The following discussion of the nomadic life is focused on Arabia and ancient Israel. The position of women will be discussed in a separate article.
Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions
Roland de Vaux
The Bible is not reliable for ethnographic information. And although ethnographic studies have been carried out on sheep-breeding tribes who are beginning to settle down, they are not comparable to the Israelites because they were formerly camel-breeders who had begun to raise cattle. But the nomadic Arabs were closely related to the Israelites and are comparable in patterns of society and behavior. For this reason, the knowledge of pre-Islamic, modern and contemporary Arab life can help in understanding the primitive organization of Israel. This comparison is strengthened by biblical parallels.
Forms of Nomadism
The true Bedouin (man of the desert) is a camel-breeder and can survive in regions where the annual rainfall is less than 4 inches. He has very little contact with settled people. Another type of nomad breeds only sheep and goats, which are not as hardy. The animals need to drink more often and can’t survive on the rough pasture suitable for the camels. They probably live in regions that get 4-10 inches of rainfall. They travel only on routes where they can manage the distance between watering holes and they have more contact with settled people. Tribes who raise cattle, on the other hand, are no longer true nomads. They settle in one place, cultivate the land and build houses. Some in this group may be half-nomad or half-settler living at least part of the year with their herds. Some hybrid forms may own land at the far ends of the migration route–worked by serf labor.
The Israelites never had camels and had no memory of life in the open desert. But Israel did have a memory of a nomadic or semi-nomadic life. When the Israelites came to settle down as a nation they still retained some characteristics of that way of life. Consequently, the nomadic life was influential in Old Testament institutions.
Because of the realities of survival in the desert, the unit of society is the tribe. A tribe is a group of families who believe they are descended from a common ancestor. Each tribe is called by the name or surname of that ancestor, sometimes, but not always, preceded by ‘sons of’. The Bible refers to the Hebrews as ‘Israel’, but also as the ‘sons of Israel’. In the same way, the tribe of Judah is referred to as both Judah and the sons of Judah. Ammon, on the other hand is usually referred to as the ‘sons of Ammon’. A tribe’s name may also be preceded by ‘the house of’. Israel is sometimes called the house of Israel; the tribe of Joseph is sometimes the house of Joseph. Assyrian texts follow the same usage in references to Aramaic groups who lived in conditions similar to the first Israelites.
The size of the tribe must be compact enough to be mobile, and strong enough to ensure its own safety. In addition, anyone who is separated from his or her own group must be able to count on a welcome from other groups. Anyone may need this help and so everyone must give it. This is the basis of the law of hospitality and asylum. The desert has no police force or court of justice; the group as a whole is held responsible for any crime and all are included in the punishment. This was the original form of the law of blood vengeance. It was amended over time, in part to address the problem of endless assassinations and family feuds. Then when people settled down they established a judiciary system. This didn’t end the practice of blood vengeance. Some tribes accepted monetary compensation. Compensation was not accepted by the Hebrews because they believed it would pollute the land.
The blood relationship that unites a people may be real or supposed. Every tribe has traditions about the ancestor from whom it claims descent. The relationship between separate tribes is also explained in terms of kinship. To a nomad the whole social organization of the desert is described by a genealogy. Each tribe descends from a single ancestor; two allied tribes descend from two ancestors who were brothers in the strict sense. But these genealogies become arbitrary and artificial when they are extended in space and time. This leads to a tribe’s claiming ‘eponymous’ ancestors, or the person or thing for whom or for which the tribe is named. According to de Vaux, in the Mid-Euphrates region there is a group of small sheep-breeding tribes called the ‘Agedat’, or Confederates. The name describes how they were formed. But their political and economic union has since been expressed in a genealogical table. Among the Arabs there is a tribe called the Khoza’a (Separated) because it separated from the Azd at the time of the great Yemenite dispersion, but the genealogists have assigned it a personal ancestor, whom they call Khoza’a. Similarly the Kholoj (Transport) are so called because Omar I transferred them from the ‘Adwan to the Al-Harith. But according to the genealogists, Kholoj is a surname of Qais, the son of Al-Harith.
Other factors can lead to the formation of a tribe. Sometimes families join together simply because they live in the same region. Or weak elements are absorbed by stronger neighbors. Alternatively, several smaller groups might combine in order to remain independent. Individuals can be incorporated into a tribe by adoption or through acceptance by the sheikh or the elders. Any newcomers to a tribe are attached to the tribe in name and in blood, meaning they acknowledge the tribe’s ancestors as their own and they will marry within the tribe. When this happens, the Arabs say an individual or a clan is ‘genealogized’.
A text of Al-Bakri states:
And the Nahd ben Zaid joined the Benc al-Harith, became confederate with them and completely united with them; and the Jarin ben Rabban joined the Benc Zubaid, attached themselves to them and lived together, and the whole tribe with its confederates was attached to the same ancestor.
Israel absorbed other tribes too; the twelve tribes were a federation. The tribe of Judah absorbed the remnants of the tribe of Simeon, and also incorporated foreign groups like the Calebites and Yerahmeclites. In the Books of Numbers and Joshua, the Calebites were originally outside of the Israelite confederation. Caleb was the son of Yephunneh the Qenizite, (Numbers 32:12; Joshua 14:6,14) but they had contact with Israel from the time of the sojourn at Qadesh, where Caleb was named as Judah’s representative for the exploration of Canaan (Numbers 13:6). Eventually, Caleb is genealogically attached to Judah. The son of Yephunnch becomes the son of Hesron, son of Peres, son of Judah and brother of Yerahmeel, (I Chronicles 2:9,18,24) or another foreign group (I Samuel 27:10) attached to the line of Judah (I Chronicles 2:9). These fusions probably took place frequently.
If a tribe becomes too large it may be forced to split up, but the groups retain a feeling of family solidarity and unite for common enterprises. This is the case with two federations of the Syrian desert, the ‘Anezeh and the Shammar. As for Israel, Abram and Lot separated, but when Lot was the prisoner of the four victorious kings, Abram went to his rescue. (Genesis 14: 12-16)
Each tribe had a territory in which cultivated land was privately owned. Pasture land, on the other hand, was held in common. Tribal boundaries were not well-defined and this could lead to disputes, especially over the use of wells or cisterns. Everyone was aware of the location of watering places and knew who their owners were, but sometimes quarrels would break out between shepherds. Abram’s herdsmen quarreled with Lot’s. (Genesis 13:7) Abimelek’s servants seize a well dug by Abraham. (Genesis 21:25). And Isaac struggles to maintain his rights over the wells he had dug between Gerar and Beersheba. (Genesis 26: 19-22) If disputes were not settled peaceably, they were settled by war.
The Law of Hospitality and Asylum
Hospitality was a necessity which became a virtue. The guest is sacred and the honor of providing for him is a matter of dispute. A stranger can enjoy such hospitality for three days, but even after he leaves he has right to protection for a given time. This time varies from tribe to tribe. For some it is ‘until the salt he has eaten has left his stomach’. In large tribes it might be for three more days and within a radius of 100 miles.
Under the law of asylum any man who leaves or is expelled from his tribe, even for a serious offense, becomes what the Arabs call a dahil, or ‘jar’, ‘he who has come in’. The tribe tries to protect him, and even to avenge him if necessary. These customs are reflected in two Old Testament institutions, the gear (the same word as the Arabic jar) and the cities of refuge, and they are demonstrated in biblical stories. Abraham spared no expense when he was visited by the three ‘men’ at Mambre (Genesis 18:1-8), and Laban generously welcomed Abraham’s servant (Genesis 24:28-32).
Long after the Israelites settled down, the Hebrew language maintained several traces of the nomadic life. Generations after the conquest a house was called a tent, not only in poetry but also in everyday speech. (Judges 19:9; 20:8; Isaiah 13:2; I Kings 8:66) To express ‘leaving early in the morning’ there is a verb which means ‘to load the beasts of burden’. (Judges 19:9; Isaiah 17:20) Death is the cut tent-rope, or the peg which is pulled out, or the tent itself, which is carried off. Desolation is represented by the broken ropes, the tent blown down, and security is the tent with tight ropes and firm pegs. A nation whose numbers are increasing is a tent being extended.(De Vaux, Roland, O.P. Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions.” Translated by John McHugh. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Michigan. 1977.)
Mythology Among the Hebrews and its Historical Development
Ignác Goldziher and Heymann Steinthal
Goldziher begins by saying that there are two successive stages in the development of mankind: Nomadic and Agricultural.
“In the former commences the chain of development, which is closed by the formation of perfect true society. First are formed communities, which though still standing only on the base of the family, yet represent a broadening of this base insofar as the notion of the family is first enlarged into the institution of a tribe and then this institution cannot always refuse to take in foreign elements.”
Political division into tribes is an important characteristic of the nomadic period, and in many civilized nations tribal divisions are retained. The people’s “consciousness of belonging to one another” can be traced to their nomadic history, and their names retain evidence of this heritage. “The Kirdic nomadic tribes still call themselves Kötsher, or wandering. The name of the Zulus means ‘homeless‘ or ‘roaming’. This is also the meaning of the name of the Zûzȋm, the Canaanite aborigines, as well as the Canaanite Perizzî.”
The Egyptians gave the name ‘Put’ to the many nomadic tribes that came into their country. The Egyptians also called them the ‘Runners’ and represented them in the hieroglyphs as a hare. The name of the Hebrews, Ibhrim, means the nomads, ‘for the word ‘ȃbhar means to pass through a land, or to cross a river, but also to wander about in general.’
“The nomad’s purpose in wandering is to find pasture for his herds– “green pastures beside still waters” (Psalms 23:2).” So the cloudy skies are seen by the nomad as friendly and the fierce heat of the sun is experienced as an enemy. For this reason, in the myths of the nomads the dark, cloudy heaven is personified in the role of the conquerer. When the nightly heaven is defeated by the day, it is portrayed as a tragic figure and lamented. A nomad begins a journey in the afternoon and continues it during the night. If he travels at all by day it will be under the cover of clouds. The Arabs tell the distance of a journey by the number of nights it will take to arrive at the destination.
“Between Damascus and the place where Walid b. Yazid lived in the desert are four nights.” (Kitab al-aghani)
It is this mode of counting time that holds to nomadic ideas long after a people have become agricultural. Julius Caesar said that the Gauls counted by nights, not by days, and Tacitus said the same of the ancient Germans. For both Arabs and Hebrews, the day actually begins with evening.
In the Korân and in the poetry of the Bedawi there are allusions to the starry heaven. The caravan songs refer to night-traveling.
O how journey we, while dew is scattered out
and desert-dust bedecks the lips of sumpter beasts.
O how journey we, while townsmen sleep
With limbs involved in coverlets… (as quoted by Wetzstein)
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