Free Online Bible Library | Nomads

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Bedouin tents in the area of Beersheba, much like the ones Abraham lived in.

NOMADS. Nomads are wandering groups of individuals who change area of residence, usually according to a seasonal pattern, within a larger area which is their home territory. Usually at least three types are distinguished. The first group is characterized by hunting and collecting its immediate needs with little concern for surplus or organized divisions of labor. The second group is pastoral in nature and is characterized by following a consistent pattern of grazing, which is regulated by the seasons and nature of the herd or flock. The labor is divided among various groups, usually families, each with its own herd and territory. These individuals live off their herds, using milk and animals for food and skin and hair as the source for clothing, tents, water bottles, etc. The third group is characterized by agricultural ties. They stay in one spot until the crop is exhausted, then move on to new land.

Certain values arise from the demands of nomadic life. The need for mobility results in reduction of property—the wealth of the group being often largely limited to livestock. The mutual dependence of members of the tribe, together with consciousness of common descent, leads to solidarity and to such concomitant practices as blood revenge.

There were many nomadic groups in the ancient Near E and they are mentioned in documents from Mari, Nuzi, Alalah, Ugarit, Tell el-Amarna. Some mentioned at various times and places were the Aramaeans (Ahlamu, Sutaeans), Habiru, Hyksos, and various S Arab. groups.

Most present-day nomads are camel nomads who also possess the horse, but the patriarchs were apparently ass nomads. The ass played a significant role in the patriarchal narrative (Gen 22:3; 24:35; 30:43; 32:5). The ass was sacrificed at Mari where many other patriarchal customs were paralleled. In Zechariah 9:9 the king is described as riding on an ass.

The prophecy of Ishmael’s future suggests a nomadic life (16:11, 12) and later references reflect this nomadic state (37:25). The place names and encampments of the Ishmaelites support this identification with the Arabs (25:13-18). It is significant that under David, an Ishmaelite was in charge of the camels (1 Chron 27:30). The Ishmaelites were linked with the Edomites among the enemies of Israel (Ps 83:6).

In Egypt the Israelites lived in an area frequented by nomads and semi-nomads. Moses took refuge among a pastoral nomadic tribe (Exod 2:15ff.) and tended sheep (3:1). The Kenites and Midianites seemed to be tentdwelling nomads (Judg 5:24; 6:4, 5).

In the wilderness wandering, Israel was again a semi-nomadic people moving with their cattle from oasis to oasis (Num 10:31; 33:1). The Tabernacle was esp. suitable for a people with such a nomadic tradition. In the conquest there were elements of ass nomadism (Josh 15:18; Judg 10:4; 12:14).


J. Flight, “The Nomadic Idea and the Ideal in the Old Testament,” JBL XLII (1923), 158ff.; R. deVaux, Ancient Israel (1961), 3-15.

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