Joseph and his beige coat

Posted: July 17, 2013 by J in Bible, Linguistics, Pastoral issues

joseph-and-his-coat-of-many-coloursThe Joseph story is full of vivid and poignant images. Until our translations iron them out. Here are some of them:

Genesis 37:19    They said to one another “Here comes that dream-lord!” 

Joseph is only lord in his dream-world: that’s the point of the brothers’ sarcastic remark. ‘Let’s kill him. Then we’ll see how his dreams turn out.’ This sets the great question for the Joseph saga: are Joseph’s visions of lordship just a dream, or is it future reality?

At least it would set that question, if only our translations managed it. But actually they give us ‘Here comes that dreamer.’ So the whole lordship question is watered down.

Potiphar’s wife’s advance on Joseph is breathtakingly vivid:

Genesis 39:6     Now Joseph was handsome in form and handsome to behold.

And it happened after these things that his master’s wife raised her eyes to Joseph and said ‘Lie with me’.

Those eyes! And that aggressive sexual imperative. Just two Hebrew words. Leaves you tingling.

Or maybe not. In the TNIV it becomes ‘after a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, “Come to bed with me!” ‘

Next she disrobes Joseph:

39:12 She seized him by his tunic, saying “Lie with me!” But he left his tunic in her hand and he fled and got out… And she called out to the servants and said “Look…he left his tunic beside me and fled and got out.”

The significance of the garment is clearly sexual. She disrobes him, and then claims that he had disrobed himself, the abandoned tunic being the ‘evidence’ of a sexual assault. Meanwhile Joseph is out there somewhere in his undies, like the disciple in Gethsemane in Mark’s Gospel.

The TNIV chastely covers all this by translating. “But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house.” A cloak. Nice one. Why not go for ‘cardigan’?

There is an image running through the Joseph story, the bodily image of hands.

Genesis 39:22 The prison warden placed in Joseph’s hands all the prisoners…

Whose hands things are in – that’s a big deal in the Joseph stories. The image is used over 30 times. But not in the Holman!

“The warden put all the prisoners who were in the prison under Joseph’s authority”

The concrete, bodily image is nowhere to be found. It is routinely suppressed:

Genesis 41:42   “Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger.” (TNIV)

Should be ‘on Joseph’s hand’. And so on. Perhaps the key image of the whole cycle – missing.

When Joseph’s brothers come down to Egypt, Joseph accuses them using a repeated bodily image:

Genesis 42:9      You are spies! To see the land’s nakedness you have come!

This image of ‘seeing the nakedness’ comes from the vocabulary of sex crimes. Joseph claims they have come to spy on the land in its famine-struck condition, and this is a violation.

The TNIV once again erases the vivid imagery, and also misses the point of the saying: It reads “You have come to see where our land is unprotected.”

Joseph and his brothers have a night of drinking:

43:34        and they drank, and they got drunk with him.

Our Bibles don’t like to see a Patriarch getting drunk, so we get

“So they drank and were merry with him.” (NRSV)   Merry. Cheerful. Like Robin Hood and his men. Merry as a newt.

There is a climactic moment when Jacob hears the news that his long-lost son is alive – and the ruler of Egypt!

Genesis 45:26   And his heart stopped, for he could not believe them.

So much intensity and complexity of feeling and thought conveyed in this one powerful bodily image. Erased in all our translations:

“He was stunned; he could not believe them.” (NRSV, Holman, TNIV). Unforgivable. Inexcusable.

Where can you go for a full colour coat on Joseph? Once again the NRSV isn’t too bad. And once again we recommend Robert Alter’s translation for full colour.

  1. Keith says:

    Thanks for these articles Jonathan. This has always frustrated me about our translations. i’ve just ordered a bunch of Alter’s translations. Looking forward to reading them.

    • J says:

      It’s funny you write, Keith, cause I’ve just been ticked off by an earnest brother for saying such disrespectful things about the word of God! Then you come along as my unlikely champion!
      Ain’t life grand…

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