Painting: Joseph’s Coat
Painter: Diego Velázquez (1630)
The story of Joseph begins with a statement that shows the special place he enjoyed in his father’s house: “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age” (Genesis 37:3).
When the story begins, Joseph was only seventeen years old. The special place Joseph enjoyed in his father’s house was because he was the firstborn son of his beloved wife Rachel, the woman he loved more than her sister Leah, Jacob’s first wife.
Jacob’s favoritism was the root of the bitterness that existed between Joseph and his brothers. The text provides two main reasons for the ill-feelings Joseph’s brothers had toward him.
The first reason was that Joseph would bring a report to his father telling him what his brothers were doing: “Joseph told his father about the bad things his brothers were doing” (Genesis 37:2). Or, as another version translates this verse: “He accused his brethren to his father of a most wicked crime” (Genesis 37:2 DRA).
The second reason for the brothers’ hatred of Joseph was because he was Jacob’s favorite son: “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children” (Genesis 37:3). It is possible that Jacob saw something in Joseph that put him above his other sons.
Maybe Jacob loved Joseph so much because of the great love he had for Rachel, Joseph’s mother. However, this favoritism did not sit well with his other sons: “Joseph’s brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them. They hated Joseph and couldn’t speak to him on friendly terms” (Genesis 37:4).
Jacob expressed his love and affection for Joseph by giving him a special garment: “a coat of many colours” (Genesis 37:3 KJV). This garment placed on Joseph a distinction that was denied his brothers. And this special distinction conferred upon Joseph exacerbated the hatred his brothers had toward him and exposed Joseph to the rage of his siblings.
The nature of Joseph’s garment has been the center of much discussion and disagreement. Popular imagination sees in Joseph’s garment a technicolor garment, a concept that gave birth to “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” a musical with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
However, it is doubtful that what distinguished the garment Jacob gave to Joseph was its color. The idea that Joseph’s coat had many colors came from a mistranslation of the Septuagint (LXX).
The English Translation of the Septuagint by Lancelot C. L. Brenton, translates Genesis 37:3 as follows: “And Jacob loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was to him the son of old age; and he made for him a coat of many colours” (Genesis 37:3). This translation was adopted by the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible by Jerome. The King James Bible followed the Septuagint in translating the Hebrew words as “coat of many colours.”
The Hebrew words behind the expression “coat of many colours” is ketonet passīm, a word with an unknown meaning. The English translations differ on how they translate ketonet passīm. This is how various versions of the Bible translate this Hebrew expression:
NRSV: “A long robe with sleeves.”
KJV: “A coat of many colours.”
NIV: “A richly ornamented robe.”
CJB: “A long-sleeved robe.”
NAB: “A long tunic.”
NJB: “A decorated tunic.”
These different translations of the two Hebrew words indicate that there is no unanimity among scholars on the meaning of this expression. The two words appear again in 2 Samuel 13:18 to describe a special garment worn by the daughters of kings: “Now [Tamar] was wearing a long robe with sleeves; for this is how the virgin daughters of the king were clothed in earlier times” (2 Samuel 13:18 NRSV).
Since the word ketonet passīm is used in this context, the versions translate these two words in the same way they translated them in Genesis 37:3.
In his commentary on Genesis, E. A. Speiser draws on Mesopotamian literature to clarify the meaning of this expression. He wrote:
Cuneiform inventories may shed light on the garment in question. Among various types of clothing listed in the texts, there is one called kitû pišannu. The important thing there, besides the close external correspondence with the Heb. phrase, is that the article so described was a ceremonial robe which could be draped around statues of goddesses, and had various gold ornaments sewed onto it (1964:290).
Thus, the translations that use the expression “ornamented robe” (NIV) or “decorated tunic” (NJB) are following Speiser’s proposal. Those versions that translate the Hebrew words as “long sleeve” follow a Jewish tradition that understands the word pas (as in passīm) to mean palm of the hand.
Speiser’s view that Mesopotamian religious traditions could explain the two Hebrew words, is based on an Article by A. Leo Oppenheim, “The Golden Garments of the Gods,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 8 (1949): 172-193. In his discussion of the garments used to dress the images of the goddesses, Oppenheim said that the meaning of the pišannu garment is not clear.
In his commentary on 2 Samuel, P. Kyle McCarter rejects Speiser’s view because of the difficulty in identifying the Mesopotamian garments with the garments mentioned in Genesis 37 and 2 Samuel 13. Since the word pas can mean “extremities,” either hands or feet, McCarter believes that the words ketonet passīm refer to a garment that goes to the extremities. He wrote: “It follows that ketonet passīm means ‘gown extending to the extremities’—i.e., hands or feet, since it is plural and not dual—and thus ‘long gown with sleeves.’”
This is the reading adopted by many modern translations. Since the ketonet passīm was the kind of garment that daughters of kings wore, the garment probably was associated with people who were royalty, with officials who had high rank in the palace, or with people who had an exalted position in society.
The fact that Jacob gave Joseph a ketonet passīm means that Jacob treated Joseph as a royal person, a person whom he considered to be above all his other sons.
In light of the real meaning of ketonet passīm as “a long robe with sleeves,”a garment worn by royalty, how about Joseph’s coat of many colors? The expression is so ingrained in the minds of Christians everywhere that it will be almost impossible to convince them that Joseph did not have a technicolor coat.
Thus, many people may finally be convinced that Joseph had a coat with long sleeves, even though they will continue to believe that Joseph had a coat with long sleeves but one that had many colors.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Oppenheim, A. Leo. “The Golden Garments of the Gods.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 8 (1949): 172–193.
P. Kyle McCarter Jr. II Samuel. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1984.
Speiser, E. A. . Genesis. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1964.