The Abomination of Egypt
“Rabbi Ḥiyya said, ‘Why is the Passover offering a lamb?’ Well, because it is written If we sacrifice the abomination of Egypt (Exodus 8:22). What is meant by the abomination of Egypt? Now, could it be that because they despise it the verse reads the abomination of Egypt? Rather, the Egyptians’ deity and god is called the abomination of Egypt. Thus it is written like the abominations of those nations (Deuteronomy 18:9)—the gods of the other nations.’
Come and see the wisdom of Joseph, as is written: From among all his brothers he took five men (Genesis 47:2), and he taught them to say Your servants are shepherds, we and our fathers as well (ibid., 3). Now, would a king ruling over the whole land and a father to the king do such a thing, making his brothers despicable and disreputable to them [for every shepherd is abhorrent to Egypt (Genesis 46:34)]? But surely, the abomination of Egypt is what their deity and god was called. Thus it is written If we sacrifice the abomination of Egypt….
Joseph said, ‘The best of the land is the land of Rameses, and that land they have set aside for their gods, to graze and wander to their hearts’ delight; and all the Egyptians esteem those who shepherd their gods as their very gods. I will enable my brothers to inherit that land, so the Egyptians will bow down to them and esteem them fittingly.’ This accords with what is written: For every shepherd is an abomination to Egypt (Genesis 46:34)—they esteem them as their gods.’
Rabbi Yose said, ‘But we have learned: Just as the blessed Holy One will punish idolators, so will He punish the idols themselves [cf. JT Ḥagigah 2:1, 77a; Bereshit Rabbah 96:5; Vayiqra Rabbah 26:7; Midrash Shemu’el 24:5; Tanḥuma, Vayḥi 3, Emor 2; Tanḥuma (Buber), Vayḥi 5; Emor; 4 BT Avodah Zarah 54b]. Now, did Joseph make his brothers into idols?’
He replied, ‘Joseph didn’t make his brothers into idols, but rather into rulers over the Egyptians’ idols, subduing their gods, chastising them with a rod. Joseph said, ‘If my brothers rule over their gods, they will certainly rule over the Egyptians themselves!’ That is why he settled them in the best of the land, giving them control over all the land.
So, why is the Passover offering a lamb? Well, because the lamb was the deity and god of Egypt. The blessed Holy One said, ‘From the tenth of the month, take the Egyptians’ deity and seize it, and let it be bound and held in your custody for one, two, three days. And on the fourth day, bring it out to be judged and assemble against it.’
When the Egyptians heard the voice of their deity, held in Israel’s custody, and they could not rescue it, they wept, and it was as hard on them as if they themselves had been bound for slaughter. The blessed Holy One said, ‘Let it be held in your possession day after day for four days, so that they will see it captured; and on the forth day bring it out to the field forum to be killed, and let the Egyptians see how you execute judgment on it.’ This was harder on them than all the plagues that the blessed Holy One had inflicted upon them—those judgements that they executed on their deities.
Afterward, they punished it with fire, for it is written: The images of their gods you shall burn in fire (Deuteronomy 7:25). The blessed Holy One said, Do not eat of it raw (Exodus 12:9)—so that [the Egyptians] will not say, ‘Out of craving for our deity, they are eating it like this.’ Nor cooked (ibid.)—for if it is cooked, it will be concealed, and [the Egyptians] will not see it. Rather, it should be prepared so that they see it being burned in fire, so that its odor will spread.
Furthermore, its head bent over its shank—so that [the Egyptians] will not say that it is a different animal or something else; rather, they will recognize it as their deity. Further, they should not eat it ravenously, but rather on a full stomach, showing disgrace and contempt.
Further, No bone shall you break in it (Exodus 12:46)—rather, [the Egyptians] should see its bone cast into the street and be unable to save it. Thus it is written [Upon all the gods of Egypt I will execute] judgments (Exodus 12:12)—many judgements.
Further, your staff in your hand (Exodus 12:11)—and not a sword or spear or any other weapon of war.
Rabbi Yehudah said, ‘It has already has been established that the Egyptians worshiped the constellation Aries, and that is why they worshipped a sheep.’
Rabbi Yose said, ‘If so, they should have worshipped a lamb and not a sheep’ [טָלֶה (taleh), lamb, is numerically equivalent to דָם (dam), blood, which alludes to מַאְדִים (Ma’adim), Mars]. He replied, ‘They worship them all. Actually, the constellation Aries descends and ascends, as a lamb and a sheep; so they worship them all.’ He said to him, ‘I have heard as follows: that all cattle were their deity, and so the blessed Holy One killed all the firstborn of the cattle (Exodus 12:29). As has been said, these are rungs on high, who are called so’” (Zohar 3:250b–251a).