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NOMADISM, a socioeconomic mode of life based on intensive domestication of livestock which requires a regular movement of the community in an annual cycle in order to sustain the communal ecological system.


The defining feature of pastoral nomadism is movement, which is neither aimless nor boundless, from pasture to pasture and from watering point to watering point, along well-defined routes, at fixed periods, in rhythm with the rainy and dry seasons, and in greater or lesser comity with adjoining nomadic and settled groups. Little or no agriculture is practiced. Nomads necessarily rely upon trade with or raids upon agriculturalists for food and other necessities or occasional luxuries not supplied by their herds. Pastoral nomads often supply settled peoples with transport services by providing animals and serving as caravaneers. Occasionally, control of routes and specialization in trade lead to settlement of nomad elites in commercial centers such as Palmyra in Syria and Petra in Edom. Ethnographers are generally agreed that pastoral nomadism arose later than the emergence of neolithic agriculture in the Middle East. At first it involved herders of sheep and goats who adapted themselves to the spartan conditions of life on the steppe but who were unable to venture more than one or two days' journey from water. Full nomadism emerged only in about 1500–1000 B.C.E. with the domestication of camels which can go as long as 17 days without water. Introduction of the horse at a somewhat later date allowed for still more flexibility of movement and agility in warfare. Full nomadism never replaced seminomadism altogether and agriculturalists learned how to specialize on the side in pastoralism through a form of nomadism known as transhumance. Actual nomadic groups are extremely varied according to environmental conditions, types of animals bred, communal forms for establishing kinship, wealth, and status, historical fortunes of the group, and relations to surrounding nomadic and settled peoples.

In Ancient Israel

Ancient Israel was in contact with peoples who practiced pastoral nomadism. Some segments of Israel proper were pastoral nomads for varying periods of time in the arid and semiarid zones of Sinai and the Negev, Transjordan, and the rain shadow regions of Canaan, i.e., mostly on the eastern slopes of the central highlands. Excluded from consideration is animal husbandry, which is frequent in agricultural communities in which a few animals raised by farmers are allowed to forage in the human settlement and to graze on farmland stubble and fallow land. The animals referred to in the early Israelite Book of the Covenant (e.g., Ex. 21:28–37; 22:3–4, 9–12; 23:4–5, 12) reveal that the laws applied to resident farmers for whom animal husbandry was a secondary activity and among whom vast pasturage as a special ecological aspect shaping the entire socioeconomic life was absent. Also, we omit all consideration of non-pastoral nomadism, e.g., wild species moving on their own through an annual cycle and nomadic human communities of hunters, fishers, and gatherers. Full or classic pastoral nomadism entailed maximum independence through human symbiosis with the camel and, to a lesser degree, with the horse. It allowed the nomad to keep a safe distance from the settled lands but, when required to trade or raid, he could do so from a position of considerable strength. The occasional camels mentioned in early Israel, if not an outright anachronism, were for transport and were too few in number and insufficiently domesticated to have become the basis for an entire economy. The only full nomadism directly attested in the Bible is non-Israelite, e.g., a caravan of Ishmaelite-Midianite merchants who bought Joseph from his brothers (Gen. 37:25–28); Midianites, Amalekites, and people of the east who carried out camel razzias against Israel in the time of Gideon (Judg. 6:1–5); and Amalekites who raided southern Judah on a smaller scale in the time of Saul (I Sam. 30).


Seminomadism or partial nomadism (also known as ass nomadism to distinguish the ass from the camel as the chief form of transport) is a mode of pastoral nomadism loosely applied to peoples who are often conceived as midway in the process of settling down after an earlier fully nomadic life. This is misleading in some instances and erroneous in others. In its origins pastoral nomadism was a specific adaptation of animal domestication to desert conditions after it was first developed among agriculturalists. There are of course instances of full nomads reverting to seminomadism and finally to agricultural settlement. But there are also cases of agriculturalists who are "depressed" into seminomadism by geopolitical circumstances. Sometimes this depression is permanent, while in other cases it is temporary. There is some reason to believe that the Israelite groups in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan were thrown temporarily into a more fully nomadic life than they had known either in Egypt or prior to their entrance into Egypt and, furthermore, that they were consciously seeking a return to a more stable and perhaps even largely agricultural existence. More precisely, seminomadism indicates the relative dependence of herders of sheep, goats, and asses on the settled peoples or on full nomads for the sharing of water rights and for permission to graze. It also refers to their relative military weakness, lacking as they do a striking force of camels or horses. The concomitant of this reality is the high probability that the seminomad will engage in some form of limited agriculture. He is often sedentary for part of the year; fields and pasture are often interspersed; and the herd sizes relative to the human population are much smaller than in full nomadism. Accordingly, the seminomad will often appear to be an incipient peasant who has not yet attained his goal or a decadent farmer who has lapsed into a less secure life. In many cases, however, the seminomad regards his way of life as more satisfying than the softer and more politically lettered existence of the peasant. Traits of seminomadism appear frequently in the patriarchal stories concerning Abraham and Lot (Gen. 12:16; 13:2–12; 18:1–8; 20:14–15; 21:25–26), Isaac (Gen. 26:12–22), Jacob and Esau (Gen. 30:43; 31:17–18; 32:13–15; 33:18–20; 36:6–8), and Joseph (Gen. 37:2, 7; 42:1–5; 43:11; 46:31–34; 47:6). The precise nature of this type (or these types) of seminomadism is difficult to assess in that the movements are not strictly described as regular but are explained largely with reference to famine, intermarriage, religious pilgrimage, and conflicts within and between groups. The Israelites in Egypt are pictured as small stock breeders who also cultivate vegetable gardens (Ex. 10:24–26; 12:1–13, 31–34, 37–39; Num. 11:4–6). Living close to the Egyptian frontier with Sinai (Ex. 1:11; 9:26; 12:37), the holy place of their deity is located a three-day journey away in the desert (Ex. 3:18; 5:3; 8:24). Their relatively self-contained economy was threatened by the recent imperial policy which forced them to work on state building projects and in state-owned fields. One tradition has it that, as they departed Egypt with their flocks, the Israelites despoiled the Egyptians of jewelry and clothing in the manner of a nomadic razzia (Ex. 3:21–22; 12:35–36). In the wilderness the Israelites present a confused picture of a seminomadic people thrust suddenly into conditions where only well-provisioned travel parties or full nomads with camels might normally survive. The Israelites adjusted to this crisis by retaining their flocks for dairy products, wool, and hides. Occasional sacrifice of their animals provided some meat but food staples were supplied by improvising with quail and wild plant products ("manna"). Water was available from oasis to oasis. Even so they seem to have survived only because the Midianites, into whom Moses is said to have married, supplied them with knowledge of the terrain and with basic survival skills; at least some of these Midianites accompanied certain of the Israelite groups into Canaan (Ex. 2:15b–22; 3:1; 18:1ff.; Num. 10:29–32; Judg. 1:16; 4:11). Although unreported, it is reasonable to suppose that the Israelites cultivated small vegetable plots during the time they spent at the oases in the vicinity of Kadesh. All available evidence points to the fact that the component groups in the larger Israelite confederation in Canaan were predominantly agricultural and engaged in supplementary animal husbandry (cf. the laws of the Covenant Code, Ex. 20:24 (19)–23:9 and the descriptions of tribal life in Gen. 49 and Deut. 33). This type of economy characterized a large majority of the population in the highlands of Galilee, Gilead, Samaria, and Judah – the heartland of ancient Israel. However, a significant minority of Israelites, who lived in the semiarid regions to the east and south, sustained a seminomadic economy. A diminishing frequency of references to such seminomadic life in later biblical books suggests that the percentage of seminomadic Israelites relative to the total population steadily declined. Given the marginal rainfall of the land, however, and the abiding attraction of the steppe for certain individuals and groups, seminomadism never ceased in biblical times. In fact, the *Rechabites were one group who made a sectarian virtue of their seminomadism, identifying it with the pure form of Yahwism and refusing adamantly to build houses or to engage in viticulture or grain-growing (Jer. 35). According to one tradition these Rechabites were actual descendants of the Midianite-Kenite group into which Moses married (I Chron. 2:55). A more individualistic version of the tendency to equate holiness with seminomadic culture was the "consecration" of a person as a nazirite, perhaps originally associated with the spontaneous leadership of a war chieftain (Num. 6:1–21; Judg. 13:5, 7; 16:17). While such primitivist equations of Yahwism with seminomadism were not central to biblical traditions, it is nonetheless striking that many of the features of the early religion of Israel, although developed by a predominantly agricultural people, were powerfully indebted to nomadic influences, e.g., the belief that the original home of YHWH was in the wilderness and the decided preference for a mobile shrine over that of a fixed shrine.


As a congeries of ethnically, geographically, economically, socially, and politically diverse people formed Israel in Canaan, they adopted a framework for their socioeconomic life which drew on the norms, institutions, and practices of pastoral nomadism, with suitable modifications to settled conditions. Among these abiding influences were the practice of blood revenge (Gen. 9:5–6; Num. 35:19; Judg. 8:18–21; II Sam. 3:30; 14:4–7; 21:1–14); protection of the integrity of the patriarchal family (Ex. 20:12, 14, 17; 21:15, 17; 22:15–16, 21; Lev. 18:6–18; Deut. 25:5–10); the institutions of the ger – the protected resident alien (e.g., Ex. 22:20; Deut. 10:19); and the asylum (Ex. 21:13–14; Num. 35; Deut. 19), related to the nomad law of hospitality and asylum. Instead of a primitivist attempt to construct seminomadism in Canaan, early Israel was a synthetic socioeconomic formation of loosely federated seminomadic and peasant populations arranged in a socially fictitious kinship network and cemented by a common cult of HWHY. The complex transformation and adaptation of the seminomadic elements in the Israelite confederation are reflected in the ambivalent biblical attitude toward the desert, which is sometimes idealized as the setting for an originally pure Yahwism but which is more often pictured as a place of rebellion and division, in itself a region of waste and horror, the quintessence of death and danger.

Yet another form of pastoral nomadism is transhumance which occurs in communities with developed agricultural specialization where herds are moved to select pastures for a part of the year by herders who specialize in their tasks. A common form of transhumance is to take the herds into mountain ranges for summer upland pasturage after the snows have melted. In Canaan transhumance took at least two forms. Immediately following the winter rains, herds were taken some distance into the steppes to feed on the temporary spring growth. As the summer wore on, and pasturage withered, they were taken to the better watered seaward-facing plains and mountain slopes. There are some biblical data which may be read as evidence for the practice of transhumance nomadism among the Israelites. Joseph and his brothers care for the flocks near Shechem and Dothan while Jacob remains at Hebron (Gen. 37:12–17). Nabal is a man of wealth in Maon whose hired men or slaves care for his large flocks at Carmel (I Sam. 25). Wealthy landowners in Transjordan provision the exiled David with agricultural and pastoral products (II Sam. 17:27–29; 19:31–32). The Job of the prose framework (Job. 1:1ff.; 42:12–17) is a wealthy farmer who also has thousands of domesticated animals cared for by his servants. The region of Bashan in northern Transjordan was well known as a prime cattle-breeding area, to which wealthy Israelites appear to have sent their flocks and herds (Ezek. 39:18; Amos 4:1; Ps. 22:13). Israelite kings capitalized on this process by appointing stewards over royal herds and flocks which were permanently located in the most attractive pastoral regions (II Sam. 13:23; I Chron. 27:28–30; II Chron. 26:10; 32:27–29).

In order to achieve a more exact socioeconomic characterization of early Israel, scholars will increasingly require expertise both in biblical studies and in ethnography and the social sciences. It is evident that the assumption that Arab Bedouin nomadism supplies the nearest surviving approximation to Israel's nomadism, while broadly apt, lacks all exactitude unless care is taken to distinguish among the various sub-forms and historical constellations of Bedouin existence.

It is necessary to reject the vague notion that full nomadism in the Arabian peninsula was the temporally original base for Middle Eastern socioeconomic evolutionary development. Far from full nomadism having been some simple state from which seminomadism and agriculture grew, almost precisely the opposite occurred in the Middle East over millennia of time as agriculture originated animal domestication was introduced into the sparse conditions of the desert and was elaborated through the eventual introduction of the camel and the horse. Identification of the mutually illuminating affinities between Arab and Israelite nomadism must not obscure the complex web of cultural and historical factors at work in the two different contexts from age to age and from subregion to subregion.


K. Budde, The New World, 4 (1895), 726–45; M. de Goeje, in: EI, 1 (1913), 372–7; J. Flight, in: JBL, 42 (1923), 158–226; L. Febvre, A Geographical Introduction to History (1925), 261–94; A. Musil, The Manners and Customs of the Rwala Bedouins (1930); M. von Oppenheim, Die Beduinen, 1–3 (1939–53); S. Nystroem, Beduinentum und Jahwismus (1946); C.S. Coon et al., in: EI2, 1 (1960), 872–92; de Vaux, Anc Isr, 3–15; A. Jeffery, in: IDB, 1 (1962), 181–4; C. Wolf, ibid., 3 (1962), 558–60; D. Amiran and Y. Ben-Arieh, in: IEJ, 13 (1963), 161–81; S. Talmon, in: A. Altmann (ed.), Biblical Motifs (1966), 31–63; L. Krader, in: IESS, 11 (1968), 453–61; M. Sahlins, Tribesmen (1968), 32–39.

[Norman K. Gottwald]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.