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.