31 And he washed his face, and went out, and refrained himself, and said, Set on bread.
32 And they set on for him by himself, and for them by themselves, and for the Egyptians, which did eat with him, by themselves: because the Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that is an abomination unto the Egyptians.
The Egyptians viewed eating at the same table with the Hebrews as an abomination. According to Herodotus, the Egyptians also refused to mingle their cuisine with the Greeks, so this was not an exclusive rejection to only the Hebrews. The word “abomination” suggests that there is more at play here than simple prejudice, it makes it seem that this was a matter of religious principle.
In a few chapters we will also learn that the chief occupation of Abraham’s descendants, sheep-herding, was also considered an abomination to the Egyptians. This may be a clue to what the central concern was. The Hebrews may have been raising, killing, and eating animals that were deemed sacred by the Egyptians.
This makes me wonder about Joseph’s relationship to the Egyptians on the matter. He’s making a point of eating apart from his brothers, but also it sounds as if he is apart from the Egyptian servants in his own household. Does this mean that despite all the customs and manners that Joseph had adopted, and even though he was a ruler among them, that he was still an abomination at their table? Perhaps the status of being unclean was baked into his blood, no matter how he conducted himself now. Of course, he wouldn’t eat with his brothers either, because that would reveal that he wasn’t the bona fide Egyptian that he appeared to be. So he dines alone, a man caught between two worlds, an imperfect fit for both.