Bamya (Egyptian Meat and Okra Stew)

Meal: Joseph Dines with His Brothers

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  • bible reference
  • history

Bamya (Egyptian Meat and Okra Stew)

  • 3 lb. fresh okra
  • 1½ cups red wine or Balsamic vinegar
  • 6 Tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 2 onions, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 lb. stewing lamb or beef, cut into cubes
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 tsp. ground coriander
  • 1 cup tomatoes, peeled and chopped
  • 4 Tbsp. tomato paste
  • 1 cup beef stock
  • large handful of mint leaves, freshly chopped salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 3 Tbsp. olive oil

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Many food historians believe that the peoples of ancient Egypt grew okra and used it in their cooking. Bamya, a stew made from either lamb or beef, has a very distinctive taste and texture thanks to its okra base.

Preheat oven to 325°F.

Trim the tops of the okra and soak it in red wine or Balsamic vinegar for about 30 minutes.

Melt the butter in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Sauté the onions and garlic until tender, about 10 minutes. Add the meat a bit at a time, frying the cubes until browned on all sides. Transfer the meat to a large, deep baking dish, leaving the onion, garlic, and meat juices. Heat this mixture, stirring well; then add to it the cumin, coriander, tomatoes, tomato paste, beef stock, and mint. When very hot, pour over the meat and season with a bit of salt and pepper. Cover and bake until all the liquid is absorbed, about 1½ hours.

Heat the olive oil in a frying pan. Sauté the wine-soaked okra over a low heat for about 3–5 minutes, stirring occasionally until it is light brown. Remove the stew from the oven and arrange the okra in a spoke pattern over the stew. Re-cover the dish and return it to the oven. Bake for approximately 35 minutes more. Add a little beef stock if the mixture seems too dry. Serve immediately.

Yield: 8–12 servings

The Text

11 Their father Israel gave in. “If it has to be, it has to be. But do this: stuff your packs with the finest products from the land you can find and take them to the man as gifts— some balm and honey, some spices and perfumes, some pistachios and almonds.

12 “And take plenty of money— pay back double what was returned to your sacks; that might have been a mistake.

13 “Take your brother and get going. Go back to the man.”


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“Gum, balm and myrrh, honey, and nuts—all are packed into the saddle bags of the asses, loaded for the long journey southward.”

31 Then Joseph washed his face, got a grip on himself, and said, “Let's eat.”

32 Joseph was served at his private table, the brothers off by themselves and the Egyptians off by themselves (Egyptians won't eat at the same table with Hebrews; it's repulsive to them).

33 The brothers were seated facing Joseph, arranged in order of their age, from the oldest to the youngest. They looked at one another wide-eyed, wonder ing what would happen next.

34 When the brothers' plates were served from Joseph's table, Benjamin's plate came piled high, far more so than his brothers. And so the brothers feasted with Joseph, drinking freely.

Genesis 43:11–13, 31–34, The Message

Biblical Passage Notes

The story of Joseph and his coat of many colors is well known to most Bible readers. It is a classic tale of sibling rivalry and jealousy, a recurrent and favorite theme in the scriptures. By this point in the book of Genesis (chapter 43), Joseph encounters his brothers the day they show up in Pharaoh's court to purchase grain; they, on the other hand, do not recognize Joseph. He soon learns that there is a brother younger than he who is staying at home with Jacob while the remaining ten brothers are on their pilgrimage for food. Desirous to reacquaint himself with the youngest of his clan, Joseph sends his brothers back to their father, demanding that the youngest present himself lest all end up in prison for spying on Egypt. Simeon, one of the eldest brothers, is held as a ransom until the remaining fraternity return with the youngest, “a lad” called Benjamin.

When the brothers return to Jacob and tell him what they have learned and experienced, he is grieved and crestfallen. One son, Simeon, is now in an Egyptian jail; a second son, Joseph, had been kidnapped and is presumed dead (that's what the brothers had told their father, though they know better); and now a third, the darling of Jacob's brood, is to be taken from his household. It was more than a father could bear.

It is here that we pick up the story. Jacob, realizing that there is no other good choice, relents and lets Benjamin go, both to get food and to redeem his brother in prison. The wise old man, Jacob, knows not to send them once again to Egypt empty-handed. He instructs his sons to carry some of the “best fruits of the land” to the grand vizier's court, the delicacies and spices that had been traded with the Ishmaelites (cf. Genesis 37:25), such as gum, balm and myrrh, honey, and nuts—and all are packed into the saddlebags of the asses, loaded for the long journey southward. Jacob understands the type of man he is dealing with in Egypt, and his gifts are meant to impress and show respect for the esteemed position of the high court official. He is leaving nothing to chance, and along with the food he sends back double the money that had been secreted by Joseph's servants into the packs of his brothers when they left Egypt. Double the money, double the gifts, double the effort means double the chances he will see his sons again. In the end, he gets more than he bargains for or could ever have expected.

When the ten brothers arrive once again in Egypt, Joseph is ready for them. He has instructed the palace steward to set the stage for a meal at which Joseph will reveal his true identity. But the sight of his brothers, this time with Benjamin in tow, is more than Joseph can emotionally handle. He is forced to leave the room, weeping in combined emotions of joy, mixed with sadness at his betrayal, tempered by his own dreamlike visions that God's guidance is behind all that has happened, as well as all that is about to take place.

Getting a grip on himself, Joseph returns to the banquet room and sits to eat. The servants attend to Joseph separately, as befits his station; next the brothers, humble shepherd visitors, but aliens in the land, nonetheless; finally, the rest of the Egyptian court who have little tolerance for usurping neighbors looking for a handout. Still, the text records that all eat and drink well, and are “merry with Joseph.”

The hospitality of the meal serves as an icebreaker and lays the groundwork for the big surprise that Joseph later reveals to his siblings and their father: Joseph is alive, well, and wealthy, and despite all, he forgives them and loves them, because he sees God's hand in all that has happened. He discerns that he had been chosen by God to be the savior of his brothers and their people, having been sent ahead long before to pave the way to their salvation from hunger and starvation. Joseph understands that he is the right man in the right place at the right time to fulfill what he believes to be God's plan for the people of God, in keeping with the covenant God had made with Noah centuries before.

The Preparation

It is clear that Joseph loved his brothers, and despite his harsh treatment of them at times (perhaps so as to not tip his hand until he determined whether they were finally trustworthy), he did lavish upon them a great meal in his own palatial setting. Such an important feast would have required planning and preparation, and perhaps a little innovation. The menu? We can't be sure, but one supposes that wheat, if in such abundance and obviously highly prized, would appear in some form or another at the table. (The KJV calls the grain “corn,” but corn was unknown in the Middle East and is a product of the Americas, where Native Americans grew it as maize. Barley, or some other grain such as wheat, is what the text intends the reader to understand.) It would probably have been impolite not to serve a portion of the gifts rendered from the brothers' homeland: the balm from Gilead (in Hebrew, tsori), in this instance a kind of pistachio oil from the mastic tree;1 honey (in Hebrew, debash), the kind that was cultivated from bees; spices (in Hebrew, nekoth) of the rarest kind, especially the sweet-smelling sort; pistachios (in Hebrew, botnim) and almonds (in Hebrew, shaqed). If they ate and drank freely, there was certainly some sort of wine on hand. And a typical Egyptian meal fit for a grand vizier would undoubtedly have featured fish from the Nile, radishes, garlic, cucumbers, melons, dates, and other dried fruits, all presented in abundance (Benjamin's portion was five times that of his brothers) and fine style, well prepared, lovely to look at, tasty to shepherd and royal official alike.

The History

As recounted in Chapter 3, Jacob fled Esau's wrath and took refuge with their Uncle Laban in Haran. On the way, he had a vision of a ladder extending from earth to heaven; angels were gliding up and down the ladder when God appeared, to renew the covenant made with Abraham and to promise that the land of Canaan would belong to Jacob's descendants. Jacob called the place Beth-el, which means “house of God.”

As soon as Jacob reached Haran, he fell in love with Rachel, Laban's second daughter. To gain his uncle's permission to marry her, Jacob agreed to indenture himself to the household as a shepherd for seven years. Although Jacob had played the role of deceiver with his brother, Laban proved more adept at the game of trickery. At the end of Jacob's period of service, Laban brought Leah, his first daughter, disguised as Rachel, to the bridal chamber, tricking his nephew into marrying her and forcing him into another seven years of servitude in order to marry Rachel. A week later he was permitted to marry Rachel, and Jacob began his second seven-year term with two wives. After the period of indenture was completed, he continued to work for Laban for several more years. They agreed on dividing the herds of sheep and goats, Jacob taking only those animals that were spotted or speckled; now it was Jacob's turn to best his uncle, and he did so by somehow causing the strongest animals to bear speckled and spotted offspring. In the meantime, Jacob's family increased in number: he accepted two concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah, and they and his two wives eventually bore him twelve sons and one daughter. Their names were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Joseph, Benjamin, and Dinah. Jacob favored Joseph because he was Rachel's first son.

After more than twenty years, Jacob decided that it was time to leave Haran and return to the land of his birth. So he assembled his family and his flocks and departed his father-in-law's house in secret. When he was not far from his destination, he received word that Esau and four hundred of his men were coming to meet him. Fearfully dispatching gifts to his brother, and in an act of cowardice sending his flocks, wives, and children to cross the Jabbok River to meet Esau ahead of him, Jacob made plans to flee—but in the night an angel came to wrestle with him, preventing him from leaving. Jacob finally bested the angel at daybreak, refusing to let the angel depart until he had received a blessing. The angel blessed Jacob with a new name, Israel (Yisrael), which means “the one who wrestled with God,” “the one who overpowered God,” or “God's champion.” That day, Jacob reconciled with Esau, though the brothers did not remain together. Jacob and his family continued on to Shechem, where Dinah's abduction (or elopement) so angered her brothers that they destroyed the city and massacred the inhabitants. Finding himself in Beth-el again, Jacob experienced another direct encounter with God, who confirmed him in his new name and repeated the promise to give the land of Canaan to his descendants. Afterward, Jacob and his entourage went to Hebron.

In the ensuing years Joseph began to earn his brothers' enmity because he was Jacob's favorite: Jacob had indicated this by presenting Joseph with a “coat of many colors,” a richly ornamented robe that symbolized the father's passing on of his inheritance to the son who would become the head of the household. In presenting such a robe to Joseph, Jacob indicated his intention to disregard longstanding tradition. Joseph was younger than all the brothers save one, and his elevation over his elders greatly angered them. Nevertheless, he naively persisted in telling them of his dreams, in which everyone, including all his older brothers, bowed down before him. Finally, Simeon and the other young men could stomach Joseph's arrogance no longer: they sold him into slavery, to a band of Ishmaelites, and told their father that a wild animal had killed Joseph. Jacob grieved his favored son and took solace in the childhood of Benjamin, his youngest.

Meanwhile, the Ishmaelites took Joseph, who was but seventeen years old, to Egypt, where he became a slave of Potiphar, captain of Pharaoh's guard. Joseph proved himself capable and was finally promoted to head of the servants, but he was imprisoned when he rebuffed the seductions of Potiphar's wife and she accused him of rape. The head jailer soon put Joseph in charge of the other prisoners, who eventually discovered Joseph's ability to interpret their dreams. The dreams of one, the royal cupbearer, predicted his reinstatement to his post, but that servant forgot all about his promise to help Joseph until, some two years later, Pharaoh had a strange dream that none of his advisors could decipher. Finally remembering his promise, the cupbearer brought Joseph to Pharaoh's attention. According to Joseph's interpretation, Pharaoh's dream predicted seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. Impressed, Pharaoh appointed Joseph chief steward of Egypt and ordered him to store up surplus grain against the coming years of want. During these years of abundance, Joseph married Asenath, a priest's daughter, was accepted as a member of the priestly class, and had two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. After Pharaoh, Joseph was perhaps the most powerful man in Egypt—the grand vizier—all this by the time he was thirty.

Famine soon struck the region, and people from far and wide came to Egypt to buy food. In Pharaoh's name, Joseph took their money, their livestock, their land, and finally their very persons—all came to belong to Pharaoh. Some archaeological evidence indicates that this would have taken place about 1600 b.c.e., though some scholars place the date of Joseph's rise to prominence in Egypt as early as 1800 b.c.e. Still others question whether the story of Joseph in Egypt has any historical veracity.