As we near the end of our annual reading of Genesis, with Ya’akov finally getting to see his beloved son Yosef, with the brothers reunited and at least to some degree reconciled, the stage is set for the relocation of the entire family in the Land of Egypt. Now Yosef instructs his father and brothers before their meeting with Pharaoh:
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. (Genesis 46:33-35)
What was so negative about breeding livestock and herding sheep?
Why was it better to be settled in Goshen?
Why would any of this matter to Pharaoh?
With regard to the first question, we may have become too used to a rather poor translation of the Hebrew word to’evah. From at least the time of the King James version, English translations have usually used “abomination” or something like it. But in the ancient versions, like the Babylonian Aramaic translation we call Onkelos, we find m’rahakin mitzra’ei kol ra’ei ana – “the Egyptians would keep all the shepherds at a distance.”
In last week’s portion, Miketz, the same word— to’evah—described why the Egyptians would not eat with the sons of Ya’akov, and we will see it again in Exodus when Pharaoh is asked to allow the Israelites to go into the wilderness for three days to make animal sacrifices (8:22).
According to Rashi—R. Shlomo Yitzhaki (11 th cent), who bases himself on an earlier midrashic tradition (possibly Shmot Rabbah 11:3)it was because the Egyptians would worship all sorts of grazing animals. However, Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam—R. Shmuel be Meir—in somewhat the opposite direction, argues that sheep were particularly disgusting creatures in the eyes of the Egyptians, and for that reason, they stayed away from them.
One of the more novel explanations is that of R. Avraham Ibn Ezra (11 th -12 th cent):
Because all shepherds were considered to be disgusting in the eyes of the Egyptians since in those days they did not eat meat … just like they do today in India. Shepherds were thought to be disgusting since they drink milk. And the people of India likewise will not eat, or drink, anything that comes from a sentient life form.
Even if we know that Ibn Ezra’s information is a bit off, we see that he essentially agrees with what is found in the midrash and Rashi’s interpretation, that these animals were somehow sacred in the eyes of the Egyptians.
Historically speaking, we have no evidence from Egyptian, or any other ancient sources, of this being the case. We do hear from the Greek historian Herodotus (2:47) that swine herders were looked down upon, but nothing of what Ibn Ezra assumes to be similar between India of his day and ancient Egypt.
A number of modern bible commentators have postulated that this abhorrence of sheep is related to an ancient disturbing memory of the Hyksos, a shepherd nation that possibly controlled Egypt for a time in the 16th century BCE.
But I would like to offer a different explanation, one that involves the particular context of our narrative. Let us remember that the main messages of the Five Books of Moses are establishing the Lord, who we refer to as Adonai, Elohim, El Shaddai, among other names, as the one God. And that this one God chose the descendants of Avraham and Sarah, Yitzhak and Rivkah, Ya’akov, Rahel and
Leah to carry this message to the rest of the world by keeping the Lord’s law as given at Sinai and by settling in the Promised Land. Shepherds by nature are a folk who wander from place to place, never settling down in one spot for too long. Even if there was no food to be had in the Promised Land and the family of Ya’akov was forced to dwell in Egypt, it was never supposed to be permanent.
Presumably, once the famine was over, the Israelites could go back to their land. This is what I believe the narrative is trying to tell us and this is what our characters are trying to tell Pharaoh— “you have nothing to worry about, we won’t be staying long!”
As an area apparently distant from the rest of Egyptian culture, Goshen was ideal both for Ya’akov’s family and for Pharaoh. God, of course, had a different plan, one in which the Children of Israel would learn that there is no other master other than God, a plan in which the tiny family unit could grow into the proportions of a full nation.
And there is, I believe, another message. According to the biblical narrative, our ancestors found God while they wandered in nature with their sheep, dependent almost entirely upon the creation in its pristine state. And as the narrative teaches us, as much as our people found God, God found our people in this particular state of development. The gods of the more “established” and “developed” cultures, those already living in cities and towns with complex forms of government and commerce, were perhaps more appropriate for those who worshiped them. But it was our people, the Children of Israel, who were destined to spread a different theology, one that taught dependence upon nature, rather than manipulating it. This theology allowed for the individual, out there alone with the
sheep in the wilderness, to develop a one-on-one relationship with God. Surely, a communal and organized culture of worship as ancient Israel developed, but once the story had been told the way it had been told in the book of Genesis, describing the lives of shepherds, from Avraham and Sarah coming from the East to the Land of Canaan to the resettlement of Ya’akov’s family in Egypt, the one-on-one experience of an individual with God cannot be ignored.
The biblical narrative seems to be telling us that a step “backwards” in the development of human culture was needed in order to achieve this status. The Egyptians, with all their great cultural achievements, may have found this point objectionable, the step “backwards” to what they considered a more primitive existence.
We are no longer shepherds; we’re not (at least not most of us Jews) even farmers anymore. We live in cities and towns all over the world; we take part in modern commerce, science and culture. We take great pride in our accomplishments in all these fields.
We are no longer a constantly wandering people. Some of us have chosen to dwell in the Promised Land, in the State of Israel, and some of us have chosen to live among the nations, not in our own “Goshen,” a region set aside for Jews alone, but alongside everyone else.
Still, from time to time, we might do well to take a step “back” from our involvement in politics, science, commerce, and culture, and return to the simple scenes of life in nature with its possibilities of a one-on-one experience with God.
Please consider joining us in taking that step “back” and contemplating creation, humanity and God at Joshua Tree National Park on January 7. For more info click here.
Rabbi David Lazar