Bedouin Culture in the Bible

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Clinton Bailey
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , October
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the 19th century, European and North American travelers to Palestine—upon encountering the nomadic Bedouin of the region—felt that they were witnesses to a lifestyle akin to that of the Biblical patriarchs. For these (mostly) Christian visitors, life in the marginal regions of Palestine had been divorced, not only from the geopolitical changes that had occurred since the Iron Age, but also from the more generalized processes of social progress that Victorians had come to believe defined how a civilization should develop. For these travelers, the study of the Bedouin offered an unparalleled opportunity to understand the social and material context of the Old Testament, and to illuminate the text in ways that were otherwise impossible due to the technological disruptions brought on by modern life. Missionaries wrote numerous articles and books that explained how life in 19th century Palestine informed the Bible, and some of these books—especially those by William M. Thomson, Henry J. Van-Lennep, and Samuel Schor—became some of the best sellers of the Victorian era. These books were structured as anthropological ethnographies, with chapters devoted to descriptions of Palestinian life. These portrayals were used as analogical referents to understand different verses of scripture. Biblical citations were liberally interspersed throughout these books as part of the intellectual enterprise and thus, the seemingly alien customs of the Bible were understood through ethnographic example.

Clinton Bailey’s Bedouin Culture in the Bible is a curious, almost anachronistic, throwback to this Victorian intellectual enterprise. Like the Victorian authors, Bailey is not a typical biblical scholar (he acknowledges this at the beginning of the book), and therefore, there is no effort to engage with the thorny issues of sources, dating, and context that are typical of contemporary biblical scholarship. However, rather than the observations of a missionary (as in the 19th century antecedents of this work), Bedouin Culture in the Bible is written by an authority on contemporary Bedouin life who has decided to read the Bible with the consideration of similarities in mind. Bailey’s book is similar in structure and intellectual reasoning to these older volumes, and so the suitability of the contemporary Bedouin to stand as analogues for ancient cultures is still an issue. 

Both Bailey and the 19th century authors see the land of Israel, and specifically the marginal regions that are now inhabited by the Bedouin, as imposing significant constraints on social and economic life. In a paragraph subheading, Bailey goes so far as to call Bedouin culture “ancient and unchanging” (4), a descriptor that carries with it worrying overtones of Victorian-era orientalism. For this is the crux of the logic that allows the Victorian missionaries as well as Bailey to draw parallels—an assumption of environmental determinism that has left the Bedouin insulated from modernity. Evidence of historical change must be ignored or explained away. For example, Islam was not the religion of the biblical patriarchs, and so, in the chapter on religion, Bailey describes Bedouin religion as “primordial” and “animistic” (139), thus reflecting pre-Islamic practices. Other changes are seen as less significant (such as that the patriarchs did not speak Arabic). With this particular brand of analogical logic, none of these “differences” are substantive. The Romans, Ottomans, and others have ruled the region without impacting Bedouin practices over the long term.

One important change that cannot be ignored is that domesticated camels were not present in the region until the Iron Age, at earliest the 9th century BCE. Yet Bailey argues that biblical narratives reflect significant knowledge about camels. If this is true, it would support an historical critical argument for a late dating of these stories, which seems at odds with Bailey’s perspective. He argues that the Bedouin knowledge implicit in the texts act as proof positive that the stories of the Patriarchs reflect real, historical, and, likely, Bronze Age lives. Here, perhaps, is another interesting parallel with the 19th century works; by concentrating on thick ethnographic description and textual analysis at the level of the biblical verse, it is possible to avoid critical engagement with biblical scholarship that might call into question non-literal readings of the Bible. 

With these theoretical cautions in mind, Bailey’s book offers an interesting perspective on Bedouin life that will appeal to biblical scholars. His knowledge of the material culture and social institutions of Bedouin society makes for informative reading. Readers will find his detailed accounts of how goat hair can be used to waterproof tents fascinating. However, they are not likely to be convinced by his attempts to offer practical explanations for miracles in the Bible, such as his identification of which plant produced the manna that allowed the Hebrews to survive their time in the wilderness (55). Bailey explains biblical law through the lens of Bedouin customs, offering suggestions on how the logic of the ancient legal material reflects a similar form of cultural organization. Scholars of religion, the likely readers of this review, will be disappointed in the chapter on religion, which does not engage with much scholarship on Israelite religion that is less than 100 years old.

The book concludes with a forceful argument about the origins of the Israelites. Based on the analogues he notes between Bedouin culture and Biblical culture, Bailey argues that the Israelites were once Bedouin. For Bailey, the knowledge of nomadic life that is presented in the Hebrew Bible is too detailed to have come solely from observation; some of the authors must have been the descendants of nomads. Bailey further argues that his book offers evidence for the exodus and wandering in the wilderness that is otherwise missing from archaeological sources (216). It is doubtful that these arguments will be convincing to scholars who are not already amenable to them, but biblical scholars will find this to be an accessible entry point for understanding Bedouin culture, and for using ethnographic analogy as a means of generating new interpretations of the Bible. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kevin M. McGeough is Professor of Archaeology in the Department of Geography at the University of Lethbridge.

Date of Review: 
April 9, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Clinton Bailey has studied Bedouin culture firsthand for fifty years and is the author of books on Bedouin poetry, law, and proverbs. He has been an advocate and activist on behalf of Bedouin civil rights in Israel since 1978.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.