This sermon was first preached on June 28, 2020 in an online church service with St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square. It is part of a month-long Pride celebration, bringing queer theology and queer biblical interpretation into worship through the liturgy and preaching.
Relevant reading here and continues here.
Did you catch that in the reading?
When you have heard this story before at Sunday School or VBS, you might have heard the ketonet passim called the coat of many colors. If you first heard this story through musical theater, you might have heard this garment referred to as the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Ketonet Passim is Hebrew, the language that the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament was originally written in. This phrase, Ketonet Passim, was first translated “the coat of many colors” in the King James Bible. Many modern English translations render it something like “a long robe with sleeves” or “a richly ornamented robe.” But the truth is that translation is tricky, especially with ancient languages, and we don’t quite know exactly what this phrase actually means. Anyone who has studied languages knows that oftentimes there are not exact word for word or even idea for idea translations that exist between languages. Language reflects culture which is fluid and changes based on time and place and usage. There are certain linguistic concepts or ideas that don’t come through without a deep understanding of the culture it comes from, which is particularly difficult for us as readers of such ancient stories.
Translation is more of an art many times than a science. And translators are human beings who bring our own lenses to the texts we translate. Every single translation involves making decisions, and any decision made by human beings is filtered through a point of view. If you look carefully in your Bibles, many of them include a special footnote in Genesis 37 naming the difficulty in the translation of ketonet passim.
One way of figuring out what a word might mean is to look at the way that that same word is used in other contexts. In the translation software I used in my Hebrew class in seminary, this was one of my most frequently used features. I would search for a particular word or phrase and see where else it came up in scripture so that I could learn more about the nuances of its connotation.
Ketonet Passim only occurs in scripture one other time, in the book of 2 Samuel, chapter 13. But luckily for us, this other usage of the phrase explains exactly what a ketonet passim is.
It says, “Now, she had on a ketonet passim, because this is how the virgin daughters of the King were clothed.”
The she in this story is Tamar, the daughter of King David. A princess. And Princess Tamar wore a ketonet passim because that’s what princesses did, it’s what princesses wore.
A ketonet passim is a richly ornamented, long sleeved, pretty pretty princess dress.
So today we read the story of Joseph and the Pretty Pretty Princess Dress.
It is no surprise that Joseph’s father, Jacob, loved Joseph so much. Joseph was the first child born to Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife. And Joseph and their father had a lot in common. They were both born to women said to have been barren. They were both younger children who found favor with a parent, out of culturally prescribed birth order. And they both transgressed gender norms. Jacob was the soft, femme, pretty boy, Twink-type, who is described as the opposite of his twin, Esau, the hairy, musky, stereotypically masculine, skilled hunter. And Jacob’s favorite child Joseph, of course, wore a pretty princess dress.
In the Qur’an and in Jewish tradition both, Jacob is known for being strikingly beautiful. The rabbis say that Joseph liked to “paint his eyes” with makeup and that Joseph “walked with mincing step.”
Imagine Joseph, twirling around in that flashy rainbow dress, brazenly wearing makeup. In the Queer Bible Commentary, Michael Carden calls Joseph “a flaming young queen” who was a “prettified affront to normative manhood.”
Joseph’s brothers hated Joseph. Joseph was always telling their father bad reports about their behavior. Joseph had these wild dreams of grandeur. And worst of all, Joseph had the nerve to prance about in that ridiculous, fruity dress.
So when the brothers had a chance, they decided to bash the queerness right out of Joseph. The brothers saw Joseph from a long ways off and they made a plan.
This part of the story is not unlike stories I have heard, even from cisgender straight men, about the ways that masculinity was violently policed and enforced for them growing up. There were all these rules. Boys should like sports and cars. They shouldn’t cry. They shouldn’t sing or dance or be in theater. Boys should walk a certain way, talk a certain way, sit a certain way, gesture a certain way. If a person assigned male at birth ever deviated too far from these rules about what boys should be, they were punished. Sometimes they were corrected using mockery and social ostracization. Sometimes with physical beatdowns. Sometimes with psychological terrorism.
I had a close friend growing up who was gay, although he wasn’t out while we were in school together in the suburbs in Iowa in the early 2000s. It didn’t matter that my friend was closeted, though. He didn’t follow the rules closely enough. He was sweet and clever and brilliant at theater and less brilliant at dodgeball. The other boys would call him on his house phone and threaten him, call him homophobic slurs, tell him he should just end it, that it would be better if he wasn’t here at all. This happened for years and years, especially in Junior High but it also followed him into high school.
Joseph’s brothers beat them. They shoved them in a ditch. And to add insult to very literal injury, they tore up Joseph’s beloved, beautiful dress and covered it in blood. They told their father that Joseph was killed by a wild animal. And just like the many queerly beloveds disowned by their families, Joseph was dead to them.
But that is not where Joseph’s story ends. There are many twists and turns in the following chapters in Genesis. But through it all, God is with Joseph. God remembers Joseph. And eventually Joseph ends up in Egypt as a high ranking official in a role which in that day was usually reserved for gender nonconforming people. After interpreting dreams for the Pharaoh himself, Joseph is made second in command of all of Egypt and given a new name,
“The finder of mysteries.”
And at the end of it all, Joseph’s dream does come to fruition when the brothers come to Egypt to beg for food during a famine in their homeland and bow down before The Finder of Mysteries.
Joseph’s brothers had intended evil against Joseph. But Joseph was scrappy and resilient and beloved by God. And God turned that awful, painful story around for good.
If you get nothing out of this Pride month at St. Luke’s, hear this;
You are created in the image of a playful God who loves twirling around in rainbows and who calls you Very Good. God adores you. God has gifted you with these stories of our ancestors to keep you company when you feel alone and need a reminder that you come from a scrappy and resilient people. God doesn’t think you are too much. God delights in your self expression. God doesn’t care about society’s rules for who you should be. God wants the Finder of Mysteries, and you, and me, and all people to be free to be our truest selves.
I will close with an excerpt of this poem by J. Mase III, a queer person of color.
It’s called, “Josephine.”
Dear Joseph of Genesis
I am claiming your story
for every queer kid told
they are unholy
for every queer told
in order to love
we must let our faith die
I am going to put it in a pocket
over my heart
next to Ruth & Naomi
next to David & Jonathan
next to Hegai & Deborah
and seat them at the last Passover
with Jesus and Lazarus
I am taking Jesus with me too
To you who claim your words are from God
but whose book is pledged to King James
know what allegiances you keep
You’ve been lying about my people for too long