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Joseph’s 4 Coats

by Bob Yarbrough

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, - men who are commonly referred to as the patriarchs of the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people.  Each man well deserves attention and study because of his contribution made to the history of the Jewish people.  God’s intervention into their lives is nothing short of bowing the knee to the awesome grace of a Sovereign God.  The focus of this essay, however, will be upon the last of these patriarchs, Joseph, the eleventh of the twelve sons of Jacob.  These twelve sons collectively became known as the heads of twelve tribes of Israel.  We will take a glimpse into Joseph’s life from a rather unusual perspective – an examination of four coats that he wore during a two decade period in his life.

Joseph’s life is a fabulous study in overcoming challenges.  Challenges and trials come to all of us because we live in a fallen world.  Job was certainly on target when he observed, “Man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward…Man born to woman is of few days and full of trouble” (Job 5:7; 14:1).  However, Job finally came to the conclusion that trusting God was the only life that was truly worthwhile.  He learned this through his own trials of grief and loss, and the inevitability of struggles in his life.  The goodness of God learned through the badness of life in a fallen world was repeated in Joseph’s life as well, and in the lives of many other men and women of faith.  The happiness of victory in times of trial reminds us all that God is truly sufficient for whatever comes our way in the course of this life.  In a very practical book of the New Testament, James wrote these words:

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (1:2-4)

Joseph learned through difficult circumstances how to overcome, and I trust we can learn the same – even when life seems to be out of control.  In other words, it is a walk of faith, even when our natural inclination is to take charge, manipulate, and control.  Joseph’s “coats” can teach us how to deal with the struggles of our own lives.  Through these struggles we can learn to be overcomers – just like Joseph did.  In the end he became a very godly man in an ungodly culture, and his example can help prepare us as we face the issues of life.

Coat 1:  A Richly Ornamented Coat  (Overcoming Betrayal)

The NIV uses the term: “a richly ornamented robe” (Gen. 37:3,23).  As a little boy in Sunday School I first learned about Joseph’s coat.  The only thing I remember then was that he had a “coat of many colors” and there were some stalks of wheat, the moon, some stars, and some skinny cows in the story somewhere.  I can remember a coloring sheet with all these things and I had to color them.  My job was to color these items, staying within the lines of course, and make the coat especially as vivid and multicolored as possible.  Then I took that paper and showed it to my mother after class and she would smile.  That was it; but that was in my childhood days.  There definitely are more lessons to gain about that coat.  The story is found in Genesis 37.

As Joseph wore the coat and stood before his brothers, he was standing upon the precipice of betrayal.  The word itself has an ugly ring to it.  Thoughts of Benedict Arnold, Julius Caesar, and Judas come to mind.  “Et tu Brute?”  A sold-out kiss in the garden!  A betrayal by one’s own family!  This betrayal was going to carry with it a short-term pain for Joseph, but a powerful lesson in how to overcome that he needed to learn.  Traditionally, we assume that families are places of security and acceptance, but not so in all cases.  Problem families date back to the Garden of Eden; but it seems obvious today that our own nation is in turmoil, and a major cause is the breakdown of the family.  Even in Joseph’s day, all was not well in his family.  In violation of the Biblical pattern set in Genesis 2, his father Jacob had taken multiple wives and fathered children by each of them (and their handmaids).  This resulted in a mixed family all fighting for position with their father.   Family problems were further intensified by Jacob playing favorites with the children.  He obviously favored the two children he had with his wife Rachael, namely Joseph and Benjamin.  Jacob, whose name means “conniver,” taught all his sons well.  They were riddled with strife, self-interest, and deception.  He used Joseph to spy on his brothers.  He favored Joseph by giving him a beautiful tunic, thus fostering sibling jealously and rivalry which resulted in treachery.   Yet in spite of this, God was at work molding a man He would use to save a nation.

By showing favoritism Jacob sent the wrong message to both Joseph and his brothers.  That tension created a relational powder keg resulting in resentment and hatred.  Jacob’s indiscretions threw gasoline upon his household, and Joseph, in his multicolored coat, soon would strike the proverbial match to ignite the flames.  The situation was as follows:  Joseph had received a set of dreams predicting his future rise to greatness; but he did not stop to understand their importance.  In his multicolored coat (the symbol of Daddy’s favorite son) he flaunted these dreams before his brothers, already seething with hatred.  This action was insensitive, immature, and lacking in discernment.    But God can take a bad situation and turn it around for His glory.  God was at work developing in Joseph the character of servant leadership which would come about only by becoming a servant.  Joseph’s brothers were about to have a hand in this, unbeknownst to them.

The brothers’ anger finally vented.  A sarcastic cry was shouted, “Here comes the dreamer!” One of the brothers, Reuben, attempted in vain to intervene. Then in rapid succession the following actions took place by Joseph’s brothers:

Unresolved family tension produces bitterness and hatred.  Sarcasm is the symptom and manipulation and hatred are the root of bitterness.  Notice the pain that resulted from family hatred.  Reuben mourned for his younger brother and for his own cowardice.  The brothers lied to their own father and harbored their guilt permanently.  Jacob, the deceiver, was deceived himself, and mourned without comfort for his young son.  He had reaped what he had sown when he deceived his own father Isaac with a hairy goat.

Joseph alone seems to be the only one not described in the text as troubled.  Surely he was apprehensive from the depths of the pit, but the text does not say.  Perhaps he was beginning to realize that he was right where God wanted him so that he could learn the lessons God wanted to teach him – namely how to become a servant-leader, and how to overcome betrayal and treachery by his brothers.  God was at work taking the evil of men and producing good from it – good for Joseph and glory for God.  One could not have seen this coming from a bloody, multicolored coat!

Coat 2:  A Servant’s Coat  (Overcoming Temptation)

Soon Joseph was going to be challenged with success and the temptations it brings.  Truly, how one handles success says more about that person than how he handles failure.  Genesis 39 continues the story of Joseph’s life with a twist that only a master narrator could produce.  God was going to show His ability to make the onions of life smell like roses.  The last verse of Genesis 37 teases the reader with the fact that Joseph, through a series of slave sales, became the property of Potiphar, a captain of Pharaoh’s guard in Egypt.  There is some question about Potiphar’s position.  Some think he was a warden; others believe he was in charge of the palace guard; while others say he was captain of the executioners.  What we know for sure was that he was wealthy enough to have many slaves and servants in his charge.  And it is here that Joseph would learn to be a loyal servant-leader.  It was in the household of Potiphar that Joseph put on his second coat – a servant’s coat.

It was not long before Joseph distinguished himself in skill and ability, but those qualities were not the true keys to his life.  God’s presence with him was the real difference.  “The Lord was with Joseph”(Gen. 39:2).  No doubt, as a teenage boy of seventeen, Joseph must have been afraid and unsure of his future.  The pain of being torn from his family and sold into slavery by his own brothers was difficult to endure.  It would have been so easy to become bitter and hate-filled, but that did not happen with Joseph.  Although far from home, a very real presence of God sustained him.  According to the text, God’s presence with Joseph seemed to have such an effect upon Potiphar that Joseph was placed in a position of overseer of his household.  The fact that an Egyptian pagan would recognize and admire Joseph’s character and credit it to Joseph’s God was remarkable indeed.  It gives us pause to wonder if others see Jesus living in our lives.  Nevertheless, Joseph was not bitter toward his brothers, but rather he was content in the presence of God.  He did not complain about the hand dealt him in life; he simply became useful where he was, and God used that heart of contentment and faithfulness.

Joseph was beginning to wear his servant’s coat well.  Potiphar made him supervisor of all of the other servants as well as the handler of all public relations.  He was placed in charge of Potiphar’s finances and was responsible for all provisions for the household.  God knew these skills would be needed later.  For about ten years everything Joseph touched was blessed.  He was “on top of the world” with his position of success – also more vulnerable to temptation.

The text said Joseph was “well built and handsome” and at the prime of his life at age 27 when” his master’s wife took notice of Joseph” (39:6-7).  Potiphar’s wife would have fit in nicely with 21st century America.  A recent magazine poll of 60,000 women revealed that 47% approved of premarital sex, and 27% endorsed extramarital affairs.   While men were not included in the poll, no doubt their percentages would have fared far worse!  Potiphar’s wife would have been right at home in this poll.  She was attracted to Joseph and offered herself to him.  But notice Joseph’s response – he refused her advances.  These convictions were learned from God, not from home.   He had a plan in place that he would follow if this woman continued to pursue him:

The fury of this woman scorned was disastrous for Joseph.  When rebuffed, her passions  exploded in anger, resulting in a strategy of her own – anger:

It is very possible that Potiphar knew his wife was lying because he knew Joseph, and this would have been out of character for him.  Nonetheless, Joseph ended up in prison for doing the right thing.  Often life isn’t fair, but our task is to do what is right and leave the consequences to God.  Joseph again found himself comforted by the presence of God.  “The Lord was with him, and He showed him kindness”- even while in prison (39:21-23).

Thus, Genesis 39 ends the way it began - with Joseph in prison.  He was still under construction from the hand of his Maker, and we must view him through the lens of God’s sovereign purposes.  Joseph has been learning from the trials, problems, dangers, and pains of this life.  So must we.  His character was being shaped by adversity, punishment by men, and by the hand of a merciful God.  Through it all his faith in God’s control was helping him overcome.  Joseph wore his second coat well!

Coat 3:  A Coat of Humility  (Overcoming Disappointment)

The lyrics to an old country song say, “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble; but I’m doing the best that I can!”  That song writer had the wrong idea about humility.  By contrast, Joseph was going to be a quick study.   Outside the gates of prison he had “been somebody;” inside he became a nobody.  He would try his third coat on for size soon after he arrived in prison.   While this coat is not specifically mentioned in scripture as are the other three, we can presume prisoners wore some kind of identifying tunic.  It was not a pleasant thing to be in an Egyptian prison.  Speaking of Joseph the psalmist said, “They bruised his feet with shackles, his neck was put in irons” (Psalms 105:18) – all for honoring his master and believing in sexual purity.  It would have been understandable if Joseph sank into self-pity and depression at this point, but he did not.  A mark of humility is being able to handle unfair treatment peacefully without becoming bitter or feeling the need for vengeance or revenge.  Joseph seemed to be free from pride and arrogance.  God said through the Apostle Peter, “Cloth yourself with humility because God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5).  The coat of humility was beginning to fit Joseph very well.

Because the Lord was with him, Joseph rose to a position of leadership while in prison.  His jailer, like Potiphar, had observed traits within Joseph that prompted him to entrust Joseph with everything under his care.  Why?  “The Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did” (39:23).  So, he faithfully served and patiently waited to see what God had in store for him – even if it did include a tour of duty in prison in Egypt.  In time the picture became clearer.  For some inexplicable reason the butler and the baker in Pharaoh’s court offended their ruler and they were cast into prison alongside Joseph.  So, these two fellow prisoners and Joseph converged right on schedule for the perfect plan of God to take place – circumstances that none of them would have chosen for themselves.  Theirs was a divine appointment.  Perhaps we should look more closely when adversity comes our way.  It might be the hand of God honing our skills to better equip us for His service.

An important mark of humility is that one feels comfortable with who he is in order to put others first.  Philippians 2:3 says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourself.”   This is what Jesus did when he humbled himself from heaven’s glories and came to earth in human flesh to give his life on the cross for the human race (Philippians 2:5-8).  Jesus himself said, “If you want to be great in God’s kingdom, learn to be the servant of all” (Matthew 20:26). In prison Joseph became sensitive to others – a quality previously lacking.  How easy it would have been for him to focus on himself and turn away from the plight of these two fellow prisoners.  He could have said, “Why should I care what happens to them?  I have my own troubles.”  Joseph could have ignored them, but he didn’t.  Instead, he set aside his own troubles and helped these men who were hurting.  He overcame his own disappointments by investing his time in meeting the needs of others. The coat of humility will overcome disappointments.

While in prison Joseph interpreted the dreams of the baker and the butler while making sure that his God received the credit (40:8-19).  Note the contrast in chapter 37 when he “lorded” his dreams over his brothers.  Joseph’s only request was that the butler would not forget him.  Three days later, both men’s dreams were fulfilled just as Joseph had predicted.  His concern for these men was wonderful in its expression of humility and godly character.  However, his payback was insensitive – the butler forgot all about him for a period of two years.  Joseph had been abandoned by a friend.   At that point it would have been understandable if he had given in to disillusionment and disappointment; but his trust in God did not waver.   James, quoted earlier, reminds us that trials and the testing of our faith develops perseverance, which in turn leads to maturity and completeness.  Joseph now had overcome betrayal, temptation and disappointment.  Each coat had served its purpose and shaped his life.  Finally, he was ready for God to use him in a mature and special way.  Joseph was ready for his fourth coat.

Coat 4:  A Royal Coat  (Overcoming Success)

This same scenario could be written for the life of Joseph.  Repeated reversals, apparent failures, and personal tragedies, however, only served to strengthen his character and his commitment to God.  After thirteen years of either being a slave or a prisoner, the light of God’s calling entered his dungeon, and he was ready now to don his next coat.  The moment for which Joseph had been prepared had finally arrived.  These events are recorded in Genesis 41.

The occasion which precipitated the wearing of this last coat began in the evening hours in the palace of Pharaoh two years after the butler was released from prison.  Pharaoh had experienced two dreams which both spoke of a coming calamity for the nation of Egypt, and for that entire region of the world.  Since the message was unclear and uncertain, he summoned the wisest men of his kingdom to interpret the dreams.  However, these magicians and charlatans were no match in dealing with such spiritual matters coming from the living God.  Unfortunately the same kinds of situations exist today.  A spiritual hunger for truth exists today; but that vacuum is being filled with cultists, false teachers, and false spiritual leaders who are finding easy prey because people desire words that tickle the ear.  Truth comes from God’s revealed and authoritative Word, and He alone has the answers we need for the things that trouble our minds and hearts.

With the failure of these wise men to interpret, the butler “just happened” to appear on the scene with news of an event that he “suddenly” remembered which happened to him in prison.  He recounted to Pharaoh his prison dreams and a Hebrew prisoner who had a “knack” for interpreting them.  Joseph was ready to come in contact with a trilogy of dream pairs:

Notice how the dreams fit together.  The second pair of dreams put Joseph in touch with the third pair of dreams, which in turn would fulfill the first set of dreams.  Neat!  God’s plans are always on time.  Thirteen years ago God revealed to Joseph that he would someday rule his brothers, and now this is about to come to pass – only they don’t know it yet.  So, at this point in the story Joseph steps forward into Pharaoh’s court, undiminished by unfair treatment and by years in prison.  He comes to Pharaoh in dignity, humility, and faith in God (41:14, 16).

Pharaoh revealed his dreams to Joseph.  That must have seemed unusually strange and embarrassing to Pharaoh’s wise men for their ruler to entertain an audience with a slave in prison to seek interpretations which they in all their wisdom could not provide.  The Apostle Paul reminds us that even “the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength” (1 Cor. 1:25).  Joseph told Pharaoh that his dreams revealed what God was about to do.  God was in control, and the double dream confirmed what would be fulfilled in the near future.  He further counseled Pharaoh to plan for the welfare of the nation in the lean years by being frugal in the years of plenty.  Joseph was ready to receive his fourth coat.

Pharaoh accepted the words of Joseph and as a result changed the course of the ancient world, and put plans in motion that would preserve and perpetuate the nation of Israel.  Pharaoh knew that the plan would need an administrator so he selected Joseph to oversee the food supply of all of Egypt, because he saw in Joseph the character of a true leader.  He was “a man in whom is the Spirit of God” (41:38).  Further, he made Joseph second in authority only to himself (v.39).  Joseph’s royal coat was ready to try on for size.  The text makes this plain: “So Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I hereby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt.’  Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger.  He dressed him in robes of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck.  He had him ride in a chariot as his second-in-command, and men shouted before him, ‘Make Way!’  Thus he put him in charge of the whole land of Egypt” (41:41-43).

Joseph stood at the pinnacle of success because he possessed the qualifications of a true leader.  They are not merely physical – they are spiritual.  They are not just skillful ability, they are built upon character and a relationship with God.  The key qualities are internal, not external.  They deal with knowing Jesus Christ, not in being great.  Joseph was ready now to administer one of the greatest welfare programs of all times in a God honoring, God directed way.   He was ready for the pressure and responsibility this job would require.  He was ready because God had prepared him through thirteen years of slavery, imprisonment, and mistreatment.  Someone once said. “Thank God for the hammer, the file, and the furnace.  The hammer molds us, the file sharpens us, and the fire tempers us.”  Joseph experienced it all, and he was ready for the job God had prepared him to do.


Paul Harvey coined the phrase, “and now, the rest of the story!”  There are more events connected with the life of Joseph which constitute the rest of the story.   These events are recorded in Genesis 42-50.  They further illustrate the character of Joseph and the relationship he developed with his family.  The potential for bitterness was there, but Joseph overcame that by exemplifying grace, giving full forgiveness, and allowing for no revenge.  He showed love and compassion by discarding the wrongs of the past.  He showed faith by trusting that God would preserve him from the bitterness that leads to self-destruction.  When we trust God, we can love others because we believe in a God who is big enough to work all things out for our good (Rom. 8:28).  The four coats that God gave Joseph to wear are faithful testimonies to the love, care, protection, and direction in life He had for Joseph.  Also, they are symbolic of the discipline, instruction, and character building that God used to develop Joseph into an instrument of usefulness for His purposes.  Joseph’s final words present a capsule of his life’s philosophy when he said to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).  Joseph wore his last coat a long, long time!  And, because he preserved his family in Egypt during this time of famine and drought, four hundred years later God, through another servant leader named Moses, led more than two million of Joseph’s and his brothers’ descendants out of Egypt and back to the promised homeland.  Incidentally, they carried Joseph’s bones with them when they returned, just as he had asked them to do (Genesis 50:25).

A Personal Note:

God has prepared a coat for you, finer than any coat this world has to offer.  Joseph’s royal robe is symbolic of this robe.  It is God’s desire to clothe you in righteousness with a robe washed white by the blood of the Lamb.  Jesus was the sinless lamb slain to take away the sin of the world; and it is His blood that can forgive and cleanse you from your sins by believing what he has done for you.  He will not force you to wear this coat, but he offers it freely and asks you to accept it by faith.  Its value is priceless because it cost Jesus his life; but it is free to you by accepting it.  As you face the pains, the heartaches, and the mistreatments of life, it is only by complete confidence in God’s royal robe that you can overcome.  The one who died for your failures can clothe you with his righteousness.  Christ came into this world because of His love for you, and He pleads with you to accept His offer.  That is the only way of true victory, and the only way to become an overcomer.  This coat will be yours to wear for all eternity!   “The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).


                                                 Bob Yarbrough is a retired schoolteacher / principal and a member of

                                                                                                             Centerpoint  Church in Mesquite, Texas.

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If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

Romans 14:8