Joseph and The Imagery of Clothing

Vernet, Horace; Joseph's Coat; The Wallace Collection;
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Sam Borodach


A significant portion of the latter part of the Book of Genesis focuses on the life of Joseph, briefly describing his life as a teenager in his father’s home in the Land of Canaan and tracing the many challenges he faces until his eventual rise to power in Egypt. Throughout the storyline, clothing plays a pivotal role and appears at each critical stage of the narrative. In particular, the imagery of clothing is used in a range of different ways to develop and highlight various themes of the story. The narrative’s repeated use of clothing invites the reader to consider the interplay between the imagery of clothing in the Joseph story and the account at the beginning of Genesis when God provides clothing to the first man and woman after they sinned by eating from the Tree of Knowledge (see 3:21).[1] In particular, the narrative invites us to consider the extent to which the actors in the Joseph narrative – and by extension we – recognize clothing as a gift from God and use it in a manner consistent with the ideals demanded of us.

Clothing appears at the very beginning of the Joseph narrative. Having finally returned to the Land of Canaan, and intending to settle down peacefully with his family, Joseph’s father, Jacob (also known as Israel), presents him with a coat (37:3-5):

Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat with long sleeves (Heb. ‘ketonet passim’).[2] And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.

According to the text, Joseph holds a special place in his father’s heart “because he was the son of his [Jacob’s] old age.” In this context, the coat, the ketonet passim, is a symbol of fatherly love and represents the special relationship Jacob enjoys with Joseph. Although the description of being “the son of his old age” is equally, if not even more, applicable to Joseph’s younger brother, Benjamin, it may be that Benjamin was too young at this time to have developed such a special relationship with his father. Further, Joseph was the firstborn of his mother, Rachel, whom Jacob loved more than his other wives (see 29:30). For this reason as well, Jacob may have expressed greater love for Joseph than for all the other brothers, including Benjamin.

The text need not be read, however, to imply that Jacob did not love his other children. To the contrary, by stating that “Israel loved Joseph more than all his children,” the text implies that Jacob loved his other sons as well, albeit to a lesser degree. Nevertheless, the greater love displayed toward Joseph, as expressed through the gift of the ketonet passim, engenders jealousy and animosity on the part of his brothers. On the one hand, the brothers’ feelings may be nothing more than expressions of the expected sibling rivalry that occurs when one child is favored over others. But why, then, such an intense hatred toward Joseph?

From the brothers’ perspective, Jacob’s gift of the ketonet passim to Joseph may have represented much more than simply an ordinary gift. Instead, as far as the brothers were concerned, it symbolized Jacob’s passing the mantle of leadership to Joseph. The earlier chapters in the Book of Genesis describe an ongoing selection process in which, following God’s selection of Abraham, only one son in each generation is chosen to continue the special covenantal relationship with God. That is, Isaac is chosen over Ishmael, and Jacob is chosen over Esau. As far as Jacob’s sons are aware, the selection process is not complete, and only one of the brothers will be chosen to continue the covenantal relationship. The brothers may have viewed the gift of the ketonet passim, coupled with Jacob’s love for Joseph, as confirmation that Joseph will be the chosen one of their generation, whereas they will be rejected as outcasts from the family. It is no surprise, then, that the ketonet passim gives rise to hatred on the part of Joseph’s brothers.[3]

The story continues with Joseph’s two dreams, one about his brothers’ sheaves of grain bowing down to his, and the other about the sun, moon, and stars bowing down to him. While the text does not expressly indicate what triggered Joseph’s dreams, it suggests that the gift from his father, i.e., the ketonet passim, served as the catalyst for those dreams. That is, the text suggests a direct link between Jacob’s giving the coat to Joseph, and Joseph’s dreams about becoming a leader and ruler. These two dreams only serve to confirm what the brothers already believe, that Joseph will be receiving the mantle of leadership. But not only did Joseph’s brothers interpret the coat as a symbol of royalty, apparently Joseph himself did as well.

Jacob subsequently sends Joseph in search of his brothers, who are tending their sheep near Dotan. Still jealous of their younger brother because of the ketonet passim and his dreams, the brothers confront Joseph, strip him of his kutonet, and throw him into a pit: “And it came to pass, when Joseph came to his brethren, that they stripped Joseph of his coat, the long sleeved coat that was on him. And they took him, and cast him into a pit” (37:23-24).

In Dotan, a good distance from their father’s home, the brothers need not worry about how their father might react to their actions against Joseph. Thus, as quickly as Joseph received the special garment from his father, it is taken from him by his brothers in the blink of an eye. When the brothers strip Joseph of the ketonet passim, he loses not only a piece of clothing, but the respect that the kutonet represents and the leadership that it symbolizes. Joseph’s loss of power – if indeed he ever had any – occurs in an instant.

An interesting question is how to interpret “his coat, the long sleeved coat that was on him.” The plain meaning would appear to be that the phrase “the long sleeved coat that was on him” elaborates on the phrase “his coat,” to emphasize that the brothers did not simply strip Joseph of just any garment, but that they stripped him precisely of the special garment their father had given Joseph and that was the cause of their jealousy and hatred.

Nevertheless, some commentators, apparently understanding the verse as if it read “his coat and the long sleeved coat that was on him,” interpret the verse as indicating that the brothers removed Joseph’s ordinary kutonet, which served as his basic clothing, as well as the special ketonet passim. That is, Joseph was thrown into the pit naked.[4] In this view, the brothers stripped Joseph not only of the leadership role represented by the special kutonet given to him by their father, but they also stripped him of the fundamental human dignity represented by his ordinary kutonet.[5]

In an attempt to conceal their misdeeds, the brothers dip Joseph’s kutonet in animal blood and deceive their father Jacob into thinking that Joseph has been killed by a wild animal (37:31-35):

And they took Joseph’s coat, and killed a kid of the goats, and dipped the coat in the blood; and they sent the coat with long sleeves, and they brought it to their father; and said, This we have found: know now whether it be thy son’s coat or no. And he knew it, and said, It is my son’s coat; an evil beast has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn in pieces. And Jacob rent his clothes, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days . . . but he refused to be comforted.

The ketonet passim thus changes from a symbol of love, beauty, dignity, and leadership, to a sign of tragedy and death. Although the brothers agreed to sell Joseph rather than kill him or let him die in the pit, dipping Joseph’s kutonet into blood may symbolically have been, for them, Joseph’s death knell. Although the brothers did not murder Joseph, as far as they are concerned, for all intents and purposes he is dead.

The brother’s actions also transform the ketonet passim into an instrument of deceit and mistaken identity. That is, Joseph’s brothers intentionally deceive their father into thinking that Joseph has been killed by a wild animal. Indeed, bringing the blood-soaked coat to Jacob has the desired effect: Jacob assumes Joseph is dead and, upon seeing the blood-soaked garment, he concludes that “an evil beast has devoured him” (37:33), thereby unknowingly tracking the language of the brothers’ original plan: “Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into some pit, and we will say, An evil beast has devoured him: and we shall see what will become of his dreams” (37:20). In an instance of “measure for measure,” Jacob, who years ago had tricked his own father Isaac by wearing the clothing of his brother Esau (27:15-23), is now deceived through the use of the blood-soaked kutonet. Thus, Jacob’s failure to appreciate the true state of affairs based on his son’s blood-soaked clothing mirrors his father Isaac’s mistaking Jacob for Esau years earlier.

After being removed from the pit, Joseph is taken to Egypt and sold as a slave to Potiphar. The story quickly moves to yet another sequence of events in which clothing plays a central role in Joseph’s life. In this case, Potiphar’s wife attempts to seduce Joseph, who is forced to leave behind his garment as he flees the house (39:12-18):

And she caught him his garment, saying, Lie with me: and he left his garment in her hand, and fled, and went outside. And it came to pass, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand, and was fled outside, that she called to the men of her house, and spoke to them, saying, See, he has brought in a Hebrew to us to mock us; he came in to me to lie with me, and I cried with a loud voice: and it came to pass, when he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment with me, and fled, and went outside. And she laid up his garment by her, until his lord came home. And she spoke to him according to these words, saying, The Hebrew servant, whom thou hast brought to us, came in to me to have his sport with me. And it came to pass, as I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment with me, and fled outside.

For the second time, Joseph loses his clothing. In this case, however, it is not Joseph’s brothers who strip him of his clothing; instead, Joseph himself leaves behind his garment in the hands of Potiphar’s wife as he flees from her attempt to seduce him. In the span of just a few short verses, the text describes these events three times, albeit with subtle differences. First, the text describes the events as they actually unfold. Next, Potiphar’s wife tells the events to the “men of her house.” Finally, she informs her husband of what transpired. In each instance, the fact that Joseph left behind his garment appears as a central feature of the story. That is, the clothing serves as evidence of Joseph’s alleged indiscretion and a symbol of his alleged guilt.

Some commentators go so far as to suggest that Joseph ran out of the house naked. Although this interpretation is not required by a straightforward reading of the verses, the vision of Joseph fleeing the house naked makes the story even more dramatic. Such an interpretation also may represent a literary inversion of Joseph’s earlier plight when, according to some opinions, he was thrown naked into the pit by his brothers. Here, however, instead of being thrown into a pit, Joseph flees outside so as to escape from the confines of the house and Potiphar’s wife.

As used in the present story, the word for clothing (‘beged’) also may hint at another meaning of the same three-letter root b-g-d, i.e., “betrayal.” In particular, Potiphar’s wife uses the garment to support her implicit allegations against her husband (i.e., that Joseph’s actions indicate a betrayal by her husband, who brought Joseph into his house). Thus, Potiphar’s wife states to the men of the house: “See, he [my husband] has brought in a Hebrew to us to mock us.” Likewise, she says to her husband: “The Hebrew servant, whom thou hast brought to us.” That is, Potiphar’s wife seems to argue that while the Hebrew slave [Joseph] has betrayed his master [Potiphar], her husband [Potiphar], in turn, has betrayed the entire household. The irony, of course, is that through her false accusations, Potiphar’s wife is the one who has betrayed her husband, the members of the household, and especially Joseph.

Potiphar’s wife’s use of Joseph’s garment as a prop to support her allegations represents another instance in the Joseph narrative in which clothing is used to suggest that circumstances are different from reality.[6] Importantly, this deception has life-changing implications for Joseph, who, as a result, is thrown into the dungeon by Potiphar.

After serving time as a prisoner in the dungeon, Joseph sees a glimmer of hope, as he learns that Pharaoh has commanded him to appear at the royal court. Before appearing before Pharaoh, however, Joseph shaves and changes his clothing: “Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon: and he shaved himself, and changed his garments, and came to Pharaoh” (41:14).

The change of clothing serves as a sign of things to come, and, in particular, is an indication of the change in fortune about to occur. Although unbeknownst to Joseph and Pharaoh, as well as the reader, Joseph, upon leaving the dungeon, is on his way to becoming the second most powerful person in Egypt. Joseph’s experience upon leaving the dungeon will be very different from his prior experience when he was lifted from the pit into which he was thrown by his brothers, only to be sold as an Egyptian slave.

The change in clothing also may represent a change in Joseph’s character. From this point on in the story, Joseph no longer appears as the conceited, tale-bearing individual introduced at the beginning of the Joseph narrative.[7] In retrospect, it is no surprise, then, that the text should inform the reader of what appears, at first glance, to be such a trivial detail regarding Joseph changing his clothes before going to the royal court.

Shortly after Joseph appears before Pharaoh and successfully interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, he is appointed a ruler over the entire land of Egypt. In addition to receiving the king’s ring, Joseph receives from Pharaoh other items, including garments of fine linen (41:42-43):

And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it on Joseph’s hand, and arrayed him in garments of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck; and he made him ride in the second chariot which he had: and they cried before him, Avrekh (Bow the knee): and made him ruler over all the land of Egypt.

The garments of fine linen that Pharaoh gives to Joseph can, in some measure, be viewed as a replacement for the coat, the ketonet passim, that was stripped from him years ago. That is, the special coat given to Joseph by his father – and all that the coat represented – is now replaced by the clothes of fine linen given to Joseph by Pharaoh. The overall chiastic structure of the storyline highlights this point and illustrates the parallel between Jacob’s giving Joseph the coat and Pharaoh’s giving him the clothing of fine linen:

A. Jacob gives Joseph a special coat, the ketonet passim
B. The brothers strip Joseph of his ketonet passim
B. Joseph is forced to leave his clothing in the hands of Potiphar’s wife
A. Pharaoh gives Joseph clothing of fine linen

Although the brothers had tried to deny the leadership role for which Joseph was destined, the clothes of fine linen from Pharaoh affirm Joseph’s newly restored splendor and position of leadership.

Joseph’s rise to power resulted from his interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, which symbolized seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. As the famine predicted by Joseph persists, his brothers travel from Canaan to Egypt, where Joseph’s foresight and planning made food available despite the famine. As the plot continues, Joseph eventually reveals himself to his brothers and instructs them to bring their father and the rest of the family to Egypt. However, before the brothers return to Canaan to bring their father to Egypt, Joseph gives each of them gifts: “To all of them he gave each man changes of clothing; but to Benjamin he gave three hundred pieces of silver, and five changes of clothing” (45:22).

Among the gifts Joseph gives to his brothers are clothing. The text emphasizes that Joseph not only gave his brothers clothing, he gave them “changes” of clothing (‘halifot semalot’). This is reminiscent of Joseph’s changing his clothing (‘va-yihalef simlotav’) before being brought to Pharaoh’s palace. Here too, one can ask: Is the change in clothing meant to represent something more? Does the change in clothing represent a change in the brothers’ characters? In particular, does the change in clothing suggest the brothers have overcome their jealousy and hatred of Joseph?[8]

The first half of the verse (“To all of them he gave each man changes of clothing”) may be understood as a meaningful attempt by Joseph to inform his brothers that clothing no longer holds the same importance to him as was the case years before. Indeed, the narrative has come full circle. Whereas chapter 37 begins with Joseph receiving a special garment (i.e., the ketonet passim) from his father, the narrative concludes with Joseph giving clothing to his brothers. Joseph’s role reversal with respect to receiving and giving clothing in the first half of the verse suggests that the conflicts with his brothers have been resolved, at least partially, if not entirely.

As pointed out, however, by R. David Fohrman: “[W]hether the wounds of the past will truly and finally heal, or whether the reconciliation… will prove to be merely a passing truce in a longer war – this we do not know yet.”[9]

Indeed, the second half of verse 22 gives the reader pause to consider what the future might hold for Joseph and his brothers. That is because Joseph gives Benjamin more gifts than he gives the other brothers. Specifically, Joseph presents Benjamin with three hundred pieces of silver, and five (!) changes of clothing. On the one hand, the additional gifts simply may reflect the fact that Benjamin is the full brother of Joseph. That is, Joseph and Benjamin share not only the same father but the same mother as well, whereas the other brothers share only a father in common with their younger siblings. It was only natural for Joseph to feel a closer kinship to his younger brother Benjamin, and everyone, including the other brothers, presumably understood that. On the other hand, as the Talmud (Megillah 16a-b) inquires: “Is it possible that in the very thing from which that righteous man [Joseph] had suffered [that is, his father’s show of favoritism toward him aroused the enmity of his brothers] he himself should stumble [by showing favoritism to Benjamin]?”

Joseph surely recognized that his brothers’ jealousy and hatred – and the course of events that followed – had resulted, in large measure, from the gift of clothing (i.e., the ketonet passim) his father had given him. How, then, could Joseph now give Benjamin a greater number of gifts, and in particular, more clothing than he gave to the other brothers? Was Joseph not concerned that his actions would lead to further jealousy among the brothers? And yet, although the brothers subsequently do worry that Joseph will take revenge against them after their father’s death (50:15), the brothers apparently do not question Benjamin’s receipt of the additional gifts. They do not appear to harbor any hatred or jealousy toward Benjamin. Indeed, by this stage, the brothers have already recognized how wrongly they had treated Joseph years earlier (see 38:21).

In the course of the Joseph narrative, clothing plays a significant and varied role. In particular, many of the events surrounding Joseph himself involve clothing: gifts of clothing, losses of clothing, and changes of clothing. The imagery sometimes is one of love, leadership, dignity, splendor, and beauty; at other times, it symbolizes tragedy and death, or sexual indiscretion and alleged guilt. Further, clothing repeatedly is used in the context of mistaken identity. First, Jacob is deceived by the brothers when they bring him Joseph’s blood-soaked kutonet. Subsequently, Potiphar is deceived by his wife’s display of Joseph’s garment, which results in Joseph being thrown into the dungeon as a prisoner. The text also employs changes of clothing to suggest or allude to changes in character. Toward the end of the narrative, the symbolism of clothing is used once again as the story comes full circle. Instead of receiving a gift of clothing, Joseph gives gifts of clothing to his brothers in a hopeful display of reconciliation.

The Joseph narrative presents the reader with an opportunity to examine the myriad ways in which we can use, or misuse, a gift – in this case, clothing – that God has bestowed upon us. First and foremost, clothing is a necessity, providing warmth, protection, and a sense of modesty. It also can heighten our sense of dignity and may be used symbolically to indicate our role in a particular community or society, or membership in a particular group. Yet, like other objects, clothing can be misused. It can be used, for example, to conceal or hide one’s identity or, as occurs in the Joseph story, to deceive others and mischaracterize the true state of affairs. Nevertheless, the Joseph narrative holds out hope that, in the end, we properly will use the gifts God has provided us. By giving gifts of clothing to his brothers, Joseph was, in effect, emulating God. The question for us is, will we do the same?


[1] All references are to the Book of Genesis unless indicated otherwise.

[2] Some commentators understand the ketonet passim as referring to a striped coat, possibly one of many colors.

[3] Regarding whether Jacob himself intended to pass the mantle of leadership in the service of God to Joseph, see, e.g., Rabbi E. Lunshitz in his Kli Yakar to Genesis 37:3 (explaining that Jacob handed over the position of the firstborn to Joseph and gave him the ketonet passim as a symbol of his service to God, which was originally the responsibility of the firstborn); see also Abravanel, commentary to parashat va-yeishev ch. 37 (Bnei Arbael edition, p. 364, left column) (Jerusalem 5724).

[4] See Rashi and Ibn Ezra; compare to Abravanel who disagrees, positing that they stripped Joseph only of the ketonet ha-passim.

[5] According to a midrash, not only did Joseph lose his clothing at this juncture, but his brothers gained clothing (i.e., shoes) by selling their brother. See Daat Mikra to Amos 2:6, footnote 39. Cf. the piyyut Eleh Ezkerah in Mussaf Yom ha-Kippurim, p. 586 in the ArtScroll Hebrew-English Mahzor) (“’Then what of your ancestors who sold their brother, to a caravan of Ishmaelites, they peddled him, and gave him away for shoes.’”). On the one hand, the point of the midrash seems to be that the brothers received something of little value (i.e., shoes) in exchange for their brother. Yet from the brothers’ perspective, given their relationship with Joseph, clothing was everything. For them, even shoes represented something significant.

[6] Another instance (which does not involve Joseph) revolves around the story of Judah and Tamar, in which Tamar changes her clothing so that Judah will not recognize her. See Genesis, chapter 38.

[7] For example, Joseph apparently never tells his father what his brothers did to him. See, e.g., Nahmanides to 45:27; see also Daat Zekanim to 45:4, who argues that Joseph did not want to mention the sale in the presence of Benjamin lest the latter inform their father about it. Cf. Genesis 35:2 for another example in which the act of changing clothing reflects a fundamental change in outlook (“Then Jacob said to his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and make yourselves clean, and change your garments.”).

[8] See, e.g., Seforno to 43:16, 34 and 44:2, explaining that some of Joseph’s actions were intended to determine whether his brothers would be jealous of Benjamin.

[9] David Fohrman, Genesis: A Parsha Companion (Maggid, 2019), 203.



Samuel Borodach is a patent attorney, who resides with his family in Teaneck, New Jersey. His education includes two years of study at Yeshivat Har Etzion. Sam can be reached at