Joseph and the Coat of Many Colours

Ford Madox Brown — The Coat of Many Colours

What does the ‘coat of many colours mean’ in the Genesis story? Perhaps we can say that it is a coat of power. Of course, we are not just talking about worldly power here, but spiritual, creative, or mystical power. Furthermore, there is an outer, inner and secret coat: the coat of worldly power, the coat of psychological power, and the soul power.

In terms of worldly power, Joseph is destined to rule over a multitude of nations and the coat symbolises his future leadership, but also his rich ancestral inheritance—a gift from his father. That is the more obvious layer of the story. It’s the inner and secret meanings of these stories which are of interest here.

On a psychological level, we have many sub-personalities, a vast spectrum of potential selves. The mystic Gurdjieff once said it best: ‘man’s name is legion’. Symbolically speaking, to unify these multiplicities is to obtain a coat of many colours. The coat would then represent the fully integrated human. The coat could also represent a special power or talent, what they call ‘siddha’ in the east or a ‘daemon’ in ancient Greece.

And yet there is deeper meaning still—which I will call here the soul which represents the unified spirit in its realised form. The soul is our future potential, the realisation of Joseph in future time. In tantric traditions the enlightened being is said to obtain a ‘rainbow body’. The coat of many colours would represent the ultimate spiritual attainment then.

Note: it goes without saying that these are my own speculative interpretations, and there most certainly are many others, as biblical symbols are bottomless in their suggestion.

Losing the Coat

What does it mean that Joseph loses his coat — that his brothers throw him in a pit and and return a blood soaked coat to his father? On an external level this is what all the bible stories are about: how a righteous person or nation loses its power, gets lost in a strange land, and then founds a nation or a home. But again, that is the more obvious layer.

On a psychological level Joseph receives a gift, but the gift is unmerited. He’s like the prodigy with a talent, and yet talent is never enough. The gift of youth may be a gift of unmerited grace. The coat of many colours is the vitality which everybody loses, and must then regain in wisdom. Physical power is lost forever, but spiritual power remains.

While the physical coat can be destroyed, the spiritual coat, or the coat of imagination can never be lost. Joseph keeps his father’s gift in his heart, even as he sits at the bottom of a well, covered in blood, and then is sold into slavery for twenty shekels of silver. Joseph is a man who is destined to be a king.

Joseph’s spiritual kingliness is proven at the end of the story, through forgiveness of his brothers, through turning a wrong into a right, through taking the higher ground instead of the path of revenge—a common theme in the bible.

Indeed, all the bible stories follow this same pattern: innocence, a fall from grace, a future rainbow realised or pointed to. The flood and the rainbow, the desert and the city on the hill — the present crisis and the future promise of resolution.

The gift from the father is both physical but untimely spiritual. The physical gift is destroyed, the psyche is hammered into shape through trial and tribulation, but the soul gift remains.