Joseph’s father Jacob (also called Israel) favored him and gave Joseph the coat of many colors as a gift; as a result, he was envied by his brothers, who saw the special coat as an indication that Joseph would assume family leadership.
“Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colors” (Genesis 37:3 NKJV).
The question of why Jacob gave a coat of many colors is one with many aspects to consider. A study of the parental mistakes of Bible characters could be in itself a full-length volume. As examples of parental shortcomings, the erratically behaved Samson was a product of overly indulgent parents. Eli, the high priest of Shiloh, refused to discipline his lecherous sons Hophni and Phinehas. Abraham rashly acted upon his wife’s ill-conceived plan by fathering an illegitimate son. (It is worth noting that Abraham’s two sons continue their struggle to this day.)
But it was Isaac, the son of Abraham, who committed the parental sin of sins. He and his wife, Rebekah, divided their family by showing favoritism between their sons. Isaac preferred the older son, Esau, while Rebekah loved the younger son, Jacob. Ultimately, the bad blood that existed between Esau and Jacob festered into a full-blown hatred between their offspring, the Edomites and the Israelites. Students of Bible prophecy are well aware that much of modern-day Israel’s troubles can be traced to the child-rearing mistakes made by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
As to the coat of many colors itself, the most common outer garment of this type was nothing more than a long cloth with a hole in its middle. After draping the long cloth over the shoulders, a rope or a belt was fastened around the waist. Some expositors argue that this particular coat was especially valued because sleeves were sewn into the garment. Others believe the coat was ornamented by many colors. The real issue, of course, has nothing to do with colors or sleeves. Jacob presented the special coat to Joseph as a sign that Joseph was esteemed above his brothers. The coat signified Joseph as being Jacob’s choice as the future head of the clan-an honor normally bestowed upon the firstborn son.
There is no shortage of irony in the above passage, for Jacob (Israel) had been reared by parents who each had their favorites. The favoritism that had spoiled the tranquility of his childhood home was about to wreck his family, too. Indeed, one might think that Jacob would have learned of the dangers of favoritism, but this was not the case, for Jacob proved to be a stubborn, impetuous man and a very poor father. Although he had eleven other sons, Jacob’s favor clearly rested upon the second-youngest son, Joseph. Jacob loved Joseph more than all the other boys. As one might imagine, this overt favoritism created a dangerous schism among the brothers. The older boys hated Joseph. They hated Joseph because he received his father’s undivided attention and affection. The older sons resented Joseph, and this open contempt created a common bond that eventually resulted in a family mutiny and Joseph’s hostile banishment into Egyptian slavery.
In truth, Joseph’s character was far above that of Jacob’s other sons; he was the finest among those born to Jacob. In many ways, his sterling attributes parallel those of our Lord Jesus. It is interesting to consider that no fault or sin of Joseph is mentioned in Scripture. (The only other Old Testament hero to receive such a favorable review is the prophet Daniel.) Joseph’s life was one of character, courage, conviction, and commitment. Whether locked away in a dank and dark dungeon or ruling from an exalted throne, this noble man yielded himself to the mighty hand of God. What an extraordinary hero! In one way, it is understandable that Jacob favored him above the others; nevertheless, Jacob’s lopsided affections resulted in much family grief and tragedy.
Joseph had two dreams where his brothers, father and mother would bow down to him. These were fulfilled in Egypt (except for his mother who died beforehand). Each color of the coat may have symbolically represented one of the brothers as tribes of Israel, and Joseph’s ascendency over each of them in Egypt, as the Garments of the High Priest were very significant, over a robe of checker work the High Priest wore a garment called an ‘ephod’ with 12 colored precious jewels on his chest.