Most people know the story of Joseph and his garment that became a flash point for his brothers’ anger and jealousy. Most think they know how to translate the garment, indeed it is the title of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. The verse this week reads:
loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat with long sleeves. 4. And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him. Israel
If you read carefully you might have noticed what I did when reading the Socino translation. It does not say coat of many colors but instead coat with long sleeves. What is going on here?
The term in Hebrew is ketonet passim and there is a lot of debate about what it means. The term shows up in one other place, in II Samuel, after the incestuous rape of Tamar by King David’s son Amnon.
17. Then he called his servant who ministered to him, and said, Take now this woman away from me, and bolt the door after her. 18. And she had a long sleeved robe upon her; for with such robes were the king’s daughters who were virgins dressed. Then his servant took her out, and bolted the door after her. 19. And Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore her long sleeved robe, that was on her, and laid her hand on her head, crying aloud as she went. [II Samuel 13:17-19]
One possibility then is Joseph was wearing girl’s clothes. The Midrash also notes some of these tendencies, including eye makeup, curling his hair and lifting his heels. [Gen R. LXXXIV: 7] But lifting the heels is not putting on high heel shoes, but instead a sense of excessive false pride. The rabbis seem to portray Joseph not as a cross dresser but, for lack of a better term as a pretty boy, an immature male who is outwardly vain to the exclusion of all else. The Rabbis give a parable explaining the episode with Potiphar’s wife:
And Joseph was of beautiful form, and fair to look upon [Gen. 39:6]. And this is immediately followed by, His master's wife cast her eyes upon Joseph. It may be illustrated by a man who sat in the street, penciling his eyes, curling his hair and lifting his heel, while he exclaimed, ' I am indeed a man.’ ‘If you are a man,’ the bystanders retorted, ‘here is a bear; up and attack it!" [Gen R. LXXXVII: 3]
The bystanders in this story according to the rabbis are none other than God testing Joseph’s vanity. The bear, Potiphar’s wife, is a difficult opponent to beat even for a strong man. Joseph, until he made his choices at the foot of her bed, was all style and no substance.
Yet this is not the only meaning of the term. A ketonet is mentioned in several places as the white robes of Aaron and his sons. They are described as fine coats of fine white linen of woven work for Aaron [Ex 39:27] and embroidered [Ex 28:39]. The coat itself was an important robe of some kind. As we learn in Leviticus 16, it may have had a protective property to it, as it is required when entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. Yet even the wearing of the ketoret had a basis in the Joseph story according to the rabbis, this time as atonement of sin:
The tunic used to make atonement for bloodshed, as we read, And they dipped the coat in the blood [Gen. 37, 31]. Some say it was for those who wore garments of diverse kinds, as we read, And he made him a coat of many colors [37:3] [Song of Songs Rabbah IV: 8]
Some of the rabbis believe that it is diverse kinds of passim, that the atonement is about. So the other key word here is passim. The Midrash goes into a brain storming session over this word. Some used an allegorical approach, stating that passim was foreshadowing of Joseph’s suffering in a variety of ways. Literal approaches to passim in the Midrash break the word into a plural of the word pas which mean stripes. Pas is also the point on the hand where stripes on the hand meet: the wrist. Thus the coat had sleeves which reached to the wrist, our long sleeved coat. The Targum Pseudo-Jonathan translated the whole term as a royal robe which is either painted or embroidered.
The thing that bugs me it that we assume the coat was colored. There is no evidence that it ever was from the rabbinic point of view. We assume if there were stripes, they were different colors. We assume that if it was embroidered, the embroidery thread was a different color than the material it was made of. Yet, white on white is a possibility. Looking at my palm the stripes on my hand are the same color as my hand. We know Aaron’s robe was white, and we can wonder if Tamar as a virgin would wear a white robe or a multicolored one. The sin atoned in the Midrash to Song of Songs is not about mixing colors, but mixing the two basically white fabrics wool and linen.
When I sat down to write this commentary, I wanted to write a commentary over what colors were used in the coat of many colors. As an artist, I wanted to link the metaphor of a painter’s palette to the colors in the coat. Instead, I end up with the amazing Technicolor dream coat may very well have been linen white. Coming to the conclusion that it wasn’t colored at all is enough of a Drash in itself. Maybe the question is why do we need the multihued coat to be part of the story that it got translated that way by a lot of people?
With a little more research, it was the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the bible that added the word many colors. Where they got it from is not clear, but the Septuagint was written in the
In modernity, white has become cheap. The $5.00 white Bristol board pads I use up monthly Leonardo DaVinci or Michelangelo would have killed for. I’m staring at a white screen as I type. Even the top to my coffee is cheap, brilliantly white plastic. To think of Joseph in a white robe is to minimize his brother’s jealousy. Yet, to think of him in an exquisitely dyed garment increases the garment’s value, and makes the story work better. Yet in each of our minds, the colors of that garment are different, with differing patterns and stripes. In our minds, we design Joseph’s garment differently and no two are the same. Our expression of that garment is an expression of ourselves.
White is the color of the paper I start a painting on. White is the color of the screen on a new Microsoft Word file. Looking at the deviantart.com counter of 46 million works of art posted or a bookstore full of what was once white paper reminds me that both paper and computer screens have the potential to be an infinite number of things. I started with the wrong question. It is not the palette that is of interest, but the canvas. Joseph’s coat is the canvas of our personal painting – it is blank, and we as the reader add the Midrash of color.
So, what is on your canvas?