The Joseph Novella: 

A Psychological and Literary Analysis.
Dr. Stanley M. Giannet

 © 2002, S. Giannet. All rights reservedcontact.gif

The Joseph story is a powerful psychological narrative often described as a novella with a definite development of a plot and a clear textual action, (Boadt,1984). According to Tate (1991), plot consists of a structural triad: conflict, complication and resolution (denouement). The Joseph story is a classic example of this literary element. The following is an analysis of a plot in the Joseph story.


The conflict surfaces early in the story through Jacob's preferential treatment of Joseph over his other sons. It is clear in the text that Jacob provided Joseph with greater love and affinity than his siblings. ( "Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age, and he had made a richly ornamented robe for him." [Genesis 37: 3-4])

The conflict is further exacerbated between Jacob and his sons and Joseph and his brothers when the siblings bitterly recognize this preferential treatment and develop intense envy and rage. ("When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him, and could not speak a kind word to him." [Genesis 37: 4-5]) Joseph unwittingly reinforced this conflict by naively disclosing to his brothers a vivid and immensely meaningful dream that he will rule over them - and that even his mother and father will bow down in reverence before him (Genesis 37: 5-11). This disclosure created even greater ill will and animosity among his brothers. This intense conflict-based scenario ushers in the complication of the Joseph story.


His brothers' blame and inability to accept the possibility of the dream coming to fruition eventually led to their plan to assassinate Joseph. ("Here comes the dreamer! Come now, let's kill him and throw him into one of those cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we'll see what comes of his dreams." [Genesis 37: 19-21]). One of his brothers, Judah, remarked that it would be more effective if they sold him into slavery rather than kill him. This led to a unanimous agreement among the brothers that slavery will be Joseph's fate.

("Judah said to his brothers, ' What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come let's sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.' His brothers agreed." [Genesis 37: 26-28]) Consequently, he was eventually sold to the Ishmaelites and taken to Egypt where he was sold to Potiphar, an official of Pharaoh.

While in Egypt, Joseph experienced great distress and suffering. Potiphar's wife attempted to sexually seduce him, however, he resisted this temptation out of faithfulness to God and devotion to Potiphar. Because of this unrequited seduction, she wrongfully accuses him and causes him to be unjustly imprisoned. Despite this grave injustice and suffering, Joseph remained faithful because the Lord was with him throughout these trials and adversity. Joseph was eventually released from prison because the prison warden favored him. His release was also influenced by his providential ability to interpret dreams and attribute them as interpretations emanating from God. After release, he quickly became an influential and trusted official under the Pharaoh.

The resolution begins when the famine compels Joseph's ten brothers to journey to (as Joseph was earlier compelled) Egypt to procure grain. It is important to note that Jacob did not send Benjamin, the youngest in order to protect him from harm. (Genesis 42: 3-5)


When Joseph's brothers arrive to Egypt, they fulfill Joseph's prophetic dream by bowing before him, not realizing that he is their brother.

Joseph's brothers, like Joseph, were unjustly accused of spying by Joseph and imprisoned in Egypt. At this time, they began to experience guilt and reconciliation for their sins of the past. They perceived the series of calamities as just punishment from God for the sins they committed against Joseph. ("Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that's why this distress has come upon us." [Genesis 42: 21])

Joseph tested his brothers by instructing them to return to Egypt for their youngest brother, Benjamin who stayed with Jacob. When the brothers eventually returned with Benjamin, he further gave them a series of tests to determine if they had changed their conscience. The first test focused on envy jealousy - the emotions that were the impetus for his brothers' betrayal; the brothers did not exhibit any signs of jealousy after Joseph gave Benjamin more food than the brothers' servings. (Genesis 43:34) The second test involved the false accusation of stealing. When Joseph's servant found the silver cup in Benjamin's bag (deliberately implanted by the servant as commanded by Joseph), all the brothers supported him and went back to Egypt to offer themselves as slaves to Joseph in order to protect Benjamin. Judah, the mastermind behind the plot to sell Joseph, specifically requested to take the place of the guilty Benjamin. He also pleaded to Joseph on behalf of his father. Judah appears to show love for father and empathy at this juncture. Moreover, he now showed true repentance and a change of conscience - a change of heart (Genesis 44: 18-34). 

This level of compassion and repentance led to Joseph's revelation to his brothers that he is the one who they sold to Egypt. He vigorously allayed their fears by adding, " And now do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you." (Genesis 45: 5-6). He embraced them, forgave them, and reassured them. (Genesis 45: 15). The resolution culminates with the reunion of Jacob with his sons in Egypt, where they settled in Goshen (Genesis 47: 11-31).

Joseph recognized that God had a vital purpose for placing him in this complicated predicament. He was destined by God to save his family and eventually, Israel from destruction. The plot, therefore, becomes evident when we recognize that Joseph's destiny was to lead Israel into greatness and eventual deliverance from Egypt under Moses' decisive spiritual leadership. ("But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on the earth and to save your lives by great deliverance." [Genesis 45: 7-8]).

The reader can find great meaning from this novella. Unconditional love, reconciliation and forgiveness were clear themes. Furthermore, Joseph had indefatigable fortitude and courage - courage that was supported by his unwavering love and faith in God. Despite the seemingly insurmountable adversity, he never lost his faithfulness and trust in God and his purpose and omnipresence.

Psychological application of the Joseph story:

Unconditional love and forgiveness are powerful themes in this story; most individuals cannot imagine ever experiencing conflict of such magnitude with their family. Family is the essential bedrock for one's interpersonal and intrapersonal existence and psychospiritual health. The family provides its members the foundations necessary to persevere and excel as an ethical and loving social being. Ideally, one should unequivocally value his or her family - this value and love should be unconditional and never have conditions of worth place upon it. Moreover, forgiveness is an essential feature of psychological health. A well-adjusted and pious person practices forgiveness whenever confronted with interpersonal conflict. This is an important value not only because of universal ethics and Christian ideals, but also because the suppression of anger can emotionally cripple an individual indelibly. The Joseph story reaffirmed that unconditional love and forgiveness -the act of reconciliation and atonement- are essential values that can result in profound positive outcomes. One who studies and conscientiously reflects on this story can gain a greater spiritual and logical foundation regarding societal injustice and spiritual aloofness. We erroneously believe that unjust events should not happen to pious, God-loving people. Joseph, a victim of great injustice, illustrated that one can eventually challenge injustice and regain a sense of control over one's destiny. Trust in God and perseverance are very effective, success-oriented coping mechanisms. 

The Joseph story also affirmed that one could find significant meaning in suffering and pain. It often feels that when we suffer, God has abandoned us and is no longer a caring presence in our life. As we see in this story, not only is God clearly present throughout our trials, but God also gives us the courage and the insight to weather devastating storms and successfully and deftly navigate to calm waters and peace. Suffering, therefore, has a purpose and God appears to accompany us (and perhaps suffer with us) when we are hurting.

The Joseph story also reinforces the importance of faith. We fail to see that faith is vital when we are experiencing turmoil. It is easy to abandon faith when one feels abandoned; however, it is during times of crisis that faith in God becomes a powerful bolstering agent. God gave Joseph the wisdom and charisma to dramatically gain freedom, status, and power. It is important to remain aware that it is God who is behind our successes and joys, and it is God who gives us the gumption to challenge, to strive, to risk and to face our fears.

Additionally, the Joseph story underscores the importance of human connectedness. It is difficult to fathom the great angst and emptiness that Joseph must have experienced away from his father and family. He must have pined and longed for the gentle touch and soothing embrace of his family members. He yearned to reunite with his family, conquer loneliness and spend his remaining years with his elderly and infirm father. Joseph's saga clearly underscores the challenge of appreciating and finding meaning in paternal and maternal love and connectedness. Prolonged separation from loved ones often leads to uneasiness: the hollow and empty feelings that loneliness produces and the penetrating anxiety that distance creates. Joseph's plight emphasizes the importance of never taking family for granted and always affirming in words and deeds our unquestionable, and never-ceasing love for them.

From a professional perspective, as a clinical psychologist, I can clearly appreciate the application of the Joseph story to my professional life and to the life of my patients. I have witnessed inordinate and unspeakable pain and suffering - helplessness, hopelessness, self-deprecation, loss of control and unpredictability in my patient population. I have been the one who encouraged an anorectic patient to taste food, listened to a schizophrenic hallucination, managed an acutely suicidal patient, comforted an abused child, embraced a family that is caring for an Alzheimer's disease patient, and held the hand of a dying patient at his deathbed …participating in his final exit. I have also held the brain of a deceased stroke patient in my hands and felt the ruptured artery on my skin. All these experiences - experiences where I wield power over the vulnerable, like Joseph, have humbled me greatly. These patients have taught me the essence of empathy and the effectiveness of unconditional love. I have often felt totally helpless with those who are hurting…unable to soothe their pain and lead them out of their famine …out of their Egypt. When I feel this way, I resort to my family support and my rituals, which involve prayer and supplication to God. I ask for perseverance, wisdom and the empathic response to successfully reach the hurting and bring them out of their abyss. I know that when I am present with the hurting, God is also present with me…giving me courage and giving the infirm hope and solace.

The Joseph novella made me reflect on an Eastern poem that one of my patients gave me as a gift several years ago. I often read it and thank God for my blessings and for the role he has given me. 

May I be a protector to those without protection,
A leader for those who journey,
And a boat, a bridge, a passage
For those desiring the further shore.

May the pain of every living creature
Be completely cleared away.
May I be the doctor and the medicine
And may I be the nurse
For all sick beings in the world 
Until everyone is healed.

Just like space
And the great elements of the earth,
May I always support the life 
Of all boundless creatures.

And until they pass away from pain
May I also be the source of life
For all the realms of varied beings
That reach unto the ends of space.


Tate, R.W. "How the Hebrew Bible Communicates Literature." In Biblical Interpretation, 74-104. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson. 1991

Boadt, L. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction. New York: Paulist Press, 1984, pp. 148-152.

Dr. Stanley M. Giannet holds a Ph.D in clinical psychology, a Masters in Psychology, a Master of Ministry in Christian Counseling, a Graduate Certificate in theology and a Bachelors in psychology. He is the Associate Dean of Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences at Pasco-Hernando Community College in Florida and President of Giannet Consulting Services, Inc., an organizational consulting group.