Individuation in Genesis: From Abraham to Joseph

Individuation in Genesis: From Abraham to Joseph

Jung's psychological concept of individuation illustration by a drawing of Jacob wresting with an angel by Moses Ephraim Lilien.Psychological individuation. What is it? Why might it be a main theme of the Book of Genesis? How do key characters succeed and fail at it? And how does Joseph wrap it all up in the book’s last section?

C.G. Jung’s Concept of Individuation

Individuation, in Jung’s psychology, is a process of becoming – becoming more than an ego. Not ego in the negative sense, referring to excessive pride. But ego, understood as our conscious experience of ourselves. Beyond the known ego lies a realm of possibility. Jung calls this realm the Self. To glimpse the Self, we must transcend the ego. And to make sense of transcendence, we must integrate its lessons into an expanded ego.

This may sound like an impossible task, but it is probably familiar. In real life, individuation feels like a pull to psychological growth. In Biblical stories, it’s depicted as an encounter with God.

Life’s Purpose According to Genesis

The Biblical book of Genesis tells stories of creation, the first human beings, and the family of Abraham. These stories are archetypal. They show us primal patterns of reality. These stories — says the midrash — hold the blueprint of creation. This may sound like an esoteric claim, but it is simply descriptive. Creation myths express rhythms of time and relations between creatures. Stories of early humans explore general motifs of human life. Tales of Abraham’s family highlight themes of Jewish history.

Genesis’ focus moves from creation to humanity to Abraham. Thus, it establishes a philosophy of history. The purpose of creation is to establish the legacy of Abraham. Details in the text, says the midrash, reinforce this message. For example, Genesis 2:4 says “This is the lineage issuing from the heavens and the earth when they were created.” The Hebrew word for “when they were created” is בהבראם ––b’hibar’am. Rearrange the letters to spell באברהם –– b’Avraham, through Abraham. Now, Genesis 2:4 seems to say, “This is the lineage issuing from the heavens and the earth: through Abraham.”

Abraham’s Call to Individuation

Abraham is a seeker. That is how Genesis introduces him. “God says to Abram: Go into yourself, away from your country, away from your birthplace, and away from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). And Abraham goes! He leaves everything he knows and travels towards the unknown. Thus Abraham illustrates individuation. He moves beyond ego to encounter the Self. His journey defines the purpose of his own life, and refines the purpose of human life.

Does Abraham succeed in his journey towards individuation? Reports are mixed. Abraham has faith in the transcendent. To glimpse it, he is willing to let go of many attachments. Maybe too many; his family life suffers terribly. He banishes his older son and his second wife. He is ready to present his younger son as a burnt offering. His first wife dies when she learns about it. We could say that Abraham has not integrated Self into his everyday ego consciousness.

That level of wisdom falls to Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph, hero of the last story-cycle in Genesis.

Joseph’s Call to Individuation

Genesis introduces teenage Joseph. He is a favourite son and a bratty youngest brother. But he is also a dreamer. “Listen to my dream,” he tells his brothers. “We are bundling sheaves in the field and my sheaf rises and stands. Your sheaves circle and bow to mine” (Gen. 37:7). He relates another dream. “The sun, the moon, and eleven stars bow to me” (Gen. 37:9). Joseph’s brothers think he dreams of his own superiority, and they hate him for it.

Joseph’s brothers may be right about young Joseph’s ego. Joseph experiences himself as good, and his brothers as bad. He is too young to see, accept, and work through his own inner pain. He projects it, feeling his brothers are the cause. So, his brothers become the negative Shadow that follows him. Angry, jealous, and greedy, they sell Joseph into slavery, and tell their father he is dead.

But Joseph’s dreams are not just about his ego. They also plant the seeds of individuation. Joseph’s dream of the sheaves shows his desire for psychological growth. He yearns for a strong inner centre that can tame and integrate what was once negative. His dream about heavenly bodies shows his desire to identify with the Divine spirit at creation’s centre.

Joseph’s Success

For thirteen years, Joseph lives enslaved by his Shadow. He learns discernment, patience, and insight. By age 30, he is skilled at helping others understand themselves. Finally, he is summoned out of prison to interpret the Pharaoh’s dreams. Pharaoh recognizes Joseph’s wisdom, appointing him to nourish the nation in a time of famine.

Eventually, Pharaoh recognizes Joseph as a wise elder. Pharaoh appoints Joseph to manage food in a time of famine. Joseph’s brothers show up to buy rations. But they do not recognize Joseph. Apparently, Joseph’s character and appearance have changed. This new Joseph neither welcomes nor rejects his brothers. Instead, he plays the trickster. Each iteration of the trick pushes the brothers to tell a new story about themselves. Finally, they confess remorse for the sorrow they brought their father. Joseph then reveals himself, and all reconcile.

Joseph’s dream of the sheaves comes true. Literally, his brothers bow to his authority. Psychologically, he recognizes, defuses, and integrates the negativity they once represented. Similarly, Joseph’s dream of the stars has also come true. He now sees God directing the universe. Three times he tells his brothers “God sent me here.”

Joseph accomplishes what Abraham could not: integration of ego and Self, represented by family reconciliation. Thus, Genesis closes with a celebration of Joseph’s success. “Joseph saw the third generation born from his son Ephraim. Also, Machir, son of Joseph’s son Menashe, was born on Joseph’s knees” (Gen.50:33).


Sources & Inspiration: Edinger, E.F. (1986). The Bible and the Psyche: Individuation Symbolism in the Old Testament (Studies in Jungian Psychology no 24). Toronto, ON, Canada: Inner City Books; Jung, C.G. (2002). Answer to Job. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1952); Midrash Rabbah: Soncino Translation. (2001). CD Rom. Chicago, IL: Davka; Neusner, J. (1999). An Introduction to Rabbinic Literature. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; Strickling, B. (2007). Dreaming About the Divine. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

  1. What a beautiful lens to look through to make sense of the stories of Genesis! I welcomed the idea of Joseph as a “trickster”: bringing himself and his brothers to a new relationship through ‘play’. I wonder whether Abraham got “stuck” because he took his emerging Self too seriously? He couldn’t hold onto his Ego and his Self at the same time (i.e., his relationships with members of his family and his spiritual awakening). Perhaps we need to play in the boundary between Ego and Self for Individuation?

    1. Thanks, Elana. This idea of “play” is so interesting! In Jungian studies, arts and imagination are considered that kind of play. Please keep alerting me to examples of it, so I can learn more.

  2. Thank you, Laura. Reading this helps me see how similar the inner journey and the goal have been of Abraham, Joseph, Buddha, Arjuna (Bhagavad Gita), Ramakrishna Paramhansa, or any other seeker (in the Myths/Sacred texts or real life). The myths, sacred texts or the life of mystics/seekers are filled with these stories of attempts of conquering the ego and transcending it to realize the Self/God/Atman/Brahman/pure consciousness. When we see life from that lens, our journey becomes interesting, hopeful and peaceful for the ego as it does not find itself alone anymore.
    It seems to me everyone is either consciously or unconsciously on this journey to their Self. Shalom. Namaste.

    1. What a beautiful comment, Arun. This really adds another dimension to the “sacredness” of sacred text — revealing sacred dimensions of our own lives. Blessings to you and your family for 2018!

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