You step closer to examine the mastery of each individual portrait. Leonardo’s genius shines throughout the painting as you focus on individual elements of incredible beauty–the colors, the hands, the expressions on faces.

Still, the painting is so magnificent and so huge that you cannot stay close for long. You find yourself wanting to step back again, to understand how each segment fits with the others. As you step back, you see something you hadn’t noticed before. You realize that all the lines in the painting carry your eye toward Jesus. You notice the gaze of the disciples. You observe the barely visible lines on the floor, the imaginary lines extended from the beams in the ceiling, and the suggestion of other imaginary lines from the top of the tapestries on the wall. You notice the frame of the window at the back, and realize that all of this is intended to draw your attention to the one person who is the focus of Leonardo’s painting: the Lord Jesus.

The reproduction of the Last Supper pictured above shows the painting essentially as it looks today, after hundreds of years of deterioration. Unfortunately, the elements of structure pointing to Christ are quite difficult to make out. Thus, we also have included below a reproduction of the painting. Although not intended as an exact representation of Leonardo’s work, this reproduction helps to see more clearly some of the elements he originally worked into his painting. Note how every line in the ceiling, walls and floor, as well as the gaze of the disciples, point directly to His face.

A Different Work of Art

What has all of this to do with a study of the lives of Joseph and Judah found in the book of Genesis? Our portrayal of the differences between the scientist and the art lover allows us to more easily explain the difference between the book you’re now reading and almost any other study of Scripture. Most books examining Genesis (or any other book of the Bible) follow, for the most part, the style of the scientist who stayed very close to the painting. Such studies begin with chapter 1, verse 1, and move line upon line, precept upon precept, breaking each verse down into individual phrases, words, even syllables. Like the scientist, it is as if we have a magnifying glass in our hands, and our noses only inches from the wall. Such an analysis is what is known as “inductive” study, which focuses on the parts rather than the whole.

Before explaining why this book is different, however, it also must be emphasized that inductive study is tremendously valuable. It is good in its own way, but it is insufficient by itself. Remember that the scientist understood Leonardo’s genius and skill in what he saw up close. Likewise, inductive Bible studies have demonstrated the beauty and skill of the writers of Scripture through a similar focus on detail. But we must also remember that the scientist missed something. He missed the themes, the techniques of composition. He missed the larger elements which Leonardo created to draw the viewer’s attention to the focus point of the entire painting–the face of Jesus. In short, he missed the benefits of a comprehension of the whole along with his appreciation of the details.

Our goal in this study is to help to recover something that has largely been lost, by learning to read the Bible not only as a scientist, but also as an art lover. We recognize, of course, that both the scientist and the art lover have much to offer us. The best artists are technically precise, and the best scientists must be gifted with an artist’s imagination. Leonardo was known for his artwork and his technical drawings. He was both scientist and artist. But since almost every study of Scripture in recent memory has been done inductively, we will focus much of our attention on learning to look at the Bible through different eyes, those of the art lover. We will see that not only does Genesis have much to show us when viewed from up close, but it also contains fascinating elements which can only be seen by “stepping back” farther from the text. And like the Last Supper, we will find that many of these larger elements were intended by the writer to direct our attention to Christ Himself.

Of course, there are assumptions underlying this goal. To appreciate the Last Supper as a masterwork of Leonardo, we must first believe that it is actually his work, not a compilation prepared by a number of artists over a span of decades, or a fraud perpetrated by someone attempting to paint like him. Were it not so, such thoughts as “I recognize the master’s handiwork” would be meaningless. Likewise, as we approach Genesis, we begin with the assumption that it is not simply a collection of ancient stories pasted together over centuries by a number of authors, or fables dreamed up by religious zealots, but is instead the creation of a single divine Author who guided the pen of His human instrument to write what He wanted to say, in the way He wanted to say it. In other words, our starting point is that the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis, along with the rest of Scripture, is divinely inspired by God. This is why we believe we are invited to look at the “big picture” of the Bible, and that we can learn much by doing so. We are treating Scripture as a creation, both of man (i.e., Moses, the traditional–and we believe, actual–human author), and of God Himself, who directed Moses’ hand in writing. This assumption will be borne out as we proceed.

So let’s get started because there is much that awaits. This study is intended to be Part I of a three-part series in the book of Genesis (which comes from the Latin for “beginnings”). As a result, recognizing that Genesis opens with “In the beginning,” we should turn now to chapter 1, right?

Well, we did say that this was going to be a different study of Genesis . . . .

Beginning with Joseph

A major difference between this and other studies of Genesis should now be apparent. Our first volume doesn’t start “In the beginning,” with chapter 1, verse 1, but instead begins with the story of Joseph, at the end of the book of Genesis. Why? Isn’t “the beginning” the logical (and the chronological) place to start? Isn’t there a reason God used those words?

Logical . . . perhaps. But for purposes of this study, asking, “Where is the logical place to start?” is like asking someone where you should start looking at the Last Supper. If someone answered, “Well, you should start with the beginning of the painting,” what would you do then? Would you seek da Vinci’s first brush stroke (now covered by thousands of others)? Would you start with the left side of the painting? The foreground? The background? Obviously, there is no answer because there is no “beginning.”

“Aha,” you may be thinking, “but a book is made to be read from left to right, so you obviously should start ‘in the beginning,’ with chapter 1, verse 1.” In one sense, this is true. In fact, most studies of Genesis (or any other book of the Bible) start “In the beginning” and proceed in a linear fashion through the book, much like the scientist’s gradual movement across the Last Supper with his magnifying glass. Open any commentary and you will find that it starts with chapter 1 and proceeds chronologically, passing Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and finally Joseph in the process. In this sense Genesis is treated more like a historical writing, which could be subtitled, “History of the World–the Early Years.”

If our goal were simply to read and examine the book as a book, the beginning would be the appropriate starting point. However, we are suggesting that Genesis (and the Bible as a whole) is more than just “a book,” but is ultimately a work of art in itself, a masterpiece with a Creator behind it.

So where does one begin looking at a work of art? Another example from a great artist may help us. The French Impressionist painter Renoir is famous for very often having a little splash of red in his paintings. The effect of this is to immediately draw the observer’s eye to the red because it is the boldest color. That dash of red is the artist’s entry point into his imaginary world. But Renoir’s red can occur any place on his canvas. It can be the red of a hat, or a cravat, or a small bouquet of flowers, but it is always the first thing you notice. Thus, for a great work of art, the “beginning” ends up being the place to which your eyes are first drawn–the features that stand out most prominently. In a similar way, Joseph’s story stands out most prominently in Genesis. It is the grand climax of the book of Genesis and also the transition to the account of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt. In a sense, we are starting our study of Genesis at the top of the mountain, to gain the clearest perspective of what surrounds us.

Joseph’s story is remarkable simply for its sheer size in relation to the rest of Genesis, encompassing nearly a third of the book (14 of 50 chapters). By comparison, the entire creation of the universe is only allotted one chapter! In fact, the first 14 chapters of Genesis span thousands of years, and include the stories of creation, Adam and Eve, the fall of man, Cain and Abel, Noah and the great flood, the Tower of Babel, and the calling of Abram. Each of these stories raises myriads of questions, many of which have puzzled scholars for years. Moses, however, apparently thought that Joseph’s story deserved greater emphasis.  The last 14 chapters of Genesis open with Joseph at age 17 and end only 40 years later (excluding the last few verses of chapter 50, which skip ahead to Joseph’s death at age 110).

But these 14 chapters stand out from the rest of Genesis, not simply for their volume of words, but for their beauty, depth and intensity as well. We will see that Joseph’s account is one of the most carefully constructed stories ever written. Much as the Last Supper contains the larger elements which direct the viewer’s focus to the face of Christ, the story of Joseph contains themes, patterns, and cyclical elements intended to focus the reader’s attention. We believe Joseph’s story is the best place to start learning to look at the Scripture in a new way so that we can see this work of art through the eyes of both the art lover and the scientist.

Besides, it’s a great story! We will see the ultimate “rags-to-riches” story as we watch Joseph grow from a 17-year-old shepherd boy into a powerful ruler who saves the world from a great famine. Woven into this masterpiece are kidnappings, treachery, envy, greed, seduction, temptation and failure, temptation and victory, the broken heart of a father, and the humbling of the mightiest king in the world. Through it all, we will see the hand of God aiding Joseph to maintain his integrity as he faces adversity, with lessons that apply to each of us as we face life’s trials. And it promises at last to teach us much about our Savior, Jesus! So let’s begin!

The Story of Joseph and Judah
The Masterpiece Study Series, Volume 1
Warren A. Gage, Christopher Barber
Copyright © 2005; 2nd ed. 2010

Published by: St. Andrews House, LLC
Ft. Lauderdale, Florida

ISBN 0-9769264-0-7