Joseph and his Coat of Many Colours

Whereas the earlier stories in Genesis, from Abraham to Jacob, seem stitched together by assembling individual tales to suggest a chronological narrative, the Joseph Story seems more like a brief, carefully constructed novel, described by Prof. John Collins of Yale Divinity School, as “a superb example of early prose fiction“. It’s built around a number of recurring themes which help to structure the plot, and also to provide links to these preceding tales, such as those about Joseph’s father Jacob and his brother Esau. So we have the theme of parental favouritism and consequent sibling rivalry, reminding us of how often we fail to learn lessons from our past. As Jacob was his mother’s favourite, with troublous consequences, so Joseph is Jacob’s favourite son, “born to him when he was old“.

The theme of clothing is of great importance. The meaning the Hebrew word for the special coat given to Joseph is unclear. The idea of “many colours” comes from the later Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. Similar words in other Semitic languages suggest long sleeves, or a richly embroidered tunic. The word is found only once more in the Hebrew Bible, of the garment worn by King David’s daughter, Tamar, indicating her royal status. It therefore anticipates the climax of Joseph’s story, when he will be royally arrayed as the ‘Grand Vizier’ of Egypt. 

The theme of sibling rivalry is reinforced by that of dreams. Joseph (unwisely for him, but not for the story) tells his brothers about his dream which had them “bowing down” to him. This makes their hatred of him understandable, if not excusable, when they sell him into slavery in Egypt. Dreams continue to advance the plot when Joseph, in jail because of a false rape accusation, shows his ability to correctly interpret the dreams of two fellow prisoners, one being the Pharaoh’s “wine steward“. As Joseph predicts, he is soon set free and gets his job back. 

In the best story telling tradition, this reinstated functionary initially forgets all about Joseph, then suddenly remembers him in the context of some dreams troubling the Pharaoh, and describes Joseph’s proficiency. Joseph convincingly interprets these dreams as foretelling years of plenty, then famine. He then seizes the moment, and advises the Pharaoh on what preparations should be made, and on the wisdom of appointing a suitable person to set them in motion. Well then, who better than Joseph himself – which makes it easier for us to entertain the idea of a former nobody, a mere Hebrew slave, convicted and jailed for alleged rape, suddenly being appointed as the Governor of Egypt, second only to the Pharaoh himself.

To return to the theme of clothing and linkages with previous stories, Joseph’s brothers stripped off his ‘royal’ coat and, after selling him to slave-traders, dipped it in goat’s blood to make his father think some wild beast had attacked him. Jacob’s being deceived by a garment, recalls how he deceived his own blind father, Isaac, by wearing the clothing of his brother Esau. After Joseph, in Egypt, has risen to become chief steward in the house of Potiphar, his “robe” is grabbed by Potiphar’s wife, in an attempted seduction. Jacob breaks free, but the robe remains in the wife’s clutches and, in revenge, she uses it to deceive her husband into thinking there had been an attempted rape. Deception keeps repeating with ongoing variations! Joseph has to exchange his robe for prison clothes, but these in turn are exchanged for his concluding ‘coat of many colours’, the stately vestment of the Grand Vizier. The stage is now ready to be reset for the foundational story of the birth of the people of Israel after their Exodus from Egypt.

The dream theme returns in the story’s climax when, after Joseph has rescued them from the famine, and revealed his identity to them, Joseph’s brothers, asking his forgiveness, “came and bowed down before him with their faces to the ground“. This realisation of Joseph’s original dream, gives an added feeling of ‘rightness’ to the story’s conclusion, reinforced when Joseph tells them, “You plotted evil against me, but God turned it into good. You have nothing to fear. I will take care of you and your children” – a satisfying end to a concluding chapter. 

Whether or not the Hebrew Bible contains “the word of God”, need not depend on whether what we read is fact or fiction. Irrespective of that, it is a library that contains some of the world’s finest pieces of literature, of which the Joseph story, skilfully and imaginatively put together, is a classic example. Its principal themes not only link it to what precedes and follows it, but also inform and tighten its structure, enrich the colourful congruity of its contents, and add emotional drama to its compelling storyline. 

Genesis, chapters 37 to 50 (we can skip the interpolated 38) – let’s revisit and enjoy them, just as the original writers/editors would surely have wished.

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