Bedouin Culture and Bible Customs
By John A. Tvedtnes

Author’s note:  Modern Bible readers sometimes have difficulty understanding elements of the patriarchal narratives in Genesis and other portions of the Old Testament. This article, first written in the 1970s but still unpublished, was used in some of the courses I taught in the BYU Jerusalem program. Its contents also played a significant role in a sociology course on Peoples of the Middle East that I taught at the University of Utah in 1980.

The nomadic Bedouin are a product of the ecological environment of the Near East. Their lifestyle has been adapted to the harsh conditions of the desert and steppe that result from the sparse rainfall. Because most of the Near East is desert and steppe, it is not surprising that the great civilizations of the region arose on the banks of the few large rivers, notably the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia and the Nile in Egypt. With such a large water supply, the ancient inhabitants of the river valleys were able to develop large-scale agriculture and thus support large populations with their surplus food.

As agricultural efficiency increased, more and more inhabitants of the cities were freed from work in the fields and could enter other occupations necessary for the building up of urbanized centers: masons, carpenters, potters, weavers, artisans, etc. Others entered administrative posts (both civil and religious), while still others became scribes or merchants, trading with nearby city-states and ultimately with distant kingdoms.

As the city-states of the river valleys merged into larger nations, there was a desire for cultural and economic contacts between Egypt and Mesopotamia. Trade caravans began making the long trek between the two regions. The difficulty of traveling across the waterless Arabian and Syrian deserts usually made it necessary to take the northern route through Syria and Lebanon and along the Palestine coast and hills. A trader class arose in this region, called Canaanites. [1] They profited from the international caravans continually passing through their land, where water was available in wells, springs, cisterns and a few small rivers. Because the Canaanite cities were on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, their trading activities also led to maritime endeavors.

The semicircle formed by the Nile River Valley, the land of Canaan (including Lebanon to the north), Syria, and the Tigris/Euphrates plain, came to be known as the “Fertile Crescent.” Most of its inhabitants lived in towns and villages, but there were always the nomads, living on the fringe of the fertile regions and in the desert. These were the “have-nots” of the ancient Near East. In order to improve their station in life, they would sometimes band together and attack the settled areas, plundering them and returning to the desert. Some of them, however, stayed and became sedentary peoples.

Nomadism in the Bible

The most infamous of the marauding nomads of the Bible were the Amalekites, who lived in the northern part of the Sinai peninsula, in the wilderness of Zin. To defend their country from the frequent incursions of these peoples, the Canaanites built, along their southern frontier (the Negev), a series of walled cities. [2] The Israelites encountered the Amalekites on their way out of Egypt (Exodus 17) and fought them off and on for several centuries thereafter. [3]  

The Moabites and Ammonites of Transjordan were nomadic peoples who had joined and formed confederacies. When the Israelites arrived from Egypt under Moses and Joshua, the tribes of Reuben and Gad also settled in the Transjordan, where they pastured their herds. Later, they were joined in Gilead by descendants of Manasseh, the clan of Machir.

The early Hebrews were also nomads. Abraham, the first person termed a “Hebrew” in the Bible, came from the city of Ur, which he fled after some conflicts with the local priesthood and royalty. After a brief sojourn in the vicinity of Haran (one of the main stations on the caravan route) and a trip into Egypt, he settled in the land of Canaan, which the Lord promised to give to his descendants. Yet Abraham was a stranger in that land, as the Bible often emphasizes.

Abraham spent most of his time in the Negev region to the south, around Hebron and Beer-Sheba, [4] where he became quite wealthy. [5]   Though Abraham seems to have lived a typical Bedouin life in his tent, nevertheless he appears to not have moved about as nomads typically do. This is perhaps because his wealth permitted him to hire shepherds to take the herds and flocks to their pasturage in various parts of the country, while Abraham was able to maintain a base at the southern end of the caravan route into Egypt.

The Bedouin

The Bedouin of today consider themselves to be descendants of Abraham, mainly through his son Ishmael. They live throughout the area known as Southwest Asia, mostly in Syria, Jordan, Israel, and the Arabian peninsula. Though they speak Arabic, like their urban brethren, they have always considered themselves to be quite apart. In medieval times, the Arabs considered that only the Bedouin spoke Arabic the way God and the angels did, and many Arab rulers used to send their sons to learn the sacred tongue in Bedouin camps.

In the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the Bedouin form the backbone of the army, the Arab Legion, and have maintained the power base of the nation’s kings, who descend from the Arabian prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam. Muslim Bedouin armies swept across the Near East and North Africa in the seventh century A.D. [6] During Word War I, the Bedouin were organized into fighting units by T. E. Lawrence “of Arabia,” and were one of the factors contributing to the downfall of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

During Turkish times, the land of Palestine was wracked with turmoil caused by the frequent Bedouin raids on the farming villages, much like those conducted in Biblical times (e.g., Judges 6-8). It was not until the time of the British Mandate (1917-1947) that security was strong enough to maintain order.

The Bedouin have always been relatively aloof from national political matters. Their loyalties are to the family rather than to the government in power. As a result, the Bedouin in the territory of Israel have not participated with the other Arabs in the struggles against Jews. Because of this, Israel has granted the Bedouin special status in the state (so indicated on the ID card issued to each resident). Some Bedouin serve in the Israeli Border Police and in other similar functions. In 1973, a Bedouin sheikh from the Negev was elected to the Israeli Knesset (Parliament). [7] The state of Israel has long been involved in the rather slow process of assisting the Bedouin of the Negev to settle down and begin farming, with plans to bring in irrigation water.

Because of the changes that have taken place and are taking place among the Bedouin in our modern world, the Bedouin culture described in this article is no longer accurate for all of them. It is more descriptive of what Bedouin life was half a century ago or more. Much, however, still applies to the Bedouin and it can also be said that many of the things we shall discuss here apply to sedentary Arabs as well, particularly those living in small villages.

Understanding the Bedouin is a means to understanding the patriarchs of the book of Genesis and their descendants. Therefore, in the discussion that follows, we shall not only describe Bedouin life, but we shall also draw parallels from the Biblical account.

Bedouin Economy

The nomadism of the Bedouin is the result of the peculiar rainfall patterns of the Near East, wherein the rains are seasonal and infrequent. This produces grass suitable for sheep and goats in some areas, and hence it is that large numbers of Bedouin raise these animals. [8] The Bedouin shepherd brings his flocks to the areas where the grasses are available, depending on the time of the year.

Outsiders may be surprised that the Bedouin do not live by eating their sheep and goats. Their diet consists principally of a round thin bread (ancestor of the “pita” known to visitors to the Near East), eaten with dairy products – mostly cheese and milk from the herds – and supplemented by vegetables when possible. Flour and other goods are often purchased from the towns and villages, using goat milk as a medium of exchange or, sometimes, by selling a goat or sheep in the local market.

Some Bedouin have, within their dira (the territory through which they travel and camp during the year, and which they defend against others) areas of flat land suitable for agricultural purposes and are hence able to purchase wheat and plant it. Since they do not irrigate, they use other methods of retaining the water, such as planting on a slight incline and terracing the soil (or building low stone dams) to slow down the runoff from rain and allow the water to soak in. [9] They time their travels so as to be at that particular camping spot at harvest time.

Sheep and goats are a sign of wealth. Eating one of them is like eating money and can make a man poor. Therefore, the Bedouin eat meat only on the occasion of feasts – mostly at marriages and circumcisions, but also during certain Muslim holy days. People invited to the camp on such occasions are expected to bring a sheep or goat, and by this means the herds are temporarily replenished. But when invited to a neighboring camp, a sheep or goat must be brought in return.

While it is the responsibility of the women to cook, they are not allowed to kill the larger animals. This was anciently a priestly function and therefore is performed by a man. This reminds us of the fact that, in Bible times, no animal could be eaten by an Israelite unless he offered up the fat as a sacrifice (Leviticus 17:1-9). Every animal killed is a sacrifice to God and hence the eating of meat is seen as an occasion for rejoicing.

The Bedouin Camp

The Bedouin camp generally comprises the family of man and his married sons, though there may be other relatives – and occasionally in-laws – in the camp. Each married man has his tent, where he lives with his wife and children. The main tent belongs to the head of the family, the sheikh (“old man”). It is always situated on the northern end of the line of tents when they are set up in the campground. The tents are generally arranged in a crescent line, bulging toward the west on the slope of a hill, in order to catch the wind and provide defense. At night, the flocks can be kept within the semicircular enclosure of tents. 

The sheikh’s tent is divided into two portions. The southern end is the women’s quarters, where the wife and her smaller children reside. The northern part, separated from the other by a tent wall, is the shig or “guest room.” Visitors to the camp are entertained there. This is, at least, the case with male visitors; visits by unaccompanied females is unknown, while only female visitors may visit the women’s quarters.

Visitors approaching a Bedouin camp are expected to go around to the west and then come in from the northwest to the sheikh’s tent. In this manner, they avoid that portion of the camp partially enclosed by the tents, where the women work during the day. This gives the women sufficient time to retire to their tents. Generally speaking, a woman’s face should not be seen by men outside her immediate family. If she goes to town or to another camp (almost always in company with her husband or a male relative), she will wear a veil.

Bedouin Hospitality

The Bedouin have long been known for their hospitality. In the desert, where neighbors are few and far between and life can hang upon a water bag and a crust of bread, it is natural that people should help each other by providing rest and food and drink for the traveler. It is typical to offer three days, three nights and the third of the next day in hospitality and protection of visitors. The Bible contains the story of a Levite who was preparing to leave the hospitality of his father-in-law after the third day when the elder man prevailed upon him to remain beyond the customary period (Judges 19:1-6ff). Another excellent example of Bedouin hospitality is found in the story of Abraham:

And the Lord appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; And he lift up his eyes and looked, and lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground, And said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree: And I will fetch a morsel a bread and comfort ye your hearts; after that ye shall pass on . . .  And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said, Make ready quickly three measure of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes upon the hearth.  And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said, Make ready quickly three measure of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes upon the hearth.  And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetcht a calf tender and good, and gave it unto a young man; and he hasted to dress it.  And he took butter, and milk, and the calf which he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat.  And they said unto him, Where is Sarah thy wife?  And he said, Behold, in the tent.  And he said, I will certainly returnun to thee according to the time of life; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son.  And Sarah heard it in the tent door, which was behind him. (Genesis 18:1-10)

Here we have a typical Bedouin feast, consisting of meat, butter, milk and small “cakes” (actually, the Hebrew word means something round and refers to the round flat bread eaten by the Bedouin even today). In true Bedouin style, Abraham promises to provide a mere “morsel of bread” and then brings on a royal meal. And, as with the Bedouin and Arab host in general, he stands to serve the visitors, but does not actually eat with him. (The Bedouin host eats the leftovers after his guests have left or retired for the night.)

Two other details of Bedouin life are found in this passage. One is that Abraham spends his time sitting at the door of the tent (a feature to be discussed below). The other is that, while there are strangers in camp, Sarah remains in the tent, in order that her face may not be seen by outsiders.

Divisions of Labor

The Bedouin woman spends most of her time in and around the tent, which she has herself woven from goat hair. There are several (typically four) strips of goat hair cloth running around the sides of the tent, so constructed that one or more may be raised to allow the passage of wind or lowered to keep out dust storms and rain. The roof is normally a single strip, protecting the inhabitants from both sun and rain (cf. Isaiah 4:6). The goat hair tent is in general use during the winter because it keeps the rain water out (the hairs swell when wet and make the cloth impermeable). Modern Bedouin, however, often use gunny sacks for their summer tent. An arrangement of tent posts and cords keeps the strips in place (cf. Isaiah 33:20). The floor of the tent consists of rugs woven from sheep’s wool.

Aside from her work in preparing and repairing the tent and rugs, the Bedouin woman also looks after the smaller children and prepares the meals. If she has daughters, they assist her in this work. While the women are thus engaged, the men can normally be found sitting under a tree (if available) or in the guest portion of the sheikh’s tent. They pass the time talking, playing quiet games, composing and reciting poems, and drinking tea and/or coffee.

To the outside observer, it would appear that the Bedouin woman does all the work and that the man is a good-for-nothing. But there is a reason for this behavior. In the desert, where stores and supplies are unavailable, it was most often easier to steal what one needed from a neighboring camp rather than go off on a long trip to purchase it. Such raids were at one time so frequent that the men became accustomed to remaining in camp to defend it against attack, while the women continued with their chores and the children pastured the herds.

The role of the Bedouin man as defender of his family cannot be overemphasized. Many outsiders are shocked at the seemingly “impolite” behavior of Arab men toward their women. A friend of ours, for example, commented on how he and his wife had gone to speak with an East Jerusalem Arab shopkeeper and how the Arab man always spoke with the husband, never the wife, even when replying to one of her questions. The American couple were a bit annoyed at this. Another sight that disturbs people from western cultures is that of an Arab man walking in front with his wife trailing behind, carrying a burden on her head while he carries nothing. Sometimes, the Arab man is riding a donkey, while the wife walks behind him with her burden.

Those of us whose rules of “courtesy” and “chivalry” (words coming from “court” and “horse”) date to the medieval royal courts of Europe, where they were actually invented and imposed by royal decree in a very arbitrary manner, are shocked by such behavior. [10] But let us consider the cultural reasons behind them.

Were the Arab man to speak to the American wife, he would actually be discourteous in terms of his own culture. He cannot allow himself to become too familiar with another man’s wife or with any woman outside his immediate family. If an Arab man does so, we must conclude that he is either (a) accustomed to Western mores, or (b) extremely rude to say the least (and possibly looking for an intimate relationship with the woman).

The Arab man walks in front of his wife in order that he might defend her in the event of hostility (an age-old problem in the Near East). She carries the burden so that his hands might be free to fight. Where there is only one donkey, the man must ride, for the warrior must be mobile in time of struggle.

It is true that the justification for such acts is, generally speaking, a thing of the past. They have become mere habits. But the same can be said of some of our customs for which there no longer exists a “logical” reason. “Common courtesy” is common only to those who share a common culture.

The life of the desert is a struggle not only against nature, but against other Bedouin and invaders from afar. Abraham learned this when his nephew, Lot, was taken in the sacking of Sodom, as recounted in Genesis 14. With a small force of 318 young men, Abraham was able, in good Bedouin fashion, to overtake and defeat an army led by five Mesopotamian kings! [11]

While the Bedouin man is defending his family and possessions (in company with his older sons) and his wife is working around the tent (with the older daughters), the younger children are herding the sheep and goats. This latter task is preferably assigned to the boys, though if a man has no sons he may send younger daughters to do the work. They typically will do so only if they have not yet reached puberty and are hence less vulnerable to sexual attack. Thus, we read that Rachel (whose father Laban had no sons), the “younger daughter” kept her father’s sheep (Genesis 28:9-10). That she had not yet attained puberty is further evidenced by the fact that Jacob kissed her (she wore no veil; see Genesis 29:11). Jewish tradition makes her ten years of age at the time. Since she married seven years later, she would have been seventeen, an age at which many Bedouin girls marry (though I once met a 14-year-old married woman of the Jabaliya tribe in the southern Sinai peninsula). She would then have been wearing a veil and for this reason it was easy for Laban to trick Jacob into marrying Leah instead (Genesis 29:20-28).

If a man has sufficient wealth, he may hire others to herd his flocks for him – oftentimes a younger close relative. This, too, we find in the example of Jacob, who hired out as a shepherd to his maternal uncle Laban (Genesis 29:14-15). But when Jacob became head of his own family, he no longer kept the flocks, but sent his sons out to do the work. On one occasion, when the sons were in the north with the flocks, Jacob sent his son Joseph to check on them. The brothers took him captive and he was sold into Egypt, (Genesis 37:12-36). Ordinarily, one would expect Joseph and Benjamin, the younger children, to pasture the herds, as young David did (1 Samuel 16:10-11; 17:28). But because they were his favorite sons, born of his beloved Rachel (who had died in childbirth), Jacob seems to have wanted to keep them under his wing.

Marriage and Family

The Bedouin family-and Arab families in general-can be described as:

PATRIARCHAL – i.e., the father is head of the family. In his absence, it is the eldest son who takes charge.

PATRILINEAL – i.e., the most important genealogical line is that coming through the father. One belongs to the tribe and clan of the father.

PATRILOCAL – i.e., when the sons marry, they settle in the area where the father lives and bring their brides home. In the villages, the father often merely adds another room onto the house each time a son marries. For the Bedouin, it entails setting up a new tent.

The descendants of an Arab man to the fifth generation comprise the hamulah or clan (in anthropology, the “extended family”). Each clan has its own patriarchal head, known as the sheikh. He is generally the firstborn son of the firstborn son, going back to the ancestor of the clan.

The firstborn son inherits a double portion of his deceased father’s estate, just as in the Bible. [12]   It was this right, along with the blessing, that Jacob purchased from Esau (Genesis 25:29-34).

When one of the sons of the family marries, a new tent is set up in the camp, slightly forward of the line of tents, and at the southern end. It is identified also by flying a white flag from the highest tent pole. The flag is posted for both marriage and circumcision and is an open invitation to all friends of the family to come to the feast; the message is spread by word-of-mouth.

Arab marriages are arranged by the parents for the bride and bridegroom. Indeed, the latter may not even know each other. They have certainly never dated, for Arabs neither date nor hold hands with nor dance with members of the opposite sex. The fathers have the actual say in the marriage contract, though often it is the mothers who do the real “leg-work” in picking out a spouse for their children. When the contract for the marriage is signed, it is sealed by a meal shared by the fathers, who drink bitter coffee and sweet tea to represent the good and bad that occurs in a family. This is why Abraham’s servant refused to eat in Laban’s house until a bargain had been struck for the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca (Genesis 24:33, 53-54).

Arabs often say that they prefer arranged marriages. Two reasons are generally given: First, who but the parents (already experienced in marriage) are really qualified to choose a suitable spouse? Second, by marrying a virtual stranger, one must always be on one’s guard to be polite and courteous; this prevents problems that might otherwise arise in a marriage where the young couple already know each other well. In reality, these marriages tend to be more stable because they are family contracts. [13]

Because such marriages are actually contracted between two families rather than two individuals, there existed anciently the practice of the levirate, whereby a man would take the wife of his deceased brother and raise up the firstborn child of this new union in his brothers’ name (Deuteronomy 25:5-10; see also Genesis 38:6-11 and the book of Ruth). Since the brother was often already married, this meant that polygyny (“multiple wives”) was acceptable.

The Arabs still follow the ancient custom of the brideprice. This is a sum of money (or, more traditionally, sheep and goats) paid to the father of the bride by the groom’s family. It is a kind of bond, given by the groom to show his good faith and as a guarantee that he will be a good husband. It does not, however, purchase the bride, since she is always considered to be a member of her father’ clan and not that of her husband. It does not, however, purchase the bride, since she is always considered to be a member of her father’s clan and not that of her husband. It compensates her father for the loss of her services when she leaves his home and also purchases her children, who are members of their father’s clan.  If there is a divorce without children, the brideprice must be returned, but if there are children, then the groom’s father-in-law keeps it. Anciently, it was sometimes possible to marry a woman without a brideprice (e.g., if she were a slave or was not a virgin), in which case she was called a “concubine” rather than a “wife.” because the contractual nature of the marriage was not the same without the bond. 

The fact that it was Rebecca’s brother Laban and their mother who received the brideprice and not her father is indicative of the fact that her father was elderly and had turned family affairs over to his son Laban (see Genesis 24:53). Laban had therefore already gained experience in bartering the brideprice by the time Jacob came to live with him. Jacob was unable to obtain a wife, for he did not have sufficient money or sheep for the brideprice. In lieu thereof, he contracted with Laban to work for a total fourteen years for his two wives (Genesis 29).

A number of customs relating to the wedding night are of interest at this point. The men of the two families hold a party, while the women hold another such party. [14] This is reflected in Genesis 29:22, at the marriage of Jacob and Leah. The Bedouin bride, as indicated earlier, is veiled, as was Leah (Genesis 29:25). She is taken in procession to the groom’s home, where she enters his tent or house.

The young man’s first act on the night of marriage has traditionally been to give his bride money as an enticement for undressing. Often, a game is made of this, in which he must pay for each article of clothing removed. Naturally, some girls profit by this to overdress. The string of coins hanging on the forehead of many Bedouin women is oftentimes this “dowry,” and is thus proudly displayed by them as tokens of their worth. The widow who lost her coin in the story told by Jesus (Luke 15:8-10) probably was looking for one of these keepsakes. Were she really a very poor woman, it would seem unlikely that she would spend her long-lost coin on a one-time party!

Arab girls (and not just Bedouin) are expected to be virgins when they marry and to remain faithful to their husbands throughout the rest of their lives. After puberty, women are generally kept cloistered and go out only in the company of a number of female relatives or in-laws or with the husband or a close male relative. [15] There are frequently instances in Israel and the Arab countries where a teenage girl, found or suspected to be pregnant or to have become unchaste, is slain by her father and/or brother, in order to preserve the family honor (i.e., it is shame, not sin, among such people). In Israel, the men are imprisoned for such acts and proudly serve. In some Arab countries, the killing of a promiscuous female relative is legally condoned.

To assure that he has married a virgin, the newlywed man will break the bride’s hymen with a clean, white cloth, in order to draw blood. This is then presented to the crowd of men waiting outside the tent or bedroom door. This was done also in ancient Israel, when the bride’s father kept the cloth (the “tokens of virginity”) as evidence in the girl’s favor should she ever be later falsely accused of not being a virgin at marriage (Deuteronomy 22:13-21).

In the Old Testament, it is the man alone who may divorce his wife (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). This is true also among the Arabs. Muslim law provides that a man may divorce his wife by saying three times “I divorce thee.” (Some schools of jurisprudence interpret this to mean that he must say it at two-month intervals, in case he changes his mind.) Thus the man has some measure of protection against a bad wife. But the woman, though she may not divorce except where it can be proved that her husband is incapable of reproduction, also has some measure of protection, as we shall see below.

A woman’s father, by virtue of the brideprice paid to him, has a vested interest in the marriage of his daughter. If the marriage is terminated with no children, he must return the brideprice. This, then, is for him an inducement to intervene and make sure that there are no family problems. He will wield influence with his daughter because she should obey him. On the other hand, a good father will not allow her (and hence his family) to be mistreated, so he will protect her interests.

If a woman is mistreated, she may simply fold her tent and return home to her father, as in the story of the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19. Her husband is left without lodging and with no one to cook for him. (It is often considered shameful for a man to cook and, since the woman jealously guards the secrets of the kitchen, he most often doesn’t know how.) If his mother or sister takes pity on him, he may survive. But, as we shall see below, a man’s mother is often the aunt or a cousin to his wife and of the same clan. She will hence want to protect both her son and her niece. The man’s sister likely lives elsewhere, in another camp, where he may not be welcome. Often, his sister will have married into the same family to which his wife has returned. The moral: it pays to be a good husband.

While the woman owns the tent and its utensils, which she made, the children are members of her husband’s clan. Hence, if she returns home, either by choice or by divorce, the children must remain with her in-laws. If there are children, then she has fulfilled herd main function toward the family into which she has married and her father is in no sense obliged to return the brideprice.

Most family problems that could arise in our society do not exist among the Bedouin. The main reason for this is that there is a general tendency to marry within the clan itself (a practice called endogamy, “inside marriage”). Marriage outside the clan (exogamy), when it exists, is normally for the purpose of defense and economic alliances with other clans, necessitated by environmental conditions. Marriage within the clan strengthens the ties within the family itself. If cousins marry, then the whole family (there are, of course, no in-laws) takes an interest in making the marriage work out well.

The preferred marriage among Arabs is for a man to marry his first parallel cousin, i.e., his father’s brother’s daughter. This, of course, is not always possible, for various reasons (e.g., father has no brother or the uncle has no daughters), in which case a second or third cousin might be found suitable for marriage. Though anthropologists speak of this as “parallel cousin” marriage, yet because the young man’s mother is also of the same family, he is not marrying into his father’s family and out of his mother’s, since they are of the same family.

The patriarchs, of course, married their own relatives. Abraham married his half-sister Sarah (Genesis 20:12), while Isaac married his cousin Rebecca (Genesis 24) and Jacob married his cousins Leah and Rachel (Genesis 29). Even Moses’ parents were closely related, Amram being the nephew of his wife Jochebed (Exodus 6:20). And, just as some of the patriarchs practiced polygamy, so too are some of the richer Arabs able to do so.

Collective Responsibility

The internal ties of the hamulah or clan are very strong. The clan works as s ingle unit for the welfare and mutual defense of its members (cf. Abraham’s defense of his nephew Lot in Genesis 14). A debt owed by one of them is a debt owed by all. If a debt is owed to one of the clan’s members, any other member of the clan may collect it from any member of the indebted clan. Clan members take turns in providing the food for visiting guests, even though guests are always lodged in the same place (the shig for the Bedouin and in the house of the sheikh in the village). The Arabs are so family-oriented that they usually gather together in large clusters of relatives every evening to visit, usually segregating the men from the women.

This principle of “collective responsibility,” the principle by which clan members share in their responsibilities one toward another, goes so far as to require that there be an “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” between clans. [16] If a member of Clan A kills (accidentally or deliberately) a member of Clan B, then Clan B may retaliate by killing a member of Clan A. They will not necessarily seek out the murderer; all members of the clan are responsible for the acts of its members. The loss of a valuable warrior places a clan in a dangerous position in the desert, and hence this must be recompensed by the loss of a warrior from the offending clan. Once this happens, it is finished. There is no long vendetta, no “Hatfield-McCoy” feud for generations on end. A life for a life is sufficient. However, it may sometimes take several generations before the debt is paid.

If a woman is slain, she is worth four men from the slayer’s clan; if pregnant, she is worth five (the unborn child being counted as one, since it is always hoped that she will have a boy and not a girl). Herein lies a further tale: If Clan A attacks Clan B, it must take care not to kill any of the women in camp, for some of them might be from Clan C, in which case the latter will come into the picture for revenge.

This may seem extremely crude, cruel and primitive, but we must consider the reasoning behind it. In the desert, where there are no police, it is the responsibility of the clan to keep its members in line. If it cannot do so, then the clan itself must take the blame and suffer the consequences. Because of the principle of collective responsibility, the clan is reluctant to take harsh measures against its own members. However, in some cases there is no alternative short of annihilation by warfare. Sometimes, the clan will banish an irrational member they consider to be a potential murderer or accidental killer. Other clans are notified of the action taken and the clan is thereafter no longer responsible for the man’s actions.

If the guilty party is banished, escapes to a distant land, dies or is imprisoned, then there is a suspension of any retaliatory acts against his clan until such time as he rejoins his family. (In cases of life imprisonment, this means that no further action would be taken.) Sometimes, a reconciliation (sulhah) is made by means of blood money. This satisfies the family’s price and also gives sufficient funds to hire a warrior or worker to replace the deceased if need be.

Because of the restrictions mentioned above, an Arab man would not consider killing his unfaithful wife, for she is from another family and sometimes from another clan. Such an act could bring problems for his own family. Rather, it is the father or brother of the married woman who would punish her, even above the husband’s objections, for the sake of family honor.

The principle of collective responsibility existed also in ancient Israel. For the sin of but a few men, for example, the entire town of Gibeah (which would not surrender the men because of the necessity of defending one’s own) was destroyed and the tribe of Benjamin was nearly annihilated (Judges 19-20). When Achan sinned against the Lord’s express command during the Israelite attack on Ai, thus endangering the army sent by Joshua, we read that:

Joshua, and all Israel with him, took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver, and the garment, and the wedge of gold, and his sons, and his daughters, and his oxen, and his asses, and his sheep, and his tent, and all that he had… And all Israel stoned him with stones, and burned them with fire, after they had stoned them with stones.”  (Joshua 7; here we quote verses 24-25)

Note that though Achan’s children were slain with him, his wife, apparently not being a member of the same clan, did not suffer the same fate.

A few centuries later, the Gibeonites demanded that King David turn over to them seven of Saul’s sons, whom they then slew in retaliation for the Gibeonites killed by Saul a generation earlier (2 Samuel 21:1-9).

The law of Moses, of course, expressly forbids punishing the innocent and prohibits punishing the children for the sins of the parents and vice versa (Deuteronomy 16). But throughout much of their history, the Israelites still managed to cling to some of the ancient desert law, despite the pleading of the Lord’s prophets for mercy. [17]

The Mosaic law provides that when a murder had been committed, the guilty part (and not another member of his clan) should be executed. From a practical point-of-view, the clan of the offender might escape on two counts: (a) if his clan repudiated the crime and disowned the offender, as when David cursed his cousin Joab for having slain Saul’s cousin Abner (2 Samuel 3:27-30), or (2) if the murderer was unknown, the elders of the city nearest the scene of the crime were required to follow a certain ritual, swearing that they had made diligent search and could find no evidence implicating one of their own (Deuteronomy 21:1-9).

There were, of course, instances of accidental death. Under the law of Moses, the accidental slayer was not to be punished, as was the murderer. Nevertheless, because the Israelites as a people (quite apart from their revealed religion) still followed the system of blood revenge even in the case of accident deaths, God provided a system whereby the man who accidentally slew another could escape. This was by fleeing to certain cities of refuge (three on either side of the Jordan River) to escape the “avenger of blood,” who was a member of the deceased person’s clan (Numbers 35).

The accidental killer was safe from revenge in the city or refuge, just as the modern Bedouin clan is safe so long as the murderer is in jail or out of the country. At the death of the current high priest, the accidental slayer was free to return to his family, and any guilty of slaying him after that time would be considered murderers and would be dealt with according to the law. [18] This law was directed at a people whose slave mentality, acquired over a few generations in Egypt and in the desert, made it difficult for them to accept the higher law of mercy.

The man who remained in the city of refuge was of no use to his clan, just as the modern killer is of no use to his people while he is in prison. Therefore, no retaliation would be taken while the accidental slayer was in the city of refuge. There is a notable breach of this law in the Bible, when Joab, David’s cousin, took revenge against Abner, who had slain Joab’s brother Asahel in battle (see 2 Samuel 2:17-23). What made Joab’s crime so heinous is that he not only slew Abner in Hebron, one of the cities of refuge, but that he performed this act in the gateway, which was, anciently, the place of judgment for Israelite cities (2 Samuel 3:27).


Though Abraham was a man well-acquainted with the Lord and versed in astronomy and other matters (Abraham 3), he was, nevertheless, a “stranger in the land” of Canaan, [19] an outcast from the urban society from which he had come. In many respects, he was very much like the Bedouin of today, as were his descendants. Knowing about Bedouin life can help us understand the Bible, and especially the cultural milieu of the patriarchs. [20]


[1] Indeed, the term “Canaanite” came to mean, in some cases, “merchant.”

[2] These same cities were an important string of fortresses for the Israelites and others. During the Roman period, the Nabataeans manned the walled forts and remained an obstacle to Roman expansion toward the south and into the Arabian trade routes.

[3] 1 Samuel 15; 27:8; 30; 2 Samuel 8:12; 1 Chronicles 4:43.

[4] Archaeological excavations on the site of ancient Beer-Sheba have shown that the city itself was not constructed until the time of King David. In Abraham’s day, there was only a well on the site, as its name, Be’er-Shebac, “well of the oath,” indicates. Abraham was not a city dweller, but lived in a tent.

[5] William Foxwell Albright suggested that Abraham was involved in caravan trade and even believed that the term “Hebrew” originally meant “donkey caravaneer.” Until recently, most scholars accepted this view, despite the biblical evidence that Abraham lived an essentially Bedouin lifestyle in the land of Canaan. Wealthy shepherds were not unknown in Old Testament times. Job is a classic example, as in Mesha, king of Moab (2 Kings 3:4).

[6] Ironically, Muhammad himself was a city-dweller from the caravan and religious center of Mecca.

[7] His election caused a financial dilemma. Each member of the Knesset has a right, by law, to a telephone provided free of charge by the government. In order to meet the requirements of the statute, the Israeli government had to string a special telephone line out into the desert to the sheikh’s tent at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars.

[8] Camel-nomads are found only in the oases of the deeper deserts, such as those situated in the Arabian peninsula.

[9] The Nabataeans, named after Nebaioth, son of Ishmael (1 Chronicles 1:29; Isaiah 60:7), were particularly adept at these and other methods, some of which have been examined not only from the archaeological point-of-view, but actually underlie modern experimentation in Israel, at the site of ancient settlements.

[10] The Arab is just as shocked at our rules of courtesy. He cannot understand why we would open the door for our women. After all, the woman has hands, too, has she not? She is certainly intelligent enough to learn how to open a door. There are, of course, long-dead cultural reasons for some of these acts which, while considered “courteous,” no longer have any logical reasons for existence in our society. For example, since there might be danger behind a closed door, the man used to open it out to check it out before allowing the woman to enter. (I often jokingly tell students that a man in our culture opens the door and holds it to allow the woman to go in and check it out for danger.)

[11] The reason for which he went to Lot’s rescue will become clear below, when we discuss the principal of collective responsibility.

[12] Deuteronomy 21:17; see Genesis 25:5-6; 48:22; 2 Kings 2:9.

[13] In actual fact, our traditional western method of dating to choose a spouse is rather inefficient and illogical. One is always on his or her best behavior during a date, so the real character of the prospective bride or groom is often not seen until after the wedding, when disappointment at the contrast can set in. Generally speaking, marriages are much more stable in countries where they were arranged by the families.

[14] This is because men and women who are not closely related never mix socially.

[15] This is why so many young Arab men often seek sexual pleasure amongst non-Arab tourist girls visiting their lands. Their own girls are unavailable to them, even for friendly chats. Sexual promiscuity prominent in films from the West has convinced them that women from other countries are not only “free game,” but that they are anxious to have affairs with foreign men.

[16] Cf. Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21.

[17] As for Joshua’s actions in the case of Achan, it should be noted that, at that time, the Israelites had not yet assembled between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal to covenant obedience to the law of Moses, as the Lord required of them (Deuteronomy 27; Joshua 8:30-34). They had just come out of the desert, where they had lived forty years without even obeying the law of circumcision given to Abraham (Joshua 5:2-8). Therefore, they were still living the old desert law of retaliation. The law of Moses did not entirely do away with this system, but made only a step toward the higher law, which Israel rejected at Sinai. For a more detailed discussion of the differences between the higher law of the gospel and the law of Moses, see John A. Tvedtnes, “The Sermon on the Mount: Restoration of the Higher Law,” Insights 19/2 (February 1999), and Tvedtnes, “The Higher and Lesser Laws,” in Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., Revelation, Reason, and Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman G. Madsen (Provo: FARMS, 2002).

[18] Exodus 21:12-14; Numbers 34:9-29, 33; Deuteronomy 19:1-3; Joshua 20:1-4.

[19] Genesis 15:13. The Hebrew term denotes a foreign resident, comparable in the modern U.S.A. to an immigrant who has been issued a green card by the Immigration and Naturalization Seervice.

[20] For other ties between Bedouin society and biblical accounts, see Morris S. Seale, The Desert Bible: Nomadic Culture and Old Testament Interpretation (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1974). I have not relied on Seale’s book because my information comes from personal experience living in Arab villages for more than 8 years and from courses taught by one of my anthropology professors, Joseph Ginat, who served for a number of years as the deputy advisor on Arab affairs to the prime minister of Israel.



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