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Watching Joseph Change His Clothing

Clothing signifies.  Beyond covering our nakedness, and providing protection from the elements, what we wear gives clues to gender, status, profession, attitude, age, personality, culture, and often even one’s current mood. What we wear when also matters a great deal.  If one has teenagers or is able to remember the teen years, the “appropriateness” of clothing is an oft contested area between one generation and the next.  Ever since the fig leaf, clothes have been a language; what we wear defines and describes what and who we are or wish to be.  Clothing symbolically mediates our relationships to others, nature and even our own self- image.  Little wonder, then, that in the hands of a gifted story teller, such as the spinner of the Joseph story, clothing takes on a significant thematic role. 

The Joseph story constitutes one of the longest and most artfully constructed stories of the Old Testament.  As one commentator notes, “Rarely in Western literature has form been woven into content, pattern sewn into meaning, structure forged into theme with greater subtlety or success.  The result is a narrative of profound paradox that first reveals then resolves itself in absolute symmetry.”[1] The primary structuring motif in the story is the three sets of paired dreams.  While the dream cycles get most of the attention, the “pit” and clothing motifs play important supporting roles.  Clothing, particularly the changes of clothing, symbolically signal change in status and personal relationships.

Along with the information that Joseph, a teenager (“seventeen”) who brings an “ill report” of his brothers to his father, is loved by his father more than any of the other sons, we also learn that Jacob has made Joseph an “ornamented tunic.”[2]  The special tunic in this context clearly indicates that Joseph is spoiled, in the eyes of his brothers—no doubt a spoiled, tell-tale brat. His brothers hate him and “could not speak a kind work do him” (37. 4).  What the coat, or tunic, mediates here is ironic.  The tunic, clearly special, signifies favored status—a status, however, not yet earned and hence Joseph is reviled by the brothers. (An aside here: as various scholars have pointed out, the “coat of many colors” so familiar to us, is a result of a mistranslation that found its way into the King James. The exact nature of the garment is not fully certain, but it is clear that it is an expensive garment of special status that signals Joseph’s superior status in the household.)  It is no accident then that this garment becomes a garment despised and used to “cover up” the crime of selling Joseph into slavery.  After they make their money (“twenty pieces of silver” v. 28), the brothers use the tunic to lie for them.  They pretend to not even know for certain whose tunic it is, saying to Jacob: “’Recognize, pray, is it your son’s tunic or not?’” (37:32). A moment of supreme irony here unfolds (as Robert Alter points out): Jacob himself had used the blood of a kid goat on a garment to lie and trick his father.[3]

Jacob’s recognition scene is dramatic. Seeing the special tunic now covered in blood, he assumes that the only possibly fate of the wearer of such a garment of high status must be the horrific. He assumes that Joseph is not only dead, but that he has been “devoured” by a “vicious beast” and “torn to shreds!”(v. 33).  In response Jacob “rent his clothes” in an act of identification with his son and he claims that he will go down to his son in “Sheol”—the land of the dead.  Stripped of his clothing, Joseph is “dead”—believed to be literally dead by his father, and without his special tunic, he is also dead to—or at least has lost—his identity and status as a favored and spoiled son.

We next find Joseph, blessed by God, doing rather well and in full control of Potiphar’s household: “he [Potiphar] left all that he had in Joseph’s hands” (39:6).  Unfortunately, his status here as second only to Potiphar does not last long, and his fall is again signaled with an incident involving clothing.  In Potiphar’s wife’s final act of attempted seduction, she grabs hold of Joseph “by his garment” (39:12).  Joseph flees, presumably naked (or nearly naked) in much the same state as he was when left by his brothers in the pit.  Once again, his garment, recognized by all, is used as evidence in a lie: “And she laid out his garment by her until his master returned to his house.  And she spoke to him things of this sort, saying, ‘The Hebrew slave came into me, whom you brought us, to play with me.  And so, when I raised my voice and called out, he left his garment by me and fled outside’”(v. 16-19).  The lie is again believed to be true and Joseph lands in prison—symbolically, pit number two. 

Joseph’s first position of privilege is unearned, bestowed by his father.  He loses his tunic that symbolized that status and loses that identity.  His second position is blessed by God and aided by his good looks (“And Joseph was comely in features and comely to look at” (39:6).  This position he also loses.  His third rise will be because of God’s blessing in combination with is his skill: “And the prison-house warden placed in Joseph’s hands all the prisoners who were in the prison-house, and all that they were to do there, it was he who did it” (39: 22).  Joseph’s skill and implied maturity come into full force when he interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and he rules Egypt.

Back in prison, clothing does not get mentioned, perhaps, because in prison, clothing does not carry much signification of status—at least among the prisoners. When summoned by Pharaoh, apparently in haste, we are told that he shaves and “changes his garments” (41:14).  A clear signal that a change of status is coming.

We are at a critical juncture in the story.  Up to this point, Joseph has lost his clothing in a generally downward slide from favored son to prisoner.  Now however, he acquires clothing in his swift rise to the heights of power.  As a signal of being set “over all the land of Egypt” (41:41) we get a catalogue of the symbols of power: “And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand and had him clothed in fine linen clothes and placed the golden collar round his neck” (v. 42).  He also gets a new name and an Egyptian wife.  At this moment, for the second time in the text, we are told how old he is—thirty years, as if to echo the first time we meet him when he is seventeen.  Joseph is now completely transformed and by his skill and the blessing of God, is very different from the young man at the beginning of the story.  He has now earned his right to his status signified by his new clothing.  In his new position he is able to save Egypt and save his family.   Metaphorically, Egypt is Sheol. Ironically, as one of several reversals in this story, Sheol as Egypt, becomes not the place of death but of resurrection (Joseph dead is now alive) and salvation (of Israel). But to become so, not only does Joseph change, his brothers have to change as well. 

A small detail tucked in the text during the elaborate testing that Joseph puts his brothers through helps signal this change.  When they find silver goblet in Benjamin’s bag on their journey home we are told that they “rent their garments” (44:13), a subtle reminder of the scene many years ago when Jacob rents his garment at seeing Joseph’s bloody tunic.  As Judah’s confession makes clear in the following verses, we have come full circle back to that first occasion with the tunic.   We see that their guilt confession (although in another irony, they do not yet know that they are confessing to their brother) and Judah’s offer of substitution of himself for Benjamin, things have completely changed—for the brothers and for Joseph.  Joseph who was, for all intent and purposes, “dead” and in Sheol can now reveal himself in the wonderful recognition scene in chapter 45.  Salvation is possible.  Joseph gives his brothers clothing—again, a final reversal as they had taken his clothing.  Even the issue of envy is dealt with.  Benjamin receives “five changes of garments,” and 300 pieces of silver (45: 23), and no indication is given that the brothers are angry or jealous, although one would think that they would feel the ironic sting—but no, all are happy and rejoice. Attention to clothing in this story signals changes of status and the change of the relationships—Joseph within himself and with his family.   

[1]Donald A. Seybold, “Paradox and Symmetry in the Joseph Narrative.” Literary Interpretations of Biblical Narratives. Kenneth R.R. Gros Louis et. al. eds. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1974 (59-73). Print.

[2]Genesis Chapter 37:3-4.  All passages of scripture are taken from Robert Alter’s translation and commentary, The Five Books of Moses. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. Print.

[3]See note number 31 on page 212 of The Five Books of Moses.  

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