Coat of many colors
The problem of translation
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" or a "long coat with stripes."
The Septuagint translation of the passage uses the word ποικίλος (poikilos), which indicates "many colored"; the Jewish Publication Society of America Version also employs the phrase "coat of many colors". On the other hand, the Revised Standard Version translates kethoneth passim as "a long robe with sleeves" while the New International Version notes the translation difficulties in a footnote, and translates it as "a richly ornamented robe".
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 (Abraham ibn Ezra; Bahya ibn Paquda; Nachmanides on Exodus 28:2), striped (Jonah ibn Janah; Radak, Sherashim), or with pictures (Targum Jonathan). It can also denote a long garment, coming down to the palms of the hands (Rashbam; Ibn Ezra; Tosafot; Genesis 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".
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."
The phrase is used one other time in the Hebrew Scriptures, to describe the garment worn by Tamar, daughter of David, in 2 Samuel 13:18-19. This is the relevant comparison. Joseph lived among the tents with the women, rather than going out to the fields and hunting with his brothers. As it was with Tamar, the "coat of many colors" was, essentially, a dress (which his brothers found offensive).
Joseph's father Jacob (also called Israel) 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.
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," 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."
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.
In popular culture
- The coat is featured in the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
- In 1971, Dolly Parton referred to the coat in the song "Coat of Many Colors", a story about an incident in her childhood. The 2015 TV-movie Dolly Parton's Coat of Many Colors tells the story depicted in the song.
- In 1997, Anita Diamant's novel The Red Tent, Dinah mentions that Rachel is making a colorful garment for her son Joseph; she also mentions that it will make him the target of his brothers' taunting.
- In the video game Castlevania Symphony Of The Night for PS1, a cloak called "Joseph's cloak" can be found in the American localization of the game. It also features adjustable colors in the equip screen of the game as further reference from the Bible
- Joseph's coat is in the Dreamworks' film Joseph: King of Dreams.
- Genesis 37, King James.
- A Dictionary of the Targumim, Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi and Midrashic Literature, 1903. ISBN 1-932443-20-7
- Genesis 37, Septuagint.
- Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon: ποικίλος, 1889.
- Genesis 37, JPS.
- Genesis 37, Revised Standard. Archived 2007-07-10 at WebCite
- Genesis 37, NIV.
- Genesis » Chapter 37, Accessed December 15, 2010.
- James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament) (Electronic ed. Oak Harbor : Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
- Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50 (NICOT; Eerdmans, 1995), 431-432.
- Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (Basic Books, 1981), 10.