Joseph: A Coat For Many Genders
Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him
כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים [an ornamented tunic](Genesis 37.3 Tanakh)
She was wearing כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים
[an ornamented tunic], for maiden princesses were customarily dressed in such garments (II Samuel 13.18, Tanakh).
When I was a young, not-recognised girl in high school, I was introduced to Andrew Lloyd Webber and, of his musicals, none spoke to me more deeply than Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. When I heard the Act I song "Joseph's Coat" I was gone, lost in world of light and sequins. The scene played out in my mind like this: The music starts low and slow. The tempo quickens as it builds note on note toward crescendo and our narrator, clearly an angel sent to rescue me, begins her run through the dazzling colors … and cream and crimson and silver and rose and…
… and there it is, the coat bought by my father for me, his daughter. Yes, in that moment, and in that dizzingly gorgeous garment, I could be me.
Decades later, while reading the article "Princess Dresses and Radical Possibilities" by Mac Buff (published on rmnetwork.org, 20 September, 2017) I learned that my imagination was not far off from the potential reality of Joseph's experience. The words used to describe Joseph's robe of many colours in Genesis 37.3 are the exact same words used to describe another robe in II Samuel 13.18. Both passages use the Hebrew word:
Further, that specific word is used only in these two instances. In the Jewish Bible, Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, the footnotes for the Genesis passage reads, "Or 'a coat of many colors'; meaning of Heb. Uncertain." The note for the same word in II Samuel reads, "See Gen. 37.3 and note." The same word and only cross-referenced in these two verses.
Why is that so important to me?
Because of the second part of the II Samuel verse, "for maiden princesses were customarily dressed in such garments" (13.18b). The robe was the robe of a princess. It was a feminine article of clothing and it was being worn by Joseph, who is assigned as male.
We know from the story in Genesis that Joseph was not well liked by his brothers. He was different and set-apart from them by birth and by his father, Jacob. Christian interpretation tells us that Jacob displayed "partiality for Joseph" (New Bible Dictionary, p 617) because he was born to Jacob in his old age. This is only a partial answer for that partiality, though. For Benjamin was also born to Jacob in his old age. In fact, even more so as Joseph's younger brother. Here we can learn more from Islamic and Jewish traditions.
"In Islamic tradition Joseph is considered to have been extraordinarily beautiful" (Michael Carden, "Genesis/Bereshit") and Jewish tradition tells us that his beauty was because he looked like his mother, Rachel. Ostriker adds that "the rabbis say he painted his eyes and walked with mincing step … Twirling hugging himself" (Ostriker 1994; 111-12). So we have an image of Joseph, favoured by Jacob for being in the likeness of his beautiful mother, twirling in a robe traditionally given to a maiden princesses, painting his eyes, and walking demurely. Though we must always be cautious when talking of past figures, all of this feels very familiar to me, a trans woman who grew up longing for some way to express who I was. In other words, "Joseph could have been, instead of an arrogant little twerp spoiled by his father, a transgender kid just trying to survive in the family" (Mac Buff 2017).
We can't know with any certainty and modern terms don't map onto ancient lives, but there is something shimmeringly familiar in that princess dress. And it's healthy to find ourselves in the story because it helps us to know that we too are God's children.
Healer and Creator who formed us from hair to toes and knows us in our authenticity. We give thanks for the diverse world you have created and the infinite ways we find ourselves within it. Amen.
Think about where you see yourself reflected in the world and within scripture. What reminds you that you are holy in your authenticity and are beloved of God?