An animal that has long served man as a beast of burden and a means of transport, especially in desert regions. There are two varieties of camel, the Bactrian and the Arabian. The former has two humps on its back, is stronger than the latter and is able to carry greater loads; the latter, thought to be the one generally referred to in the Bible, has only one hump.
The camel’s characteristics ideally fit it for life in desert regions, where it fills the place usually assigned the horse or donkey in other lands. This animal’s thick hair shields it from desert heat. Its long slitlike nostrils can close at will, a useful precaution against the blowing sand. Its eyes are shielded from blistering sandstorms by heavy eyelids and long eyelashes. The camel’s feet are provided with a hardened skin and are padlike, remarkably shaped for walking on soft and yielding sand. Callous pads on which the animal rests protect its chest and knees. These pads are present at birth. The camel’s strong teeth enable it to chew practically anything. This creature needs little grain and can subsist on the common plants of the desert, making it an animal quite economical to use.
The camel’s hump serves as a sort of portable pantry. Here most of its food reserve is stored. If the camel is required to draw nourishment from its stored-up food supply for too long a time, the skin of the hump, instead of standing up, falls over, and hangs like an empty bag on the side of the dorsal ridge. In ancient times, as today, loads were placed on the humps of camels. (Isa. 30:6) Mention is also made in Scripture of a “woman’s saddle basket of the camel,” which undoubtedly was placed on the camel’s hump.—Gen. 31:34.
Contrary to popular belief, the camel needs almost as much water as does a horse. If water is available, it will drink from five to seven gallons (c. 19 to c. 26 liters) a day. However, the remarkable feature about the camel is its endurance when forced to go without water. Carrying a load of 400 pounds (c. 181 kilograms) and traveling at a rate of twenty-five to thirty miles (c. 40 to c. 48 kilometers) a day, a camel may go without water for eight days. One camel is known to have continued for thirty-four days without drinking water, but this is an exception.
Views differ as to the reason for the camel’s ability to go for long periods without water. Although folklore has it that the camel stores water in its hump, this is not the case. The idea that the camel stores water in its stomach has been presented by authorities even in recent years, but this is disputed. It is now generally thought that the camel can get along without water for a prolonged period because of retaining most of the water that it drinks. Its body temperature can rise 11° Fahrenheit (c. 6° Centigrade) without marked effects. The camel can tolerate a loss of water of more than 30 percent of its weight, in contrast to about 10 percent for humans. It does not lose moisture by perspiration as rapidly as do other creatures. Its blood is unique in that loss of fluid is minimal even when water is in short supply for several days.
Some camels are known to have traveled at an amazing speed. In one recorded instance a camel made a journey of about 530 miles (c. 853 kilometers) in two and a half days. However, at any fast pace the camel’s movements are violent and jarring, since it moves the two right legs at the same time and then the two left legs. At 1 Samuel 30:17, an allusion to swift camels may be noted. It was only the four hundred young men that rode camels who escaped when David struck down the Amalekite raiders.
According to the Law, the camel was an unclean animal and, therefore, was not used by the Israelites for food. (Lev. 11:4; Deut. 14:7) However, camel’s hair was woven into cloth. John the Baptist wore a garment of this material. (Matt. 3:4; Mark 1:6) Even today the cloth made from camel’s hair is used for making articles of clothing.
USE FROM EARLY TIMES
The first Bible mention of the camel relates to Abraham’s temporary residence in Egypt, where he acquired a number of these beasts of burden. (Gen. 12:16) Some have taken the view that this early reference to camels is an anachronism and cite the absence of monumental evidence for the existence of the domestic camel in proof of their claim. However, on this point, Professor J. P. Free, in his book Archaeology and Bible History (p. 170), writes: “To set aside the reference to Abraham’s having camels in Egypt (Gen. 12:16) is presumptuous, in the light of such evidence as camel statuettes, bones, and other evidences which appear in archaeological materials” of an even earlier date.
When Abraham’s faithful servant was sent to Mesopotamia to procure a wife for Isaac, a train of ten camels, with all sorts of gifts, accompanied him. (Gen. 24:10) It was to a camel caravan of Ishmaelites bound for Egypt that Joseph was sold by his half brothers.—Gen. 37:25-28.
Job is introduced as “the greatest of all the Orientals.” His material possessions included three thousand camels, and following the test of his integrity Jehovah blessed Job, so much so that he came to possess six thousand camels and a vast quantity of other livestock.—Job 1:3; 42:12.
In common with other livestock of Egypt, the camels suffered from the plagues God brought upon Pharaoh’s domain. (Ex. 9:3, 10, 25; 12:29) Whether any camels went with the Israelites on the trek through the wilderness is not indicated in the Bible record, but likely this was the case.
The first reference to camels after Israel’s settling in the Promised Land is in connection with their use by invaders. When Midianite hordes and their ‘camels without number’ spread over the land and impoverished it, a critical situation faced God’s people Israel. (Judg. 6:5; 7:12) At times, with Jehovah’s help, the Israelites defeated their enemies and captured vast numbers of camels, on one occasion 50,000.—1 Chron. 5:21; 2 Chron. 14:15.
While outlawed from Saul’s court, David and his men warred against the Geshurites, the Girzites and the Amalekites, striking down all the men and women but taking domestic animals, including camels, as booty. (1 Sam. 27:8, 9) During the reign of David, a special official, Obil, was in charge of his camels. (1 Chron. 27:30) The queen of Sheba brought gifts to David’s son and successor to the throne, Solomon, in a camel train, and Ben-hadad of Syria sent presents to the prophet Elisha loaded upon forty camels.—1 Ki. 10:1, 2; 2 Ki. 8:9.
In foretelling the fall of Babylon, the prophet Isaiah alluded to the conquering armies under the symbol of a “war chariot of camels.” (Isa. 21:7) According to the Greek historian Herodotus (i, 80), Cyrus did make use of the camel in his military campaigns. Another of Jehovah’s prophets described the oncoming doom of Rabbah, capital city of the Ammonites, by declaring that it would become “a pasture ground of camels.” (Ezek. 25:5) Also, the faithless house of Israel, in its adulterous course, having illicit relations with pagan nations round about, was likened to a young she-camel in heat aimlessly running to and fro.—Jer. 2:23, 24.
Reminiscent of the plagues that struck the livestock of Egypt, Zechariah foretold a scourge that would come upon the camels and other livestock of the nations who fight against Jehovah’s people on earth. (Zech. 14:12, 15) After their restoration from captivity God’s people are depicted as being covered by a “heaving mass of camels,” all bearing tribute. Camels are also mentioned among the beasts of burden bringing the brothers of God’s servants to Jerusalem out of all the nations “as a gift to Jehovah.” (Isa. 60:6; 66:20) It is of interest that, in the first fulfillment of Isaiah’s restoration prophecy, there were 435 camels among the livestock of the Jews returning from Babylon in 537 B.C.E.—Ezra 2:67; Neh. 7:69.
Jesus made reference to the camel in an illustrative way. On one occasion he pointed out that it would be easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to get into the Kingdom. (Matt. 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25) A question has arisen as to whether “camel” should not be more correctly rendered “rope” in this instance. In fact, George M. Lamsa’s translation uses the word “rope” in the main text, and a footnote on Matthew 19:24 reads: “The Aramaic word gamla means rope and camel.” Also, the Greek words for rope (kaʹmi·los) and camel (kaʹme·los) are very similar, and it has been suggested that there was a confusion of the Greek words. It is noteworthy, though, that A Greek-English Lexicon by Liddell and Scott defines kaʹmi·los as “rope,” but adds, “perhaps coined as an emendation of the phrase, ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,’” thus indicating that kaʹme·los, rather than kaʹmi·los, appeared in the Greek text.
In the oldest extant Greek manuscripts of the Gospel of Matthew, the Sinaitic Manuscript, the Vatican Manuscript No. 1209 and the Alexandrine Manuscript, the word kaʹme·los appears. The indications are that Matthew wrote his account of the life of Jesus first in Hebrew and then translated it into Greek. He knew, therefore, exactly what Jesus said and meant, and hence he knew the proper Greek word, and that word, according to the oldest extant Greek manuscripts, was kaʹme·los. There is good reason, therefore, for believing “camel” to be the correct rendering.
By means of this extravagant illustration Jesus was pointing out that, just as it was not possible for a literal camel to go through the eye of a literal needle, it was even less possible for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God, retaining his riches.
In his condemnation of the hypocritical Pharisees, Jesus spoke of their ‘straining out the gnat but swallowing the camel.’ Interestingly, those men used to strain out the gnat from their wine, not merely because it was an insect, but because it was ceremonially unclean; yet they figuratively gulped down camels, which were also unclean. While insisting upon compliance with the minutest of the Law’s requirements, they entirely overlooked the weightier matters—justice, mercy and faithfulness.—Matt. 23:23, 24.