A Tunic of Distinctions

I’ve been doing a little research for a long essay on rape in the Bible (yes, you read that right — I do not shy away from difficult, painful, or even horrible subjects) when I came across something very interesting.

In 2 Samuel 13 begins to horrific story of Amnon’s rape of his half-sister Tamar, and his half-brother Absolom’s decision to avenge that rape. David is king at the time, Absalom basically leads a coup — which eventually fails — against his father (and Amnon’s father, and Tamar’s father too) because he is very angry over David’s refusal to defend Tamar’s honor.

After Amnon abandons his half-sister (remember, half-sister marriage is against the law, but Deuteronomy 22 deals with how rape is to be settled), the Bible describes Tamar this way:

Now she was wearing a long robe with sleeves [כּתֹנֶת פַּסּים], for thus were the virgin daughters of the king dressed. So his servant put her out and bolted the door after her.  And Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the long robe that she wore. And she laid her hand on her head and went away, crying aloud as she went. (2 Samuel 13:18-19 ESV)

A “robe with long sleeves,” כּתֹנֶת פַּסּים kthuneth fasim, literally a “tunic of distinctions.” (Think flair?) Otherwise known as a robe of many colors. Remember who else wears such a garment in scripture?

Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors [כּתֹנֶת פַּסּים]. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him. (Genesis 37:3-4 ESV)

My computer is not behaving properly today, and is doing some weird formatting things with Hebrew. But the coat Jacob makes for his son Joseph is a כְּתֹ֥נֶת פַּסִּֽים, the same kind of garment that Tamar is said to wear in 2 Samuel.

I find it interesting here that the garment in question — a tunic of dinstinctions — is described in 2 Samuel as being the kinds of garment worn by the “virgin daughters of the king.” She tears that garment, in mourning (garments in the Bible are frequently torn in mourning, guilt, and anguish) but also probably in protest of her situation. She has been violated — there is no mistake about that.

Granted, many centuries have passed between when Joseph wore his tunic of distinctions and Tamar wore hers, and so they may have had very different meanings. But what would readers and listeners at the time of the Bible’s compilation have understood? The words are the same.

Consider. Joseph doesn’t work in the field with his brothers. The garment his father made for him likely makes that impossible — if it’s anything like a Saudi thaub, then it’s very difficult to do anything resembling manual labor in such a garment. If keeping the sheep is man’s work, Joseph isn’t doing it. It is clear that God loves Joseph with a “steadfast love” (Gen. 39:31), and that is manifest by the jailer elevating Joseph to the position of trustee, “in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison.” (Gen. 39:22) But Joseph isn’t the kind of son a lot of fathers might be proud of.

Yes, God loves and favors and propsers Joseph. But he sounds like a whiny little know-it-all and apple polisher to me. Not someone I would ever trust. Or even like. Because he’s entirely too comfortable with people in power and cozies up to them too easily. I’d constantly be afraid he’d tattle on me for something, deserved or not.

So what does it mean that this man is wearing a coat, made by his father, that will later in scripture be the kind of garment that specifically denotes “the virgin daughters” of King David? And that in this, he is his father’s favorite son?

I suspect it means that Joseph is something of a sissy. He’s one of those men who are not particularly comfortable in the world of men, doing the things men are supposed to do, in the rough and tumble way men often do things. I’m not making any suggestions about Joseph’s sexual preferences or orientation — scripture doesn’t, and he eventually marries an Egyptian woman and fathers two children. But he is different, a misfit, not quite what someone who will save the world from famine ought to look like.

And that’s the point of scripture. So many youngest sons, men who would otherwise be ignored or consigned to ignominy, from Jacob to Judah to David, end up being significant figures in scripture. I beleive the Bible understands our societies and our nature as human beings — oldest sons inherit, are the heroes, and we look to strong, virtuous, and decisive men to save us from our enemies and even ourselves. We cannot help being that way.

But God is not bound by our schemes. God uses the liars, the cheaters, the sissies, the misfits, the sinners, to do the essential work of saving God’s people and building God’s kingdom. Almost none of the men of scripture are heroes in the way we might understand them, as “action figures” who do mighty deeds, have no weaknesses, and never sin. I don’t want to be like Joseph, and I really don’t want to know anyone like him, either. But he saves the world. He saves Israel.

So, we live in tension with the narrative. I’m no fan of natural law, but perhaps that “law” which is written on human hearts, and guides so many of our thoughts, feelings, and deeds, is supposed to rest next to the revelation of scripture and they are to sit together, unresolved and unresolvable. Our desire for a well-ordered world alongside our understanding in revelation that God works with whatever we have at hand. Our faith in power and hope for justice and vengeance alongside the story that tells us that weakness is frequently more powerful — and a lot more righteous — than strength.

Mostly, I think, it is our desire to live in accordance with what we understand as the laws and order of God, and God’s willingness to meet us in our sinfulness and disorder, and remake the world with us. Even if we aren’t entirely right with God.

This means that one is not mutually exclusive of the other. I am a partisan of grace, as opposed to order, because the order that so many envision for the world — whether it is a conservative or progressive or even revolutionary order — simply does not include me. No matter how that order is constituted, it wounds and breaks so many people, accidentally and carelessly, and frequently on purpose. And because my gift is to meet those wounded and broken by the order of the world (however that order is constituted), and show them that love — God’s real, self-giving love — remakes them in their brokenness, binds up their wounds, and allows them to witness to that very same love.

2 thoughts on “A Tunic of Distinctions

  1. One Jewish writer (forget who) said that the big differences between Greek and Israelite culture is that there are no heroes in the Bible. The only guy anything like an action figure I can think of is Samson, and he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the Testament. Some article on the subject I read long ago claimed that Samson’s story was intended by the writers to be humorous: he was a bumbling lunkhead, brought down by his own cluelessness, and his taste for Philistine women; though he was allowed to redeem himself at the end. I’m not sure humor is the primary tone of the story, but the lesson seems to be that faith in God outweighs any amount of brawn.

    • Samson reminds me of an old Don Martin joke from an issue of Mad Magazine, “The Near-Sighted Strong-Man’s Club.” Samson is pure id and put libido. He dies well, but only because he has to. Only because he’s an idiot who gets himself caught hairless in a Philistine temple in Gaza.

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