Old Testament

What Color was Joseph’s “Coat of Many Colors”?

001-joseph-dreams

I still remember learning the story of Joseph and his brothers in Sunday School growing up. I remember watching the story played out on a flannelgraph where the main character, Joseph, was displayed in his brightly colored “rainbow” coat. I also remember going to a local theater to watch the musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat.” These were landmark times in my life. But, were these teachings mistaken?

It is no surprise that most people think Joseph was the object of jealousy of his brothers because of his coat of many colors. Consider the following translations of Gen 37:3.

ESVNow Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors.  
NASBNow Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a varicolored tunic.
KJVNow Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colours.
HCSB Now Israel loved Joseph more than his other sons because Joseph was a son born to him in his old age, and he made a robe of many colors for him.

All these translations seem to agree that Joseph was given a multi-colored coat, but the only problem is that the Hebrew text does not say Joseph had a coat of many colors!

The Hebrew phrase for “coat of many colors” is כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּֽים. Historically, the reason that our English translations have something to do with colored coat is because the Greek translation of the OT translated this phrase, χιτῶνα ποικίλον, which means “various-colored coat,” or “coat of many colors.” The Latin Vulgate apparently also did not understand what the Hebrew word meant because he followed the Greek translation with tunicam polymitam.

You might say, well maybe the Greek and Latin translators got it right and it should be multi-colored?

Probably not the case. For the same Hebrew phrase is found in 2 Samuel 13:18-19 for a long-sleeved tunic. Interestingly, this passage is clearly in context of royalty, and this tunic is specifically described as, “for thus the virgin daughters of the king dressed.” As some have noted, this may indicate that this kind of robe was representative of royalty. The Greek translator in this case translated the same Hebrew phrase as χιτὼν καρπωτός, which can be translated “coat reaching the wrists.” So no “coat of many colors” translation in 2 Samuel.

In addition, although the LXX translates Genesis 37:3 as “coat of many colors,” other Greek translations of that day do not. For example, Aquila’s translation of the OT uses ἀστράγαλον “down to the ankle(s),” and Symmachus’ translation uses χειριδωτόν, “a tunic with long sleeves.”

This evidence has led to a few of the newer translations translating this phrase as something other than “coat of many colors.” I would suspect that as translations are updated these translations will become the norm in this passage.

CSBNow Israel loved Joseph more than his other sons because Joseph was a son born to him in his old age, and he made a long-sleeved robe for him.
NETNow Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons because he was a son born to him late in life, and he made a special tunic for him.
NIVNow Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made an ornate robe for him.

All this to say that the idea of Joseph have a coat of many colors which led to his brother’s envy appears to be a mistaken notion. The brothers were envious, but that was because Joseph was given a privileged place in his father’s eyes, even though he was the youngest. He was the son of Rachel, the favorite wife, and he was the son of Jacob’s old age. This led to Joseph being privileged above his brothers. The coat did indeed signify this special status, but the coat is not described as being multi-colored. Time to change some of our flannelgraphs.

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

9 Comments

  • doreen win

    we must not forget that Joseph inherited the Birthright because Ruben lost it due to immoral behaviour with Jacob’s “wife/concubine” Billah ( once Rachel’s hand maid)
    ie: Ruben was the first born son to Jacob’s first wife Leah therefore stood to inherit the Birthright.. however after he committed such a terrible act he lost that place in the family.
    Joseph was the first born to Jacob’s second wife Rachel therefore he was, by virtue of his birth, next in line to inherit the Birthright …

  • Russell Pearson

    Like many yarns in the bible if taken on literal face value, the true meaning is lost. The bible is code for a much greater and accurate story, which yu can only get from the original source. The bible is not original, but a plagerisation of prior human history, events and characters.
    Joseph’s coat was a symbol of his status as an Annarki . His brothers were green with envy not of his coat but because of his heritage which they did not possess, and his special skill of reading dreams and interpreting the future.
    As with many stories and characters in the sumarian history, these very same stories and characters are incorporated into the Greek pantheon, and then retold as factual events and people in biblical times.
    The eumma elish tells of the creation of humans by infusing their Annarki genetics with a hominid most likely something like a sasquatch, denisovan or neandathal, I don’t believe it was a primate.
    Yu can follow a very similar story line of Sumarian history, as that in the bible, only the Sumarian saga is 10,000 or more years older.
    All those characters in the bible with those supernatural powers and knowledge, and their very high technology, alleged to have been given or come from god, were really Annanarki gods, transplanted into the bible. When we refer to THE REAL god, there is no god of the bible, only the creator GOD’S OF THE ANNANARKI, MANY NOT PLURAL.
    I suspect a number of them may well have been Nephilim as well. Think about it for a tick. How old did some of these individuals live for so long, everyone else only lived around 100 to 200 years. Methuselah, abraham , solomon. Look at Noah and his boat,
    Moses and his staff, the ten commandments, the ark of the covenant, Joshua’s trumpet, to mention a few. All have powers, intruments, skills or knowledge, given to them, by a higher power. An exact retelling of the skills given to the Annanarki engineered humans.
    The book of revelation tells of the return of the Annarki gods to earth, not the return of christ.

  • j40bob

    One problem of citing 2 Sam 13 is that it is no more descriptive than here and is just as ambiguous as to what the phrase means. Unless we think we can say with certainty what the garment in 2 Sam looks like, we’re still lost as to a definition. The Genesis passage mentions the coat in such a way that we are supposed to understand that the coat itself annoyed his brothers because it was so special. There is no reason to mention the coat at all in this passage if there were not something special about it.

    • Peter Goeman

      Thanks for the comment. I think if it were only the LXX of Gen 37:3 against 2 Sam 13 then it would be more questionable. However, as I pointed out, Aquila and Symmachus (early Greek translations themselves) both translate Gen 37:3 in reference to the length of the coat instead of in reference to its color. Thus, that means out of the early witnesses to this phrase, only the LXX of Gen 37:3 references the color (presumably the Vulgate depends upon the LXX here). So the weight of the evidence appears to side against the color of the coat being the issue.

      Some have hypothesized that mention of clothing in the story of Joseph traces his social standing. For example, Joseph has his garment taken away (37:23), his cloak is taken by Potiphar’s wife (39:12-13), he is clothed with clothing as Paraoh’s courtier (41:42), and he gives his brothers clothing, especially Benjamin (45:22). I am not sure if this is intentional by the narrator, but it at least shows the tendency of the narrator to mention the tunic apart from having a special color significance.

      • j40bob

        Peter, I’m not arguing for multi-colored, just that I think there was something special about the coat itself, otherwise I don’t think it would have been mentioned. LXX translators show varying degrees of competence, to be sure, but I don’t know that Aquila and Symmachus necessarily knew any more about this apparently obscure word. If I were doing a translation, I would want a way to describe the coat as somehow special. I see no good lexical reason to go with “multi-colored” but “long-sleeved” isn’t communicating that idea for me. NIV 2011 uses “ornate,” NLT “beautiful,” JPS and NAB “ornamented.” Any thoughts on how to better communicate this idea?

        • Peter Goeman

          Sorry, j40bob, I misunderstood what you were getting at. I better understand now.

          You raise a good point. I am most comfortable with the NIV translation personally because it is not overly committed in either direction, yet it still communicates well within the context. I’m okay with allowing a certain amount of ambiguity, though if I was forced I still think the special character of the tunic is more contextual and not by its given description (which evidence would appear to give emphasis on length). Hope that makes sense. I appreciate your thoughts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.