Coat of many colors

Coat of many colors

In the Hebrew Bible, the coat of many colours is the name for the garment that Joseph owned. It may be a mistranslation, and the actual nature of the garment is subject to dispute. It is possible that the idea of the coat being 'of many colours' may mean that it was in fact a patchwork coat of different materials which may have been of different colours or merely different shades of a single colour.


The problem of translation

According to the Authorized King James Version, Genesis 37:3 reads:

Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colors.[1]

The Hebrew phrase Kethoneth passim is translated here as coat of many colors, but some have suggested that the phrase may merely mean a "coat with long sleeves"[2] or a "long coat with stripes."[citation needed]

The Septuagint translation of the passage uses the word poikilos[3], which indicates "many coloured";[4] the Jewish Publication Society of America Version also employs the phrase "coat of many colours".[5] On the other hand, the Revised Standard Version translates Kethoneth passim as "a long robe with sleeves"[6] while the New International Version notes the translation difficulties in a footnote, and translates it as "a richly ornamented robe".[7]

Aryeh Kaplan, in The Living Torah gives a range of possible explanations:

Kethoneth passim in Hebrew. It was a royal garment; 2 Samuel 13:18 (cf. Ralbag ad loc.). The word passim can be translated as 'colorful' (Radak; Septuagint), embroidered (Ibn Ezra; Bachya; Ramban on Exodus 28:2), striped (Ibn Janach; Radak, Sherashim), or with pictures (Targum Yonathan). It can also denote a long garment, coming down to the palms of the hands (Rashbam; Ibn Ezra; Baaley Tosafoth; Bereshith Rabbah 84), and the feet (Lekach Tov). Alternatively, the word denotes the material out of which the coat was made, which was fine wool (Rashi) or silk (Ibn Janach). Hence, kethoneth passim, may be translated as 'a full-sleeved robe,' 'a coat of many colors,' 'a coat reaching to his feet,' 'an ornamented tunic,' 'a silk robe,' or 'a fine woolen cloak.'[8]

James Swanson suggests that the phrase indicates a "tunic or robe unique in design for showing special favor or relationship" and that "either the robe was very long-sleeved and extending to the feet, or a richly-ornamented tunic either of special color design or gold threading, both ornamental and not suitable for working."[9]

The phrase is used one other time in the Hebrew scriptures, to describe the garment worn by David's daughter Tamar in 2 Samuel 13:18-19.

The story as related in Genesis

Joseph's father Jacob favored him and gave Joseph the coat as a gift; as a result, he was envied by his brothers, who saw the special coat as an indication that Joseph would assume family leadership. His brothers' suspicion grew when Joseph told them of his two dreams (Genesis 37:11) in which all the brothers bowed down to him. The narrative tells that his brothers plotted against him when he was 17, and would have killed him had not the eldest brother Reuben interposed. He persuaded them instead to throw Joseph into a pit and secretly planned to rescue him later. However, while Reuben was absent, the others planned to sell him to a company of Ishmaelite merchants. When the passing Midianites arrived, the brothers dragged Joseph up and sold him to the merchants for 20 pieces of silver. The brothers then dipped Joseph's coat in goat blood and showed it to their father, saying that Joseph had been torn apart by wild beasts.

Joseph's coat, by Diego Velázquez (1630), depicts Joseph's brothers bringing the coat to their father Jacob and asking him to identify it.

Recent scholarship, especially among literary critics, has noted how the exhortation to "identify" and the theme of recognition in Genesis 37:32-33 also appears in 38:25-26, in the story of Judah and Tamar. This serves to connect the chapters and unify the narrative. Victor Hamilton calls these "intentional literary parallels,"[10] while Robert Alter suggests that the verb "identify" plays "a crucial thematic role in the dénouement of the Joseph story when he confronts his brothers in Egypt, he recognizing them, they failing to recognize him."[11]

The envy of his brothers may also have stemmed from the fact that Joseph was the son of Rachel, Jacob's first love. However, Joseph's brothers were the sons of Rachel's older sister Leah and the sons of the handmaidens, who were given to Jacob during a time when Rachel could not conceive. There was a battle between Leah and Rachel to compete for Jacob's attention. Jacob had told Joseph, when he was seventeen years old, to go check on his brothers. Joseph would report back to his father of their evil deeds. In addition to this he shares his dreams of them bowing down to him. Their anger towards him only increased.

The story in popular culture


  1. ^ Genesis 37, King James.
  2. ^ A Dictionary of the Targumim, Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi and Midrashic Literature, 1903. ISBN 1-932443-20-7
  3. ^ Genesis 37, Septuagint.
  4. ^ Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon: ποικίλος, 1889.
  5. ^ Genesis 37, JPS.
  6. ^ Genesis 37, Revised Standard.
  7. ^ Genesis 37, NIV.
  8. ^ Genesis » Chapter 37, Accessed December 15, 2010.
  9. ^ James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament) (Electronic ed. Oak Harbor : Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
  10. ^ Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50 (NICOT; Eerdmans, 1995), 431-432.
  11. ^ Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (Basic Books, 1981), 10.

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