When the Israelites came before God in Canaan, the Promised Land, bearing the first fruits of the harvest, they were to remind themselves of their origin with the words, “A wandering Aramean was my father” (Deut. 26.5)—a reference to Jacob who, once he left his father‐in‐law in Haran, had no permanent home. He moved from a settled to a partly nomadic, herder's life; leaving Egypt, his descendants after forty years in the wilderness moved to a settled, agricultural life. Exchanging one way of life for the other was not an unusual act; there were always connections between the two, for nomads always need the town or village crafts and trade.

Nomadic life leaves little trace. The Bible and virtually all other ancient records were written by townsfolk, so our information is usually colored, somewhat hostile to nomads. The Egyptians thought their life‐style uncivilized, and the Babylonians about 2000 BCE despised them as those who had no permanent homes, ate their meat raw, and did not bury their dead. At that time, tribes from central Syria moved into Babylonia. The Babylonian scribes called them Amorites, or “westerners.” They overran the ancient cities and set up new states, at first on a tribal basis. King vied with king, and the famous Hammurapi briefly dominated them all. Babylonian urban culture overwhelmed the Amorites; apart from the language, no certain Amorite characteristics can be distinguished. Babylonian scribes marked as Amorite some names that have non‐Babylonian features. Such names appear in Syria‐Palestine, including some in Genesis (e.g., Jacob, Ishmael). Israel's ancestors may be reckoned among these early second‐millennium people. Like Israel, other states later traced their history back to nomads “who lived in tents” (see the Assyrian King List). Interaction between townsfolk and nomads, “the desert and the sown,” is illustrated by texts from Mari on the mid‐Euphrates written about 1800 BCE. Mari's kings constantly tried to control neighboring tribes by force or diplomacy, lest they overrun the town. Israel faced the same problem with Amalekites and Midianites (see, e.g., Judg. 6). Nomadic simplicity appealed to some, and the wilderness period seemed to be an ideal state, unalloyed by the evils of Canaanite religion (Hos. 2.14–15; 12.9). Jehonadab son of Rechab began such a movement in Israel in the ninth century BCE (2 Kings 10.15; Jer. 35.10) lasting over two centuries, yet ending in the city's shelter (Jer. 35.11; see Rechabites).

In the New Testament, nomadic life is taken as a figure of the spiritual life (Heb. 11.8–10, 13–16), and a reminder that the physical is transitory.

See Social Sciences and the Bible, article on Cultural Anthropology and the Hebrew Bible


Alan Millard