Joseph's Rainbow Coat (Genesis 37:1-11)
[The message I delivered on Genesis 37:1-11 at Church of Mary Magdalene on August 16, 2017. Click here for a livestream video of the message.]
I said last week that we were going to talk about Joseph and the multi-color coat and queer it up, and we are! Even if you aren’t familiar with many stories in the Bible, this is probably one you’ve heard about—in part, because there is a Broadway musical about it, which is super gay! Also, the familiar image of this story is of Joseph wearing a rainbow coat—if we want a queer story, we could just stop there. But if we do some research, it’s even more queer than it seems.
The idea that Joseph's coat had many colors actually comes from the Greek and Latin translations. The better translation of the Hebrew is what it says here: it was a long robe with sleeves, or a long-sleeved tunic. The footnote of the HarperCollins Study Bible says that this kind of robe was also worn by women.
The only other place we see a robe like this described is in 2 Samuel 13:18, in the story of Tamar and Aman: “Now she was wearing a long robe with sleeves; for this is how the virgin daughters of the king were clothed in earlier times.” So, these footnotes say that this is “a fine robe such as princesses wear.” Joseph wasn't wearing a rainbow coat. He was wearing a princess coat.
So far, this is just what is in the text! The commentaries go way farther.
The Bible says that Joseph’s mother “Rachel was graceful and beautiful” (Gen. 29:17). At least one Jewish tradition says that “Joseph is the image of his beautiful mother.” (Queer Bible Commentary, 52.) And some rabbis said, "he painted his eyes and walked with mincing step. Showing off the coat of many colors . . . . Twirling, hugging himself.’” (Ibid., quoting Ostriker).
The Queer Bible Commentary—which I was really excited to read this week—doesn’t let us down: “Twirling, mincing, in rainbow garb and with painted eyes, Joseph is a flaming young queen. No wonder his brothers, particularly the sons of Leah, hate him.” (Ibid.)
Let’s back up a little bit and talk about who these brothers are. This is the story of the family of Jacob. And there is a part of this story early on that is easy to miss.
Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father.
Who were Bilhah and Zilpah?
We have been following Jacob's story for a while, but we skipped over the part about Jacob’s wives, which is really complicated. Here's what happened with Jacob's first two wives, Rachel and Leah. Jacob fell in love with his cousin Rachel, and Rachel’s father Laban said that Jacob could marry her if Jacob worked for Laban for seven years. So he did, and after seven years of work, Jacob asked for Rachel's hand in marriage. But Laban tricked Jacob and gave him Leah, Rachel’s older sister, instead, which he did not realize until the day after his marriage. And so Jacob was really upset and went back to Laban, and Laban said, "If you work for seven more years, you can marry Rachel." So he did. Jacob worked for seven more years and then married Leah's sister Rachel.
Bilhah and Zilpah are his other “wives." The Bible notes that Laban gave Zilpah and Bilhah to Leah and Rachel when they married Jacob. They were the servants that were given to them. Leah had four sons after their marriage, but Rachel was barren, so Rachel gave her maid Bilhah to Jacob as a wife, and Bilhah had two sons, and Rachel named them. When Leah stopped bearing children, she gave her maid Zilpah to Jacob as a wife, and Zilpah had two sons, and Leah named them.
These women are called maids, they are called wives, but really, the are much more like property. The owners get to decide who they marry, how they bear children, and what to name their children.
To wrap up this story: Leah had two more sons and a daughter, and Rachel finally conceived and had Joseph and then later had Benjamin. Those are the thirteen children.
These are really complicated family dynamics! And this is also a family with a history of younger sons taking the things that were promised to older sons. We see that in the story of Jacob and Esau, where Jacob took Esau’s birthright and tricked him out of his blessing. We see it in the story of Isaac and Ishmael, where the son of the beloved wife gets everything and the servant Hagar and her son Ishmael, the older son, were sent away to die.
So Joseph is a younger brother, but he is also a beloved first son of the favorite wife.
Joseph is not a child when he brings the bad report about the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah to their father. He is seventeen years old. There is nothing in the story that says that the bad report was true, and the Hebrew suggests that it might not be, it could be slander or lies.
So it’s in this context that we get to Joseph’s dreams. Joseph shares his two dreams: one where he and his brothers are in the field and their sheaves bow down to him, another where the sun, moon, and eleven stars bow down to him. And when he gets to that second dream, I want to be like, "Stop! Just stop talking, Joseph!" Because his brothers hate him! And he keeps telling them his dreams. Is he oblivious? Is he not that bright?
There is an interpretation that if a dream is doubled, that means it's God’s will. So that's possibly why he told these two dreams. But it's still not very smart on the part of Joseph for his self-preservation.
Joseph may have wanted to assert himself as a younger brother here, against his older brothers, who he sees as bullying him. Joseph may have thought that his father would back him up or protect him because he was the favorite (but if that was the case, he was wrong).
I picked this passage last week, before the events in Charlottesville over the weekend. And I knew that I wanted to talk about what was queer in this passage. But I realized as I read it and as I looked into it, that there was this other story. There was the story about the brothers who are oppressed because of their birth and because of who their mothers are.
So I was thinking about this as I watched the news—as I'm sure many of you were—about the events in Charlottesville. About the people marching: the Nazis, the KKK, and other white nationalists, carrying torches, swastikas, and confederate flags, and yelling racist slogans. These people feel emboldened by our president and others in his administration to say these hateful things. And this is terrifying for people in our country, especially for black people, for Jewish people, and for other people of color.
And so as I hold these events, my understanding of the story of Joseph changes.
In some ways, I want to encourage you to be like Joseph: Wear your princess coat! Wear your rainbow flag! Be who you are. Queer it up! But I also want to encourage you to not be like Joseph, who could not see the way his brothers were marginalized or his brothers’ pain and fear.
As a church, we condemn racism and white supremacy as sin. And I hope that those of us who are queer—those who have felt marginalized in one way—can use that pain to better understand our siblings who are also in pain and afraid. This week especially, that includes our black and Jewish siblings.
Let us say that black lives matter, with our words and with our actions. Let us do our best to be aware of structural racism in our country and ourselves, and to do whatever we can do fight it