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Joseph and His Clothing

Joseph and his Clothing

In Joseph’s case, at least, it is fair to say that “clothes make the man.” The episodes of the tightly written Joseph narrative in Gen 37-50 are held together by a series of incidents in which Joseph is either given clothing or literally loses his shirt. Thus his fortunes rise and fall depending on how he is clothed, and the audience is cued to expect the opening of a new episode by these physical and social transformations.

With that said, it is important to recognize the significance of clothing in the biblical world. For example, in addition to gender differences, clothing is a marker of identity for all classes of people. A king is recognized by his robes of office (1Kgs 22:10), just as a priest is set aside from other people by his distinctive linen vestments, breastpiece, and turban (Lev 8:7-9). Mourners customarily wore sackcloth to display their grief (Jer 6:26), whereas prisoners of war were stripped naked, showing they had lost all personal identity (Isa 20:2-4).

When a doting Jacob gives Joseph a special cloak with long sleeves (the “coat of many colors” is a misinterpretation in Gen 37:3), he grants his favorite son a sign of special privilege. In this case, Joseph is exempted from shepherding duties, since the long sleeves would hinder him from chasing after the sheep. Jacob’s mistake becomes clear when his jealous sons catch Joseph alone, strip him of his garment, sell him into slavery, and use the bloodied cloak as evidence of Joseph’s death (Gen 37:18-33).

Fallen from favor and reduced to a slave’s role, Joseph regains some status in his master Potiphar’s household but quickly finds himself the target of Potiphar’s wife’s sexual advances (Gen 39:1-7). Although this episode may be dependent on an Egyptian folktale (see Matthews and Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels, 65-69), it also illustrates how slaves are put in impossible situations that can only lead to submission and/or tragedy. Joseph’s refusal of his mistress’s sexual desires leaves him stripped once again of his garment and placed in prison for attempted rape (Gen 39:11-20).

Following the established narrative pattern, even in prison Joseph gains a measure of respect, rising to the position of trustee and, presumably, being clothed in a garment by his jailers (Gen 39:21-23). After he successfully interprets the dreams of two of Pharaoh’s servants, Joseph is brought before the monarch, whose own diviners cannot fathom the king’s dreams (Gen 41:14). By demonstrating his abilities in this forum, Joseph’s status comes full circle. The Pharaoh orders a transformation that marks Joseph as one of his chief officials, giving him his signet ring, a gold chain, and new linen garments (Gen 41:42-43). Now dressed as an Egyptian, Joseph even fools his brothers when they come to Egypt to purchase food. It is only when Joseph sets aside his aura of power and speaks to them of family matters that he once again becomes part of their family (Gen 45:1-8).

The alternation between receiving and losing garments functions for Joseph as it does in the Egyptian tale of the political refugee Sinuhe (see Matthews and Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels, 141). They are narrative cues to scene changes and demonstrate how important clothing was to the social world of the ancient Near East.

  • Victor H. Matthews

    Victor H. Matthews is a professor of religious studies and dean of the College of Humanities and Public Affairs at Missouri State University. Among his publications are Studying the Ancient Israelites: A Guide to Sources and Methods (Baker Academic, 2007), Manners and Customs in the Bible (3rd ed., Baker Academic, 2006), and A Brief History of Ancient Israel (Westminster John Knox, 2002).