Joseph's coat tales

9th May 2003 at 01:00
looks at ways of using a much-loved biblical story across a range of subjects

The project aims to:

* Tell the story of Joseph and his coat of many colours in a lively way, for children to read or to listen to.

* Stimulate discussion about relationships and jealousies within families.

* Confirm that, in the end, love can reunite family members who have become separated and estranged.

Like all good stories, it works at many levels; in the Old Testament it's a long and eventful tale with a range of moral messages and much recording of dynastic detail. For infants, we retell it simply, omitting repetition and simplifying the many complications, although it's a good idea to refer to the original during teacher preparation - it starts at Genesis chapter 37 and continues for 10 chapters. Our retelling on pages 20-21 is in three parts, so it can be used in one sitting or spread over several sessions.

There are also pointers for questions or discussion that can be used at the end of each part of the story or as part of a separate follow-on session.

Teachers should note that there is disagreement among scholars about the exact meaning of "coat of many colours" - is this translation correct, or does the coat have a symbolic purpose? Whatever the case, the basic message is not affected, and children enjoy the story as it has been traditionally presented.

Part 1

Jacob was a farmer in the land of Canaan. He had a wife and 12 sons. His sons worked for him, looking after Jacob's sheep as they grazed in the fields. They guarded the sheep against thieves and wolves.

Joseph was one of Jacob's youngest sons. He was a kind son, and Jacob loved him. Of course, he loved all of his sons and daughters, but he loved Joseph best. He loved him so much that he made him a special coat of many colours.

Now, as you can imagine, this made Joseph's brothers jealous.

"Why should Joseph have a special coat?" they said to each other. "We do just as much work looking after the sheep. In fact, we do more than he does. It's not fair."

The coat was bad enough. But Joseph made things worse when he had a dream.

He had lots of dreams, and he would tell his brothers about them, and try to explain what they meant. His brothers got bored with this, but what really annoyed them was when he started to have dreams in which his brothers bowed down to him and behaved as if he was more important than they were. They didn't like that at all.

Part 2

One day, Joseph's brothers planned to get their own back, and it happened like this. The brothers had all gone a long way from home to look after the family's flock of sheep and they were away for a long time. They were gone so long that Jacob began to worry if they were all right. "Joseph," he said. "Go and find your brothers and see how they are getting on."

So Joseph went off. His brothers saw him coming from a long way away, and they were not pleased.

"Look," said one of them. "Here comes the dreamer."

Another brother said: "Why don't we kill him? Out here nobody will know and we can say some wild animal has done it."

When Joseph arrived they grabbed him and took his coat away from him. It made them angry to see him wearing it and reminded them of how their father loved Joseph better than the rest of them.

But they didn't kill him. They put him down a hole, with no food or water, while they tried to decide what to do.

They were still thinking when a party of merchants came by.

"Let's sell him as a slave to these merchants!" the brothers said. And so that is what they did. They knew that the merchants would sell Joseph in some faraway land and that they would never see him again.

The brothers dipped Joseph's coat in the blood of a dead goat. When they went back to their father they showed him the bloodstained coat and told him that a wild animal had killed Joseph and eaten him. Their father, Jacob, was full of grief and nothing would comfort him. He said that he would be unhappy for the rest of his life at the loss of his favourite son.

Part 3

The merchants sold Joseph as a slave in the land of Egypt, many miles from his home. He worked for an important man called Potiphar, in the court of the Pharaoh - the ruler of Egypt.

Although he was a slave, Joseph was clever. One of the things he was good at was understanding people's dreams. In those days people thought that dreams could tell you what would happen in the future, but only if you knew what they meant.

The Pharaoh heard about Joseph's gift. As the Pharaoh's dreams troubled him, he asked Joseph what he thought they could mean. Joseph told him that the dreams meant the people would starve and die unless the Pharaoh stored food and water for difficult years ahead. The long famine came, but the people had food and drink thanks to Joseph's warning and they did not starve.

The Pharaoh was so pleased with Joseph that he kept him in his court and made him rich.

Joseph, who had been sold into slavery by his brothers, was now much richer and more important than they were, as he had told them he would be.

Back at home, Jacob and his sons became poor and hungry because of the famine. The crops would not grow and they were short of corn to make bread.

So Jacob said to his sons, "I hear there's corn in Egypt. Go to Egypt and buy some."

When they got to Egypt, who do you think was selling the corn? Why, Joseph of course.

Joseph recognised his brothers, but they didn't realise this powerful person in fine clothes was their brother Joseph. Later, Joseph told them who he was, and insisted that they bring Jacob to Egypt, so that the family could all live together again.

The project

Starting points for writingdiscussion

Part 1

Farming is usually a family business - everyone in the family takes part.

Do you know any farming families? Do you know any other businesses where members of the family join in? When families work together to run a business, what sort of things might cause them to quarrel?

Do you think Joseph's brothers were right to be jealous of Joseph? Do you think Jacob was right to pick out Joseph for a special present?

Part 2

Joseph's brothers were cruel to Joseph, but they didn't really want to kill him, so they sold him as a slave. Do you think that people should buy and sell other people as slaves?

How do you think the brothers felt when they saw how upset Jacob was? They probably wished they could tell Jacob that Joseph was alive. Why couldn't they tell him that?

Part 3

Joseph forgave his brothers. Was he right to do that?

How do you think Jacob felt when he heard that Joseph was alive? What questions would Jacob have asked his other sons? What answers might they have given?

Teacher notes

The original story is much more complicated. If you have time, read it and determine whether to include any more than I have given here. There is, for instance, the "soap-opera" incident in which Potiphar's wife tries to seduce Joseph ("she caught him by his garment saying, 'Lie with me'."), is rejected, is angry, complains of harassment and has Joseph put in jail, where he ends up more or less running the place.

There's also the long end-game played out by Joseph. This involved the surreptitious return to the brothers by Joseph of money they had paid for Egyptian corn and Joseph's demand that his brothers go back and bring his favourite brother Benjamin to Egypt. Then there was the planting of a silver cup on Benjamin, labelling him as a thief - which resulted in the oldest son, Reuben, offering himself as a prisoner in place of Benjamin.

All this raises moral issues of its own. At its simplest, it's Joseph being reluctant to reveal himself immediately to brothers against whom he must have harboured some resentment. His love for Benjamin and concern for his parents conflicted with these negative feelings, but eventually overcame them.

In all this, it is significant that Benjamin and Joseph were both the sons of Rachel, Jacob's relatively new young wife: "The sons of his old age." So there's that extra ingredient in this story of family jealousy - one that will be understood by many families today.

Curriculum links


It's rewarding to retell the story (either orally, or in discussion, or as a writing task) from the point of view of various participants: for example, it's interesting to "be" Potiphar, receiving this quick and opportunist Jewish slave, and piecing together his earlier history by curious questioning. Similarly, you can ask children to see the story from the point of view of Jacob, whose experience and feelings will be very powerful, raising many discussion points.


You could enact the whole story with mime and tableaux, but it's probably at least as useful to look at individual incidents, examining and demonstrating physical reactions to the various goings on. Here are a few examples of situations (each is equally suitable as a subject for art or for short pieces of poetry): * Jacob makes a fuss of Joseph while his brothers look on jealously.

* Joseph proudly wears his coat, while his brothers plot against him.

* Joseph is held by his brothers while they bargain with the merchants.

* Joseph explains Pharaoh's dream; Pharaoh and his officials are amazed.

* Joseph is joyfully reunited with Jacob while his brothers look on.


Children love to depict the coat of many colours. You can discuss the appropriateness of various colour combinations, but really this is an opportunity to let children follow their own ideas.


The Lloyd Webber and Rice musical Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat tells the story very well, in more detail than we've attempted here. It's available in numerous recordings.


You could use this story to introduce QCA primary religious education unit 1A (Year 1). The unit suggests, as a possible activity, talking to children about the sense of belonging to a family or another group. The story of Joseph is all about belonging and being rejected, and various shades in between. So Joseph:

* has a strong sense of belonging to his mother and father, and is treated well by his father.

* is brutally rejected by his older brothers.

* makes himself belong to and become indispensable to the Egyptian court by using his skills of dream interpretation.

* in the end, is drawn back to his family, mainly to his young brother Benjamin and his parents, but even to the brothers who rejected him. The bond of family is strong.


The project provides support for unit 2D in the QCA scheme of work, which is a textiles activity for Year 2 in which children design and make the coat of many colours, and children obviously need to know the story first.

The coat

The coat used in our photographs was made for a production of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat at Ivydale School, Nunhead, south-east London, by parent and theatrical designer Juliet Shillingford. A QCA scheme of work, unit 2D, explores textiles using Joseph's coat as a starting point.

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