As I mentioned in a previous post, I thought it would be interesting to go through the Topical Guide and look for unusual meanings. I came across an interesting scripture concerning the word abomination.
Genesis 46: 34 …for every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians.
Egyptians consider the occupation of shepherds to be an abomination? Hmmm, maybe this is out of context. Let’s go back and see what the story says. As the story goes, Joseph in Egypt has just revealed himself to his family. Jacob/Israel is so excited to see Joseph (because he believed Joseph had been killed years earlier) that he says to Joseph, “Now let me die, since I have seen thy face, because thou art yet alive.” Joseph, having lived in Egypt all these years understands that Egyptians don’t like shepherds. So he tells the family:
33 And it shall come to pass, when Pharaoh shall call you, and shall say, What is your occupation?
34 That ye shall say, Thy servants’ trade hath been about cattle from our youth even until now, both we, and also our fathers: that ye may dwell in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians.
As we know from Genesis, Joseph’s family were shepherds, not cattle-men, so that leads to some questions: (1) Does anyone have any idea why Egyptians considered sheep/shepherds to be an abomination? (2) Was this a good idea to lie to Pharoah (especially considering that Israel’s descendants would one day become slaves)?
Cattle here refers to any livestock, and shepherd refers to anyone who grazes livestock. The Hebrew text reflects this, and in early modern English cattle, and shepherd did not have the specificity that contemporary readers might assume. Those assumption imply a deception that is not intended by the text.
Daniel, I am by no means a scholar on Genesis, and I appreciate the distinction you make, but that still doesn’t explain why the Egyptians think shepherds are an abomination. Can you explain that scripture better? I think it makes absolutely no sense and seems to indicate some sort of cultural issue that I am at a complete loss to explain or even understand.
The explanation I find most convincing is that Egyptian land management was adapted to the flood cycle of the Nile and that the practices of the typically nomadic shepherds were incompatible.
“practices of the typically nomadic shepherds were incompatible.” What does this mean? Can you provide a reference to this argument so I can better understand what you’re saying? (You’re pretty light on details, and I’m very curious.)
It’s been a long time since I’ve done any appreciable reading on the subject so I’m hard pressed to come up with any references. As I recall, the argument is that the Egyptians used intensive agricultural techniques in the natural floodplain of the Nile and irrigated much of the surrounding area. This made open range grazing impossible except on the periphery of Egypt where land did not flood and was too distant to irrigate. In the interior of Egypt cattle were fed fodder grown through intensive agriculture rather than grazed. To the Egyptians, people that grazed cattle were either foreign or on the very edges of society. Joseph telling his brothers to be honest about being shepherds allows them to get the best possible land that also allows them to graze their cattle. Goshen was on the eastern edge of Egypt and would have allowed them to both irrigate and graze further to the east where irrigation was impossible.
The mirror image of the Egyptian animosity towards shepherds can be seen throughout Genesis. Generally nomadic shepherds are portrayed as more moral than urban farmers; Cain and Able, Sodom and Abraham, etc.
Joseph is not actually telling his family to lie. Joseph and his family are upfront telling the pharoah in 46:32 and 47:3 that they are shephrds. Interestingly, the pharoah takes advantage of this, asking them to help tend to his own flocks in the good pasture land of Goshen. As for the abomination thing, some scholars point to the natural rift between those who practiced agriculture versus nomadic groups (what Daniel is referring to). Other scholars think this actually relates to negative feelings the Egyptians held for the Semitic Hyksos people. This is from the Jewish Study Bible: “Some scholars connect this with a late folk etymology of ‘Hyksos’ associated with the Egyptian word for ‘shepherd.’ The Hyksos were a Syro-Palestinian group who ruled Lower Egypt about 1680-1540 BC.E.” I don’t get the feeling that anyone knows for sure why the author included the abomination detail.
The NRSV supports Daniel Smith’s point above; it is interesting to note that, whatever the reason for the Egyptian aversion to herdspersons, Joseph’s admonition might have had the effect of keeping the Israelites separate and apart in Goshen (“Land o’Goshen!”). That may have lessened cultural and religious assimilation somewhat. Their “slavery” may thus also have been how they were treated and perceived by the Egyptians, as the ones engaged in the sordid trade of animal husbandry, and not (as it is usually depicted) sweating and straining while dragging pyramid blocks into place.
Very interesting comments, Thanks!
I always thought it was because sheep grazed differently, eating all the way to the ground, so it didn’t grow back. Cattle only bite off the tops so the grass grows back. I know nothing about sheep or cattle, so this might just be a myth, but I’m way too lazy to look it up.
OK, did any else start singing “The Farmer and the Cowman Should be Friends” while reading this, especially the comments?
(Obligitory earworm link) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rumeT1wOPzk
Strong’s Numbers may or may not shed some light:
From H7069; something bought, that is, property, but only live stock; abstractly acquisition: – cattle, flock, herd, possession, purchase, substance.
Total KJV occurrences: 76
A primitive root; to tend a flock, that is, pasture it; intransitively to graze (literally or figuratively); generally to rule; by extension to associate with (as a friend): – X break, companion, keep company with, devour, eat up, evil entreat, feed, use as a friend, make friendship with, herdman, keep [sheep] (-er), pastor, + shearing house, shepherd, wander, waste.
Total KJV occurrences: 171
2nd number on Shepherd:
From an unused root meaning to migrate; a collective name for a flock (of sheep or goats); also figuratively (of men): – (small) cattle, flock (+ -s), lamb (+ -s), sheep ([-cote, -fold, -shearer, -herds]).
Total KJV occurrences: 274
Feminine active participle of H8581; properly something disgusting (morally), that is, (as noun) an abhorrence; especially idolatry or (concretely) an idol: – abominable (custom, thing), abomination.
Total KJV occurrences: 117
Maybe this will help more:
Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers
(34) For every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians.—This is probably a remark of the narrator, and it is confirmed by the monuments, which generally represent shepherds as unshaven and ill-dressed.
Necessarily the Egyptians had sheep and cattle (Genesis 47:16-17), and even Pharaoh had herds (Genesis 47:6); but the care of them was probably left by the peasantry to the women and children, while the men busied themselves with the cultivation of their fields.
We need not go far to seek for the cause of this dislike. The word “abomination,” first of all, suggests a religious ground of difference; and not only did shepherds probably kill animals worshipped in different Egyptian districts, but their religion generally was diverse from that of the fixed population.
But next, men who lead a settled life always dislike wandering clans, whose cattle are too likely to prey upon their enclosed land (see Note on Genesis 4:8), and who, moving from place to place, are usually not very scrupulous as to the rights of property.
Such nomades, too, are generally lower in civilisation, and more rude and rough, than men who have fixed homes. The subjugation of Egypt by the Hyksos was possibly subsequent to the era of Joseph; but we now know from Egyptian sources that there was perpetual war between Egypt and the Hittites, and probably raids were often made upon the rich fields on the banks of the Nile by other Semitic tribes dwelling upon its eastern frontier; and as all these wore regarded as shepherds, there was ground enough for the dislike of all nomades as a class, even though the Egyptians did not disdain to have cattle themselves. But as the land in the Nile Valley was arable, the cattle kept would only be such as were useful for agriculture, whereas they formed the main wealth of the Israelites.
From this site: http://biblehub.com/commentaries/genesis/46-34.htm
Okay, now I see three posts. Would someone remove the last two? Please? (Once is enough.)
Thanks Toni–appreciate the info.