April 19, 2019

Finding Jewish, Bedouin Values in the Same Camp

On the road from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, the traveler can glimpse an evocative sight in a wadi that runs down from the Judean hills — flocks of sheep and herds of goats, the men and women who tend them, and the black tents where they shelter from the desert sun. These are the Bedouins, citizens of modern Israel who carry cellphones in their back pockets but whose existence appears fixed in biblical antiquity, a sight that would have been familiar to the patriarchs and matriarchs.

And, in fact, we are not wrong to think so, according to Clinton Bailey, author of “Bedouin Culture in the Bible” (Yale University Press), a wholly fascinating account of how the folkways of the Bedouin illuminate and explain what we find in the Bible and what we regard as the traditions and practices of the Jewish people.

“Although I am not a professional Biblicist, but rather a curious Bible reader who hoped to find … similarities between Bedouin life and events in what is called the Hebrew Bible, I used the forty-five years (1967-2012) that I had spent often living among Bedouin in the Sinai and Negev deserts — studying, witnessing, and taking part in their lives — to suggest new insights that might elucidate our traditional understanding of much in the biblical text,” explains Bailey, whose stated aspiration is to prove that the nomadic ideal that we find in the Bible does not consist merely of “mere fabrications constructed anciently by the Bible’s authors, as several modern Biblicists maintain,” but reflects “a culture that existed at the time the biblical texts were composed.”

Bailey not only is a scholar of Bedouin history and culture, but is also an advocate for the civil rights Bedouins enjoy under Israeli law. For his work, he was honored with the Emil Grunzweig Human Rights Award, named after a Jewish activist in the Peace Now movement who was martyred when a hand grenade was thrown into a 1983 peace rally in Jerusalem. Born in Buffalo, N.Y., Bailey made aliyah, settled in Sde Boker (where he was befriended by David Ben Gurion), and later served as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces and as an adviser to the Israeli Defense Ministry on Arab affairs.

Bailey is careful to distinguish between the Bedouins of the here and now, and the earlier generations who were still living what he calls a “pre-modern” life as late as the mid-20th century. “I first met them in the mid-1960s when camels and donkeys were still their only means of mobility, bread and milk products were their main daily diet, body-length gowns were the type of garment worn by both men and women, and their few, simple household accessories were regularly made at home,” he writes. “Hence, their culture, deriving mainly from their natural environment rather than from the cultures of others, appeared to me as an urtext of many references I found in the Bible.”

“Perhaps the most familiar custom of the Bedouin is the practice of hospitality toward the stranger. …The same iron rule of hospitality can be found repeatedly in the Bible, where it is elevated to a theological proposition.”

The highest values in Bedouin culture, as Bailey shows us, are simple and primal — water and pasturage above all, or “the trough and the grassy valley,” according to their turn of phrase.  So, too, does the Torah celebrate, again and again, the miraculous discovery of water: “God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water,” as Genesis says of Hagar. And when Jacob’s sons encounter Pharaoh, they identify themselves as “people of livestock from youth to the present, we and our fathers.”  

Even the butchering practices of the Bedouin help us to understand the stories we find in the Bible.  Their flocks and herds are primarily female animals, which can continue to provide new offspring, and male animals are slaughtered young to provide meat.  The same practice is written between the lines in the Bible: “When angels in the guise of guests visited Abraham at Hebron to announce that Sarah, his wife, would bear a son, he slaughtered a male — a calf — for their lunch,” Bailey points out. And the same practice is reflected in one of the lines of scripture from which the laws of kashrut are derived: “[T]he injunction against eating milk with meat, expressed through the example of ‘boiling a kid in the milk of its mother,’ refers to the butchered kid as a male, literally present in the masculine as ‘his mother.’ ”

The similarities start with the mundane details of daily life and ascend to the realm of religious practice. The unleavened bread the Israelites make on their way out of Egypt, for example, strongly resembles the flat bread of the Bedouin called raquiq. Both the Bedouins and the Israelites as depicted in the Bible strongly favor the practice of living in tents, and not only because nomads must be able to move their shelters from place to place as they search for water and pasturage in the wilderness. The Feast of Unleavened Bread, Bailey proposes, “stems from the abiding nomadic attitude toward bread as a cultural determinant” — and that attitude is preserved in the Bedouin culture, which views “the privations that their desert way of life entailed” as a “badge of honor” and “a symbol of the difference from, and superiority over, settled people, whom they have traditionally despised.”

Even the use of flint as a cutting tool, which features prominently in the first recorded circumcision as we find it in the Bible, persisted into the 20th century among the Bedouin. Bailey tells the story of a Bedouin woman who gave birth alone when she went into labor while heading for encampment. “I asked her how she had cut the umbilical cord,” Bailey recalls, “to which she replied matter-of-factly, ‘I saw a piece of flint stone, picked it up, and cut the cord.’ ” And he points out that Zipporah is depicted in the Book of Exodus as performing an emergency circumcision using exactly the same instrument.

Perhaps the most familiar custom of the Bedouin is the practice of hospitality toward the stranger. For the Bedouin, it is “essential to survival … in the desert,” because desert travelers — “on their way to a market, on a camel raid, on a distant visit, in search of camels pillaged or gone astray, in flight from revenge or enemies, or in search of fresh pasture” — are guaranteed “unconditional access to the tents of others.”  The same iron rule of hospitality can be found repeatedly in the Bible, where it is elevated to a theological proposition. Only because Abraham knows and honors the Bedouin principle of hospitality, for example, does he welcome the three mysterious strangers who, as it turns out, are emissaries of God. 

The reader is invited to conclude that Jewish history, theology and religious observance owe a debt of honor to the Bedouins, and surely Bailey hopes that we will.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.