“They Did Not Recognize Him”: Identity and Dress and Joseph

Travelling to Egypt

I’ve taught the Joseph Cycle in Hebrew several times and am currently preaching through it, so I’ve thought about it a lot. I will probably be blogging on and off about it in the near future, but as I was working through chapter 42, I came across a cool tie-in to the Law and wanted to start with it! So, sorry for beginning in the middle…

In the story of Joseph (Genesis 37–50), we have a dramatic and compelling story of the rise, fall, and resurgence of one of the Bible’s most famous characters. Joseph and his coat of many colors is one of the stories that most people—even those who don’t know their Bibles well (whenever a Bible story has lots of colors or animals it always makes the cut for children’s Bibles…)—know something about and most of us who do know our Bible’s well understand the disastrous effects that coat played in Joseph’s life.

Deceit by sheep? Not original.

In Genesis 37, we read that Joseph is 17 years old (37.2) and his father’s favorite “because he was the son of his old age” (37.3). Because was his father’s favorite child, Jacob made him a coat of many colors (or perhaps, a “long sleeved coat”?). This coat distinguished Joseph from the rest of the sons, and showed that—while everyone else had to work—Joseph was “above” such things. But, although the coat was meant to raise him in the eyes of those who saw him, it ultimately became his undoing.

That’s because Joseph wasn’t content with just being the favorite: he had to make sure that everyone else knew and recognized it as well. He wears the coat everywhere, even when going out to “work” (37.18ff). His brothers, then, hated him for his position, his coat, and his dreams. Then, after they kidnapped him and sold him into slavery, they used that same distinctive coat given to him by Jacob to deceive their father (37.31–33).

Joseph’s coat, then, shared the same fate as its owner. But, if we follow Joseph’s story further, we see that his clothes are tied to his story in other ways as well (although I’m by no means the first to note it!).

Snarky Caption Here

After Joseph is sold as a slave to Egypt, he serves a high official named Potiphar. Unfortunately, Mrs. Potiphar lusts after Joseph and wants him to sleep with her, commanding him continually to “Lie with me!” (Gen 39.7–12). Recognizing the blessings that his master and God had given him, he repeatedly refused saying, “How could I do this great sin against God?” (37.9). However, after another refusal Potiphar’s wife tries to take hold of him forcefully, keeping hold of his robe after he runs away. With this piece of “evidence” in hand, she deceives Potiphar and charges Joseph with attempted rape (39.16–18). Once again, Joseph has been betrayed by his clothes.

Sometime after this (40.1), Joseph has been placed in custody but has again begun to rise in responsibility and status until he virtually ran the prison (40.1–4). There, rather than having dreams, he interprets them for others. His ability having been established and known to the Chief Cupbearer, when Pharaoh begins to have disturbing dreams Joseph is called upon to interpret them. The problem of course is that he has been in prison. Therefore, they “At once brought him out from the pit, shaved him, and changed his clothes before bringing him before Pharaoh” (41.14). As Joseph’s clothes change, so does his position and he rises to second in the kingdom (41.41–45).

Although Joseph is now secure in his position, exactly where God and his providence placed him, it is not the end of clothing playing out in his story. When Canaan also suffers famine like Egypt, his long-lost family runs out of food and Jacob sends his ten older brothers to buy food from Egypt. Joseph recognizes them immediately, but—in his shaved appearance, dressed in the finery of Egypt—they do not recognize him (42.7–8). He sets out to test them, and—after a series of tests to see whether they would sell out another brother (42.18–25), or whether the same jealousy over his coat still infected his brothers over Benjamin. After he compels the ten older brothers to return with Benjamin, lest he take them for spies and execute Simeon, he invites them to a (mandatory) banquet where he gives them all a portion of food, but provides Benjamin with five times as much (43.34). But, even after he reveals himself to his brothers, and tells them to bring his father and their families down to join him, he cannot help but test them once again: he gives all of his brothers a change of clothes, but to Benjamin he gives 300 shekels of silver and five changes of clothes (45.22). It is no longer just Joseph’s clothes, but his ability to bestow clothing and favoritism on others that best shows his great wealth and power.

Clothes makes the man. Naked people have little influence on society.

So clothing is a key part of Joseph’s story, but many times we miss the real point behind this clothing situation. As we’ve discussed before, clothing is a big deal in the ancient world because it’s a marker of identity. So, when his brothers come before Joseph in Gen 42, they come before an Egyptian priest. His name had been changed to “God Speaks and he Lives” (41.45), he is married to a priestess, the daughter of a priest, and is implied to be a priest himself (41.45b). He names his children the equivalents of “forget home” (41.51) and “I like it here better” (41.52).

Joseph has left behind his Canaanite heritage and God’s promises, he seems to have left behind his God and his family; he is an Egyptian now. The question of Joseph’s clothes is not just one of how fancy he is, or even of his status, but whether he will be—at the end of the story—an Israelite serving the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or an Egyptian serving Re, On, or Neith.

Published by Jared Saltz

Biblical Studies Faculty (Florida College). PhD candidate at HUC-JIR. Husband, father, student.

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