From fig leaves to Josephs coat, clothing colors the Bible

Banished from the Garden of Eden for flouting the sole divine prohibition, and condemned (along with their future descendants) to a lifetime of toil and pain, the first man and woman receive one parting gift from their Creator: On their way out, Adam and Eve pick up a new set of clothing. Replacing their makeshift fig leaves, God opts for something in leather. "He made them coats of skin…and He clothed them."

In our everyday lives (and in traditional Jewish practice), the distinction between clothing and skin seems crucial. It makes an enormous difference to us — as we watch television, sit in synagogue, lie on the beach or walk down the street — whether we are looking at epidermis or at garment, at a body or at something external to it. But from the very beginning, the Hebrew Bible blurs the boundary. Even the phrase "coats of skin" is ambiguous. Is God providing a new dermal layer, likened unto a coat, or (as we typically understand this passage) a disposable piece of outerwear made from the skin of another?

As the book of Genesis turns its attention from the family of Man to the family of Abraham, clothing and skin stay connected. Esau, Abraham's grandson, is born ruddy, "all of him like a mantle of hair," covered with a surface that is external to the skin, yet still part of his body. During the pivotal scene in which Jacob impersonates his slightly older brother in order to receive the paternal blessing, Rebecca "clothes his hands and the smoothness of his neck" with the "skins" of the kid she has prepared for her husband's meal. When Jacob appears before Isaac as his brother Esau, it is this skin-clothing that Isaac touches and misidentifies. Where Jacob wears clothing (which is really skin), Isaac senses skin (which is really like a mantle).

Isaac is not the only figure in Genesis to mistake the clothes for the man. Presented with the bloody coat (kutonet) of his son, Jacob himself comes to the false conclusion that a beast has devoured Joseph. Shortly thereafter, Joseph is implicated in sexual impropriety when his master's wife presents his abandoned garment as evidence of his bodily presence. Not without reason, clothes without a body conjure images of a body without clothes, thoroughly exposed. On both occasions, Joseph's removed garment marks a struggle, not a simple change in costume.

All of this confusion makes it harder to sustain the familiar prejudice we have toward dress — that clothes are mere surfaces concealing true identity. They conceal, but they also reveal; one word for garment (beged) evokes betrayal (bagad), while the word naked (arum) also denotes deception.

There are many instances in the Tanakh, of course, where clothes do play tricks (to disguise neighbors as nomads, widows as harlots, wealthy women as humble mothers, kings as wayfarers), but in each case the disguise works for a reason. Social identities are fabricated through clothing in the world of the Hebrew Bible, and social identities are not weaker for resting on the surface. Like parchment texts, clothes make a difference somewhere very close to the skin.