Shepherds and Eating with Hebrews: An Abomination to the Egyptians?
What is the accuracy of the two claims the Torah makes about Egyptians in the Joseph story?
1. Hatred of Shepherds
When Joseph’s brothers arrive in Egypt, Joseph offers them a way to remain together in Goshen (Gen 46:33-34):
וְהָיָ֕ה כִּֽי יִקְרָ֥א לָכֶ֖ם פַּרְעֹ֑ה וְאָמַ֖ר מַה מַּעֲשֵׂיכֶֽם: וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֗ם אַנְשֵׁ֨י מִקְנֶ֜ה הָי֤וּ עֲבָדֶ֙יךָ֙ מִנְּעוּרֵ֣ינוּ וְעַד עַ֔תָּה גַּם אֲנַ֖חְנוּ גַּם אֲבֹתֵ֑ינוּ בַּעֲב֗וּר תֵּשְׁבוּ֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ גֹּ֔שֶׁן כִּֽי תוֹעֲבַ֥ת מִצְרַ֖יִם כָּל רֹ֥עֵה צֹֽאן:
When Pharaoh calls you, and says, “What is your occupation?” you shall say, “Your servants have been keepers of livestock from our youth even until now, both we and our ancestors”—in order that you may settle in the land of Goshen, because all shepherds are abhorrent to the Egyptians.
Joseph is saying that Pharaoh will “force” his family to live in Goshen and not the rest of Egypt once he hears they are shepherds, because shepherding is an abomination to Egyptians. This claim is an interesting mix of fact and fancy. Shepherds did, in fact, live in the Nile Delta, where Goshen is placed, and not in the rest of Egypt. This was not because of any taboo, however, but because pastureland was only to be found in the delta, not elsewhere in Egypt.
2. Refusal to Sit with Hebrews at Table
When the brothers show up to Egypt for the second time, Joseph arranges for them to dine with him at his house (Gen 43:32).
וַיָּשִׂ֥ימוּ ל֛וֹ לְבַדּ֖וֹ וְלָהֶ֣ם לְבַדָּ֑ם וְלַמִּצְרִ֞ים הָאֹכְלִ֤ים אִתּוֹ֙ לְבַדָּ֔ם כִּי֩ לֹ֨א יוּכְל֜וּן הַמִּצְרִ֗ים לֶאֱכֹ֤ל אֶת הָֽעִבְרִים֙ לֶ֔חֶם כִּי תוֹעֵבָ֥ה הִ֖וא לְמִצְרָֽיִם:
They served him by himself, and them by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because the Egyptians could not eat with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians.
The claim that the Egyptians won’t sit with the Hebrews is striking. In the New Kingdom and earlier, in which the story of Joseph is set, no record exists of any such taboo. The Egyptians did have dietary restrictions, but no social restrictions about table fellowship.
Purity in Late and Persian Period Egypt
Restrictions on table fellowship appear only in the Late Period, beginning with a passage in the victory stela of Piye (around 725 BCE), the 25th (Kushite) dynasty king who conquered Egypt from the Libyan delta rulers. The stela closes with the attempt of four Delta kings to pay their respects to the victorious Kushite king in his palace.
But a problem of cultic purity arises: three of the kings have to wait outside, only one, Nimlot, is admitted; it seems that all except Nimlot are uncircumcised and eat fish, which is “an abomination (bwt) of the palace.” In this statement, Piye represents himself not only as a legitimate ruler but as a “pure,” priestly king whose orthodoxy of practice sets him off favorably against the defeated Libyan kinglets. Completely new boundaries are drawn with the aid of religious purity prescriptions.
This seems to be the first instance of a kind of Egyptian “puritanism” that assumes rather radical forms in the Persian era, when Herodotus visited Egypt (around 450 BCE). Herodotus reports in epic detail on the strict exclusiveness of Egyptian table customs, which allowed no sharing of meals with foreigners due to the foreigners’ presumed consumption of cows, sacred to the Egyptians (Histories 2:41):
And all the Egyptians without distinction reverence cows far more than any other kind of cattle; for which reason neither man nor woman of Egyptian race would kiss a man who is a Hellene on the mouth, nor will they use a knife or roasting-spits or a caldron belonging to a Hellene, nor taste of the flesh even of a clean animal if it has been cut with the knife of a Hellene.
Purity in Late Antiquity Jewish Sources
Ironically, the Egyptians were not the only group in antiquity famous for not eating with foreigners. The refusal to eat together with outsiders is one of the critiques the ancients made about Jews. Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56-ca.117 C.E.), for instance, has this to say on the subject (5.1.5):
They (=Jews) regard the rest of mankind with all the hatred of enemies. They sit apart at meals, they sleep apart, and though, as a nation, they are singularly prone to lust, they abstain from intercourse with foreign women.
The sitting apart at meals claim is not merely something stated by non-Jews about Jews; Jews themselves make reference to it. Paul, for instance, lobs this critique against his fellow Jew, Cephas (Gal 2:11-13):
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy… (Gal 2:11-13)
As with Piye, the Jewish practice was not simply about Jew and gentile, but about pure and impure. Rabbinic sources make reference to pious people who were אוכלי טהרות, “eaters in purity,” who would not sit at table with an “ignoramus” (עם הארץ) but only with another חבר, a member of this same elite group (m. Demai 2:3).
Conclusion: Purity in Response to Defeat and Foreign Domination
This transformation of Egyptian culture happened in exactly the same time and under the same historical circumstances when the biblical texts were written that testified of a similar rise of puritanism in Israel. Like the Israelites and Judahites, the Egyptians were conquered by the Assyrians, then ruled by the Persians; only the Egyptians were spared the experience of exile. The anecdote in the Joseph story about sitting separately reflects this late stage of Egyptian culture under foreign domination.
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April 18, 2016
November 17, 2019
Professor Jan Assmann is Professor (Emeritus) of Egyptology at the University of Heidelberg and is now Honorary Professor of Cultural and Religious Studies at Constance. He received his Ph.D and Dr.habil from Heidelberg, as well as honorary degrees from Muenster, Yale and the Hebrew University Jerusalem. Among his many books are Moses the Egyptian; The Search for God in Ancient Egypt; The Mind of Egypt; Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt; Of God and Gods; The Price of Monotheism; and From Akhenaten to Moses.
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a fellow at Project TABS and editor of TheTorah.com. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus) and an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period focus). In addition to academic training, Zev holds ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter, BZAW 457) and the editor of Halakhic Realities: Collected Essays on Brain Death (Maggid).
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