An important theme in this passage is the clothing of the main protagonist. In each of the three sections, it plays a prominent role that represents a turning point in the narrative. In the first section, Joseph is given a coat of many colours by his father Jacob. According to Jewish tradition, this coat was a piece of inheritance intended for the first born. It was the role of the first born to oversee his siblings, therefore the coat being given Joseph must have been like salt in the wound to his older brothers. This coat is taken from Joseph by his brothers when they throw him into the pit, it is at this point that the trajectory of Joseph’s life changes.
In the second section, the story of Judah and Tamar, the passage specifically recounts that Tamar, “took off her widow’s garments and covered herself with a veil, wrapping herself up” in order to trick Judah into thinking she was a cult prostitute so he would sleep with her. It was her act that ensured her offspring, rather than a life of widowhood as Judah secretly intended. Although this seems like an extreme act, it was her only option to secure her future. It was Judah’s responsibility to look after Tamar, but instead of letting her marry and thereby giving her proper status as part of the family, he had disregarded her to a position of distain. In the third section, Joseph is prospering in Potiphar’s house. With great favour from God and men, he was quickly climbing the ladder of success however it was interrupted by Potiphar’s wife. When Jacob refuses to sleep with her, she grabs his outer garment and he flees leaving it in her hands. Again his new trajectory is interrupted and he is thrown in prison by her false witness.
This use of clothing is not just an interesting plot devise, it also teaches us a valuable truth. In the Old Testament, clothing is a symbol of one’s standing before God.
It represents the righteousness or sin of the one wearing it and the removal of clothing signifies true motives being exposed. Joseph’s cloaks or outer garments represented his pride and desire to prosper himself. He boasted to his brothers about his dreams and wore his very precious cloak out to the fields for everyday work, knowing his brothers would see it.
It would of been a clear message that he wanted them to know the authority and favour he had been given. He was trying to force his promotion over them. In Egypt, Joseph knew that Potiphar’s wife would tempt him as she had done continually, yet he still, “went to the house… when none of the men of the house were there,” he took pride in his own strength to resist. Joseph remained faithful to his master but he was left with no witnesses to defend him.
In prison he pleads that the cup bearer should remember him, forgetting that God is with him and it is God who promotes him. Pleading before God is much more effective than pleading before man. In both circumstances his pride was exposed and lead to him being demoted. However, it is very clear that at no point did God turn His back or reject Joseph. Even as a slave and a prisoner, Joseph prospered and had favour because he remained faithful.
God used the events to remove the sin from him and further develop his good character. He had to be mature enough before he could receive the promises that were meant for him so that he could carry out the purpose God destined him for. After all he was sent ahead of his brothers to preserve their lives, not to take revenge.
Tamar on the other hand, voluntarily took off her widow’s garments and covered herself with a veil in an act of humiliation and vulnerability. Pretending to be a prostitute would not only have caused her deep shame but it would also risk her life. It’s hard to imagine her being in anything but anguish over the situation she was in and her only option out. Yet, because she chose humility, she was declared righteous. Her widow garments which would have caused her shame, in reality represented her redemption before God. It is through the Canaanite’s son of this very act that Jesus was born.
God has promises and purposes for the nation of Israel that are yet to be fulfilled. God will make these manifest as Israel matures into its destiny. It is important to pray that Israel will continue to humbly trust God and recognise His favour no matter what pit it may seem to be thrown into. Sometimes God’s path to promotion and influence includes walking through dark valleys but it never means walking without Him.
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