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Clothes Make the Man

Written by Noreen Jacks. Posted in

No doubt you are familiar with the expression, 'clothes make the man'. You may be surprised to learn that this concept is rooted in Bible times when consecrated garments literally gave a man priestly power to execute his sacred office. Priests were forbidden to perform their appointed tasks unless they were properly attired according to rigid biblical protocol. Even today, certain types of clothing are reserved for certain types of careers. For example, firefighters and armed security forces wear protective garb that sets them apart from the type of clothing worn by medical professionals. Each style of dress is a mark of distinction and is perfectly suited to the needs of the profession. Yes, clothes make the man and in ancient days, priestly garments made the priest.

Scripture presents yet another example of unique clothing, a very special garment that was given to a son by his beloved father. I am speaking of the great patriarch Jacob, and his favorite son, Joseph, the eleventh offspring in a long string of twelve boys, who eventually became the patriarchal heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. Long before their exaltation, however, Joseph’s ten brothers were men of the flesh, consumed with jealousy over the favoritism shown to him by their father. What was the object of their unbridled jealousy you might wonder? Quite simply, it was a coat. This was no ordinary coat, however, but a coat that would change the destiny of an embryonic nation.

What was so unique about Joseph’s coat? Was it really a coat of many colors as translated in many Bible versions, or is there more to the story than meets the eye? Let’s see what we can learn from the Hebrew translation of the Bible. It is always best to search the original source:

“Now Israel [Jacob] loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a varicolored tunic.” Gen 37:3

Varicolored: pas = “flat (of the hand or foot), long-sleeved, varicolored”

Tunic: kethoneth or kuttoneth = “a coat, dress, garment”

According to many Bible commentators, Joseph’s coat could well have been variegated, a robe that was constructed of colorful pieces similar to a patchwork quilt, a royal robe of sorts much desired by the wealthy and aristocracy. The same terminology is used to describe the attire of King David’s daughters in the following verse:

“Now she had on a long-sleeved garment [pas]; for in this manner the virgin daughters of the king dressed themselves in robes.” 2 Sam 13:18A

Like the garments of royalty, Joseph’s ankle-length garment was constructed with long sleeves that reached to the palms of the hands, a design that did not lend itself to shepherding or hard manual labor in contrast to the practical garments worn by Joseph’s brethren. One cannot help but wonder why Joseph was given such an ornate gift by his father. Once again, we need to look at the culture of Joseph’s day to fully understand this narrative.

Coats in the ancient world represented power, authority, and prestige. An exchange of coats was part of the ancient covenant ritual, a surrender of sorts of one’s authority to his covenant partner. Joseph’s robe was not only beautiful and enviable, but symbolic, prophetic, and even vindictive in the sense that his older brothers were passed up for the honor. In a manner of speaking, Joseph stood head and shoulders above his older siblings when he was dressed in his prized coat.

If Reuben, Jacob’s first-born son by Leah, had behaved himself properly, he would have been the one wearing the legendary coat. Instead, Reuben disgraced himself and his father by lying with Bilhah, his father’s concubine (Gen 35:22), thereby forfeiting the birthright of the firstborn son. No doubt, the firstborn sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, Jacob’s concubines, also had their eye on the coveted birthright. Much to their dismay, Jacob chose the firstborn son of his beloved Rachel to be his successor and patriarch of the growing clan.

Jealousy flared up among the brothers when Joseph first appeared in his “designer robe.” Silently, the garment seemed to scream out to them that Joseph, their father’s favorite son, would one day be lord over them, an intolerable fate that must not come to pass! The coat was also a silent, vindictive, much-deserved slap in the face to Reuben, the firstborn, for his immoral act with his stepmother, Bilhah.

Joseph’s royal garment was prophetic as it set the stage for a drama that could not be imagined at the time. God has a way of working every circumstance for good, in spite of the enemy’s evil intentions and perverse goals (Rom 8:28). Join me in my latest Bible study to learn how Joseph and the Coat of Destiny transformed the world, coming soon from:

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