Coat of Many Colors


11/12/95 & 08/11/02 as Long Robe of Envy







23 And it came to pass, when Joseph was come unto his brethren, that they stripped Joseph out of his coat, his coat of many colours that was on him;

24 And they took him, and cast him into a pit: and the pit was empty, there was no water in it.

25 And they sat down to eat bread: and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a company of Ishmeelites came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt.

26 And Judah said unto his brethren, What profit is it if we slay our brother, and conceal his blood?

27 Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmeelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother and our flesh. And his brethren were content.

28 Then there passed by Midianites merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmeelites for twenty pieces of silver: and they brought Joseph into Egypt.


Jacob had two wives, Rachel and Leah, and their maids Bilhah and Zilpah were also his concubines. He had sons by all four women. You can imagine the tension between these women and their sons as they struggled for leadership in the family. Chapter 37:2 tells us that Joseph brought a bad report about his brothers to his father. To which I say, "Tattletale, tattletale, snag your britches on a nail." My sympathies are with the brothers. I remember when I was a kid the time when another kid told on my friends and me for something we did. I have forgotten what it was now, but we were very unhappy about that. We were so angry at that kid that when we caught him on the street one day, we jumped on him, took his pants off, and made him run home seminaked. I am ashamed to tell you that bit of my personal history, but I can assure you that kid never had any more to say about anything we did.

We do not know whether Joseph was a malicious talebearer, or if he was justified. If his report was about cheating on the sheep tally or about saying that the sheep had been fed and watered when they had not, then Jacob ought to have been told because these things had a bearing upon the livelihood of the family. On the other hand, it may have been that Joseph just loved ratting out his brothers. Whatever the case, one thing is certain; his brothers did not like this talebearer.

Then we come to V3. Jacob loved Joseph because he was the first son of Rachel, who was Jacob's one true love. Rachel had died giving birth to her second son Benjamin, and so Jacob poured out all his love for Rachel on Joseph and Benjamin. Jacob proclaimed his affection for Joseph by dressing him in better clothes than the rest of his children. In Hebrew, Jacob made Joseph a “Kethoneth passim,” which the KJV translates as a “coat of many colors.” but some scholars have suggested that the phrase may mean a "long coat with stripes." The NRSV translates “Kethoneth passim” as "a long robe with sleeves" while the NIV notes the translation difficulties in a footnote, and translates it as "a richly ornamented robe".

The average male in that time wore a sleeveless tunic that reached to the knees. This long, decorated robe with sleeves indicated that Joseph was the favorite son, the golden child. His father Jacob was incredibly stupid and insensitive when he gave Joseph this coat. No parent should ever single out one child for special favors. To do so almost certainly disrupts the family and that is what happened in this case.

Verse 4 tells us Joseph's brothers hated him so much that they refused even to speak to him, except in the harshest way. Now, if Jacob's sin caused the problem, that does not absolve the brothers of their sin. We can understand that the brothers were ticked off, but hatred goes too far. It is too harsh a reaction, unless there is some other motivation, and of course there is. The other motivation is that old demon jealousy. You see, the brothers did not really resent their father giving a luxurious robe to one son. What each of them resented was that he did not get the robe. So, Joseph's “coat of many colors” became a coat of envy. The sin of the brothers is the sin of envy.

We can argue that Joseph should have been a better person. He should have told his father, "I do not want this coat because it will offend my brothers," but Joseph was not the mature man of God that he would later become. He was a teenager. He knew that this coat set him apart, and he liked it. He knew that envy gnawed at his brothers entrails, and he liked it, and that was his sin.

Verses 5-11 tell us of Joseph's dreams. First, Joseph had a dream in which he and his brothers were out in the fields gathering wheat into sheaves. In the dream, Joseph's sheave rose up and his brother's sheaves bowed down to his sheave. Joseph told this dream to his brothers. Why? Joseph was not stupid. He knew the dream made him the boss of his brothers, and they would resent that. So why tell them? Because Joesph very much liked the dream.

Then Joseph had another dream. The sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to him. The symbology was obvious to everyone. The sun, moon, and eleven stars represented the whole family bowing down to Joseph. This dream even angered his father. Jacob said to Joseph, Are you trying to replace me too?

Now these dreams were prophetic, but Joseph was not supposed to talk about them. We compare Joseph to Mary the mother of Jesus. When the angels sang at the birth of the baby Jesus and the shepherds came, Mary treasured these things up in her heart, but she did not tell anyone about them (Luke 2:51), because she knew that other women would be envious. Joseph, however, was not as wise as Mary. He knew that with his “coat of many colors,” his talebearing, and his dreams that he was exasperating his brothers, but Joseph was so full of pride and ego, that he just had to talk about himself and his ambitions.

In Verses 12-14, the scene shifts. The eleven brothers are herding their father's flocks in Dothan. Jacob sent Joseph to check on them, to bring back a report of their activities. Jacob and Joseph both miscalculated the situation. They knew that the brothers were angry at Joseph, but they thought, “Well, they will get over it, and they surely will not harm their own brother.” Both of them should have realized that sending Joseph to report on the brothers was exactly the thing that would turn their fury into a white-hot heat.

The brothers saw him coming, and V18 says that they conspired to kill him. Probably it went something like this: "Here comes Joseph, the dreamer who wants to tell us all what to do. We ought to do something about him and his dreams." Another brother would say, "Yeah, we ought to beat him up." Another brother would laugh and say, "if we beat him up he will just run and tell daddy." So finally someone would say, "If we kill him, he won't run and tell anyone." So they talked themselves into it a little bit at a time, the way people always talk themselves into sin.

In V20, they said, Let us kill him and throw his body in a cistern, and tell the story that some wild animal devoured him. Now, whatever Joseph had done, he did not deserve to be killed for it. The brothers in their anger lost all sense of balance and justice. A psychologist would say that this is an inappropriate response to the situation. That is an understatement.

My oldest granddaughter was telling me about an exceptionally cranky and crazy neighbor of theirs. It seems that some of the neighborhood kids were playing soccer in the street and they inadvertently let the ball roll into this neighbor's yard, and he called the police. That was another inappropriate response.

Whatever Joseph had done, and he was not sinless, the response of the brothers was a far greater sin. A couple of brothers realized that things were getting out of hand. Reuben was the eldest son. According to the customs of that time, he should have had the coat of many colors, he should have been carrying reports to his father about what was happening with the sheep. But however jealous he may have been of Joseph, Reuben was unwilling to kill him. Reuben convinced his brother's to throw Joseph in a cistern and let him starve to death. That way no one would actually have to strike the deathblow. The brothers liked the plan. They seized Joseph, stripped him of his coat, and threw him in. The cistern by the way was a great pit for storing water. The one that they threw Joseph in was empty, for their intent was that he would die of thirst or starvation. Reuben intended to return and rescue Joseph after his brothers left, but his plan came to naught because Judah convinced his brothers to change their plans.

A caravan of nomadic traders came by on their way to Egypt. Like Reuben, Judah was having second thoughts about killing Joseph, so he persuaded his brothers to sell Joseph to the traders. V28 says, They "sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver."

Now the brothers must cover up their sin. That is the way sin in. you do not just commit a sin, you must also cover it up. They took the coat of many colors, which they had hated so much, and dipped it in the blood of a goat. They took it to their father and said, "We found it." Jacob was distraught. He said, "It is my sons's robe; a wild beast has devoured him."

But we know that Joseph was not eaten by a wild beast. He was sold as a slave to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh.

Now as we have discussed this chapter, it seems like a family quarrel with plenty of sin for everyone and not much spiritual value. All families have arguments, and sometimes emotions like envy and jealousy get involved in the argument, but most families manage to solve these things without selling a sibling into slavery. Actually, when we were growing up, there were a few times when I wanted to sell my younger brother into slavery, but still we do not do that kind of thing. Or I should say that we do not usually do that kind of thing. More than once I have noticed that the lead story on the local evening news has to do with a family quarrel that got out of hand and somebody shot somebody. So Joseph and his brothers are still with us.

Let us make some applications of this scripture.

First, Let us talk about how God works In Egypt, Joseph rose up from slavery and prison to become Pharaoh's first counselor. He prophecied the coming of a monster famine, and he spent years storing up food in preparation for it. When the famine came, it affected not only Egypt but the whole Middle East, so that people from many countries came into Egypt to buy wheat. Eventually Joseph's brothers came also. All of Joseph's dreams came true. But slavery and prison changed Joseph. He was no longer the pompous teenager who liked to lord it over his brothers. So when he could dominate them, he is much too spiritual a man to do them any harm. Eventually all the brothers are reconciled and Joseph was able to save the family from famine.

So we can see that God used this whole chain of events--the talebearing and the coat of many colos and the anger and the envy--to bring about his purposes to save thousands of people from starvation, and in those thousands to save also the covenant family of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.

This should be of comfort to us. Sometimes as we look around us, we wonder if God can have anything to do with this mess that we call humankind. Yes, God does. God is still here. We can depend upon that. God is still working out his purposes. We can depend upon that.

The second application is that sin is a self-punishing disease. To say that God is here in the midst of our sins and that God uses our sins to accomplish his purpose in no way justifies our sins. The temptation is to say, "If God is working in the midst of sin, then it must be all right to sin." Not so, Joseph was enslaved. For years Jacob believed he had lost his most beloved son. The brothers had to live with the knowledge of what they had done to their brother. Finally, when they did recognize Joseph in Egypt, they had to recognize him as their master and seek his forgiveness. How much better off the whole family would have been if they had not committed sin in the first place. Then God would have saved them from the famine in some other way. We are always better off if we do not commit sin in the first place.

Thirdly, there is a spiritual interpretation of this chapter. Joseph represents our soul. Jacob and the brothers represent our sinful nature. They represent all those desires and motives that tie us to this world and cause us to be less than children of God. The coat of many colors is the garment of envy that our sinful nature likes to wear. It is the garment that causes us to be always jealous of what others have.

We are Joseph and we are his brothers. We are always tempted to sell ourselves into slavery in Egypt. That is to say we are all too willing to forget the spiritual and to worship at the altar of the material. Genesis 37 describes the plight of many people today. They have clothed themselves with the coat of envy. They have sold themselves into slavery for things. They have come to believe that life is just getting more stuff. That is sad because all these things break down and fall apart and come to dust, and if that is all that we want, in the end we have nothing.

They need to be liberated from their slavery to things that do not matter. The NT tells us what they need, what we need. we need Jesus. If we trust Jesus, he will liberate us from the coat of envy. He will clothe us in the white robes of victory and purity. He will liberate us from bondage to material things and make us his brothers and sisters to live and reign with him forever in God.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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