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Why would the Egyptians refuse to eat with the Hebrew people? The first mention of this is in Genesis 43:32 when Joseph’s brothers first come to Egypt. The Egyptians could not eat with Joseph (a high-ranking Egyptian official) and they could not eat with his brothers because they were Hebrews:

They served [Joseph] by himself, the brothers by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because Egyptians could not eat with Hebrews, for that is detestable to Egyptians.

Later, in Genesis 46:31-34 Joseph tells Pharaoh that his brothers tend livestock:

They have brought along their flocks and herds and everything they own. When Pharaoh calls you in and asks, ‘What is your occupation?’ you should answer, ‘Your servants have tended livestock from our boyhood on, just as our fathers did.’ Then you will be allowed to settle in the region of Goshen, for all shepherds are detestable to the Egyptians.

Is this a deception? Why are shepherds detestable to the Egyptians?

Fast-forward some 400 years to the Exodus. After the plague of flies, Pharaoh gives permission for the Hebrews to make sacrifices to God, but only within Egypt. Moses said that would not be right:

The sacrifices we offer the Lord our God would be detestable to the Egyptians. And if we offer sacrifices that are detestable in their eyes, will they not stone us? We must take a three-day journey into the desert to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God, as he commands us (Exodus 8:26).

Is there some link between the Egyptians refusing to eat with the Hebrews and the fact they were shepherds?

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  • "Is there some link between the Egyptians refusing to eat with the Hebrews and the fact they were shepherds?" - Yes. Khnum (𓎸𓅱𓀭) Oct 3 '20 at 13:00
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    Here is a 24p PDF exploring this question: “Abomination to Egyptians” in Genesis 43:32, 46:34, and Exodus 8:22 - Aron Pinker. scielo.org.za/pdf/ote/v22n1/08.pdf
    – tblue
    Oct 12 '20 at 12:42
  • @tblue - thank you for the link to that interesting and informative article.
    – Lesley
    Oct 12 '20 at 15:33
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+50

The Bible does not give obvious answers, but clues. Genesis 46:34 & 47:3 need to be taken together. First, Joseph tells his brothers to tell Pharaoh they herd cattle, but they actually tell him they are "feeders of a flock" (or, 'shepherds'). Why? Well, Egyptologist David M. Rohl explains that:

"The Anakim pharaonic dynasty was referred to by the native Egyptians as hekau-khasut ('rulers of the hill country') because they hailed from the southern hill country of Canaan. Manetho calls them 'Hyksos' because they were rulers of the shepherds, in other words the Amalekite nomads of the Negeb and southern uplands. The foreign dynasty from the far north, which was to appear on the scene a century later... were lumped together [by Egyptologists] under the collective designation 'Hyksos' and misleadingly dubbed the whole era 'the Hyksos Age'. However... the northern 'Greater Hyksos' dynasty was not of the same descent or ethnicity as the 'Lesser Hyksos' of southern Canaan who preceded them." [p251 The Lost Testament, Century 2002]

He adds that scarabs of King Apopi have been found, and that he was the penultimate Hyksos ruler.

This might make sense of Joseph's brothers apparently disregarding his instruction to tell Pharaoh that they herded cattle (Genesis 46:34) for 3 verses on, they replied to his query about their occupation, "Thy servants are shepherds, both we and our also our fathers." Or, "we are feeders of flocks" according to the Robert Young Literal Translation.

Before his brothers were presented at court, Joseph, the Vizier of Northern Egypt, told Pharaoh all about his family arriving and that "the men are shepherds, for their trade hath been to feed cattle; and they have brought their flocks and their herds (Genesis 46:31-32). Given that Joseph had already told Pharaoh that they herded both cattle and sheep, the mention in 47:3 of them being shepherds (without adding the bit about cattle) might be there as a clue as to the significance of Pharaoh's title meaning he was king of the shepherds (or, king OVER the shepherds). The brothers were seeking Pharaoh's governance over them - shepherds - recognising him as king over shepherds. That would please Pharaoh.

Joseph ensured his brothers ate at tables separate to the Egyptians in his household, and even Joseph had his own table, separate from both groups. And his house was built in the Syrian style as of his father and forebears, not the Egyptian style. Joseph knew the dangers of mixing with the Egyptians, that they could lose their desire to see God's promise to Abraham fulfilled in them, so right at the start he sought to keep a distinction between his family and the Egyptians. That point is made in Matthew Henry's Commentary [p69] where he adds that Goshen

"lay nearest to Canaan... and well furnished with pastures for cattle." As to shepherds being "an abomination to the Egyptians" (Genesis 43:32) Henry explains, "they looked upon them with contempt and scorned to converse with them".

That is why the land of Goshen is significant as to their settlement. The less contact they had with the Egyptians, the better!

While his brothers were staying in Egypt, Joseph ensured they lived separately to the Egyptians, for the land of Goshen to the north-east of Egypt was not heavily populated. Joseph was careful to keep his brothers as herdsmen AND shepherds, which could be achieved in that corner of Egypt. That is why Joseph did not try to get his brothers into high positions of office in government or trades - not to incur the envy of the Egyptians - but to keep them as distanced as possible and therefore less likely to mingle, for their shepherding would continue.

As for your secondary question, “Is this a deception”, Joseph knew the Egyptians and their worship of pagan gods and goddesses, and wanted to ensure his brothers and family remained pure in their worship of the one God, the God of Abraham. Sheep and rams were sacred to the Egyptian god Amon and cows were sacred to Hathor. The Egyptian bull-god Apis was considered a manifestation of the king, as bulls were symbols of strength and fertility, qualities that are closely linked with kingship. The Egyptians also worshiped the pagan deity Khnum who was represented as a man with a ram’s head. Khnum was one of the earliest-known Egyptian deities, originally the god of the source of the Nile. Since the annual flooding of the Nile brought with it silt and clay, and its water brought life to its surroundings, he was thought to be the creator of the bodies of human children, which he made at a potter's wheel, from clay, and placed in their mothers' wombs. He was later described as having moulded the other deities, and he had the titles "Divine Potter" and "Lord of created things from himself". https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khnum

Here we have the religious reason for the Egyptians treating the Hebrews with contempt – the Hebrews worshipped YHWH as the Creator. They would never worship Khnum or any of the other Egyptian deities. In Exodus 8:26 what is the "abomination of the Egyptians"? This link shows that, no, deception is not involved here. Joseph had extensive knowledge of the Egyptian religious system and habits, and used that knowledge to carefully guide his family into settlement in Egypt, thus fulfilling the prophecy to Abraham about his descendants serving the Egyptian prior to eventually entering into the land promised to Abraham.

Before the Exodus and after the plague of flies, Pharaoh gives permission for the Hebrews to make sacrifices to God, but only within Egypt. Moses said that would not be right: “The sacrifices we offer the Lord our God would be detestable to the Egyptians. And if we offer sacrifices that are detestable in their eyes, will they not stone us? We must take a three-day journey into the desert to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God, as he commands us” (Exodus 8:26).

The fact that the Hebrews would sacrifice and eat sheep or cattle is probably the main reason the Egyptians found them to be detestable. Exodus 12 describes how the Hebrews slaughtered a lamb, roasted it to eat and painted the lintel of their doors with the lamb’s blood. The angel of the Lord passed over them and they were preserved. The first-born of all the Egyptians died. This was a powerful lesson to both the Hebrews and the Egyptians as to the true Creator and the Almighty God. The gods and goddesses of Egypt were shown to be impotent and false. The Hebrews worshiped the Creator, not the created.

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  • Some useful and interesting insights into the Anakim pharaonic dynasty and why Joseph wanted his family to settle in the land of Goshen. It is very close to where God parted the waters so His people could flee from the pursuing Egyptians. No accident, then.
    – Lesley
    Oct 17 '20 at 7:10
  • This answer even references Exodus 8:26... Well done (+1). Jan 22 at 7:37
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Is there some link between the Egyptians refusing to eat with the Hebrews and the fact they were shepherds? - Yes. Khnum (𓎸𓅱𓀭)

  • Sacrifice of rams, sheep & goats was detestable to the Egyptians, because Egyptians worshiped a false ram-idol named Khnum thought to be the creator of humanity by molding humans from clay.

  • In context of Genesis 43:32 & Genesis 46:31-34, the Ivri (עִבְרִי) / Hebrew (ἑβραιου) shepherds believed YHVH was The Creator not the ram-god Khnum. As shepherds, Hebrews sacrificed their flocks to YHVH and ate them (basically showing disrespect to the false Egyptian ram-idol Khnum (𓎸𓅱𓀭).

  • The Passover (Ha-Pesach, הַפָּֽסַח) sacrifice in [Exodus 12] symbolized the slaughter of Khnum in devotion to the true Creator YHVH, revealing which house was Ivri (עִבְרִי).

Exodus 8:21-22 [MT] Explains

[21] "And Pharaoh summoned Moshe and Aharon, and he said, "Go, sacrifice to your God in the land." (וַיִּקְרָ֣א פַרְעֹ֔ה אֶל־משֶׁ֖ה וּלְאַֽהֲרֹ֑ן וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לְכ֛וּ זִבְח֥וּ לֵאלֹֽהֵיכֶ֖ם בָּאָֽרֶץ)
[22] "But Moshe said, "It is improper to do that, for we will sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians to YHVH our God. Will we sacrifice the deity of the Egyptians before their eyes, and they will not stone us?" (וַיֹּ֣אמֶר משֶׁ֗ה לֹ֤א נָכוֹן֙ לַֽעֲשׂ֣וֹת כֵּ֔ן כִּ֚י תּֽוֹעֲבַ֣ת מִצְרַ֔יִם נִזְבַּ֖ח לַֽיהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ הֵ֣ן נִזְבַּ֞ח אֶת־תּֽוֹעֲבַ֥ת מִצְרַ֛יִם לְעֵֽינֵיהֶ֖ם וְלֹ֥א יִסְקְלֻֽנוּ)
  • Note - The original verses of "Exodus" ( Shemot, שְׁמוֹת֙ ) are reordered in English translations to verses 25-26 in [KJV].

[ The hieroglyph of Khnum will not be provided in honor of Exodus 20:4-5 ]

"Khnum, also spelled Khnemu, ancient Egyptian god of fertility, associated with water and with procreation. Khnum was worshipped from the 1st dynasty (c. 2925–2775 BCE) into the early centuries CE. He was represented as a ram with horizontal twisting horns or as a man with a ram’s head. Khnum was believed to have created humankind from clay like a potter; this scene, with him using a potter’s wheel, was depicted in later times. The god’s first main cult centre was Herwer, near Al-Ashmūnayn in Middle Egypt. From the New Kingdom (1539–1075 BCE) on, however, he was the god of the island of Elephantine, near present-day Aswān, and was known as the lord of the surrounding First Cataract of the Nile River. At Elephantine he formed a triad of deities with the goddesses Satis and Anukis. Khnum also had an important cult at Esna, south of Thebes." [https://www.britannica.com/topic/Khnum]

By researching the destruction of the Jewish Temple at Elephantine Island in Egypt during 410 BC by the priests of Khnum, the Elephantine temple reform reveals the same culture clash of Exodus 8:21-22 [MT]

[https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephantine_papyri ]

"Khnum" (/kəˈnuːm/; Ancient Egyptian: 𓎸𓅱𓀭 ẖnmw, Koinē Greek: Χνοῦβις, also romanised Khnemu) was one of the earliest-known Egyptian deities, originally the god of the source of the Nile. Since the annual flooding of the Nile brought with it silt and clay, and its water brought life to its surroundings, he was thought to be the creator of the bodies of human children, which he made at a potter's wheel, from clay, and placed in their mothers' wombs. He was later described as having moulded the other deities, and he had the titles "Divine Potter" and "Lord of created things from himself". [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khnum]
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  • Did you quote from Exodus 8:25-26 (rather than verses 21-22)? Just a detail.
    – Lesley
    Oct 3 '20 at 14:30
  • Lesley - English translations of "Exodus" (Shemot, שְׁמוֹת֙) scroll alter the verse order from the original Ivri text. The original verses of the Ivri Exodus 8:21-22 [MT] were reordered in KJV Exodus 8:25-26. Oct 3 '20 at 14:56
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    Thank you. Appreciated.
    – Lesley
    Oct 3 '20 at 15:06
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    "Egyptians worshiped a false ram-idol named Khnum" I don't think that your personal religious beliefs regarding Egyptian religion are relevant. Oct 3 '20 at 22:41
  • This answer seems to confuse Egyptians with Hindus.
    – Lucian
    Oct 4 '20 at 10:56

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