As a token of his loving esteem, Israel adorned Joseph with a special garment, called in the A.V. "a coat of many colours". But the translation does little justice to the text or the significance of the narrative.
The Hebrew term "KETONET PASSIM" means literally "a tunic of palms", i.e. reaching to the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. Further evidence of a similar type of garment is found in 2 Samuel 13:18 where it is describe there as a dress worn by a virgin princess - Tamar - which in Biblical times was made of fine white linen (cp Revelation 19:8). In fact the garment, which Joseph wore, was the priestly apparel of the honoured position of the first-born. Reuben, on account of his incestuous sin with Bilhah (Genesis 35:22), among other things, was dispossessed of his rights of the first-born and the garment was therefore transferred to the one who exhibited the qualities of character befitting that position (cp. 1 Chron 5:1). This had already been enacted beforehand in the case of Jacob and Esau (Gen 27:15).
The KETONET PASSIM garment was not only a symbol of the status of the first-born but of his position as intercessor-priest on behalf of his other brethren (cp. Gen. 4:7, mg..; Numbers 8:16). While typical, which it was, of the position of Christ as first-born (Colossians 1:18) and priest (Hebrews 5:5) Joseph's garment was prophetic of his own mission to be the Saviour and Intercessor for his own brethren and all the then known world.
If the translation of KEONET PASSIM be so clear as the foregoing indicates, where then did the translators seek justification for rendering the term, "coat of many colours"? The translators were in fact at a loss as to the meaning of the term and tended to seek other less authoritative sources to inject further ideas into the translation, such as the Vulgate rendering. Luther's translation Bunter Rock (like the A.V.'s "coat of many colours") was simply a shrewd guess on the translator's part, who confessed freely that "I do not know what the term means." But he surmised that the father wished to designate the son as a ruler and used Bunter Rock simply because the garment of the ruling classes were more brilliant in colour in his day! This is simple evidence of the darkness of the minds of the translators who not infrequently neglect to compare scripture in order thus to understand the context.
The following interesting note from the Jewish Missionary Intelligence appeared in The Christadelphian Vol.67(1930),p.302.
- When the seventeenth century translators of our Bible came to this passage
they found a phrase which can only be properly translate "coat
of soles, or palm, or breadths, or pieces." They did not see
the meaning of this, so jumped to the conclusion that it must be some
highly ornamental garment and translated it "coat of many colours."
They put the word "many" in italics, showing that it does not exist in
the original, and put the word "pieces" in the margin instead of the word
"colours", which they put in the text. The revisers in 1881 while retaining
in the text the old translation, put in the margin "a coat with sleeves."
This would appear to be much nearer the correct meaning. Amongst the Bedaween
(today, Bedouin), the Kamise of the chief is marked by the extreme
length of its pointed sleeves. Only one other person in the tribe is allowed
to wear such a garment - his appointed heir. The
significance of the gift is at once clear. Jacob indicated by it that
he had chosen Joseph as his successor to the headship of the tribe. No
wonder the jealous indignation of the brothers flamed to such a pitch
when they saw Joseph, obviously not unconscious of his importance, in
his newly acquired finery. The love that would have shown itself in a
pretty gift would have meant little to these strong men of the desert,
but the favouritism that passed all of them by, to bestow upon a mere
stripling, so distinguished an honour was more than they could brook.