Joseph, if he’s famous for anything, is known for his “robe of many colors” (Genesis 37:3), probably because it provides a nice coloring exercise in Sunday School. But there does seem to be some significance to Joseph’s robe beyond it’s immediate place in Genesis 37. The author of Genesis uses Joseph’s garments as a sort of motif, a way of telling us where Joseph’s fortunes are at this point in the story.
Clothes often represent authority and status in the Old Testament. Robes are kingly. If you wear a long-sleeved coat (the term translated “many colored” may be better rendered “long-sleeved”) in the ancient world, you aren’t going out to the fields. That’s the significance of Joseph’s coat, and it helps to explain his brothers’ hatred of him.
When Joseph’s brothers take him captive and throw him into a pit, they strip off his coat first. This is more than just the first step of a dastardly scheme to convince Jacob that his son is dead; it’s a symbolic act. “You had a dream that you would rule over us, did you? Well, how do you like your pit, your highness?”
As I mentioned in a previous post, this isn’t the last time Joseph gets the coat ripped off his back. In Genesis 39 we see Joseph stripped of his garment in the process of fleeing from Potiphar’s wife. The two accounts have a number of other similarities: both times Joseph begins in a position of behavior with the man in authority; both times his clothes are taken from him; both times the man in authority is deceived by the clothes taken; both times Joseph ends up in an unfavorable position where he again finds favor.
With all of it’s similarities to Genesis 37, Genesis 39 serves as an “Oh no, not again!” moment. It’s sinking further down. Joseph has been faithful in Potiphar’s house, and so he regains a measure of status and authority, only to have it stripped from him again. Down, down, down.
And then Joseph interpret’s Pharaoh’s dream, and Pharaoh promotes him, by giving him a ring, a gold chain, and clothing him in fine linen. Joseph becomes second in the land, and God fulfills the dreams he gave to Joseph all those years ago.
There’s an important lesson here. God’s people suffer loss, betrayal, and indignity now. Sometimes it goes from bad to worse. Sometimes the trials we experience stretch on, seemingly beyond endurance. God knows this. He has not forgotten his promises to his people. And he does not intend to afflict forever.
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
with fine linen, bright and pure. (Revelation 19:7-8)