In Genesis 46, Joseph says to his brothers, “So when Pharaoh summons you and asks, ‘What is your occupation?’ you shall answer, ‘Your servants have been breeders of livestock from the start until now, both we and our fathers’—so that you may stay in the region of Goshen. For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians” (verses 33-34; The Contemporary Torah, Jewish Publication Society, 2006).
The Hebrew word for “abhorrent” means disgusting, abominable, and wretched. Why, exactly, did the Egyptians find the Hebrew shepherds so repugnant? Answering this requires an understanding of several aspects of Egyptian and Hebrew culture.
But this is not the only example of the Egyptians “abhorring” something about the Hebrews. A dinner provided by Joseph gives another example. Genesis 43:32 (2006 jps) says, “… the Egyptians could not dine with the Hebrews, since that would be abhorrent to the Egyptians.” Was the problem here something to do with dining practices or diet?
Several Jewish commentators and scholars of the Middle Ages, including Rashi, ibn Ezra and Abarbanel, thought so—purporting that the Egyptians would not eat with the Hebrews because the Egyptians were vegetarians (like many Hindus today). This theory was based largely on Egypt’s pantheon of gods, some of which resembled livestock.
There is some evidence to support the idea that the Egyptians were vegetarians. Prof. Alexandra Touzeau led the University of Lyon in a study that measured carbon levels in the bones of 45 different mummies. This study found that Egyptian diets primarily consisted of emmer, or farro—a grain high in nutrients and protein. Egyptian diets primarily consisted of beer, bread, and vegetables (mostly legumes and cucurbits). The animal protein isotope ratios in the mummies’ hair corresponded with that of modern European vegetarians, which indicated “that the ancient Egyptians were also mainly vegetarians.”
Many early historians seemed to agree with this proposition. Jerome, a historian in the early fifth century c.e., wrote, “In Egypt and Palestine, in consequence of the great scarcity of cattle, no one eats the meat of cows” (Against Jovinianus, Book 2, iii.7) Porphyry (late third century c.e.) wrote, “With the Egyptians … and Phoenicians, any one would sooner taste human flesh than the flesh of a cow” (Porphyry, On Abstinence From Animal Food).
However, archaeological evidence has shown that many Egyptians did eat meat. For instance, Herbert E. Winlock discovered a model of a slaughterhouse at the Tomb of Meketre. Analyses of mummies have also determined that the Egyptian diet included meat in most cases. Egyptologist Salima Ikram wrote a book detailing depictions of Egyptian meat processing and cooking methods. Egyptologist Pierre Montet wrote, “The walls of private tombs are covered with long processions of animals being led to slaughter for human consumption. Cattle were the chief source of meat” (Everyday Life in Egypt in the Days of Ramesses The Great, 1981). (For a representation of an animal butchering scene from the Middle Kingdom, click here.)
Though Egyptians may have avoided “cows,” they ate male bovids—steers and bulls—and other livestock like sheep and goats. Perhaps eating cows was prohibited to improve the growth rate of cattle herds? Whatever the case, we know the Egyptians were not disturbed by consumption of meat.
“Were the Egyptians vegetarians,” wrote Dr. Aron Pinker, “it would have been inconceivable that Joseph would have ordered a dinner that was offensive to all but the Hebrews” (“‘Abomination to Egyptians’ in Genesis 43:32, 46:34, and Exodus 8:22,” 2009). Pinker notes that this dinner would have been prepared by Egyptian cooks who adhered to Egyptian customs. Thus, the problem was not dietary.
Perhaps, therefore, it was Egyptian religious practices that caused this abhorrence of Hebrews and shepherds?
Certain animals did indeed have a sacred dimension in Egypt. Egyptologist Robert Partridge wrote about rams:
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 jewelry.
This homage to certain animals is illustrated in the Bible. Exodus 8:21-22 record: “And Pharaoh called for Moses and for Aaron, and said: ‘Go ye, sacrifice to your God in the land.’ And Moses said: ‘It is not meet so to do; for we shall sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians to the Lord our God; lo, if we sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians before their eyes, will they not stone us?”
Having lived in Egypt for 40 years, Moses understood the Egyptian religion. He knew that sacrificing to the Hebrew God amidst the Egyptians, who revered their pantheon of gods, would have been inciting violence.
Prof. Jan Assmann and Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber wrote that sacrificing a ram would have been disrespectful to Amun (king of the gods). Sacrificing sheep would have also been seen as offensive to Khnum—this is most clearly evidenced by a story about priests of Khnum attacking a Jewish temple in the fifth century b.c.e because of a Jewish burnt offering.
Animal sacrifices were not totally disdained in Egypt, however—as long as they were to the right deities. Egyptian priests regularly performed animal sacrifices. Prof. David Frankfurter writes, “Egypt offers a host of examples of the ritual killing of animals and their dedication in some form to gods.” Frankfurter analyzed an Egyptian depiction (pictured here) of an offering table, on which there is a bovid head and haunch. Herodotus recorded that the priests and temple aides would feast on the meat after a sacrifice and ceremony. Ramses iii had the following recorded at the Medinet Habu Temple to illustrate his devotion to Amun: “I multiplied the divine offerings presented before thee, of bread, wine, beer, and fat geese; numerous oxen, bullocks, calves, cows, white oryxes, and gazelles offered in his slaughter yard.”
Moses’s referenced offense would have obviously been in sacrificing animals to the God of the Hebrews, rather than to Amun or Khnum.
Still, this does not explain why they abhorred all (כל) shepherds, and why they would have refused to eat with Joseph’s brothers.
The dinner hosted by Joseph has also given rise to other theories. Rabbi Shmuel Ben Meir (author of Rashbam, lived in the 11th and 12th century c.e.) wrote, “the Egyptians were of a very haughty disposition.” Hezekiah ben Manoah (13th-century c.e. author of Chizkuni) wrote, “Egyptians detested eating at the same table as aliens, as they felt that they were a superior race and everyone else was inferior.” Was the problem Egyptian bigotry against a race or profession?
Race seems an unlikely explanation. In a 1991 article titled “Egyptians and Ethiopians: Color, Race, and Racism,” archaeologist David H. Kelley wrote:
Intermarriage between native Egyptians and foreigners, e.g., mercenary soldiers, was not uncommon, and pharaohs often kept Nubian women in their harems. Foreign origin was no bar to success in Egypt; foreigners and their children were absorbed into Egyptian society, adopting the religion and mores of the people among whom they lived.
Kelley also references a study performed by Egyptologist Frank J. Yurco, which found that Ramses ii had “fine, wavy hair, a prominent hooked nose, and moderately thin lips,” which Kelley said indicated a heavy amount of Caucasoid genetics. Others, like Seqenenre Tao (father of Ahmose i), had “tightly curled, woolly hair … and strongly Nubian features.” This diversity and intermarriage among Egyptian royalty corroborates Kelly’s quote and indicates that some form of racism was not the chief issue at hand in the case of Joseph’s dinner. (The Bible also speaks to this point with the example of the attempted adoption of Abraham’s wife, Sarah, into the pharaoh’s harem.)
After all, everyone in attendance at the dinner knew that Joseph—the Pharoah’s vizier—was a Hebrew.
Perhaps the Egyptians could have been haughty because of class divisions?
Shepherds were on a base level in the Egyptian class rankings. Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie (sometimes affectionately called the “father of archaeology”) noted that shepherds and swineherds were only a step above serfs, and were below husbandmen, yeomen, and farmers. Therefore, the Hebrews could have conceivably been abhorred simply because of the Egyptian class system. That leads to this question: Why were shepherds so low among the classes?
Dress and Hygiene?
Most Egyptians were meticulous with hygiene and cosmetics. Several ancient-Egyptian records have been discovered concerning how to take care of one’s skin and prevent aging. (Chapters 451, 452, and 459 to 461 of Eber’s Papyrus are all about removing gray hair!)
Egyptian priests put a lot of effort into cleanliness. Egyptologist Bob Brier and author Hoyt Hobbs write that priests were “held to the highest standards of cleanliness because they came in contact with the cult statue.” They “shaved all their body hair to avoid lice and wore nothing but pure white linen clothing” (Daily Life of the Ancient Egyptians, 2008). These priests washed twice during the day and twice at night. Egyptologist Gaston Maspero wrote in Life in Ancient Egypt and Assyria (1892): “[T]his purification is considered so necessary, that the priest derives from it his name of ouibou—the washed, the clean.”
Eber’s Papyrus was written for ordinary Egyptians. It contains instructions for hygienic and cosmetic care products such as mouthwash and perfume. Homes of bourgeois Egyptians were kept to a high standard. Historian Lionel Casson (Life in Ancient Egypt, 2015) wrote, “Whether sumptuous or simple, houses were kept clean; the Egyptians were punctilious about this.” Medical papyri show Egyptians even fumigated their homes. Casson also wrote, “The Egyptian began his day, as we do, by washing; he was as fussy about the cleanliness of his body as of his house.”
It was in connection to hygiene that most Egyptians wore linen. Herodotus wrote about Egyptians, “They always wear freshly washed linen clothes; they make a special point of this.” Archaeology corroborates this. Sir Flinders Petrie discovered a linen tunic dating to the Early Dynastic Period (26th century b.c.e). Rich Egyptians would have worn fine linens made from young flax, whereas ordinary Egyptians would have worn coarser linen, nearly resembling burlap. Those who attended Joseph’s dinner likely wore some of the choicest linens Egypt had to offer.
Linen is a very clean fabric. Even today, it is promoted as a hypoallergenic material. Linen has antibacterial properties, which is why it has been used extensively in hospitals. Linen is also very breathable, meaning the Egyptians would not have sweat as much in the desert heat. Pure linen is also odor resistant.
Wool and other animal skins, however, were the most popular materials for clothing in Canaan and Mesopotamia.
“Wool of that period retained much of its grease, since natural colors were used and there was no need for thorough washing. It is easy to imagine that body perspiration, absorbed over some time, caused such garments to become malodorous,” wrote Dr. Aron Pinker. “The emitted smell [of the wool] was obnoxious to the Egyptians …. In contrast to the white linen garments of the Egyptian the wool garments seemed unclean ….”
Genesis 45:22 includes an interesting detail (following the meal and Joseph’s eventual revealing of himself to his brothers) which may corroborate this. It says of the actions of Joseph: “To all of them [his half-brothers] he gave each man changes of raiment; but to Benjamin [his full brother] he gave three hundred pieces of silver, and five changes of raiment.” These new clothes were logically made of fine linen, as Joseph himself had been given by the pharaoh early on (Genesis 41:42).
Could this be the explanation for the Egyptians’ initial refusal to sit at meat with the Hebrews—and also for their consideration of the shepherd class as an “abomination”? Egyptologist Adolf Erman wrote of class variations in Egyptian paintings, saying, “The various classes are also distinguished by their costume … the great lords are not dressed like the servants, the shepherds, or the boatmen” (Life in Ancient Egypt, 1894). Shepherds may have been held in such a low class because of their dress and the subsequent perception of their hygiene. They were not rich enough to afford linen, but certainly had access to animal skins from which to make their clothes.
Of course, this is only conjecture. There are a multitude of reasons why the Egyptians may have abhorred Hebrews and shepherds. So far, though, this reason appears to be the most valid.
Regarding the entire matter, Dr. Aron Pinker wrote, “One gets a strong impression that classical Jewish commentators were at loss to explain the specific cause for the Egyptian abomination to dine with the Hebrews. Modern scholarship does not fare any better.” Despite ancient Egypt’s history being comparatively well preserved by the desert clime, and its culture documented on temple paintings and scraps of papyri, there is still much we do not know. Hopefully future archaeological discoveries will reveal more about Egyptian religion, culture, and day-to-day life, and enable us to finally answer with more certainty why Hebrew shepherds were an “abomination” to the Egyptians.
For more on the subject of “Israel” in Egypt, and the contemporary evidence for the biblical account of Egyptian practice and culture, take a look at our article, “Searching for Egypt in Israel.”