About eight years ago now I was teaching in the kids’ ministry at a church in my hometown, where I was slotted as the one who leads the games. This was strange, I reckon, because I’m rather staid: if I could I’d have assembled a Socratic circle, corralled the youth on the dirty carpet, and busted out the Great Questions in theology, that would have been a blast!
I don’t think they would have liked that. They wanted to play Simon Says, Red Light-Green Light, Duck Duck Goose, Hangman (okay, I wanted to play that one), etc. At such a ripe age, kids don’t care about the depths in biblical stories–or yet they can’t grasp them. Whether Joseph’s coat was rainbow, orange, or banana-bright, the story would have enlivened them, and they would love to be adorned in that coat.
And that was one Sunday’s lesson: a play, with all thespian décor and leader coordination, of the time Joseph was given a coat of many colors by his father Israel.
Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age. Also he made him a tunic of [many] colors (Gen. 37:3, NKJV).
At this time Joseph was but 17, which in this era is a full-fledged adult: he was entrenched in the 9-5 schedule, so to speak, and had undergone the rites of passage to be a man. Still, the family dynamic was more tightly woven then than it is today: unless you were wed to become one flesh and thus called to leave your parents (Gen. 2:24), you were with your family.
Despite their elder age, Joseph’s brothers did not fancy the chap. Even in innocuous activities such as tending the flock, Joseph had to send bad report about them to his father (which would probably exacerbate the poor rapport he had with his brothers, to be fair).
(Also, I doubt the brothers liked hearing of Joseph’s dream about his sheaf being nonpareil to theirs, and their sheaves bowing to his: “Shall you indeed reign over us”? Tumult was brewing [vv. 5-8].)
At some point Israel decided to adorn his youngest son Joseph with an ornate robe, a ketonet passim. When his brothers saw that their father loved Joseph more than them, they hated him.
You have to wonder: What does bestowing a colorful coat have to do with a greater degree of love?
Here’s a scenario for you (if you have siblings; if not, use your imagination). Your parent comes home from the shopping mall and has a big, elusively-branded shopping bag. It’s bulging but noticeably with a feather weight–so that you know by the cusp of the bag there are clothes in it.
You wait for her cheery beckoning of you. A name leaves her lips–but it’s not yours. It’s your sister’s.
Out she pulls one rockin’ Roxy shirt (#flashback), with some cool oblique flames to help flaunt your figure from every angle. “Yea, I would have wanted that. I wonder what mine is.”
The bag is empty. Just one gift… for your sister only.
This is the situation that bred the animus between Joseph and his brothers: envy.
Joseph’s brothers, from both the envy and the sundry dreams portending his rule over the earth (cf. vv. 9-10), plotted to kill him (v. 18). It was more than a quarrel over the coat: it was much deeper–a wedge of status between him and his brothers. He was called by God to lead, and they despised it.
So… the coat.
So it came to pass, when Joseph had come to his brothers, that they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the tunic of [many] colors that was on him (v. 23).
The ketonet in ketonet passim clearly means a coat or tunic, the standard vestment for Joseph’s milieu. But what’s with passim? The ambiguity of this word is the reason we have varied translations:
A coat of many colors//a striped coat//a coat with long sleeves, one reaching the ankle…
Elsewhere in the Old Testament the existence of color-adorned attire is present, when the book of Judges chronicles Israel’s interaction with Sisera: “For Sisera, plunder of dyed garments, plunder of garments embroidered and dyed, two pieces of dyed embroidery for the neck of the looter” (5:30).
Monochromatic attire is reserved for the proletariat, but the embroidered and colorful for the affluent and prestigious.
The section of Judges mentions the concurrent use of the colored attire, but 2 Samuel showcases the exact phrase in Genesis 37: ketonet passim (Note: this is not an example of a hapax legomenon, as it was when we looked at tattoos).
When Ammon was behaving filthily with Tamar, he called his servant to send Tamar away, who was wearing a ketonet passim, which she immediately tore and replaced with ashes upon her head (13:18-19).
Although Judges and 2 Samuel succeed the Genesis time frame, it is wholly legitimate to assume the colorful robes were also present in Joseph’s story.
The difference, though, is the amount of uproar that a colorfully clad Joseph causes his brothers.
What it surely would have communicated is that the brother was set apart and favored as the son born to Israel at an old age, but there is another translation that seems to better fit the context: a long-sleeved tunic.
A long-sleeved coat would have meant that Joseph was exempted from working in the field, perhaps, being given a symbol of royalty. He would be seen as promoted beyond the proletariat, becoming a white-collar worker vis-a-vis his blue-collar brothers.
In 2 Samuel, however, Tamar’s coat could have easily been long-sleeved or striped, intimating royalty, “for the king’s virgin daughters wore such apparel” (v. 18). Whether her robe were rainbow, extending to the ankles, or striped, she would still be marked as royal and never proletariat.
Likewise, whether Joseph had a long-sleeved tunic that exempted him from working in the field at all or to the same degree of his brother; whether he had a multicolored robe that made him stand out as a peacock; or whether his robe was striped and displayed him with tiers of prestige as in the military, his brothers hated him.
He was set apart, much like God intended for Israel the nation of his people to be (Lev. 20:26).
I personally take the position that a ketonet passim, for both Joseph’s story and Tamar’s in 2 Samuel, is not a multicolored tunic, but one that is long-sleeved or striped, or even both. People who are given vestments that weigh heavy on them are not suited to work like a commoner: they are there to present themselves as royal and rest on their inherited laurels.
As we see in Genesis 37, Joseph is destined by God to rule his nation and lead his people, and has no time to work in the same manner as his brothers. He has a higher vocation.
The idea of a “robe of many colors” is possible in this context, but because of the unseemly reaction by his brothers, the scene of agrarian-type work, and contemporaneous instances of royalty wearing longer, baggier, and ornate tunics, I submit long-sleeved or striped to be the suitable translation for [ketonet] passim in Genesis 37.
Do you think the design of the tunic matters? More importantly, when God called us to himself to be set apart and remain unstained from the world (James 1:27), do you think our attire or our skin or our vessel really matters?
I don’t think it does.