Source:Echoes:Ch12:19:Garment of Joseph

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The "Garment of Joseph" and Parallels from the Ancient World

The "Garment of Joseph" and Parallels from the Ancient World

The great Nephite leader Moroni, when attempting to rouse his brethren to defend themselves against Amalickiah and the Lamanites, reminded them of their link to Joseph of Egypt when he said: "Behold, we are a remnant of the seed of Jacob; yea, we are a remnant of the seed of Joseph, whose coat was rent by his brethren into many pieces. . . . Yea, let us preserve our liberty as a remnant of Joseph; yea, let us remember the words of Jacob, before his death, for behold, he saw that a part of the remnant of the coat of Joseph was preserved and had not decayed. And he said—Even as this remnant of garment of my son hath been preserved, so shall a remnant of the seed of my son be preserved by the hand of God, and be taken unto himself, while the remainder of the seed of Joseph shall perish, even as the remnant of his garment" (Alma 46:23–24).42

The "coat of Joseph" had a venerable legendary "history." It was first given by God to Adam in the Garden of Eden, who passed it on through the generations from Seth to Noah. Noah wore it when he sacrificed on an altar, and he carried with him in the ark. But the garment was also seen as having power that might be misused by those into whose hands it fell. Ham stole it and gave it to his son Cush, who later gave it to Nimrod. Nimrod used this garment to obtain power and glory among men and as a means to deceive people and to gain unconquerable strength. He also used the garment while hunting, thereby causing all the birds and other animals to fall down in honor and respect before him. As a result, the people made him king over them. He first became king of Babylon and "was soon able through skillful and subtle speeches to bring the whole of mankind to the point of accepting him as the absolute ruler of the earth."43 Appropriately, it was the garment that finally cost Nimrod his life. According to one account, Nimrod went forth with his people on a hunt at a time when he was jealous of the great hunter Esau. As Nimrod and two attendants approached Esau, Esau hid, cut off Nimrod's head, and killed the two attendants.

Having obtained the garment, Esau either buried it or sold it to Jacob along with his birthright. Numbers Rabbah relates that Jacob desired to offer sacrifice but could not because he was not the firstborn and did not have the birthright, part of which consisted of Adam's garment. It was for this reason that Jacob bought the birthright from Esau, who said, "There is no afterlife, death ends everything, and the inheritance will do me no good," and willingly let Jacob have the garment, along with his birthright. Here Muslim and Jewish traditions overlap. In the Rasa'il Ikhwan al-Safa (Epistles of the brethren of purity), Esau's sale of the birthright to Jacob was symbolized by the transfer of the sacred garment. Again, according to the Jewish scholar Micha Josef bin Gorion, "Esau's garment in which Rebekah clothed him, namely those made by God for Adam and Eve, had now rightfully become Jacob's, and Isaac recognized their paradisiacal fragrance."44

In a parallel tradition the early church father Hippolytus says that when Isaac laid his hands on Jacob, at the same time feeling Esau's skin garment, Isaac knew that Jacob was the legitimate heir to the blessing—the garment proved that, for Esau would hardly have parted with the garment if he had been worthy of it. Jacob later gave this garment to Joseph. This garment, a Jewish commentary on Genesis 37:3 informs us, was the high priest's tunic.45 Louis Ginzberg observes that, in the original Hebrew of that passage, "pargud mesuyyar is a paraphrase of passim, which accordingly is not to be translated 'a coat of many colors,' but 'an upper garment in which figures are woven.'"46

According to legendary traditions collected by the Muslim theologian al-Tha'labi, Jacob recognized the same fragrance in the garment of Joseph when it was brought to him by Joseph's brothers and at the same time knew by the marks in it that it was the identical garment that he had received from his brother and that Adam had received from God in the garden of Eden. Earlier, when the jealous brothers took the garment away and lowered Joseph into the cistern, Gabriel immediately appeared and brought him a garment so he would never be without protection. The Testament of Zebulon says that Joseph's brothers took from Joseph his garment of honor and put on him the garment of the slave,47 a reminder of traditions about two portions of Joseph's garment, one that decayed and the other that was miraculously preserved.48

Why is the story of Joseph and the covenant-making ceremony in Alma 46:21–24 significant? Because it squares with the ancient Near Eastern stories of sacred garments of the patriarchs and patterns of covenant making. Notably, the use of simile curses in that passage (e.g., "he [God] may cast us at the feet of our enemies, even as we have cast our garments at thy [Moroni's] feet to be trodden under foot, if we shall fall into transgression," v. 22) follows a venerable tradition in the ancient Near East.49 Further, in mentioning Joseph's garment the Book of Mormon alludes to an ancient tradition in which a patriarch passed on to his successor garments symbolic of his patriarchal authority. Both traditions had a heritage going back to the earliest times, a heritage unknown to Joseph Smith at the time of the translation of the Book of Mormon but with which we have subsequently become well acquainted.[1]


  1. Stephen D. Ricks, "Converging Paths: Language and Cultural Notes on the Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Book of Mormon," in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), Chapter 12, references silently removed—consult original for citations.