Camels in the Bible serve as units of trade

Source: https://www.abarim-publications.com/Dictionary/g/g-m-l.html

Camels in the Bible

— The camel serves as a unit of trade —

Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary


The difficult verb גמל (gamal) has no proper equivalent in English. It roughly means to invest, but with an emphasized specialization; it describes the completion of an exchange, transition or period of growth from one situation to another one, usually to achieve a growth stage prior to maturity and usually by some kind of nutritious or formative agent infused continuously into the developing situation. The resultant situation can either be good or bad, or pleasant or not, but it is clearly distinct and even separate from the former situation.

Our verb may be used to describe an infusion with evil, which results in a bad situation. His brothers had infused Joseph with evil and feared his retaliation (Genesis 50:15,17). David challenged YHWH to check whether he had infused his friend with evil (Psalm 7:5). The speech and actions of the people of Judah were against the Lord; they infused themselves with evil (Isaiah 3:9).

Our verb may describe an infusion with goodness, which result in a better situation. A husband will have no lack of gain when his excellent wife infuses his house with only good and no evil (Proverbs 31:12). After David's speech, Saul acknowledges that David has infused him with only good (1 Samuel 24:18).

Our verb may describe an infusion with a tangible or intangible "gift" of sorts. Most interpreters will translate this usage of our verb with phrases that reflect a giving for the fun of it, but it clearly reflects not simply a generous giving for the pleasure of the receiver, but rather an investment that will benefit both the investor and the investee, and with the obvious objective of a return. David's heart rejoices because YHWH has dealt bountifully with him (Psalm 13:6). Barzillai gave king David his servant Chimham to supply/equip the man with what would be good in David's opinion (2 Samuel 19:37) and later David exclaimed that the Lord had rewarded him according to his righteousness (2 Samuel 22:21), but also concluded that the Lord hadn't dealt with the Israelites according to their sins (Psalm 103:10). And Moses observed the corrupted people of his day and demanded to know if that was how they figured they should give a return on the Lord's blessings (Deuteronomy 32:6).

That our verb essentially denotes the completion of an early maturation period by infusion with a nutritious or formative agent is made clear by its uses in the sense of to wean a child; to raise a child from milk-drinking infant to regular food-eating little person. Thus Abraham gave a huge feast when Isaac was weaned (Genesis 21:8), Samuel became Eli's apprentice after he was weaned (1 Samuel 1:22-23), Hadad stayed in Egypt until his son Genubath was weaned (1 Kings 11:20), and Gomer conceived of Lo-ammi when Lo-ruhamah was weaned (Hosea 1:8).

Likewise our verb is used to describe the growing into maturity of fruits. Thus Moses discovered the rod of Aaron to have budded and produced flowers and was now bearing ripening almonds (Numbers 17:8), and Isaiah saw perfect buds with grapes ripening in the flower right before the harvest (Isaiah 18:5).

Our verb comes with the following more or less logical derivations:

  • The masculine noun גמול (gemul), meaning a doing or deed (of one's hands: Judges 9:16, Proverbs 12:14), reciprocation (Joel 3:4, Isaiah 59:18), or investment (2 Chronicles 32:25).
  • The feminine equivalent גמולה (gemula), meaning investment. In its singular form this noun occurs only in 2 Samuel 19:37. In plural it occurs twice, in Isaiah 59:18 and most strikingly in Jeremiah 51:56, where the Lord is called אל גמלות (El-gemulot). This phrase is usually interpreted to mean God of Recompense(s) in the sense that God would be the Great Avenger. The problem with this interpretation is that God typically loves and forgives, but he also typically sows and harvests, and subsequently directs the human endeavor according to the familiar dictum "you reap what you sow". God is rather the God of Investment And Return, in all the economic sense of the word (Matthew 13:8, 25:9). The obedience that God is often said to demand from us is not the obedience a totalitarian dictator demands of his subjects, but rather that of a businessman who invests in a sector with the potential of growth and then expects that sector to indeed grow healthier and more prosperous.
  • The masculine noun תגמול (tagmul), again meaning investment (Psalm 116:12 only).
  • Most striking is the derived masculine noun גמל (gamal), from whence comes our word "camel", and which translators will always translate with "camel" to considerable confusion. We'll discuss the word גמל (gamal) below, but note that the connection between the camel and the process of maturation is also reflected by the noun בכרה (bikra), denoting a young camel, which comes from the verb בכר (bakar), which denotes the very beginning of the maturation process: the first birth of either people, animals or fruits.

Camels in Palestine

Where our word "camel" is reserved solely to bring to mind a big hairy beast with humps on its back, the Hebrews reckoned their camels with a descriptive word that already meant something else. In that sense it's comparable to our word sloth, which is a verb, to sloth, and obviously a noun, and forms the core of the adjective slothful, and perhaps even shares a root with our words slouch and sleaze. The noun sloth describes a slow and lazy person, and that primary meaning explains that the animal known as a sloth is known as such because it is slow and lazy.

In recent years there has been a whole discussion on whether Abraham could really have had camels in 2000 BC in Palestine (Yes! says Martin Heide in his 2010 book The Domestication of the Camel; No! say Doctors Lidar Sapir-Hen and Erez Ben-Yosef in their famous 2014 study The Introduction of Domestic Camels to the Southern Levant), but at the risk of digressing too much, remember that:

  • The stories of the patriarchs are highly allegorical and tend to reflect the factual economic and religious history of the Levant rather than the factual history of some individuals.
  • The narrative of the Bible progresses along a complexity axis, not a temporal one (Bible time is not the same thing as real time). In that sense, Biblical time is somewhat like the four years it takes to get an academic degree, which have little to do with how long it actually takes in real time.
  • "A scattering of camel bones from third-millennium contexts in the Levant (Arad and Jericho) indicates the presence of the animal, although not its wild or domesticated status" (Near Eastern Archeology: A Reader, Suzanne Richard, page 22).
  • Camels, like sheep, were initially domesticated for milk, meat and fur, not to be beasts of burden. Fossilized bones tell whether the animal carried loads, not if it was milked regularly.
  • Abraham was an immigrant, and his culture was not typical for Palestine. The Lada was never formally introduced in the US and you won't find any Lada carcasses by looking at a random scrap yard. But do a used car search and you'll see that some privately imported Ladas are very much alive and well in the US.

But more crucially: the noun גמל (gamal) denotes the instrument with which the action of the verb גמל (gamal) is performed. It does not simply denote a creature that belongs to a specific genus, but is a general term, as is our term "beast of burden". The word גמל (gamal) denotes a "beast of investment," an office that in time became dominated by the camel. In that sense, the noun גמל (gamal) is like our word "vehicle," which now typically denotes a motorized means of transport, but which has been in use since the 16th century, three centuries before the invention of the combustion engine.

In their ground-breaking paper, Doctors Sapir-Hen and Ben-Yosef submit that although "the first significant appearance of camels in the Aravah Valley was not earlier than the last third of the 10th century BCE [ . . . ], the introduction of the dromedary camel (Camelus dromedarius) as a pack animal to the southern Levant signifies a crucial juncture in the history of the region; it substantially facilitated trade across the vast deserts of Arabia, promoting both economic and social change". In other words: the camel did for humanity in the first millennium BC what the train did in the 19th century AD.

Whether or not Abraham actually drove a herd of freshly domesticated Camelus dromedariuses along on his journey from Ur to Canaan, his "instruments of investment" made a whopper of a difference in the economic situation of the Levant. Note that the Abraham cycle comes right after the tower of Babel incident (Genesis 11:1-9), which resulted in a scattering of separated societies. The Abraham cycle begins with God's promise: "In you all the families on the earth will be blessed" (Genesis 22:18), and international trade surely seems to have helped to bring everybody together; exactly what the tower of Babel was intended to do (Genesis 11:4), but which Jesus eventually accomplished (Galatians 3:8-14, John 12:32).

Camels in the Bible

Camels occur in the Bible as vehicles for international relations (Genesis 24:10, 31:17, 37:25), units or bringers of wealth (1 Kings 10:2, 2 Kings 8:9) and on occasion instruments of warfare (Judges 7:12).

Because it was the largest animal in Palestine, the camel also came to denote "something very big," as opposed to something proverbially small. Jesus accused the Pharisees for straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel (Matthew 23:24), which is usually explained by pointing out that both were declared not kosher. This is a mistake. Camels are unclean (Leviticus 11:4) but gnats aren't because they have six legs not four (Leviticus 11:20).

In other words, Jesus is saying that the Pharisees are sifting out something that's perfectly fine but devouring something that's not kosher at all. The key lies in Matthew 23:4 where Jesus compares Pharisaic proselytes to the beasts of burden with which men transport their wares. Apparently, even back in Jesus' days religion was quite a lucrative enterprise.

The other famous occurrence of the camel in the New Testament is in Jesus' saying that it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:23) or the kingdom of God (Mark 10:25, Luke 18:25). At first glance it seems again that Jesus is simply juxtaposing something very small to something very big, but there's more going on.

The camel through the eye of a needle

Much has been written about this curious statement of Jesus, but it's pretty sure that the gospel writers coined it. In the Babylonian Talmud, which was recorded centuries after Christ, an elephant goes through the eye of a needle (or rather not; Berachot 55b) and in his famous 17th century Talmudic Lexicon, Johannes Buxtorf recorded the beautiful Jewish saying "the eye of a needle is not too narrow for two friends but the world is not too large for two enemies" (under his article on the verb נקב naqab, meaning to pierce or bore; this saying was later quoted by Bochart in his 16th century Hierozocion as Talmudic, but the original proverb never made it into the official Jewish commentaries).

The notion that the eye of a needle was a small gate next to a main gate is also from that time, and appears to have been a pious invention that actually made it into common use in the middle east. Likewise, the Greek word καμιλος (kamilos), denoting a ship's cable of sorts, was invented many centuries after Christ and forged to look like καμηλος (kamelos), meaning camel, for the sole purpose of explaining Jesus' enigmatic statement.

Here at Abarim Publications we're guessing that the sight of camel caravans criss-crossing the lands in order to establish relations between cultures resembled the sewing together of patches of cloth. We're guessing that John's robe of camel's hair and the "hairy" robes of prophets (Matthew 3:4, Zechariah 13:4, and 2 Kings 1:8?) were not defined by the camels' hair they were possibly made from but rather from the many patches that were joined to make them (also see the name Levi, our article on hair in the Bible, and note that in Biblical times, a person's clothes expressed the person's profession or social status).

Jesus, quite tellingly, wore a robe that was literally unsewn or rather unneedled — the adjective αρραφος (arraphos), meaning seamless is closely related to ραφις (rhaphis), meaning needle. We're guessing that the expression "driving a camel through the eye of a needle" was a colloquial metaphor for international trade. The rich young man isn't asking Jesus a theological question, he's making a sales pitch; he wants to earn his entrance to the kingdom (see for a similar conflict the story of magic Simon in Acts 8:9-24).

When Jesus responds to the young businessman, he says nothing ridiculous but says merely that conducting international trade is a lot easier than striking a deal with God; it's easier to career oneself onto the Forbes 400 than to career oneself into the Kingdom. In other words: getting into the kingdom is not a matter of working hard at it, it's a matter of compassion and self-sacrifice; precisely those traits that someone on the Forbes 400 may not naturally seek to hone.

Associated Biblical names