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.

15 responses to “Why were shepherds detestable to Egyptians?

  1. Heradutus said much about the fastidious hygiene of the Egyptians who did not even like hair on their own heads or bodies and who bathed several times a day. The Romans took exception with this and thought it weirdly cultist. Egyptians would wear wigs over their bald heads polished with pumice. That alone would make them favor smooth cattle over hairy, sheep with grimy posteriors and their hairy attendants (shepherds). Cows and bulls were deified in Egypt as well. Apis Atum the bull deity of Memphis (that’s Apis not Elvis) who sported the sun disk between his horns. Join this to the eternal controversy of the grazing style of sheep and cattle and the stigma of gypsy lifestyle of nomads and I think you have a case for disgust and disfavor. I too was tickled by Joseph’s desire to be diplomatic spoiled by the brutal honesty of his brothers or maybe father, who deliberately said they were shepherds anyway. The Lord had his hand in all this no doubt to preserve the faith of Abraham.

  2. Does anyone know where the land of Goshen between ancient Tanis and Tel Daba is at? It’s very lovely and I’d actually like to visit that area and learn about the agriculture there. Is it open to the public?

  3. It seems that it is was all about religious, traditional, and cultural differences. The word “Shepard” seems synonymous with “Hebrew”.To own any amount of animals in those days you were considered “rich”. So it wasn’t the animals in question, it was all about how they were to present themselves unto pharaoh so they wouldn’t highly offend him, there Gods, religion, cultural practices and banish them or even kill them. 1) The Egyptians already thought themselves the best class in the world, as there religion/gods, so they couldn’t eat with anyone who wasn’t Egyptian because they were unworthy to dine with, all other cultures were slaves/and or servants to the Egyptians, so pharaoh allowed them to live by the city but not in the city because of the respect he had toward Joseph. 2) Livestock owners were considered the most rich in all the world and Egyptians even considered them gods, so you can’t go to pharaoh and say you are a “Hebrew Shepard” which implies you are equal/and or better then them and there gods because your a Hebrew owner of many livestock, that would highly highly offend him and there pagan gods. So by saying you WORK with livestock and all each have some is different then saying “here is my vast rich livestock kingdom”. 3)Religious, cultural and traditions were so different in every way, even with there livestock. How they were raised, killed, eaten, sacrificed, etc.. It all comes into play, so if you didn’t do it like the Egyptians, then if was offensive to them period. Obviously how they presented themselves to pharaoh worked because he wasn’t offended by them and offered them JOBS, meaning if they had skills that were worthy of SERVING pharaoh then they could SERVE him and his kingdom.

  4. I am surprised no one has correlated this to Gen 47:3 where Joseph’s brothers explicitly introduced themselves as ‘shepherds’ to Pharaoh.

  5. This has little to do with what we know of sheep in the Bible world.

  6. Well, sheep might be stinky as aforementioned, but if you had all that wool surrounding your behind and no arms to clean it yourself, perhaps you’d have the same problem. Apparently God created them with the view of helping mankind as I imagine many humans have at least one wool item of clothing or a blanket, hat, etc.. Yup. Darn those stinky sheep who keep us warm when it’s cold. You might find these interesting:


    this is an amazing (pun intended) little film … tear alert

    As far as the eating up too much grass, etc …. sounds like it might be a shepherding problem? Maybe different shepherding techniques could counter that.

    I also feel that much of the Bible is really just metaphor and the sheep may have represented the ‘nomadic/gypsy’ segment of population much like the undesirables of Hindu caste system. Ironically, Egyptians had no problem wearing the wool shepherds provided: “They wear tunics made of linen with fringes hanging about the legs, called “calasiris”, and loose white woollen cloaks over these. Herodotus, Histories 2,81 … though most garments were made of linen as the climate was hot. Ah, yes, there be hypocrites all throughout history.

    Now, using a concordance, plug in “linen” and “wool” … you find linen from Genesis through Revelation. Heavily in Exodus and Leviticus. Linen was considered in Egypt a “noble” fabric. So was it a bunch of poor slaves that went into the Sinai? You will find wool more limited in the scope of chapters – check out which ones – but it is in Revelation …. hmmm …. consider that.

  7. Egypt is symbolic of sin. Christ is our Shepherd. Sin hates Christ.

  8. Doing my read through the Bible 2014 and I too just couldn’t help noticing
    the sentence about despising the Shepherds. My name is Sheppard, so I guess it caught my eye. I love all the comments! Thanks for everyone’s incite!

  9. That’s so helpful, thank you. It’s one of those lines you just read and then only occasionally stop and ask ‘why?’ So glad to have had that cleared up and it really adds something to the story of Joseph and the Israelites in Egypt,especially how they kept themselves apart.

  10. Pingback: Why were shepherds an abomination to Egyptians? | megs0613

  11. I’ll toss one other possibility into this mix. My father refused to allow sheep on our farm. His reason was simple. As a young boy he worked for a neighbor who raised sheep. The only time he had anything to do with the sheep was at shearing time.

    Dad informed us that the sheep are the nastiest critter on earth. By the time shearing season rolls around the south bound end was so matted with sheep doo doo he said it made him gag. Professional shearers traveled the country and did this for those guys who raised sheep so my father only had to assist but that was enough to turn him against them.

    I could easily see where anyone associated with sheep, whether a native born or sojourner, would have been viewed as a nasty person. Dad also added that once you’d handled sheep the smell was long time dissipating which makes me wonder how they ever fooled anyone with the ruse.

    Great subject matter and study. I love the roads less traveled and investigation of these side roads is a lot of fun. Not to mention informative.

  12. Pingback: Genesis 46 – Joseph Brings His Family to Egypt | Robert's Christianity Blog

  13. Was glad to run into this article. We began studying through the Bible (in four years) as a congregation this year, and came across this passage. It stumped one of our elders (who was teaching), and I’ve been doing some research. Here are my thoughts.
    Joseph kept his head about him with respect to what would be prudent as his family came to Egypt, and sought to follow God’s ultimate plan for the preservation of His people. It seems to me, after some study and thought, that Joseph used the term “Egyptians” here in a concise way, referring primarily to the nobility. Others in the kingdom in fact tended sheep, used the animal in worship, ate the animal in conjunction with that worship, and it is historic fact that Egyptian kings often used shepherd’s crooks as signs of authority and oversight. So, I believe Burton Coffman was correct in saying that this was purely a matter of the Egyptians (in particular, the noble class) feeling that the menial work of shepherding, whether sheep, cattle, or anything else, was beneath them.
    What Joseph is saying that that while HE has risen to the status of nobility in Egypt, his family – whom the Pharaoh and other nobles were about to meet – would not be fit for such service (they would be, to cite pop culture, “Beverly Hillbillies”). Which was perfect, as God would have them preserved from the Egyptians anyway while He worked out His ultimate plan for Israel. Let us not forget that much of the Egyptian lifestyle was an abomination to the Hebrews as well.

  14. Pingback: Comments on the detestable shepherds in Egypt | Ferrell's Travel Blog

  15. We get more comments on the posts at Facebook than on the blog itself. Often I wish the (serious) comments were added here. I am going to share some comments made on this post.

    Christine, a regular reader of the blog and a friend from church, wrote: “the cattlemen and the sheep herders of the American west were at odds, and I have read that sheep eat roots and all of the grass, ruining the grazing for cattle…could have an economic basis. And I could be wrong.”

    Mark T., former student, wrote: “I learned that from reading cowboy books as a teenager. :-)”

    Mark B., former tour member, wrote:”I never thought about the animosities between cattlemen and sheep herders here in the old west and how the sheep tear up the good grass if left to graze too long in one spot. What a great point!”

    Listening to the sound tract of Oklahoma would give a tip about the conflict between the cowmen and the farmers.

    I think the point about the cattlemen and the farmers is a great one to show the conflict that often exists in a society.

    However, we must not overlook the point made by John T. Willis that the term livestock includes cattle, sheep, goats, etc. Note the comment.

    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).

    Thanks to all,

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