Joseph's Coat of Many Colors?

We’ve all heard about Jospeh’s coat of many colors, right?  Well, it looks like you may need to throw that fond childhood memory out.  Today’s lectionary reading is from Genesis 37.  Here are a few translations in comparison with regard to “Joseph’s coat of many colors” (translation comparisons on this site are done in BibleWorks 8 using Parallels):

Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him a long tunic. (Gen 37:3 NAB)

Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a varicolored tunic. (Gen 37:3 NASB)

Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons because he was a son born to him late in life, and he made a special tunic for him. (Gen 37:3 NET)

Jacob loved Joseph more than any of his other children because Joseph had been born to him in his old age. So one day Jacob had a special gift made for Joseph– a beautiful robe. (Gen 37:3 NLT)

Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. (Gen 37:3 NRS)

I don’t know a lot about this particular translation issue, nor do I think it makes enough difference to me in terms of overall understanding to go search out an answer.  I just wanted to tear away from you your childhood belief in Joseph’s coat of many colors.  At any rate, it seems like translators simply do not know what this word translated “long,” “varicolored,” “special,” or “beautiful” actually means.  In fact, the Lexham interlinear (LOGOS – for which my supervising professor is the editor) simply lists the word as “uncertain meaning.”  Lexicons seem to lean toward “long.”

So, are you going to still teach children about Joseph’s coat of many colors?  Probably.  But, just know inwardly that you may be lying to children ;-).


  • this is exactly why people who interpret scripture should read the original languages. anyone who reads hebrew knows that the coat is ‘long sleeved’ and anyone who reads greek knows that the lxx translates this phrase wrongly as ‘multicolored’.

    english readers, influenced by the vulgate’s use of the lxx instead of the hebrew text, have followed the inaccurate reading for centuries.

    ad fontes!

  • anyone who reads hebrew knows that the coat is ‘long sleeved’

    Might that not be a bit rash? For the translation teams of the NAB, NET, NLT, KJV, and the LOGOS folks don’t “know that the coat is long-sleeved.” The word’s just not universally agreed upon. That’s probably why the LXX translators had trouble with it.

    ad fontes!

  • i guess my esteemed teachers in seminary knew more about hebrew than that lot. so i think – while i agree that the term is obscure – i wont agree that we have to act unsure about it just because a few other people are.

    if we have to go around acting like we dont know something just because someone else doesnt know it, we are all in quite the pickle- since that’s knowledge by the lowest common denominator.

    no thanks.

    • To be fair Jim, I think you are actually obscuring the issue in Hebrew a little bit (not that I think it is overly important for the overall meaning of the text anyway). And, had Mitch not commented I probably wouldn’t have thought any more of it. The issue for many translators is not whether the tunic is “long sleeved.” The issue lies in the fact that the “long sleeved-ness” may actually be assumed within the term cutonet itself. Then why would the writer have also included an adjective that also means “long” (i.e. passim if it actually means long)? This would then be referring to a “long long-sleeved” robe/tunic if I’m making any sense. As I understand it then the question would be whether it is a “long long-sleeved” robe/tunic (as in extra long or some other feature of the tunic being long such as the ‘skirt’ part) or a “many colored long-sleeved” robe/tunic or a “special long-sleeved” robe/tunic.

  • hey wait a minute mitch- i just looked over at your blog and this is what you’ve just written-

    I have dabbled slightly up to this point in learning a little about Hebrew: the alphabet, the vowel-points, some words, a verse or two of the Bible, a phrase or two of conversational Hebrew, a book or two about the formation of Modern Hebrew.

    isnt it a little – well, wrong, of you to attempt to talk about what we can or cant know of hebrew since you dont know anything, by your own admission?

    come on man. it’s not even sensible that you give advice on hebrew definitions.

  • You are absolutely right in claiming that I am no authority on Hebrew, and I don’t want to give the impression that I am.

    But I was not attempting to say what the definition was or was not, nor even to say that the word would be impossible to know the definition of for certain. All I was saying was that there are at least some people who know Hebrew but don’t share belief that the word so obviously means long-sleeved.

  • oh you’re quite right. some don’t. like the translators of the lxx and the vulgate. but they weren’t always very good at what they did.

    to draw a somewhat modern parallel- the various translators of the lxx were sometimes more like the creators of the ‘living bible’ than the new jerusalem bible.

  • I’ve also heard and read about examples of some very sloppy translation work in the LXX and Vulgate. And I’m working towards the day when I can see all that firsthand. (I’m already decent with Latin, but all that gives me is a bird’s-eye view of an often unreliable translation of the originals.)

    And philosophically I am definitely in agreement with you that there’s no need to pretend certain things aren’t certain just because some (or most) are uncertain. We’d never have gotten past the debate over whether the earth goes around the sun or vice verse if we’d settled for that lousy compromising mentality.

  • Please can I know the meaning of the multi-color and the long sleevedness of the coat.Thanks.

    • I think in the story it is primarily a sign of favoritism. The actual translation doesn’t really change that.

  • The translators worked under inspiration.The substance in t.he story is that Israel favours Joseph more.So, i agree with Jeremy.The actual translation does not change that fact.