Joseph and His Clothing by Victor H. Matthews

In Joseph’s case, at least, it is fair to say that “clothes make the man.” The episodes of the tightly written Joseph narrative in Gen 37-50 are held together by a series of incidents in which Joseph is either given clothing or literally loses his shirt. Thus his fortunes rise and fall depending on how he is clothed, and the audience is cued to expect the opening of a new episode by these physical and social transformations.

With that said, it is important to recognize the significance of clothing in the biblical world. For example, in addition to gender differences, clothing is a marker of identity for all classes of people. A king is recognized by his robes of office (1Kgs 22:10), just as a priest is set aside from other people by his distinctive linen vestments, breastpiece, and turban (Lev 8:7-9). Mourners customarily wore sackcloth to display their grief (Jer 6:26), whereas prisoners of war were stripped naked, showing they had lost all personal identity (Isa 20:2-4).

When a doting Jacob gives Joseph a special cloak with long sleeves (the “coat of many colors” is a misinterpretation in Gen 37:3), he grants his favorite son a sign of special privilege. In this case, Joseph is exempted from shepherding duties, since the long sleeves would hinder him from chasing after the sheep. Jacob’s mistake becomes clear when his jealous sons catch Joseph alone, strip him of his garment, sell him into slavery, and use the bloodied cloak as evidence of Joseph’s death (Gen 37:18-33).

Fallen from favor and reduced to a slave’s role, Joseph regains some status in his master Potiphar’s household but quickly finds himself the target of Potiphar’s wife’s sexual advances (Gen 39:1-7). Although this episode may be dependent on an Egyptian folktale (see Matthews and Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels, 65-69), it also illustrates how slaves are put in impossible situations that can only lead to submission and/or tragedy. Joseph’s refusal of his mistress’s sexual desires leaves him stripped once again of his garment and placed in prison for attempted rape (Gen 39:11-20).

Following the established narrative pattern, even in prison Joseph gains a measure of respect, rising to the position of trustee and, presumably, being clothed in a garment by his jailers (Gen 39:21-23). After he successfully interprets the dreams of two of Pharaoh’s servants, Joseph is brought before the monarch, whose own diviners cannot fathom the king’s dreams (Gen 41:14). By demonstrating his abilities in this forum, Joseph’s status comes full circle. The Pharaoh orders a transformation that marks Joseph as one of his chief officials, giving him his signet ring, a gold chain, and new linen garments (Gen 41:42-43). Now dressed as an Egyptian, Joseph even fools his brothers when they come to Egypt to purchase food. It is only when Joseph sets aside his aura of power and speaks to them of family matters that he once again becomes part of their family (Gen 45:1-8).

The alternation between receiving and losing garments functions for Joseph as it does in the Egyptian tale of the political refugee Sinuhe (see Matthews and Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels, 141). They are narrative cues to scene changes and demonstrate how important clothing was to the social world of the ancient Near East.

Victor H. Matthews, "Joseph and His Clothing", n.p. [cited 27 Sep 2022]. Online:


Victor H. Matthews

Victor H. Matthews
Professor, Missouri State University

Victor H. Matthews is a professor of religious studies and dean of the College of Humanities and Public Affairs at Missouri State University. Among his publications are Studying the Ancient Israelites: A Guide to Sources and Methods (Baker Academic, 2007), Manners and Customs in the Bible (3rd ed., Baker Academic, 2006), and A Brief History of Ancient Israel (Westminster John Knox, 2002).

A region notable for its early ancient civilizations, geographically encompassing the modern Middle East, Egypt, and modern Turkey.

Common Era; a notation used in place of A.D. ("Anno Domini") for years in the current calendar era, about the last 2,000 years.

A sovereign head of state, usually a king or queen.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

Also called the Hebrew Bible, those parts of the canon that are common to both Jews and Christians. The designation "Old Testament" places this part of the canon in relation to the New Testament, the part of the Bible canonical only to Christians. Because the term "Old Testament" assumes a distinctly Christian perspective, many scholars prefer to use the more neutral "Hebrew Bible," which derives from the fact that the texts of this part of the canon are written almost entirely in Hebrew.

The main figure in an ancient Egyptian text often called "The Story of Sinuhe," probably dating to the early second millennium B.C.E. The biblical story of Joseph in the book of Genesis is sometimes compared to the story of Sinuhe because both involve the themes of success in a foreign land and in the royal court.

placing oneself under the authority or control of another

Gen 37-50

Joseph Dreams of Greatness
1Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan.2This is the story of the family of Jacob.
Jose ... View more

1Kgs 22:10

10Now the king of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah were sitting on their thrones, arrayed in their robes, at the threshing floor at the entrance of the gate ... View more

Lev 8:7-9

7He put the tunic on him, fastened the sash around him, clothed him with the robe, and put the ephod on him. He then put the decorated band of the ephod around ... View more

Jer 6:26

26O my poor people, put on sackcloth,
and roll in ashes;
make mourning as for an only child,
most bitter lamentation:
for suddenly the destroyer
will come upon ... View more

Isa 20:2-4

2at that time the Lord had spoken to Isaiah son of Amoz, saying, “Go, and loose the sackcloth from your loins and take your sandals off your feet,” and he had d ... View more

Gen 37:3

3Now 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 37:18-33

18They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him.19They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer.20Come now, let ... View more

Gen 39:1-7

Joseph and Potiphar's Wife
1Now Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the ... View more

Gen 39:11-20

11One day, however, when he went into the house to do his work, and while no one else was in the house,12she caught hold of his garment, saying, “Lie with me!” ... View more

Gen 39:21-23

21But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love; he gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer.22The chief jailer committed to Joseph's care a ... View more

Gen 41:14

14Then Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was hurriedly brought out of the dungeon. When he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh.

Gen 41:42-43

42Removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh put it on Joseph's hand; he arrayed him in garments of fine linen, and put a gold chain around his neck.43He h ... View more

Gen 45:1-8

Joseph Reveals Himself to His Brothers
1Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away fro ... View more

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.