About that Coat

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Genesis 37:1–3 NET
But Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, in the land of Canaan. This is the account of Jacob. Joseph, his seventeen-year-old son, was taking care of the flocks with his brothers. Now he was a youngster working with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives. Joseph brought back a bad report about them to their father. 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.
Genesis 37:18-
Genesis 37:18–34 NET
Now Joseph’s brothers saw him from a distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this master of dreams!Come now, let’s kill him, throw him into one of the cisterns, and then say that a wild animal ate him. Then we’ll see how his dreams turn out!” When Reuben heard this, he rescued Joseph from their hands, saying, “Let’s not take his life!”Reuben continued, “Don’t shed blood! Throw him into this cistern that is here in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him.” (Reuben said this so he could rescue Joseph from them and take him back to his father.) When Joseph reached his brothers, they stripped him of his tunic, the special tunic that he wore. Then they took him and threw him into the cistern. (Now the cistern was empty; there was no water in it.) When they sat down to eat their food, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were carrying spices, balm, and myrrh down to Egypt.Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is there if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let’s not lay a hand on him, for after all, he is our brother, our own flesh.” His brothers agreed.So when the Midianite merchants passed by, Joseph’s brothers pulled him out of the cistern and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. The Ishmaelites then took Joseph to Egypt. Later Reuben returned to the cistern to find that Joseph was not in it! He tore his clothes, returned to his brothers, and said, “The boy isn’t there! And I, where can I go?” So they took Joseph’s tunic, killed a young goat, and dipped the tunic in the blood. Then they brought the special tunic to their father and said, “We found this. Determine now whether it is your son’s tunic or not.” He recognized it and exclaimed, “It is my son’s tunic! A wild animal has eaten him! Joseph has surely been torn to pieces!” Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth, and mourned for his son many days.
I want to talk about Hebrew with y’all for a minute. As most of you know, I don’t talk about Biblical languages very often, because, well, it’s not likely that anyone is going to remember a word from another language that they heard in a sermon once, and usually it’s possible to make a point without throwing fancy language around.
But today, I want to tell you about a specific Hebrew phrase: כְּתֹ֥נֶת פַּסִּֽים (Ketonet Passim). This phrase shows up exactly four times in the Hebrew Scriptures. One of those times is in , where a daughter of David is brutally assaulted by her half brother. It says in that passage that in her sorrow, she rips up her Ketonet Passim, and then it explains what a Ketonet Passim is: it’s a special kind of long, flowing tunic worn only by the virgin daughters of the king. In other words, it’s a princess dress.
What does that have to do with the story we just read? Well, the other three times the phrase Ketonet Passim shows up are in this story, and they’re used to describe that special coat Jacob gave Joseph.
Now, something strange seems to have happened as people attempted to translate this passage over the years. One by one, they all magically forgot one of the basic rules of translation: If the meaning of a word is not evident in one passage, look and see how it’s used elsewhere. In this case, Ketonet Passim is not easily explained by the Joseph story, so the logical thing to do would be to look to . Instead, translators first tried to come up with explanations. Some said it must mean the coat is colorful. Others suggested it meant the coat had stripes. Still others were unsure and just said it was a special coat. With the advent of study Bibles and footnotes, translator after translator begin to include a footnote to this verse saying “the exact meaning of this phrase is unclear.”
Is it, though? When it’s been clearly defined elsewhere, isn’t the meaning pretty evident?
I suspect what’s really going on here is that a lot of translators have been super uncomfortable with the idea that Jacob gave his favorite son a princess dress, so one by one they convinced themselves that couldn’t possibly fit this story. After all, Joseph was, well, a boy. Right? So the meaning must be inconclusive
Problem is, the common meaning fits the rest of this story really well.
It begins with Joseph coming home from the fields and telling his father that his brothers did something wrong. Doesn’t say what. Just a negative report. In the very next verse, Jacob gives Joseph his princess dress, and from that point on, he doesn’t have to work in the fields any longer. Instantly, his brothers hate him.
After a while, Jacob needs to send some food to his sons who are still working in the fields. So he gives it to Joseph and sends him on his way. As he gets close to where his brothers are, they see him flitting across the field in his dress, and they want to kill him. Lucky for Joseph, one of them convinces the rest not to go as far as murder, so instead they sell him into slavery - which is… better? I guess?
And what happens next tells us that Joseph’s brothers were not envious of his new tunic. If they had been eyeing his outfit with envy, they would have found a way for one of them to get to wear it. They’d have brought it back to their father in tact. They’d’ve told some story about how Joseph had given it to one of them for safe keeping and then returned home and - what? You mean he didn’t make it? How awful. They’d have done something different. Instead, they turn on the garment with unexplained rage, tearing it to shreds and dipping one of the pieces in blood to trick their father into believing his favorite son is dead. Yeah, they didn’t envy their brother’s striped tunic. They just hated the fact that their brother was wearing a princess dress.
This turn of events is entirely consistent with what we know about humans, even today. There is an inexplicable anger that bubbles up in the hearts of many people when they see someone who they believe is a man, doing something they believe should be reserved for women. Otherwise rational people become hateful and aggressive if they believe that’s what’s going on. They start letter writing campaigns. They pass laws about who’s allowed to use which restroom. They give sermons and speeches about how we have to protect our children - especially our daughters - from the horrors of such a world. And sometimes, more often than makes any sense, they go so far as to commit murder. In fact, since statistics have been kept, murder of transgender people has gone up, with 2016 the deadliest full year on record, and 2017 on pace to be even worse. And before we rush to say that these are a bunch of isolated incidents, it’s worth noting that in several criminal trials, juries were more lenient on defendants who claimed their actions were motivated by panic at finding out somebody was trans*. That’s not a single person acting as a lone wolf. That’s an entire legal proceeding predicated on the idea that to be transgender is to be somehow less than.
Now, before you go out and tell folks that Joseph was transgender, that’s not quite what I’m saying. Rather, what I’m saying is that seeing a man in women’s clothing inspired hatred in his brothers. And while trans women are women, the people who kill them believe - wrongly - that they too are men in women’s clothing. And in the minds of more people than we’d care to admit, that belief is sufficient reason to kill someone. Amid this reality, biblical translators continue to insist that we can’t possibly know what Joseph’s Ketonet Passim was, and surely the violence committed against him had nothing to do with gender expression or expectations. I think we know better.
This year, we’re adding a special service element to our church calendar. on Sunday, November 19, we will observe Transgender Day of Remembrance - a day which opens our eyes to the struggles and suffering of God’s Transgender children. Much like with our All Saints observation, we will read the names of all known Transgender people who were killed in this past year, and light a candle in their honor. That list will almost certainly be dominated by one specific group: Transgender Women of Color. As we read their names and light their candles, I invite you to remember this story, and the way even our Bible translations try to erase gender-based violence, and to open yourself to seeing with fresh eyes the plight of one of the most marginalized groups in our culture. We can do better. We must do better.
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