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In the Hebrew Bible, the coat of many colors (Hebrew: כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים kethoneth passim) is the name for the garment that Joseph owned. The translation and the actual nature of the garment is subject to dispute.
It is possible that the idea of the coat being "of many colors" may mean that it was in fact a patchwork coat of different materials which may have been of different colors or merely different shades of a single color.
The Hebrew phrase kethoneth passim is translated here as coat of many colors, but some have suggested that the phrase may merely mean a "coat with long sleeves" or a "long coat with stripes."
The Septuagint translation of the passage uses the word ποικίλος (poikilos), which indicates "many colored"; the Jewish Publication Society of America Version also employs the phrase "coat of many colors". On the other hand, the Revised Standard Version translates kethoneth passim as "a long robe with sleeves" while the New International Version notes the translation difficulties in a footnote, and translates it as "a richly ornamented robe".
Aryeh Kaplan, in The Living Torah gives a range of possible explanations:
James Swanson suggests that the phrase indicates a "tunic or robe unique in design for showing special favor or relationship" and that "either the robe was very long-sleeved and extending to the feet, or a richly-ornamented tunic either of special color design or gold threading, both ornamental and not suitable for working."
The phrase is used one other time in the Hebrew scriptures, to describe the garment worn by David's daughter Tamar in 2 Samuel 13:18-19.
Joseph's father Jacob (also Israel, in Hebrew Bible) favored him and gave Joseph the coat as a gift; as a result, he was envied by his brothers, who saw the special coat as an indication that Joseph would assume family leadership. His brothers' suspicion grew when Joseph told them of his two dreams (Genesis 37:11) in which all the brothers bowed down to him. The narrative tells that his brothers plotted against him when he was 17, and would have killed him had not the eldest brother Reuben interposed. He persuaded them instead to throw Joseph into a pit and secretly planned to rescue him later. However, while Reuben was absent, the others planned to sell him to a company of Ishmaelite merchants. When the passing Midianites arrived, the brothers dragged Joseph up and sold him to the merchants for 20 pieces of silver. The brothers then dipped Joseph's coat in goat blood and showed it to their father, saying that Joseph had been torn apart by wild beasts.
Recent scholarship, especially among literary critics, has noted how the exhortation to "identify" and the theme of recognition in Genesis 37:32-33 also appears in 38:25-26, in the story of Judah and Tamar. This serves to connect the chapters and unify the narrative. Victor Hamilton calls these "intentional literary parallels," while Robert Alter suggests that the verb "identify" plays "a crucial thematic role in the dénouement of the Joseph story when he confronts his brothers in Egypt, he recognizing them, they failing to recognize him."
The envy of his brothers may also have stemmed from the fact that Joseph was the son of Rachel, Jacob's first love. However, Joseph's brothers were the sons of Rachel's older sister Leah and the sons of the handmaidens, who were given to Jacob during a time when Rachel could not conceive. There was a battle between Leah and Rachel to compete for Jacob's attention. Jacob had told Joseph, when he was seventeen years old, to go check on his brothers. Joseph would report back to his father of their evil deeds. In addition to this he shares his dreams of them bowing down to him. Their anger towards him only increased.