What is the purpose of clothing? People wear clothes for many different reasons: to cover one's shame, to identify with a certain tribe, to protect in the workplace, to attract, to repel, to disguise, to impress, to oppress and for many other reasons.
In the story of Joseph and his family there is a lot of detail about clothing. It all starts with Rebecca who instructed Jacob to wear the clothes of his older sibling to disguise himself as Esau so that he could steal the blessing from Isaac his father.
Rebekah took the best garments of Esau her older son, which were with her in the house, and put them on Jacob her younger son. Gen 27:15
There is a fair irony in the way that Jacob’s deception of his father is mirrored in Laban’s deception of Jacob. The trickster is tricked. One sibling is substituted for the other and receives a blessing while being disguised. Jacob deceived his father and Laban deceived Jacob.
But in the evening [Laban] took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and he went in to her. …And in the morning, behold, it was Leah! Gen 29:23-25
Then as if there had not been enough deception, camouflage and disguise as a consequence of siblings wearing clothing that was not theirs to wear, Jacob made an ornate robe for his favourite son Joseph and the atmosphere in the family chilled to a cold hatred. It was not the wisest of gifts and to wear it was not the wisest decision!
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 colours. Gen 37:3
The hatred, which is fuelled by Joseph’s two dreams, festers and the brothers sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt. Reuben had been hoping to rescue the lad from the malicious grip of his other brothers, but they had already sold the 17-year-old favourite into exile in the land of the pyramids. Look at the numerous references to clothing in the next paragraph:
When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes and returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?” Then they took Joseph's robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. And they sent the robe of many colours and brought it to their father and said, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son's robe or not.” And he identified it and said, “It is my son's robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. Gen 37:29-34
Meanwhile, Joseph is sold to the captain of the guard in Egypt. This man prospers because the Lord is with Joseph but his wife has a different plan for this new slave in the family. Her attempt at seduction fails, but once again Joseph loses his coat! That lad leaves his clothes all over the place.
Joseph goes to jail and via the interpretation of dreams eventually comes before pharaoh and is appointed as a ruler over the whole land of Egypt. And what does Pharaoh do?
Pharaoh took his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph's hand, and clothed him in garments of fine linen and put a gold chain about his neck. Gen 41:42
Here we are, right back at the beginning, Joseph is wearing fine garments which identify him as the favourite, the one who rules, the special one! There must have been a sense of déjà vu as the robes of pharaoh were placed on Joseph's shoulders and again when Joseph's brothers came to buy grain and bowed down before him.
There is something very reminiscent of the whole plan of salvation in the Joseph story. Jesus shared the glory of the Father, laid aside that glory, emptied himself, became subject to death, then rose again, laid aside the death clothes, is once again clothed in glory and it is his prayer that we shall share in his glory (John 17:24). Is this not what was modelled when he washed the disciples feet? (John 13) Jesus got up from the table and laid aside his clothing (left his Father in heaven and laid aside his glory), wrapped a towel round his waist (adopted the role of a servant), washed the feet of his disciples (made them clean by an act of submission), then when he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments he resumed his place (he took up his renewed glory and ascended to the throne of God.
Joseph’s brothers stripped him, threw him into a cistern, sold him into slavery in Egypt, but towards the end of the story he says, “..it was not you who sent me here, but God. You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Gen 45:8 and 50:20) Jesus was sold, stripped, laid in a hewn tomb and although Herod, the Romans and his own people conspired together to murder him, they only achieved what God had originally intended (Acts 4:27-28), the salvation of many.
This theme of clothing, attempted disguise and camouflage, lost clothing, covering nakedness and re-clothing is one that starts in the garden of Eden and finishes in the holy city, the new Jerusalem. The divine question in Genesis 3:11 is, "Who told you you were naked?" Then in Genesis 3: 21 we read that, “..the Lord God then made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.”
At the other end of the Bible, in Revelation 3:18, there is an invitation from the risen Lord Jesus to, “…buy from me white clothes to wear, so that you can cover your shameful nakedness!”
I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Rev 7:9-10
I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. Rev 21:2
So then, dear brothers and sisters, “…let us put off the old self, which belongs to our former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of our minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” Eph 4:22-24