Origin and definition.

Camels are known today to exist in two forms, both of which are familiar zoo animals throughout the world. The Bactrian, or two-humped, camel is associated with the steppes of central Asia; also with N Australia, where it was introduced last cent. The Arabian, or one-humped, camel is the form used in N Africa and Middle E. For a long time they were regarded as distinct species unable to hybridize, but this is not entirely correct. The humps are of soft tissue only and the two are much more alike in skeleton than, e.g. a heavy draught horse and a thoroughbred. Their breeding habits differ, largely because they now live in different climates, but there is reason to regard them as geographical races of one species. Many authorities hold that the wild forebears of both forms disappeared many centuries ago, even though reports are received from time to time of wild Bactrian camels. Opinions are divided as to whether they are truly wild or merely descendants of escaped animals, which are well able to survive and breed around the Gobi Desert. Domestication has brought no major skeletal changes, with the result that remains cannot be classified with any certainty as wild or domestic, as is possible in other species such as cattle, and therefore used as evidence for early domestication on the one hand, or for late survival of the wild form on the other. Like most domesticated forms, camels sometimes show variation in color, and albino and melanistic specimens are known.

History in Palestine and Egypt.

The camel’s presence in Pal. as a wild animal is confirmed by material from Pleistocene deposits and also from some beds dated as Neolithic. Its later history there is unknown, but Strabo and others recorded wild dromedaries in Arabia in the early years of the Christian era. Evidence for the period when it was brought into the service of man and, later, when it was first used in Pal., is far from complete. Such facts as are available are detailed by Zeuner, who differs from Albright and others in accepting camels in the story of Rebekah (Gen 24) c. 1750 b.c. Zeuner considers the first Biblical reference a later addition by scribes (12:16), for there is no evidence that camels were being kept in Egypt at that time. The position of the camel there is anomalous, for there seems to be no word for camel, nor is it illustrated in what are otherwise complete galleries of fauna. It seems impossible that the camel was unknown and the most attractive theory is that it was not only unclean for food, as it was to the Israelites, but also tabu. Recently discovered evidence, given by Zeuner as a footnote, is in the form of a limestone receptacle shaped like a camel and complete with load, which confirms that the Arabian camel was domesticated by about the first dynasty (fourth millennium b.c.). The next evidence is for the fourth dynasty (mid-third millennium) and then the nineteenth (c. 1300 b.c.). It was not until the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-247 b.c.) and the early part of the Rom. period in Egypt that camels became the important transport animals that they were for the next 2,000 years.

Camels in patriarchal times.

Although the Biblical record contains the earliest clear statement about the camel’s use in Pal., there is ample confirmation for its presence in a number of town remains of a cent. or so later. As early as 1800 b.c. it was used for transdesert traffic between Mesopotamia and Pal., where it was widely distributed by the sixteenth cent. b.c. at the latest. The spread of the camel is in part correlated with the drying up of areas of Pal. and nearby countries, following soil destruction caused by bad farming of marginal land. The center of the camel business continued to be farther SE, in Arabia, from whence came the Midianites, whose camels were without number (Judg 6:5) c. 1100 b.c.; and the Queen of Sheba, whose baggage was carried on camels (1 Kings 10:2). Throughout the historical books the camel appears as a part of the setting, serving as a beast of burden, a sign of wealth. The numbers owned by Job may seem excessive—7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, etc. (Job 1:3)—but great areas were involved, not yet so seriously degraded, where such large numbers could have found food. Archeological evidence of camels in S Arabia dates only from about the eighth cent. b.c., which is as far back as evidence goes in that area. Central Arabia is still a closed book. (See NBD pp. 181, 182 for further discussion of camels during this period and a more technical bibliography.)

Adaptation to desert life.

Although a camel’s performance often has been exaggerated, its ability to live off its hump made it valuable for crossing desert stages previously almost impassable and its use gave rise to desert nomadism. It is, in fact, anatomically and physiologically well adapted to live as a working animal around the desert edge. The nostrils close to slits and help to filter out blown sand, while the eyes are largely protected by overhanging brows and copious lashes. Much of the natural vegetation normally available to the camel is dry and spiny, to which the lips and tongue are apparently insensitive. In most areas camels would have to browse rather than graze when allowed to roam in search of food. Working animals must be better supplied, and a common sight in Jordan and N Israel today is a camel returning from work in the fields and carrying a great load of foliage and other green stuff for the evening feed. After the barley harvest in N Negev—in April—the camels are hobbled, often with a young calf at heel, and allowed to graze the short stubble. The camel is a true ruminant, using a method of digestion which extracts the maximum from poor fibrous food. The hump is used as a storage organ, where fat is laid down in spongy tissue to be used when needed. After an exhausting journey these reserves may be so reduced that the hump becomes flabby.

Performance and uses.

On ordinary journeys a camel can carry c. 400 lbs. as well as its rider, but for stretches such as the Sinai Desert only about half that would be allowed. Their owners prefer to feed and water them properly every day, but they can easily go three or four days without drinking and there are many records of loaded camels passing a week without water. An average of up to twenty-eight m. a day can be maintained, but a fast dromedary, carrying only its rider, has been known to cover nearly 100 m. in thirteen hours, though it could not do this every day. As the Mosaic food law points out (Lev 11:4), the camel is unclean, because although it chews the cud it is not cloven-hoofed. The feet are in fact unique, being broad cushions which are almost equally effective on sand, gravel and rock, any of which may be met in the desert. A thick growth of hair protects the camel from winter cold, often made more unpleasant by the nearly continuous desert winds. In April this coat is shed in great lumps and this hair was woven into the rough cloth from which John the Baptist’s garments were made. Sometimes the hair was clipped off before the moult. Such cloth was coarse and cheap, and not to be confused with the expensive “camel’s hair” coat of the twentieth cent. which is made from the soft underhair of the Bactrian camel. The coarse hair has long been used for weaving, but its earliest recorded use, c. early fourth dynasty is for making a cord, of purpose unknown, in the Fayum. The camel was always forbidden meat to the Jews, but it was not so regarded by most of the surrounding peoples and it is eaten widely today. By and large this was no disadvantage to the Hebrews, for most of them lived in a country unsuitable for camels, and better meat was obtainable from other domestic stock. This applies also to the camel’s milk, which is rich though not plentiful; the yield may start at nearly two gallons a day, but this soon drops to under half a gallon. However, a camel normally has a calf every second spring, after a gestation of nearly eleven months, which may stay on milk for nearly two years. There is no direct Biblical reference to camel’s milk and no suggestion that “thirty milch camels and their colts” in the present prepared for Esau (Gen 32:15) were used for milking. Camel hides were made into leather and used for a range of purposes. Even the droppings were utilized; camels’ food contains a high percentage of fiber, which passes through unchanged, and in the hot desert air the droppings are soon dry enough for fuel. This dung also was the source of sal ammoniac, obtained by heating it in closed vessels.

Importance to Hebrews.

Although camels carried their loads into cities and towns (see comment below on “needle’s eye”) they became important only in and around the desert, where they filled a unique niche. However, they always remained intractable and bad tempered, the adult males often being dangerous, and when other domestic animals were available, as they would be in those parts of Pal. effectively occupied by the Hebrews, these would always be preferred. In addition, camels need very large areas for pasturing. It seems that by NT times camels had become of little importance to the Jews themselves, though they continued to be used extensively by inhabitants of drier lands to E and S, from where they no doubt came regularly, bringing merchandise for sale and barter. So they were a familiar sight to the Lord and His disciples, although He is recorded as referring to them only twice.

Place in OT.

Including those in prophetic books, all fifty-seven mentions of camel or dromedary are wholly literal and no fig. meaning can be detected. It is twice listed as forbidden meat; all other passages refer to it as possessions or transport, and in only two cases the word is sing. In Isaiah 21:7 KJV follows Heb. and tr. “chariot of camels,” but RSV tr. “riders on camels.” This is the only possible Biblical mention of camels used for draught, which has little purpose in the desert. Where nomads live on the edge of cultivable lands the camel’s strength makes it useful for drawing a plow, when sometimes it is even paired with a donkey. Since very early times camels have been harnessed and used to turn a capstan for pumping, grinding grain, etc. In more recent times camels have been used to pull a wide range of wheeled vehicles, esp. in India.

Place in NT.

Camel is mentioned six times only, all in the gospels. The only literal reference is to John the Baptist’s clothes (u.s.). The proverb in Matthew 23:24 is commented on under Gnat (q.v.). The use of camel in contrast is typical eastern hyperbole, which also is found in the other proverb (Matt 19:24, etc.) “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.” But popular commentators have seen a more precise picture, stating that this name is sometimes given to the small emergency gate, alongside or in the main gate of the city, through which travelers were sometimes allowed to enter after the large gate was shut. The comparison is apt, for the implication is that the camel might enter only after shedding its harness and ornamental trappings (Judg 8:21, 26) and all its loads, but the evidence for this is meager.


W. F. Albright, The Archaeology of Palestine (1954) 206ff.; F. S. Bodenheimer, Animals and Man in Bible Lands (1960); F. E. Zeuner, A History of Domesticated Animals (1963); (ch. 13 is a valuable and fully documented account of the history of both forms of camel).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

The Arabian camel is often compared with justice to the reindeer of the Esquimaux. It furnishes hair for spinning and weaving, milk, flesh and leather, as well as being an of invaluable means of transportation in the arid desert. There are many Arabic names for the camel, the commonest of which is jamal (in Egypt gamal), the root being common to Arabic, Hebrew and other Semitic languages. From it the names in Latin, Greek, English and various European languages are derived. There are various breeds camels, as there are of horses. The riding camels or dromedaries, commonly called hajin, can go, even at a walk, much faster than the pack camels. The males are mostly used for carrying burdens, the females being kept with the herds. Camels are used to a surprising extent on the rough roads of the mountains, and one finds in the possession of fellachin in the mountains and on the littoral plain larger and stronger pack camels than are often found among the Bedouin. Camels were apparently not much used by the Israelites after the time of the patriarchs. They were taken as spoil of war from the Amalekites and other tribes, but nearly the only reference to their use by the later Israelites was when David was made king over all Israel at Hebron, when camels are mentioned among the animals used for bringing food for the celebration (1Ch 12:40). David had a herd of camels, but the herdsman was Obil, an Ishmaelite (1Ch 27:30). Nearly all the other Biblical references to camels are to those possessed by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Ishmaelites, Amalekites, Midianites, Hagrites and the "children of the East" (see East). Two references to camels (Ge 12:16; Ex 9:3) are regarded as puzzling because the testimony of the Egyptian monuments is said to be against the presence of camels in ancient Egypt. For this reason, Ge 12-16, in connection with Abram’s visit to Egypt, is turned to account by Canon Cheyne to substantiate his theory that the Israelites were not in Egypt but in a north Arabian land of Mucri (Encyclopaedia Biblica under the word "Camel," 4). While the flesh of the camel was forbidden to the Israelites, it is freely eaten by the Arabs. There are three references to the camel in New Testament:

(1) to John’s raiment of camel’s hair (Mt 3:4; Mr 1:6);

(2) the words of Jesus that "it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God" (Mt 19:24; Mr 10:25; Lu 18:25);

(3) the proverb applied to the Pharisees as blind guides, "that strain out the gnat, and swallow the camel" (Mt 23:24). Some manuscripts read ho kamilos, "a cable," in Mt 19:24 and Lu 18:25.

There are a few unusual words which have been translated "camel" in text or margin of one or the other version. (See list of words at beginning of the article) Bekher and bikhrah clearly mean a young animal, and the Arabic root word and derivatives are used similarly to the Hebrew. Rakhash, the root of rekhesh, is compared with the Arabic rakad, "to run," and, in the Revised Version (British and American), rekhesh is translated "swift steeds." Kirkaroth, rammakhim and ’achashteranim must be admitted to be of doubtful etymology and uncertain meaning.

See also

  • Animals