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The Camel

Our Adaptation to Them

Stephen Broyles
Camel Carrying Wine Amphora. Mosaic. Kissufim, Israel, sixth century. Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.


For us in the West, the camel is the animal which more than any other belongs to the Near East. Camels are well suited for life there. Desert winds do not bother them because they have two rows of eyelashes and slit-like nostrils that close to keep out dust and sand. They can walk easily over sand, snow, and rock on their broad, padded feet. They are able to go for days without eating because they store fat in their humps. They are able to go for days without drinking, because their bodies tolerate dehydration up to a fourth of their total weight, and they replace the water quickly when they can drink again. Camels are so well adapted to desert conditions that they do not survive well in any other climate.

In fact, camels are so well adapted that when men wanted to make use of them, they had to adapt themselves to the camel rather than the camel to them. The principle economic value of the camel is its usefulness as a pack animal in the desert. Therefore people had to let the camel go on being a camel while they themselves conformed to its ways and to the desert environment.

Although in Palestine the donkey was always the primary beast of burden, the Bible does mention camel caravans and sometimes lists their burdens. When the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon she came with camels bearing spices, gold, and precious stones (1 Kings 10:2; 2 Chronicles 9:1). When the prophet Elisha approached Damascus, Ben-Hadad, the king of Syria, sent him forty camel loads of goods from the city (2 Kings 8:9).

Sometimes camels have been used militarily. In the time of the Judges, some of Israel’s neighbors rode camels in raids against the villages of Esdraelon. One of these early raids was mounted by “the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the East” (Judges 6:3). The camels of these people were said to be “without number, as the sand which is upon the seashore for multitude” (Judges 7:12). When the two Midianite kings Zebah and Zalmunna were captured, it was found that their camel mounts were decorated with jewelry, crescents, and chains hung around their necks (Judges 8:21, 26).

By Roman times, the horse was the preeminent war animal. Nonetheless, the Parthians, especially Surenas, skillfully developed the tactical employment of camels in battle. The strength of Surenas’ army lay in his 10,000 horse-archers, who could shoot equally well riding away from you as toward you, and whose arrows could pierce light armor. But the archers were worth little without their arrows, so Surenas kept them supplied with a huge reserve carried by 1,000 Arabian camels. The Roman general Crassus felt the full weight of this combination. When he attempted to subdue Mesopotamia by invading across the open land, the Parthians destroyed his army at the battle of Carrhae (53 b.c.; Plutarch Crassus 19ff.).

The rough clothing of John the Baptist was made of camel hair (Matthew 3:4; Mark 1:6). John is the only biblical character said explicitly to wear clothes of this material, although it is probable that Elijah’s “garment of haircloth” was made of camel hair, too.

Two sayings of Jesus place the camel—a ridiculous animal anyway—in ridiculous postures.

To illustrate his remark, “It will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:23-24; Mark 10:23-25; Luke 18:24-25). Imagine the largest domestic animal of the East being threaded through the smallest hole that ancient craftsmen could drill!

In another saying, Jesus illustrated the wisdom of putting first things first. He found that some people were fastidious in minor religious observances and tithed minute amounts of garden herbs, but they were apparently oblivious of larger matters like justice, mercy, and faith. He accused them of “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel” (Matthew 23:23-25). Here again the contrast is between the largest and the smallest, for the camel and the gnat are the largest and smallest of the unclean animals (Leviticus 11:4, 20, 41). The point is that a man may well strain a drowned bug out of his drink and thereby avoid swallowing food that is unclean. But he is no better off if he should then obliviously gulp down a whole camel. The order should be reversed: first remove the big things that contaminate your heart and your life, and then see about the lesser things. Or to put it positively rather than negatively, first fill your heart with justice, mercy, and faith, and then the other obligations of the law will fall into place.


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