Genesis 37 recounts the story of when Jacob gave a special coat to his son Joseph, which was said to have “many colours.” Later, Joseph was sold into Egypt by his brothers, his coat stripped from him, and returned to his father Jacob. Hugh Nibley gives us some interesting insight into this episode, and the special coat that Jacob gave Joseph. Apparently, Andrew Lloyd Webber was mistaken, as well as a number of other modern commentators:
The idea of a garment of many colors is an invention. If you look in your Bible every time it mentions many colors the word colors (even in the commentary) is in italics [the word in italics is actually many] because it is put in there by modern editors. It’s found in no ancient source. It’s not a garment of many colors at all. A garment of certain marks is the term that’s used here. We’ll see what it is in a second. “This garment had belonged to Abraham, and it already had a long history.” It’s history was lengthy because it went back to the Garden of Eden, you see. That’s the garment; it’s the only one. Just as we treat the story of Cain and Abel, we trivialize this. We say, “Joseph was the youngest kid, so his father favored him and gave him a pretty garment of many colors.” There is no mention in any ancient source of a garment of many colors. That’s an invention of modern editors trying to explain it. But here it was the garment he gave him. It was the garment of the priesthood. No wonder they were jealous of him, they being the elder brothers and he the younger in the patriarchal line coming down from Abraham. This garment had belonged to Abraham and had come down to Joseph instead of to the other brethren. ((Hugh Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon, vol. 3, 51-52))
When Joseph’s brethren returned to give the coat back to Jacob, other ancient documents and literature as well as understanding the meaning of the source languages help us understand what happened next:
Here we have “I detect, I perceive, I note.” (He’s blind, you see.) “the odor, the spirit, the smell of Joseph, if you do not think me out of my head from old age and a bit barmy.” It talks about the spirit that is in it, the east wind that has brought it, etc. And this is a very important thing: “When they placed it upon the face of Jacob, he smelled also the smell of the Garden of Eden. For behold there is not in all the earth another garment that has that smell in it.” This is a unique thing; this is the garment. “For there is not in any other garment on earth of the winds of the garden of Eden, unless it is in this one garment.” So you can see why the brethren were so jealous; it was the garment of the priesthood. The commentator says he recognized that it was Joseph’s garment by feeling it first because it had three marks in it.
What they translate as “coat of many colors” is first ketonet. Our word cotton is related to that. Ketonet is a cotton shirt. The Hebrew is ketonet passim. That means it reached down to his wrists and his ankles. The Hebrew actually tells us that it was of adequate length. A garment which is passim means a long garment which reaches down to the wrists and to the ankles. It’s quite different [from the other story]; there’s no mention of color there of any kind. The Vulgate says it was tunicam polymitam, which means it was worked very subtly with extra threads. Polymitan means “extra thread work, special embroidery, special technique.” The Greek is chitona poikila. Poikilos means “tatooed, embroidered, elaborate work.” A derived term of poikila is “of various colors, with spots or dots.” But it means with marks on something. Here it says he knew it because it had three marks on it. He recognized it from the marks. Of course, they couldn’t have been colored marks because he was blind when he felt the marks. He recognized it as belonging to his son Joseph. ((ibid.))
Where Nibley says that Jacob recognized it because it had three marks on it, he is quoting from a man commonly known as Thaclabi. Nibley introduces him:
In the tenth century of our era the greatest antiquarian of the Moslem world, Muhammad ibn-Ibrahim ath-Tha’labi, collected in Persia a great many old tales and legends about the prophets of Israel. ((Hugh Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 218))
Nibley’s translation of Thaclabi is:
“and there were in the garment of Joseph three marks or tokens when they brought it to his father.” ((ibid.))
This connects nicely with your post on the BYU Egyptian study of the woolen garment.
Thanks Justin. The post he is referring to is here.
Did someone let Andrew Lloyd Webber know so he can re-write his play? 🙂
Great post, Bryce.
I enjoy your blog, especially since I cannot find my Nibley collection. Somewhere, in the dark corners of my garage, sits a box filled with Nibley books. I hope to find it someday soon.
lol… I’m not sure Webber would have much of a play without the multi-colored coat. 🙂
Thanks for visiting Brian. I wish I had more time to read Nibley. I’ve only read a few of the collected works. So much material… so little time.
BTW, I’ve almost got that guest post finished.
You might want to take a close look at this article:
Brian Hauglid, “Garment of Joseph: An Update”
Very interesting read. Thank you for the reference!
An interesting additional insight I gained was that the tradition of this garment, according to Tha’labi, was that it also
I wonder what the marks would have been. Not likely similar to our Masonic markings.