What Is the Story of Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors and its Meaning Today?

Whether the coat of many colors came in a variety of colors or had the sleeves sewn in, Jacob made it clear that he saw his son Joseph as better than any of his other offspring. Joseph would parade around in a physical reminder of Jacob’s favoritism.

Updated Dec 29, 2020
What Is the Story of Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors and its Meaning Today?

For those of us who had a musical theater background, or those of us who have read the latter half of Genesis, we may have a familiarity of Joseph and the coat of many colors (or as some circles know it, the Technicolor Dreamcoat).

But even if we don’t have much of an acquaintance with this story, at first glance, it does seem odd to the random reader.

We don’t read a whole lot of scripture that includes garments made of several colors, given to a father’s favorite son.

In this article, we’ll dive into what happens in the story of Joseph and the coat of many colors, the symbolism used in the passage, and what it means for us today.

What Does the Bible Say about the Coat of Many Colors?

 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made an ornate robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him (Genesis 37:3-4).

In Genesis 37, we catch up with the patriarch Jacob and his 12 sons. Jacob had two wives and a few concubines, but he loved Rachel, his wife, the most out of all of them. That means he loved Rachel’s offspring the most, and the rest of his offspring knew it.

But in case Jacob had not made his preferences clear, he gifts his 17-year-old son Joseph with an ornate coat of many colors.

This rouses the jealousy of Joseph’s brothers all the more. This, coupled with some dreams Joseph has, sends them over the edge. They end up selling Joseph to slave traders, ripping up Joseph’s coat, and dipping it in blood to make it appear as though a wild animal had gored or mauled Joseph to death.

Because they do this, Jacob continues to believe his son has died until he encounters him in Egypt more than a decade later.

Is the Coat of Many Colors a True Story?

Many scholars like to target the Old Testament, especially Genesis. They like to say that these stories were merely allegorical or made up to teach the Israelites lessons about life. We can say this is problematic for a number of reasons. The story of Joseph (which takes up 14 chapters of Genesis, by the way) doesn't follow the same structure of fictional stories such as parables told in ancient times. Their fiction often has sparse details and nondescript names and places. So the story of Joseph doesn't follow suit with that.

Furthermore, if Joseph's story was made up, then we have no explanation for how the Israelites ended up in Egypt in 400 years of slavery. After all, because of Joseph's position of power in Egypt, his family comes to live in the land.

Archeologists have also uncovered numerous finds that have supported the claims of the Bible. Simply because they have not yet found the coat of many colors does not mean it didn't exist. Also, Joseph's brothers tore up the coat and dipped it in animal's blood, so we probably wouldn't have much of a chance at finding this garment anyway.

Also, the historian Josephus catalogs the event of Joseph's brothers selling him into slavery. Here's what he said: "Now they had taken away from Joseph the coat which he had on when he came to them at the time they let him down into the pit; so they thought proper to tear that coat to pieces and to dip it into goats' blood, and then to carry it and show it to their father, that he might believe he was destroyed by wild beasts."

Finally, we know that all Scripture is God-breathed. Unless it has clear allegorical connotations, which this story does not, we can assume it really happened.

What Is the Symbolism of the Coat of Many Colors?

It may seem ridiculous for Joseph’s brothers to get up in arms about a coat. After all, iridescent fabrics of many colors adorn our stores and our youth today.

So why did they make such a big fuss about this? And can we find this phrase “coat of many colors” or “garment of many colors” anywhere else in Scripture?

To answer the latter question, we do find a second instance in 2 Samuel 13:18 in which Tamar, King David’s daughter, wears an ornate robe of many colors, reserved for royalty.

That should hint at why Joseph’s coat drew the ire of his brothers.

We have to understand, Joseph’s family didn’t have access to a Target or Nordstrom back in the day, and most outer garments came in monochrome with a single hole at the top. Any vibrant color, such as purple, usually signaled royalty or someone with an abundance of riches.

Whether the coat came in a variety of colors or had the sleeves sewn in, depending on which scholar you asked, Jacob made it clear that he saw his son Joseph as better than any of his other offspring. Joseph would parade around in a physical reminder of Jacob’s favoritism.

Even if this was an ornamented robe and not technicolor, Jacob made his message clear: He loved one son more than the others, and the other sons wouldn’t have it. So, they took action.

What Does the Coat of Many Colors Mean for Us?

So what? We may ask. Why should we care about a coat Joseph wore thousands of years ago?

We should care about the coat for a variety of reasons.

First, the coat illuminates how generations can often repeat the same mistakes as their parents. Jacob had felt slighted because Isaac favored Esau over him. If anyone should understand the frustration of favoritism, it should’ve been him.

But instead of breaking the cycle, he ups the ante.

When we read this passage, we should ask ourselves what bad habits we’ve picked up from our families and how they’ve driven a wedge into our relationships. We should exercise more awareness than Jacob had.

Second, this passage should serve as a cautionary tale about what happens when we exercise favoritism (James 2). This doesn’t just apply to families.

Do we show preferential treatment to those with wealth, to those with a large social media platform, to those who can grant us opportunities?

And conversely, how poorly do we treat those who are not our “favorites,” who don’t have positions of power or serve in a job we may deem to be lowly?

How often do we give out ornate coats to our favorites?

This passage helps us to analyze where we fall short in our own lives and how we can show God’s love to everyone equally.

Finally, we know that Josephus also catalogs this event. Most people do assert the authority of Josephus as a historian. The Jewish people had a strong heritage that stemmed from the events of the coat of many colors. This story would have been woven into the very fabric of their nation. They took it very seriously, and so should we as Christians now.

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/tatyana_tomsickova

Hope Bolinger is an acquisitions editor at End Game Press, and the author of almost 30 books. More than 1500 of her works have been featured in various publications. Check out her books at hopebolinger.com for clean books in most genres, great for adults and kids.

This article is part of our People of Christianity catalog that features the stories, meaning, and significance of well-known people from the Bible and history. Here are some of the most popular articles for knowing important figures in Christianity:

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