This week’s parsha begins the story of Joseph, youngest of the dozen sons of Jacob, the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel. Joseph’s tale spans fourteen chapters with only chapter 38 interrupting the flow—though even that is related to the surrounding story.
There is a lot going on in these chapters. And one of them is probably something you never thought of: the common thread (pardon the pun) of … clothing.
JOSEPH AND HIS COAT OF MANY COLORS
Jacob, here also called Israel, dotes on his son Joseph, making for him the famous “coat of many colors” (though that translation of the unclear Hebrew is just a guess).
Jacob’s love for Joseph leads to the eleven other brothers’ hatred for their sibling, only worsened by Joseph’s two dreams suggestive of a future subservience of the brothers, and even of his parents, to himself.
And so on an errand to find his brothers, Joseph becomes the victim of a scheme to kill him, and although he ends up not dead but in a pit, that is scarcely better in the long run. Judah concocts a plot to sell him to some travelling Ishmaelites; why shouldn’t they at least net themselves something in the process of getting rid of Joseph? And after Joseph is sold to the Ishmaelites, his brothers took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. And they sent the robe of many colors and brought it to their father and said, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not.” And he identified it and said, “It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. (Genesis 37:31-34)
Joseph is stripped of his clothing even as he loses his status and freedom. His robe, as a symbol of his father’s special love, became the occasion for hatred. Now it becomes a means of deceiving Jacob, the brothers more concerned to be rid of Joseph than for the grief they bring on their father.
JUDAH AND HIS FASHION ACCESSORIES
Chapter 38 is a bit of an interlude, though still related to the surrounding story. In this section of the parsha, Judah marries and has three sons. Follow the details here: his firstborn, Er, is married off to a woman named Tamar. But Er dies, apparently without producing any children. Son number two, Onan, is required under the law to sleep with Tamar and produce children in lieu of his brother, thereby providing economic protection to the widow. But Onan also dies, and so son number three, Shelah, should be given to Tamar. But afraid that Shelah will die as well, Judah withholds him from Tamar, leaving her without legal redress or an economic safety cushion in the form of children.
At this point Tamar disguises herself as a roadside prostitute: “she took off her widow’s garments and covered herself with a veil,” Gen. 38:14).
Judah is enticed, and offers a goat in payment for her “services.” Until the animal can be sent, however, at Tamar’s request he leaves his signet, cord and staff as a guarantee. The signet attached to its cord functioned as a kind of necklace, and all of the items were personalized, maybe with some ancient equivalent of a monogram, so as to clearly identify the owner.
Afterwards, the goat is sent in payment, but the “prostitute” is nowhere to be found. Some months afterward, Judah is informed that his daughter-in-law Tamar is “pregnant by immorality.” En route to being punished, she produces Judah’s personalized wardrobe items, shaming him into realizing that he violated the law in withholding Shelah—and that the children she is carrying are his.
Clothing again becomes significant—Tamar exchanges her widow’s outfit for that of a prostitute, deceiving her father-in-law Judah, while Judah’s recognition of his gentleman’s accessories leads him to feel ashamed at violating a basic family provision of the law.
But wait, there’s more.
JOSEPH DITCHES HIS CLOTHES
We’re back to Joseph as chapter 39 picks up. In the tumultuous world of ancient Middle Eastern commerce, Joseph finds himself day-traded by the Ishmaelites to the Egyptians. Nevertheless, “The LORD was with Joseph. He was successful and lived in the household of his Egyptian master.” Joseph rises to become overseer of the household of Potiphar, who is the captain of Pharaoh’s guard.
The Bible, however, never substitutes idealism for reality. Just because the LORD was with Joseph doesn’t mean he was invulnerable to “stuff.” And stuff is what happens to Joseph, as Potiphar’s wife repeatedly tries to seduce him. If you know the movie The Graduate, she is Mrs. Robinson to Joseph’s Benjamin Braddock.
And as she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not listen to her, to lie beside her or to be with her. But one day, when he went into the house to do his work and none of the men of the house was there in the house, she caught him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me.” But he left his garment in her hand and fled and got out of the house. And as soon as she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled out of the house, she called to the men of her household and said to them, “See, he has brought among us a Hebrew to laugh at us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice. And as soon as he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me and fled and got out of the house.”
Then she laid up his garment by her until his master came home, and she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to laugh at me. But as soon as I lifted up my voice and cried, he left his garment beside me and fled out of the house.”
As soon as his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, “This is the way your servant treated me,” his anger was kindled. And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison. (Genesis 39:10-20)
It’s twice now that an article of clothing ends up being responsible for Joseph’s imprisonment. Just to underscore the similarity, the Hebrew word bor is used both for the pit into which he was earlier cast (Genesis 37:20) and the prison in which he now finds himself (Gen. 40:15 – “For I was indeed stolen out of the land of the Hebrews, and here also I have done nothing that they should put me into the pit.”)
And for the third time, a piece of clothing becomes an occasion for deceit.
ALL DRESSED UP AND NO PLACE TO GO?
Fast forward to the New Testament. Jesus of Nazareth has been arrested and brought before the Roman official Pontius Pilate, whose soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe. They came up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and struck him with their hands. (John 19:3)
In a piece of “satirical theater,” Jesus is arrayed in a mock-royal outfit to shame him and underscore his apparent powerlessness in the face of the real king, Caesar.
And then, When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom, so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This was to fulfill the Scripture which says, “They divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” (John 19:23-24)
As allowed under Roman law, the soldiers were entitled to an executed person’s clothing. But when they cast lots for the tunic, John throws a whole new perspective on the situation: this happened in fulfillment of the Old Testament, quoting from Psalm 22:18 (verse 19 in Hebrew). This means that God, not Rome, was ultimately in charge of what was happening to Jesus. And at the ironic end of the New Testament story, Jesus really turns out to be a king—only not the Caesar-emperor kind.
CLOTHES, GOD, AND YOUR MOTHER
Let’s recap: Joseph’s fancy coat led to his arrival in Egypt and to Jacob’s grief. Tamar’s switch of outfits led to Judah’s deceit and his own accoutrements led to his shame. Joseph’s Egyptian clothes led to his imprisonment. Jesus’ clothes were given to him as a mockery, and then handled as a fulfillment of Scripture.
I’m going to fast forward to Genesis 50:20, which though it’s not part of this parsha, puts all this in context: “As for you,” Joseph says to his brothers in Egypt, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
Because Joseph ended up in Egypt, God used his time there to save lives during a famine (as we later learn). Jacob’s grief was replaced by joy and provision. The shame of Tamar bearing Judah’s children by deceit led to one of her sons, Perez, becoming an ancestor of the Messiah Jesus. And Jesus’ humiliation of being stripped and having Roman soldiers take his clothes was a fulfillment of Scripture—just as Jesus’ crucifixion was planned by God as an atonement for sin. In every story, clothing reveals the contrast between the messy story of people—their shame, sorrow and deceit—and the big picture of God using these same people to advance his good plans for humanity.
Oh, and your mother—well, she might have a lot to think about the next time she goes shopping for a dress!
On the fashion runway with Joseph and Judah