The word תּוֹעֵבָה (tôʿēbâ, "abomination") is very common in the Hebrew Bible, usually designating breaches of covenant stipulations which are tôʿēbâ in the sight of YHWH. These uses are concentrated in Leviticus (6x) and Deuteronomy (17x), and then the prophets, particularly Jeremiah (8x) and, most incessantly, Ezekiel (43x).1 This question concerns the three uses that occur pre-Mosaic covenant, all referring to tôʿēbâ in the sight of the Egyptians. Two are from the Joseph cycle:

  1. Genesis 43:32: "... the Egyptians were unable to eat with the Hebrews, for that is tôʿēbâ to the Egyptians."

  2. Genesis 46:34: "... for everyone who pastures sheep is tôʿēbâ to the Egyptians."

And a third in the time of Moses:

  1. Exo 8:22: ".... for the sacrifices we shall make to the LORD our God are tôʿēbâ to the Egyptians."

I'm wondering if we know anything more that would explain these. The third example sort of makes sense (sacrifices to a different God), but in case of the first two it seems odd that this family of Hebrew shepherds became so favored in Egypt while everything about them was apparently tôʿēbâ.

  • Is anything known about Egyptian society or cult at that time that would support the contention of the Biblical text that such things were labelled tôʿēbâ?
  • What exactly did tôʿēbâ mean from an Egyptian perspective?2

1. Proverbs also uses the term (22x) in an somewhat more flexible sense.

2. To the extent that such information might be available, I'm interested in both the motivation (was this indeed a cultic term denoting offense to a deity?) and sociologic implications (was segregation in "the land of Goshen" an expected remedy for tôʿēbâ living among us?).

  • I learned much useful stuff just from the question! Thanks for posting, Susan. Have you written any books or kept a blog? I would like to follow (not stalk) you. – Ruminator Jul 4 '20 at 1:24

The ancient Egyptian equivalent of the Hebrew תּוֹעֵבָה (tôʿēbâ) is bawut:

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Although bwt is sometimes still translated ‘abomination’, the consensus of contemporary Egyptologists suggests a meaning more at ‘taboo’. Specified foods (e.g. pork, fish, honey), behaviors (e.g. sexual activity, walking ‘upside-down’) and people (e.g. menstruating women, uncircumcised males), for example, were bwt. Priests in particular were prohibited from contact with bwt items, thus protecting the ritual purity of tombs, temples and palaces (Kamal, p.541). The Egyptian concept of bwt survived relatively intact over several millennia, until the Greco-Roman period, though the catalogue of specific bwt taboos varied between regions and could also include civil crimes and ethical norms in addition to priestly prohibitions.

The extant lists of Egyptian bwt, however, do not include general taboos against dining with foreigners (or Hebrews in particular) or social contact with shepherds. Egypt had a long history of international trade and commerce, and while their relations with foreigners were sometimes disastrous (e.g. the Hyksos), in better times foreign envoys were depicted in painted frescoes in scenes of everyday life in Egypt, including formal processions honoring the pharaoh (Zaki, p.559). Egypt was not xenophobic.

And while sheep did not have the same economic importance in lush and bountiful Egypt as they did for desert nomads, ancient Egyptians raised two kinds of sheep for domestic consumption and religious sacrifice: the older ovis longipes (whose horns jutted out) and, beginning in the Middle Kingdom, the fat-tailed ovis platyra (whose horns curled close to the head). Their deity Khnum was depicted with the ram’s head of the former type, and Amun was symbolized by a sphinx with the curled horns of the latter. Pigs, fish, reptiles, and some birds were considered unclean (thus the pictograph), but rams were symbols of worship, and sheep made an honorable sacrifice, as they did in Yahwistic religion.

Given these facts, it’s difficult to know what to do with the biblical writers’ claims that Egyptians thought it “detestable” to eat with Hebrews, that they considered all shepherds an “abomination,” and they found the Hebrews’ sacrifices “untouchable” (JPS). I agree with @DickHarfield – history suggests these are inaccurate characterizations of Egyptian bwt taboos, representing neither the Middle Bronze Age period in which the stories were set or the Late Iron Age period when the stories were likely written.

Far better, I think, to consider their narrative possibility, dramatizing imagined differences between the protagonist and the decidedly and strangely anti-social ‘other’.


Sources for bwt:

Johnson, Sarah Iles (ed), Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide, Harvard University Press, 2004; pp.497-499.

Kamal, Samar Mostafa, “Taboos in Ancient Egypt,” Proceedings of the 3rd IRT International Scientific Conference, October 2009, Volume 1, pp.539-548.

Zaki, Mey Ibrahim, “The Cross-fertilization between Egypt and North Mediterranean,” Proceedings of the 3rd IRT International Scientific Conference, October 2009, Volume 1, pp.557-566.


These appear to be Jewish assumptions, rather than historical details about Egyptian culture.

The Targum Onkelos says in explanation of Genesis 43:32:

Ch 41-44: And Joseph made haste, for his compassions were moved upon his brother, and he sought to weep, and he went into the chamber [JERUSALEM. Into the chamber] the house of sleep, and wept there. And he washed [JERUSALEM. And he washed] his face from tears, and came forth, and hastened and said, Set bread. And they set for him by himself, and for them by themselves, and for the Mizraee who ate with him by themselves; for it was not proper for the Mizraee to eat bread with the Yehudaee, because the animals which the Mizraee worshipped the Yehudaee ate.

The medieval scholar, Rashi, commented on Genesis 46:34 that (Bereshit 46:34): all shepherds are abhorrent to the Egyptians" because they (the sheep) are their gods.

I had a look around the web and found numerous articles that said the Egyptians did eat sheep, although they rarely wore wool. I had to bypass much of the material I found, because authors almost routinely use the Old Testament as evidence for Egyptian culture, which is circular reasoning when attempting to understand the Old Testament.

It is also true that some of the Egyptian gods were associated with cattle, for example Hathor, Ptah, Menthu and Atum-Ra, yet the Egyptians also used them for food, milk and leather, as we see in this Wikipedia article. They were apparently not squeamish about eating an animal associated with some of the most important gods.

For the consumption of sheep:

BBC: Sheep were kept for their meat, milk, skins and wool, and flocks of sheep were used to trample newly sown seed into the ground. Rams, seen as a symbol of fertility, were identified with various gods, notably Khnum, a creator god, and Amun, the great god of the city of Thebes. Ram-headed sphinxes flank the entrance to the temple of Amun at Thebes. The bodies of some rams were mummified and equipped with gilded masks and even jewellery.
Cow of Gold: Sheep were kept for their meat, milk, and skins, and the flocks were used to tread seed into the fields after sowing. Sheep tail fat - alya - was used in cooking.

Colin Humphreys (The Miracles of Exodus, page 140) looks for natural explanations for the events leading up to the Exodus, in order to demonstrate inerrancy from a scientific perspective. He says: "What is clear is that huge numbers of sheep, goats and cattle were sacrificed to a variety of gods in Egyptian temples." Rev. George Trevor (Ancient Egypt, page 172) says that sheep were offered, except at Thebes, where goats were substituted on all occasions except the annual feast, when a ram was offered. However, it appears that Trevor's reference here is to the Hellenic period.

The fear of offending the Egyptians by sacrificing a sheep (Exodus 8:22) is on somewhat stronger ground because of possible regional sensitivities, at least during the Persian period, although this period is far too late for the Exodus story:

Sacrificing a Lamb in Egypt: The sacrifice of lambs at the beginning of the 5th century on the island of Elephantine must have offended the priests of Khnum, for they took advantage of the temporary absence of the Persian satrap and had Egyptian soldiers destroy the Jewish temple.

My conclusion is that the Egyptians were unlikely to be offended by the consumption of sheep meat and would certainly not have regarded shepherding as an abomination. There may have been regional sensitivities against sacrificing sheep to God, at least in the post-Exilic period, but I can not establish what would have been the case in the period to which the Exodus story is attributed.

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    If you think they made it up, I suppose you could posit some sort of narrative function. Regardless, this may be a rather comprehensive way of describing Egyptian animosity, retrospectively. "They hated everything about us: our work (shepherding), our family (eating), and our God (sacrificing)." It feels strange in the Joseph story since Pharaoh himself was the source of the feast and the pastureland, but in retrospect, and as narrative, it makes sense. – Susan Jun 4 '16 at 4:38

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