God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (Or: Why Couldn’t the Egyptians Eat with the Hebrews?)

What do dinner seating arrangements, shepherds, and Hebrew sacrifices have in common? It turns out to be an important question with an interesting answer.

1. Genesis 43:32 has a curious observation about the meal that Joseph ordered to be prepared for his brothers during their second visit. Joseph, still masquerading as an Egyptian — he recognizes his brothers, but they don’t yet know who he is — has a meal prepared for his guests. But Joseph eats alone, not with his brothers, because for Egyptians to dine with Hebrews is “a to’evah for the Egyptians.”

2. Another Egyptian to’evah, according to Genesis 46:34, are shepherds. Joseph coaches his family to tell Pharoah that they are shepherds so that they can settle in Goshen, “because every shepherd is an Egyptian to’evah.” It should be noted that of course Pharoah had shepherds of his own, and the text (Genesis 47:6) even confirms this, but the truth of the statement isn’t the point. What’s important is how Joseph connects “Egyptian to’evah” to his plan.

3. After the 4th plague, as part of the negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh, Pharaoh agrees to let the Hebrews sacrifice to their God within the land. But Moses counters that it’s a bad idea, because (Exodus 8:22, also numbered 8:26) what the Hebrews sacrifice is a to’evah of the Egyptians, and if the Egyptians see the Hebrews offering such a sacrifice, the Hebrews will be stoned to death. At least, this is what the text appears to say. Another possibility is that it’s not what the Hebrews sacrifice that’s a to’evah of the Egyptians but, rather, it’s the fact that the Hebrews are sacrificing that’s an Egyptian to’evah. Either way, there’s a close connection between the Egyptian to’evah and the Egyptians stoning to death the people who introduce it.

So Joseph’s dinner arrangements, shepherds, and the sacrifices of the Hebrews have two things in common. The first is obvious. All three are called a to’evah, apparently something undesirable in some way. The second, less obvious thing they have in common is, I think, a clue to what exactly to’evah means: they are all either a to’evah for the Egyptians or of the Egyptians.

According to these texts, a to’evah is culturally determined. Something can be a to’evah in one culture but not in another. So the Hebrew sacrifices are a to’evah for the Egyptians, but, obviously, hugely encouraged in Hebrew society; shepherding is similar. And it was only in Egyptian culture that Egyptians couldn’t dine with Hebrews.

The usual translation of to’evah is “abomination,” which, according to a few dictionaries that I checked, is pretty accurate. An “abomination” in English, they claim, is a relative matter, like the aesthetics of a work of art. But that’s not how I use the word (to the extent that I use it at all). I don’t think in terms of “an abomination for you but fine for me” or vice versa. I tend to think that there is something intrinsically wrong with something that is an “abomination.”

Another way to look at it is this: The Hebrew to’evah seems to a statement about how people perceive something, not about the thing that is perceived. There’s nothing wrong with shepherds, for example, but the Egyptians see them peculiarly. Apparently this is what “abomination” is supposed to mean in English, too, but it’s not how I use it.

So for me “abomination” isn’t the right translation. And some major Bible translations agree with me. The NRSV has “abomination” in Genesis 43:32 but “abhorrent” in Genesis 46:34, and the much milder “offensive” in Exodus 8:22. The NIV has “detestable” all three times. The NABRE has “abhorrent.”

What do you think? When you think of “abomination” do you think of something that’s culturally relative or something absolute? And if you’re like me and think of something absolute, what’s a better English word to capture what you see in Genesis and Exodus?

And obviously, there’s more to say about this.


June 4, 2012 - Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. I think the best English translation is “taboo.”

    Comment by kategladstone | June 4, 2012

    • I also like “taboo”, especially since the words sound alike. t doesn’t work in every instance, though.

      I somehow get the feeling that this entire post is an attempt to relativize Lev. 18:22.

      Comment by Elliot | June 5, 2012

  2. I agree – “detestable” or “loathsome” are good definitions. In one verse where to’evah is used twice, this makes particular sense:

    Prov. 29:27 The righteous detest the dishonest; the wicked detest the upright.

    In this verse, you could say that “detestable-ness” is culturally determined by whether you’re wicked or righteous. But when I look at the overall usage, it is fairly rare that humans decide what is detestable, as the Egyptians do. In the vast majority of usages, something is simply called “to’evah,” and the implied speaker is God. For instance,

    Prov. 21:27 The sacrifice of the wicked is detestable (to’evah) — how much more so when brought with evil intent!

    Prov. 17:15 Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent — the LORD detests (to’avat) them both.

    At least from the point of the view of the biblical writer, the intention is not just that some things are culturally taboo in Israel, it’s that they are loathsome in God’s eyes. When God is the implied source of the statement, doesn’t it have an ultimate sense?

    Comment by Lois Tverberg | June 4, 2012

    • Yes, Proverbs 29:27 is particularly clear.

      But I’m not sure I agree with “detestable” and “loathsome,” because the other possibility is “detested” and “loathed.”

      At least to my ear, if I say, “green is loathsome to you and red is loathsome to me,” it sounds like you and I are making judgement statements; we’re talking a out ourselves, not about the colors. But if I just say, “green is loathsome,” it sounds more like I’m making a statement about green, not about me (or you). I haven’t asked other people, so maybe it’s just me, but that’s how complicated these terms can be. (It’s not unlike “luck,” which comes in two varieties, “good luck” and “back luck,” but to be “lucky” means to have good luck. More here: “Luck, Omens, and Other Bipolar Words“.)

      Comment by Joel H. | June 4, 2012

  3. Hmm… I think I see your point. I agree with you that there are a lot of Hebrew words that are “bipolar” – they can have opposite meanings depending on the situation.

    One thing I think of is that an “abomination” is a noun, while “detested” or “loathed” are past participles, which imply an object. Declaring something an “abomination” seems like an ultimate statement that doesn’t depend on whose opinion it is. But saying that something is “loathed” (or “loathsome”) does cause one to ask, “by whom?”

    My point is that many statements in the Tanakh declare something to’evah without saying who feels that way. Usually, the implication is that it’s God who feels that way, and then to’evah becomes his ultimate judgment, not just one person’s opinion. The Exodus 8:26 passage is somewhat unusual because it talks about the sacrifice as being to’evah “in the eyes” of the Egyptians, which implies that this is their opinion, not necessarily that of anyone else. In most other places, no object is mentioned. For instance, Prov. 28:9 reads, “If anyone turns a deaf ear to the law, even his prayers are to’evah.” The line doesn’t say who the prayers are detested by, but it’s assumed to be God.

    Comment by Lois Tverberg | June 4, 2012

  4. “Abomination” is actually a very harsh English word, in modern usage anyway, so it comes across as something absolute in most peoples’ ears I think.

    What about disgusting, gross, or repulsive as adjectives?

    What about stumbling block or hindrance as nouns?

    Comment by Robert Kan | July 27, 2012

  5. –I think the sense of the translation should be of profound disregard, not necessarily active disgust.

    –But that is going entirely on the spiritual meaning of Hebrews and Egyptians not eating together. It is ignoring whatever meaning the original Hebrew word has. It also ignores how the passage would have been understood literally, which I must admit escapes me, unless there actually was a cultural tradition of the two not eating together, perhaps owing to dietary differences.

    –Think of cattle grazing in a lush meadow strewn with boulders, they will scarcely notice the boulders, they only have eyes for the green grass.
    –Or perhaps imagine two young men surveying the crowd at a mall, one man gay and the other straight. They are simply going to be looking for entirely different things, they are not going to be experiencing active disgust, unless something they are not interested in is pushed at them.

    –Egyptians in the Bible nearly always represent the earthly aspect of what we are and Israel represents our spiritual aspect. Egyptians are going to want/pursue/consume (eat in allegory) things of this world such as wealth, power, fame and pleasure. Hebrews are going to be pursuing spiritual wisdom and understanding.

    –I don’t understand exactly how the metaphor works when a new generation is born such as to Abraham. But Ishmael is born of Hagar an Egyptian and represents the earthly aspect. Isaac is born later (as the spiritual always is) to Sarah (wisdom) and represents the spiritual aspect. Then Esau and Jacob represent earthly and spiritual all over again a generation later. When exactly is the metaphor about a different physical person? Is the entire line from Abram to Joseph representing only one physical person, or several?
    –Abram and Abraham are presumably earthly and spiritual in that first generation.

    Comment by Caleb J. | July 28, 2012

  6. […] with another man as a to’evah, commonly translated as “abomination.” But as we saw a few months ago, the Hebrew to’evah had to do with cultural norms, not absolute right and […]

    Pingback by What’s This Abomination in Leviticus? (And How Context Can Help) « God Didn't Say That | October 3, 2012

  7. It is irrelevant whether or not it is ” culturally relative or something absolute” because nothing having to do with culture is truely absolute. For example, eating pork in the Arab world is absolutely an abomination. This is not relative to them. They do not think that it is ok for them or anyone else to eat swine, and they comdemn everyone else for it. However in the west we love bacon on sunday mornings before church.

    The egyptians of the time mentioned in the bible worshiped sheep as gods the way that the indians worship rats today as ancestors. They raised them to be revered not eaten. So the Hebrews who practice the devowering of sheep were not people you could eat with. It would be like dining next to someone with a plate full of cats and dogs, or eye balls and roaches. It would turn your stomach. And sheparding, or raising sheep for food is not something that could be tolerated in the main provences of Egypt.

    The Egyptians of the time were a fairly advanced, technolgical, and sophisticated people in contrast to the nomadic Isrealites. They relied on irrigation rather than rain and their level of agreculture was the most advanced at the time save for Babylon. The scripture may be displaying that though they may have been vegetarian(?) and had taboos, they understood and respected other cultures and practiced some extent of tolerance, however intolerant their stomachs may have been.

    Comment by Paradigm Brodsky | October 9, 2013

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