Joseph’s coat of many colors

Beware of Royal Apparel! 

The story of Joseph and his brothers forms the last part of the book of Genesis. This story begins in our new Torah Portion, Vayeshev. It opens with the word Vayeshev (hence the name of the Portion), usually translated as “settled”, or “dwelt”: “Now Jacob dwelt in the land where his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan.” I have written about it before, but would like to emphasize it once again: in Hebrew, the contrast between the words describing Jacob and describing “his father”, is striking! The wordיָשַב  (yashav) means something sedentary, permanent, stable; it is understood as opposite to “wandering”. Actually, we have a statement here: Jacob is firmly settled in the Land where his father (grandfather, actually) was just a stranger. Jacob belongs to this Land!

The second verse – “this is the line of Jacob” – actually, opens the story of Joseph. In the verse 3, we read that Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, and openly expressed his favoritism by giving Joseph a very special tunic. In Hebrew, this tunic is called כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים (ketonet passim). The traditional idea of translations and folklore is that this was some sort of multi-colored outer garment. However, Hebrew allows different understandings of these words. Indeed, the word passim here can be translated as “colorful”, “embroidered”, or “striped” – but it can also denote a long garment, coming down to the “palms” of the hands and the feet, or the material out of which the coat was made (fine wool or silk). Hence, ketonet 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 “fine woolen cloak.”

Remarkably, in the entire Tanach (Old Testament), the very same words occur only once more – in the story of Amnon and Tamar. You don’t see it in translation, because it is often rendered as “long-sleeved robe”, but in Hebrew, it’s exactly the same expression as the one used for Joseph’s robe. There this robe definitely signifies special distinction: the king’s virgin daughters wore such apparel[1]. This is just one example of how important the understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures is. We can’t see from the translations, that Tamar’s garment was the same as Joseph’s. However, it is only thanks to this verse that we can understand that Joseph’s tunic was very special indeed: not just a tunic of many colors, but most likely the kind of robe worn by royalty.

It’s interesting that in both cases, this robe was a harbinger of coming tragedy. Both stories are very tragic: Joseph was attacked and sold, Tamar was attacked and raped; the brothers stripped Joseph of his tunic, Tamar tore her tunic! It is as if Scripture is saying: beware of royal apparel!

Joseph and His Father

A lot of questions arise when we read this dramatic chapter—Genesis 37. For instance, I’ve always wondered why Jacob sent Joseph to his brothers.  Wasn’t he aware of the fact the brothers hated Joseph (that’s exactly what the Torah says here)? I believe he was, so why does he send his beloved son, heavily overdressed for this long hike, to the envious and hating brothers?

Probably, years afterward, Joseph had the same questions. When, after all Joseph’s suffering and trials, we finally see him being successful and influential in Egypt, we are struck by a very interesting detail in this narrative. When his first son was born in Egypt, Joseph called him Menashe: “because God has made me forget (nashani) all my labor and my father’s house”.  Forget his father’s house?  Didn’t his father love him? Didn’t Joseph love his father? Why did he want to forget him?

First of all, we have to remember that Joseph didn’t know what we the readers do. Joseph didn’t know that his brothers had deceived his father and that Jacob thought Joseph was dead. He was probably wondering, especially during his first years of slavery: “Why doesn’t my father look for me”? Egypt is so close to Canaan, undoubtedly Joseph expected his father to come and look for him, but as we all know, that didn’t happen. Therefore, at some point Joseph may have decided that Jacob was involved in the plot – after all, it was his father who sent him to the brothers. Joseph knew that his father loved him, but he also knew the stories of the Fathers: Abraham loved Ishmael, but God chose Isaac; Isaac loved Esau, but God chose Jacob. Joseph knew that if God’s will for him was to be banished from his family, his father would probably accept and obey this will.

Only when the brothers came, did Joseph realize that Jacob had known nothing about the crime. That is why he later asks: “is my father alive”?[2] (it’s rendered as “is my father well?” in translation): he knows Jacob doesn’t have much time left and is anxious to fix his mistake, to reconcile, maybe even to ask forgiveness from his father.


There is one more detail in this chapter that I just can’t pass by, maybe because for me, living in the conflict-torn Israel of today, this is the topic of extreme importance. We read that after Judah’s suggestion to sell Joseph, the brothers pulled Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver.[3] Where did they find these Ishmaelites? A few verses before, we read: “Then they lifted their eyes and looked, and there was a company of Ishmaelites, coming from Gilead with their camels”[4]

Think about it: the story of Joseph happens only two generations after Abraham (Joseph is Isaac’s grandson and Abraham’s grand-grandson), but already the Ishmaelites that pass by the company of Isaac’s grandsons seem complete strangers to all of them. When the brothers see a caravan of passing merchants, they identify them as “Ishmaelites” in the same matter-of-fact, detached way that they would recognize any other tribe or nationality: as foreigners and strangers who had nothing to do with them. Isn’t that stunning? Just two generations after Isaac and Ishmael, and there is no hint of family ties, no trace of any kind of kinship. Nothing! In the lifespan of two generations, Isaac’s and Ishmael’s families have become completely estranged from one another! A very discouraging thought!

And yet, there is an encouraging thought as well that we can find here! We all know perfectly well that it was God’s plan from the beginning to take Joseph—and then all of Israel—to Egypt: however, this plan would not have been fulfilled if those Ishmaelites had not “happened” to pass by: Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. And Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him down there. TheLordwas with Joseph.[5]

Do you think it was a mere accident that those Ishmaelites happened along? There are no accidents in the Word of God: If it says that it was Ishmaelites who brought Joseph to Egypt, then it was important to the Lord that they were there, and that we know it. Joseph had to get to Egypt—that was God’s plan to begin with—but this plan was implemented through the Ishmaelites. Can you imagine? For the most magnificent, most significant, most defining event of Israel’s history—the Exodus —God used Ishmaelites! The paths of Isaac and Ishmael are intertwined, and this is the encouraging lesson that we can learn from this story.

[1] 2 Sam.13:8

[2] Gen.45:3

[3] Gen.37:28

[4] Gen. 37:25

[5] Gen. 39:1,2

Published by neaseno

I was born on Powers Bluff in Wood County, Wisconsin, into a traditional community of Neshnabek. I was raised speaking only native languages, and learned to speak English upon entering school at the age of 6. As of this writing, I am one of 5 remaining Heritage Fluent Speakers of Potawatomi.

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