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Joseph- The eschatological כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים‎ "coat of many colors" in Islamo-biblical literatures and in the Qayyūm al-asmā'.


כְּתנֶת פַּסִּים

The eschatological כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים"coat of many colors" in Islamo-biblical literatures and in the Qayyūm al-asmā'.

The motif of  the garment of the Biblical-Qur'ānic Joseph and its Bābī-Bahā'ī interpretations.

 Stephen Lambden 1987.

Under Revision and completion. 2010 + 2016. Last updated 11-01-2021.

The Hebrew phrase כְּתנֶת  פַּסִּים ketonet passīm [1] occurs in Genesis 37:3. As will be seen this Hebrew phrase has been translated in a variety of ways. The Authorized (King James Version, 1611) rendering "coat of many colours" perhaps being the best known:

 וְיִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אָהַ֤ב אֶת־יֹוסֵף֙ מִכָּל־בָּנָ֔יו כִּֽי־בֶן־זְקֻנִ֥ים ה֖וּא לֹ֑ו וְעָ֥שָׂה לֹ֖ו כְּתֹ֥נֶת פַּסִּֽים׃

Genesis 37:3 Hebrew text: Westminster Leningrad Codex

"[3] Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was  the son of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colours."

[1]The word ketonet basically signifies some kind of outer garment (see Gen 3:21; Exod. 28:4 etc). The Hebrew passīm occurs only in the aforementioned passages.

 It is widely admitted by competent Hebraists among modern Biblical scholars that the exact sense of the Hebrew phrase ketonet passīm is unknown or uncertain. [2]  It  might be indicative of some kind of ornamented cloak or tunic.  The Hebrew certainly indicates ,

"some kind of ostentatious garment such as would not normally be worn by a working man. The only other place in the old Testament where the phrase occurs is in 2 Sam. I3: 18‑19 where it is `the usual dress of unmarried princesses'." (Davidson, Cambridge Bibile Commentary, 1979: 218).

 Exactly the same phrase then, occurs in the story of Absalom and his sister (children of King David) Tamar (2 Sam. 13:18-19); "And she [Tamar] had a garment of divers colours upon her; for with such robes were the king's daughters that were virgins apparalled. And Tamar put ashes on her head and rent the garment of divers colous that was on her.." (AV = KJV).

 Speiser who wrote the Anchor Bible Commentary  on Genesis in 1962, translated the Hebrew ketonet passīm,  "an ornamented tunic", wrote the following philologically learned note:

"The traditional "coat of many colors," and the  variant "coat with sleeves" are sheer guesses from the context; nor is there anything remarkable about either colors or sleeves. The phrase, Heb. ketonet passīm, occurs aside from this section (also vss. 23, 32) only in II Sam xiii 18f., where it describes a garment worn by daughters of kings. Cuneiform inventories may shed light on the garment in question. Among various types of clothing listed in the texts, there is one called kit_ (or kutinn_) pišannu (cf. JNES 8 [1949], 177). The important thing there, besides the close external correspondence with the Heb. phrase, is that the article so described was a ceremonial robe which could be draped about statues of goddesses, and had various gold ornaments sewed onto it. Some of these ornaments would occasionally come undone and need to be sent to the proper craftsman for repairs, hence the notation in the inventories. If the comparison is valid and there are several things in its favor the second element in the Heb. phrase, i.e.,passīm  would be an adaptation of Akk. pišannu, a technical term denoting appliqué ornaments on costly vests   and bodices." (Speiser, Genesis, 289-290).

 In the Word Bible Commentary  on Genesis  37:3 Gordon J Wenham comments as follows on the above interpretation of Speiser,

“Special tunic.” On “tunic,” cf. Comment on [Genesis] 3:21. What was “special” about this tunic is uncertain. Apart from this chapter, the term occurs only in 2 Sam 13:18–19 as the robe of a princess. “Many-colored” goes back to the LXX [Greek trans.] and Vulgate translation. Another possibility based on the cognate Aramaic term פס “palm of hand or foot” is that it was a long garment reaching to the ankles or the wrists,  i.e., with sleeves. Speiser compares the Akkadian term kitū pišannu, a ceremonial robe with gold ornamentation. But whatever the tunic looked like, it marked Jacob’s special affection for Joseph and served as a perpetual reminder to his brothers." (p. 351).

 As indicated above, it should be noted here that the Authorized, King James' (1611) traditional version "coat of many colours" reflects the ancient Greek, Septuagint (LXX) rendering ποικίλος = kitona poikilos meaning "coat of many colours". Gerhard Von Rad in his (OTL) Genesis, A Commentary (SCM., 3rd rev. ed, 1972) wrote,

"The garment given to Joseph by his father was a dress coat, i.e., not the clocklike wrap that the man on the street wore. It was distinguished from the usual ones by its length, and the length of its sleeves; it was a luxury which only those who did not have to work could think of having (Gu.). The garment is once again mentioned, significantly, as the garb of royal princesses (II Sam. I3. I8 f.). The LXX and its dependent Vulgate have interpreted the Hebrew word, whose meaning has not yet been satisfactorily explained, in the sense of [ποικίλος] "variegated," [or multi-coloured] and the translation in the King James Version derives from that. Thus the picture of the spoiled and preferred figure Joseph is painted with very few strokes; he is the foil for the brothers who are coritriving evil." (p.351 on Gen 37:3-4).

 Lowenthal, in his The Joseph Narrative in Genesis, (New York:Ktav, 1973), pp.16-17 writes,

 "3b And he had made for him ketonet passim a tunic of distinction. The meaning of this term was already lost at the time when II Sam. 13: 18ff. was written, for to explain it, its author adds, "With such robes were the king's daughters that were virgins apparelled."

The more recently published New Cambridge Bible Commentary on Genesis by Bill T. Arnold (Cambridge: CUP., 2009) has " and he [Jacob] made him [Joseph] "a long robe with sleeves" to which a note is added, "Traditional rendering (compare Gk [Greek]) : a coat of many colors; Meaning of Heb. [Hebrew] uncertain" (p.312).This 2009 translation repeats that of the 1979 Robert Davidson first edition, the earlier printing of the Cambridge Bible Commentary (see p.214 and the note on page 218, cited above). [2]

[2] So for example, Davidson NEB commentary Gen. "The meaning of the Hebrew phrase  is uncertain" though the phrase ketonet passīm is basically indicative of some kind of ornamented cloak.

Some ancient Jewish and Christian translations of ketonet passīm  (Gen 37:3bβ)

Samaritan Pentateuch

     = "many coloured"

Aramaic Targumim

  • Onkelos  = "a tunic of stripes" (kituna..) or `reaching to the hands and ankles'
  • Targum Ps. Jon.           = "an embroidered garment" (..pargod)

Peshitta [Syriac] 

  •   "with long sleeves"

Ancient Greek and Latin versions

  •  Aquila + Vulgte = "of many threads"
  • Vulgate trans. 1949: "and he dressed him in a coat that was all embroidery"

 Some Arabic and Persian (sometimes indirect) translations of ketonet passīm  (Gen 37:3bβ)

 Watts 1833> Rome 1671 Sergius Rissus

",,,so he fashioned for him a ornamented [variagated, patched?] coat"

= ADD  ARABIC (.,s)ana`a lahu qamīs an muṣawwar an) cf.  add (.,S)-W.R

  •  Van Dyck,  "so he fashioned for him a multi-coloured coat"

= fa- XXX (.,s)ana`a lahu qamis(.,s) an mulawwan an) cf. II L-W.N

Select Modern translations of the Hebrew ketonet passīm  (Gen 37:3bβ)

 Authorized [King James] Version, (1611) "a coat of many colours";

  • Revised Version [1870 inter. demon. (British) 1885] "a coat of many colours" : note  here = "or a long garment with sleeves"...        

On this rendering see for example S.R. Driver The Book of Genesis [Westminster Commentaries London: Methuen & Co, 1904), p. 322 n.3 on "coat on many colours" which reads,  "A coat- or more strictly a tunic --of palms and soles ie reaching to the hands and feet (which is what is meant by RVm); opp to the ordinary tunic, which had no sleeves, and reached only to the knees. So 2S xiii.18f (worn in David's time by royal princesses)." This is more or less repeated by Skinner, Genesis, [Edinburgh:T&T Clark, 1919] ICC:444. "[Heb KP]a shirt or tunic reaching to the extremities ([Heb. Passīm]),i.e. the wrists and ankles, whereas the ordinary under-garment was sleeveless, and reached only to the knees. That it was an unusual habiliment appears also from 2.Sam 1318f ; but speculations as to its mythological significance (ATLO2) have no support in either passage..".

  • American Standard Version [1901]"???" ;
  • Revised Standard Version [Hebrew Bible = 1952] The RSV is a revision of the ASV [1901] completed in 1952 then further revised in 1959 and 1971.= "a long robe with sleeves";
  • 1964 Anchor Bible Commentary, Genesis [Speiser, 1964] "an ornamented tunic"  =  "[3] Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he made him an ornamented tunic. [4] When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his other sons, they came to hate him so much that they could not say a kind word to him... 31 They took Joseph's tunic, slaughtered a kid, and dipped the tunic in its blood. 32 They had the ornamented tunic taken to their father, and they said, "We found this. Make sure whether it is your son's tunic or not." 33 He recognized it, and exclaimed, "My son's tunic! A wild beast devoured him! Joseph fell prey to beasts!" (Speiser, ABC Genesis, 1964).
  • 1970 New English Bible [= NEB 1970] "a long, sleeved robe" [6];   "[3] Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was a child of his old age, and he made him a long, sleeved robe. [4] When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not say a kind word to him." (NEB)
  • 1978 New International Version  =  "a richly ornamented robe";
  • Jerusalem Bible (Roman Catholic) [1966] "a coat with long sleeves";
  • New Jerusalem Bible (Roman Catholic) [1985] "???" ;
  • New American Bible (Roman Catholic [USA]) [1970] "???" ;
  • Living Bible [1971] "a brightly-colored coat";
  • New American Standard [Version] Bible [= NASB ; a  revision of the American Standard Version of 1901. 1971] "a varicolored tunic";
  • New King James [Revised Authorized] Version [1982] "a tunic of many colours" 

The garment of Joseph in the Qur'ān and select Islamic literatures.

The story of Joseph is detailed in the twelfth surah or chapter of the Qur'an though it does not always repeat or correspond with its biblical prototype recorded in the book of Genesis.  Qur'an 12:18 contains a reference to the qamis (garment) of Joseph and reads as follows:

"And they came and placed upon his garment (qamis) false blood (damm kadhib) such that he [Jacob on seeing this garment] said, `Nay indeed! You have contrived this matter since your own selves have thus enticed you! So patience (sabr) is  apposite (jamil). God indeed is the One whse help is sought (al-musta`an) against whatsoever you alledge".                   

The garment of Joseph in the writings of the Bāb (d. Tabriz 1850 CE)

Joseph = Husayn= Qayyum = Man yuzhiru-hu Alláh

 The Báb equates Joseph with the Imám Husayn. This in the light of his belief in his imminent eschatological "return" (raj`a) and his role as the "gate" (bab) to the hidden Imám. Subsequent to his transference to Adhirbayjan he claimed to be both the Mahdi-Qa'im and the Divine-Joseph (qayyum-yusuf). Towards the end of his ministry, he furthermore, came to see Joseph as a type of the Bábí messiah *man yuzhiru-hu Alláh* ("He whom God shall make manifest") whom he, in his  Kitáb al-asma'  ("Book of Names") (1849-50) refers to as the "all-glorious Joseph" (yusuf al-Bahá').

This reference is in that section of his extensive and complex Kitáb al-asma' commenting upon the name of God  al-Bashir  ("the Herald"). There mention is made to the robe or garment of the Joseph of Bahá'. This pasage has been interpreted by Ishraq Khavari relative to Bahá'u'lláh as the Bábí messiah figure  man yuzhiru-hu Alláh  (see Ishraq Khavari, QI 4:1870ff) — note the use of the word bashir ("bearer/herald of good tidings") in Q.12:93 where the episode of Joseph's garment being placed on the face of the patriach Jacob/Israel restoring his vision — "But when the bearer of good tidings [bashir] came to him, and laid it [the qamis, "robe/garment") on his [Jacob's] face [wajh], forthwith he saw once again..". It is this Qur'anic verse which lies behind the Báb's exegetical rewrite of it in the Kitáb al-asma' :

"Hearken! Then take ye firm hold of the garment of the Joseph of Bahá' (qamis yusuf al-Bahá') from the hand of His Exalted, Transcendent Herald of Glad Tidings (mubashshirihi al-`alí al-a`la). And place it upon thy head in order that thou might recover thy sight (or `be endowed with insight' ) and discover thyself truly aware." (text as cited in QI 4:1875).

The garment of Joseph in the writings of Bahā'-Allāh (d. Acre 1892 CE).

The motif of the  qamis (Robe, gament...) as rooted in the Qur'anic story of Jospeh is common and centrally important in the writings of Baha'-Allah, the founder of the Baha'i religion. In Baha'i scriptural writing this Arabic and Persian loanword Qamis betokens the beauty of the eschatological theophany as well as the blood-stained nature of its genesis and of the life of its founder prophet. The following few noyes must suffice to illustrate this.

The qamis in the Sūrat al-Qamis (The Surah of the Robe).

The scriptural tablet (lawh) of Baha'-Allah entitled the Sūrat al-Qamis (The Surah of the Robe) dates from the early-mid. Edirne-Adrianople period (c. 1864-5) and is wholly in Arabic spanning around twenty-five pages in the original. It exists in numerous mss. and has several times been published. It contains sections addressed to Radi al-Ruh (AQA IV:49>) and other individals. The Arabic word qamis meaning robe or garment is several times used and is suggestive of the eschatological enrobement of Baha'-Allah with the magnificent garment of the Israelite prophet Yusuf or Joseph, the paragon of divine beauty (jamal). This work has a preliminary self-designation:

This is the Sūrat al-qamīṣ  (The Surah of the Garment). 

We, in very truth, sent it down as a Manifestation of My Temple (maẓhar haykalī)  betwixt all the worlds!

Here the haykal (Temple) of Baha'-Allah's theophanic persona is associated with the motif of the garment of the new, eschatological Joseph.

We subsequently read :

"We sent unto thee this qamis ("Garment= Robe") which hath been sprinkled (marshush an) [perfumed] with blood (damm) which is authentic [veracious-true] (sadiq) perchance thou might thereby rise up... (AQA IV: xx).

Just as Joseph's garment according to Qur'an 12:18 was sprinkled with "false blood (damm kadhib)", so on the contrary was the robe of the person of Baha'-Allah sprinkled  or perfumed with a redemptive or authentic (sadiq) sacrificial blood. It was not the blood allegedly spilt by the non-existent wolf, but the veracious life-giving blood of salvation like that of the crucified Jesus.

On the Sūrat al-qamīṣ see further:

The qamis in the Lawh-i Baha' (The Surah of Baha')

Commencement of the Lawh-i Baha' in INBMC 35

The Lawh-i Baha' (The Surah of Baha' - Resplendent Glory, c. 1865-6?, text in INBMC 35: 70-81) of Baha'-Allah  also dates to around early (January, 1866 CE) or to the middle of the Edirne or Adrianople period (c. 1865-6? ). At its very beginning (see image above) the motif of the qamis is found :

"He is the All-Eternal" (huwa al-baqi [baqa]).

O Maidservant of God (amat-Allah)! [= Khatun Jan Qazviniyya]

Be patient under all circumstances and mindful of the fact that the robe of this Youth (qamis al-ghulam) was dyed crimson with the blood of enmity betwixt earth and heaven. At every moment he crieth out with a soul-saddending cry [Call] (bi-nida' hazin). All of his associates that attempted to succour him found themselves assailed by the swords of emnity (suyuf al-hasad).