Daily Archives: June 24, 2011

Why were shepherds detestable to Egyptians?

A readers asks about Joseph’s instruction to his family when they moved to the land of Goshen in Egypt.

“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 fathers,’ that you may live in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is loathsome to the Egyptians.”  (Genesis 46:33-34 NAU)

Why was every shepherd loathsome (an abomination, disgusting, abhorrent, detestable) to the Egyptians. Here are some suggestions.

G. J. Wenham says,

Shepherds are detestable to the Egyptians probably reflects a common distrust of nomadic peoples by urban dwellers (cf. attitudes to gypsies and ‘travellers’ in modern society). (The New Bible Commentary)

The IVP Bible Background Commentary says,

It is unlikely that native Egyptian herdsmen would be detested by other Egyptians. Joseph’s advice to his father is both a warning about Egyptian attitudes toward strangers and a piece of diplomacy in that they would claim independent status (they had their own herds to support them) and show they were not an ambitious group who wished to rise above their occupation as shepherds.

Derek Kidner likes the explanation of J. Vergote:

A more likely explanation is that of J. Vergote, that this is only the perennial antipathy of the town-dweller for the nomad or the gipsy [gypsy]. Joseph saw the importance of emphasizing this, to ensure that Pharaoh’s goodwill would be to the family’s real benefit, not to their detriment by drawing them into an alien way of life at the capital. ( Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries)

Howard Vos says,

The reason for Joseph’s concern was that Egyptians considered shepherds an abomination. Settlement in Goshen would separate them from the Egyptian cattlemen of the Nile Valley and thus reduce friction with Egyptians and preserve their distinctiveness as a people. (Genesis in Everyman’s Bible Commentary)

John T. Willis points out that the term livestock (or cattle; Hebrew, miqneh) is “a comprehensive term including cattle, sheep, goats, and the like” (Genesis in The Living Word Commentary on the Old Testament).

The biblical Land of Goshen, where Israel settled, is the eastern portion of the Nile Delta. This was the home of the Israelites for many years.

Joseph went and told Pharaoh, “My father and brothers, with their flocks and herds and everything they own, have come from the land of Canaan and are now in Goshen.” (Genesis 47:1 NAS)

A typical scene in the Eastern Nile Delta. Photo Ferrell Jenkins.

A typical scene in the Eastern Nile Delta near Tel Daba. Photo Ferrell Jenkins.

To think of the stereotypical view of Egypt as a pyramid in the desert is to misunderstand the area where Israel settled.  Goshen is a flat, fertile, area, situated along the Pelusiac branch of the Nile River. That branch has now been replaced by a canal that runs generally along the same course. Cattle, including sheep, are common in the Eastern Nile Delta today. The canal in the photo below is one of the numerous smaller canals providing water to the farm land of the region.

The land of Goshen near ancient Tanis. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

The land of Goshen between ancient Tanis and Tel Daba. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

I enjoy the vividness of The Five Books of Moses by Everett Fox. Fox translates Genesis 46:34 as follows:

Then say: Your servants have always been livestock men, from our youth until now, so we, so our fathers—
in order that you may settle in the region of Goshen.
For every shepherd of flocks is an abomination to the Egyptians.

This will give you something to consider. Hopefully it will be helpful. We have mentioned Goshen several times in this blog. Put the word goshen in the search box to locate them.