There was a recent Literature.SE question (regarding the depiction of Joseph's coat in the musical named after it). As part of that, there was a discussion of the following text:

Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a varicolored tunic. (Genesis 37:3, NASB)

The translators of the New International Version noted that the word for "varicolored" is actually ambiguous, and merely translated this as "ornate." The argument was extended in the comments on my answer there that the literal translation should be "striped."

I've read conflicting opinions on what the term actually means. What is the proper translation of the Hebrew here?

2 Answers 2


The word in question is כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים (ketonet passim). The word פַּסִּים (passim) is unclear, and only appears in the Bible in connection to the coats of Joseph and Tamar (the sister of Amnon, not the daughter-in-law of Judah) in II Samuel 13:18,19.

The corresponding Aramaic word (פַּס) has two meanings: strip and palm. Daniel 5:5 (written in Aramaic) is an instance of the meaning "palm." Both of these meanings actually appear in Mishnaic Hebrew (עושין פסין = strips, Eruvin 2:2; פס ידו = the palm of his hand, Menachot 1:2).

The meaning "a striped coat" derives from the an interpretation of the word as "strip." The "variegated"/"many-colored coat" translation of the Septuagint (χιτῶνα ποικίλον) is apparently an interpretation of what these "stripes" were. On the other hand, the Septuagint to Samuel translates χιτῶνα τὸν καρπωτὸν, "tunic to the wrists," apparently understanding it to be derived from the other meaning, "palm."

The explicit statement in II Samuel 13:18 that the virgin daughters of the king wore כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים, which also makes the fact that Tamar tore her "coat" after being raped more understandable. Based on Middle Assyrian laws that discuss which women are eligible to wear a veil (paṣanu, the Assyrian form of the Akkadian pasāmu, from the root psm), Heath Dewrell ("How Tamar's Veil Became Joseph's Coat," Biblica 97 pp. 161-174) proposes translating the word as "veil," which was worn by virgin daughters of the king. This translation fits the context of the story with Tamar very well, but it doesn't explain why Joseph would be wearing it. Heath Dewrell's proposition is that since Joseph's coat is mostly extraneous to the story (as the Literature SE questioner seems to have been wondering) and to the wording (Genesis 37:23 mentions "his kuttonet, his ketonet passim"), it could have been added to the story long after it was written.

While this is a very strong connection, since the Bible's own description (in II Samuel 13:18) matches that of the pasāmu in the Assyrian sources, and it is a potentiatl cognate, this translation is still doubtful because it requires assuming that the author of the Joseph passage didn't understand the word he was using. It's also possible that the meaning of the word in the Joseph story is different than the meaning in the Tamar story.


[This is quite an extensive subject and I do not wish to have to append all the relevant texts. I am assuming that anyone interested will reference a concordance and look up all that is necessary. To fully document all of this would be unreasonable, so I offer it in its present form.]

Hebrew references are as found in Young's Analytical Concordance.

Kethoneth [Strong 3801, 'kethoneth or kuttoneth']

Kethoneth, garment, is mentioned seven times - a perfect number - in Genesis: once in relation to the coats of skins which God provided for Adam and Eve, then six times regarding Joseph’s garment. Joseph’s garment appears after his death, with blood upon it - a significant matter.

Joseph’s garment is that which sets him apart from his brethren - also a significant matter.

Then kethoneth appears seven times in Exodus relating to Aaron and his sons. It is a matter of priestly attire and priestly service. Only the God-appointed High Priest and his sons may don this attire.

Kethoneth appears twenty seven times in scripture (the quoted number, in one concordance, of "twenty nine" is incorrect). Twenty seven is a highly significant number and draws very great attention to this matter. Three times three times three is extremely significant.

Passim [Strong 6446 pas/passim ]

Passim - a plural Hebrew word - is what is behind the English ‘many colours’. It occurs five times in scripture, five being a matter of pilgrimage, see Benjamin and portions. Three times it relates to Joseph’s garment and twice to Tamar’s. II Samuel 13: 18,19 makes clear that the coat is a matter of King’s daughters and virginity.

BDB seems to indicate that the word used in clothing context means a 'tunic reaching to palms and soles', which I take it means merely a cloak that covers the whole of the exposed parts of the body. It may be that colour is nothing to do with the subject.

One set apart, as Joseph; then, King’s daughters and virginity, as Tamar.

Pas, a Chaldee word, means ‘a part‘. Thus the plural, passim, is a matter of diversity of parts. The part, pas, in question is a matter, Daniel 5: 5, 24, of the hand of judgement coming forth.

Thus the coat is a matter of One who takes upon him diversity. And that diversity relates to judgment. And this sets him apart from his brethren. But he does it for his brethren and his brethren’s benefit. He takes not this privilege himself. He is appointed to it by the father.

His father will suffer grief for this. There will be death - and bloodshed. The son will be distanced from the father.

My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me ?

Prophetic Imagery

As with many examples of prophetic imagery, there is a mixture of allusion. It is as though a reflection upon water breaks, re-forms, coalesces and forms again. One sees more than one thing in the imagery.

So with Joseph. He is set forth both as Christ and also as Christ’s pilgrim people.

  • Pls Nigel how does five relate to pilgrimage.
    – user20490
    Jan 8, 2018 at 23:26
  • The first usage of the number in scripture - in Genesis - is clearly significant. Benjamin and portions.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 9, 2018 at 0:27
  • do you have links to any articles that you can share. I sensed that there was numerological significance in the portions of food and clothing that Benjamin was given. But I don't have a clear interpretation of the meaning behind the portions.
    – user20490
    Jan 9, 2018 at 12:33
  • @user20490 I have just used a bible and a concordance, myself.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 10, 2018 at 4:28

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