The patriarch Jacob had twelve sons, but his favorite was Joseph. He showed his preference by making Joseph a special garment (Genesis 37:3). Its description is variously translated: “coat [or tunic] of many colors,” “richly ornamented robe,” “long robe with sleeves.” Whatever it looked like exactly, this coat was exceptional. And the events surrounding it make Joseph’s coat an apt symbol for some of the failures that plague people in every age.
A Symbol of Parental Favoritism
Joseph was Jacob’s favorite because he was born to him in old age and was the first son of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel (Genesis 37:3; cf. 35:24). Jacob made no secret of his preference for Joseph. That splendid coat would have been a daily reminder to all the family of who their father loved best. Little wonder, then, that Joseph’s brothers “hated him and could not speak to him on friendly terms” (verse 4).
Jacob is not the only Bible example of a parent who played favorites: his own parents, Isaac and Rebekah, were guilty of it, too (see Genesis 25:28). In each case the result was bitterness and rivalry.
Parents would do well to learn from these examples. Each child in a family is different, with his or her own unique qualities and quirks. When parents make allowances for that, it is not favoritism. For instance, when it comes to correction, one child may be very tenderhearted and easy to correct, while another may be quite strong-willed. Wise parents may need to handle the two differently. But what they must not do is apply different standards of conduct, nor shower affection and attention on one child while being indifferent toward another. Each child is precious (Psalm 127:3-4). Moms and dads need to be careful not to repeat the foolish sin of these Old Testament parents.
A Symbol of Envy
Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him, not only because he was dad’s favorite, but also because of the prophetic dreams he had (Genesis 37:5-11). They especially resented what Joseph’s dreams foretold: that one day they would bow before him as one in authority.
One day the brothers’ envy came to a boil. Jacob sent young Joseph to check on them as they tended the flocks. As he approached, they at first plotted to kill him, but settled instead on taking his special coat and throwing him into a pit. And when a trading caravan happened by, they decided to sell their brother into slavery. With his coat left behind in the hands of his jealous brothers, Joseph was taken in bondage to Egypt.
James wrote that “where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing” (James 3:16). How true! Consider how much evil is connected with envy. Eve’s envy of God’s wisdom led to the first sin (Genesis 3:5-6). Cain’s envy toward Abel led to the first murder (Genesis 4:1-8). And even the pagan governor Pilate perceived that envy had motivated the Jewish leaders to hand Jesus over to him (Matthew 27:18). Proverbs 14:30 warns that envy is “rottenness to the bones.”
A Symbol of Deception
Having sold Joseph into slavery, his brothers needed a cover story. So they took his beautiful coat, dipped it in goat’s blood, and brought it to their father, claiming they had found it. The deception worked: seeing the blood-stained coat, Jacob assumed that his beloved son had been killed by a wild animal. He went into mourning for Joseph and refused to be comforted (verses 34-36).
We are rightly appalled at the callous way Joseph’s brothers deceived their father in order to conceal their own guilt. But is it really any different when we speak or act deceptively for our own advantage? “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord,” wrote the wise man, “but those who deal faithfully are His delight” (Proverbs 12:22). “Do not lie to one another,” wrote the apostle, “since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices” (Colossians 3:9). Such passages call for honesty in our speech, in our conduct, on the job, in business and financial matters, and much more. “Keep deception and lies far from me” (Proverbs 30:8a).
A Symbol of Wrong Conclusions
When Jacob saw Joseph’s bloody coat, he concluded that he was dead. He was sincere in reaching that conclusion, but he was wrong. He believed what was untrue because he didn’t know the whole story.
Much like Jacob, many people have their own “bloody coats” that lead to wrong conclusions about spiritual matters.
For some, emotions dictate their beliefs about everything. Some say they are convinced they’re saved because they just feel it. Some base moral decisions not on what God’s word says, but on what their feelings tell them. But emotions, while natural and important, are an uncertain basis for determining what is right (Proverbs 14:12; Jeremiah 17:9). It’s foolish to trust our souls to fickle feelings.
Sometimes people present a single Bible verse as if it tells the whole story of God’s will. Often the result is a completely wrong idea. For instance, many “faith only” advocates cite Romans 10:9 as if it says all there is to know about the plan of salvation. That verse says nothing about repentance or baptism; yet other passages reveal that both are essential (Acts 2:38; Romans 6:1-7). Let’s be careful to consider all that God says on any subject.