Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor... DRESS? Cross-Dressing in the Bible

Okay, THIS is great.

Insofar as the tale of Joseph plays any role in the religious imagination, it seems to have to do with Joseph's "coat of many colors" (Gen 37:3 KJV), and in some obscure relation to this, Joseph's troubled relationship with his brothers.

But what is this garment with which Joseph is "vested"? In the early part of the tale, it has a strangely prominent role. It is introduced as the token of the special favor with which Jacob, his father, regards Joseph, and it becomes the sign of Joseph's alleged death (37:31-33).

Before looking at the relevant texts, however, it is important to ask about the garment as such. For centuries the description of the garment was translated as the "coat of many colors." More recent scholarship has corrected this to a more accurate "long robe with sleeves." Thus the "technicolor dreamcoat" - the object of lavish description in Thomas Mann's extraordinary novelistic expansion of the story and of the Broadway play that owes something to that retelling - has disappeared in favor of a "long robe with sleeves." With that in mind, we may now indicate the texts with which we must initially concern ourselves.

Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him (37:3-4)

...Joseph has been sent to spy on his brothers, who are out doing the work of sons by shepherding Jacob/Israel's flocks. From some distance the brothers see Joseph coming - perhaps the robe is a giveaway - and plot to kill him. The eldest son, Reuben, however, suggests that they not shed blood.

So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore, and they took him and threw him into a pit. (37:23-24a)

In the absence of Reuben, the brothers decide to sell the stripped Joseph to some Midianite slave traders. But now the absence of Joseph or his body must somehow be explained:

Then they took Joseph's robe, slaughtered a goat, and dipped the robe in the blood. They had the long robe with sleeves taken to their father, and they said, "This we have found; see now whether it is your son's robe or not." he recognized it, and said, "It is my son's robe! A wild animal has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces." Then Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days. (37:31-34)

Three times we are told that the robe is "long" and "with sleeves." The first time it signals Joseph's status as beloved of his father. The last time it signal's Joseph's death. What is this robe?

Oscar Wintermute observes that the description of the robe corresponds to the description of the garbing of the king's daughters in 2 Sam 13:18-19. As it happens, this piece of sartorial evidence is found in the story of David's son Amnon raping Tamar, David's daughter. Tamar is reported to the reader as being "beautiful," which 13:1 says is why Amnon "fell in love with her." What follows is an attempted seduction in which Tamar resists, even suggesting that Amnon apply to David for Tamar's hand. But Amnon's impatience brooks no delay, and the result is a clear case of rape. The success of the rape does not, however, endear Tamar to Amnon: "Then Amnon was seized with a very great loathing for her" (13:15) Tamar, whose virginity has been taken by force, seems willing now to remain with Amnon as "his woman," but Amnon's loathing means that she is sent away, again over her protests. As she is dragged from the scene of the rape and loathing, we are informed:

(Now she was wearing a long robe with sleeves; for this is how the virgin daughters of the king were clothed in earlier times.) So his servant put her out, and bolted the door after her. But Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore the long robe that she was wearing. (13:18-19)

This is the only other reference in the Bible to the particular sort of garb that Joseph is identified as wearing. This apparently beautiful and luxurious garment that serves as a mark of distinction for the virgin daughters of the king is the same garment with which the patriarch vested his favorite son. The parallels in the garment episodes are quite striking. Both play a role in the distinguishing of the wearer; both are worn by figures to whose beauty the reader is directed, and both wearers are assaulted by their brothers. Both garments become signs of mourning and violation. These multiple resonances of the long robe with sleeves prevent us from supposing that it is simply incidental that both Joseph and Tamar are depicted as wearing the same fashion statement.

But the dress is that of daughters; it is a woman's dress, or rather a girl's dress (the virgin daughters of the king), that Joseph's father gives him to mark him as specially loved. ... Joseph is poised between adolescence and adulthood, he is singled out and vested with a maiden's garment as a sign of the special affection of his father. He is, at least to this degree, transvested and thus transgendered. The remarkably lovely adolescent male is transgendered by the affection of a more powerful male.

The rage of the brothers is thus doubly motivated. Not only is the youth their father's favorite, but he is also deeply troubling for gender roles. Indeed, readers may well expect that the one to be most troubled by Joseph's place as favorite would be Reuben, the oldest. But as the story is told, Reuben is Joseph's defender. Hence, the gender trouble, rather than Jacob's favoring the younger son, may be much more to the foreground. This is emphasized by the way in which the narrative seems to lay the stress on the feminine garment as the pivot of the story. Thus, the feminine apparel bestowed upon Joseph is the sign of the older male's doting upon him. It is the immediate provocation of the brothers' hatred. And this hatred has as its first object the stripping of Joseph; the removal of the infamous girl's robe. He is laid bare, revealed as not a girl but a boy; not different but the same. Hence he is exposed to the elements, bare and alone, in the pit and without water. Finally, it is the girlish dress that is stained in blood, the blood of the goat (the blood of rape? the blood of menstruation?) and presented, without explanation, to the doting father.

WOW. Joseph's technicolor dream coat was actually a girl's dress. He was dressed as a girl!

It's also pretty interesting that throughout history, many painters depicted Joseph as almost feminine in appearance. Look at the painting above (from the 1800s), especially Joseph's face.

And when we use this queer lens to analyze Joseph's story, his refusal of the advances of Potiphar's wife later on takes on a whole new meaning. Maybe it wasn't simply Joseph's loyalty to his boss that made him reject her come-on. Maybe he just wasn't interested in her... in that way!

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dress. Now that's fascinating!


If you want to read more analysis of Joseph's non-traditional gender role, pick up "Jacob's Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel" by Theodore W. Jennings Jr. The above quotes are from pages 178-182.

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