Ships of the Desert

Yes, camels, interesting animals.

For some reason, because Israel has parts that are hot, dry and desert-like, many people associate Israel with camels.  The tourist shops are full of olive wood carved camels, and almost everyone visiting gets excited by camels grazing.  While preparing for my oral exam, I explained to a friend that the examiners could ask me anything about Israel, anything at all.  To which, the friend replied that they could even ask me what kind of camels we have in Israel (Dromedary).  So, in some kind of divine justice, I was asked about camels – not what type we have in Israel, but what makes them uniquely suitable for deserts.

Interesting question.

Camels have lots of  interesting features which make them uniquely adapted for the desert – two sets of eyelashes to combat against sand storms, long legs and large hoofs to sit high above the hot sand, and others.  But of course the most important adaptation is how they conserve water.


The camel’s most distinguishing feature is the hump on his back.   The hump, however, is not a “camel back” simply filling with water.  Rather the hump is made of fat cells.  These can absorb water, slowly releasing it over the course of the journey; the fat breaks down into energy when food is scarce.

How much water can a camel drink at once?  They can drink over 100 liters (26.5 gallons) of water in a short amount of time – as little as 10 minutes.  Drinking that fast would kill any other mammal!

The cells in a camel’s body have adapted to function even at a very low aqueous concentration.  In fact, camels can function with greater than 30% water loss.  In increasingly extreme conditions, the camel’s urine becomes more concentrated.

Another unique water-saving strategy is that camels can vary their body temperature over a large range:  31 C – 41.7 C (87.8 F – 107.1 F).  What that means is that they do not need to fight the heat of the desert by sweating (losing water).  Guess that is what the phrase “no sweat off of my back” means.

Now, I want to look at where camels appear in the Bible, namely in the story of Eliezer looking for a wife for Isaac.  Genesis 24:10 ff.

When Eliezer sets out to find for a suitable mate for his master’s son, he is looking for something very specific.  As he sits next to the spring with his ten camels after his long journey, he will ask her for some water.  The right girl will not only offer to draw water for Eliezer, but also for his ten camels.

Think for a minute how much water that is.  The amount that the person can drink is negligible.  But ten camels?!?  That is 1,000 liters (265 gallons)!  If each bucket holds 5 gallons, she needs to refill 53 times.   Fill the bucket, lift 5 gallons of water (42 pounds), pour into the trough, repeat 53 times (maybe 55 – one bucket for Eliezer and one for her at the end of all that work).   So the girl that Eliezer is looking for is not only generous, but strong and not afraid of hard work.    Rebecca lives up to the task, and agrees to make the long journey back to Israel from her home in Haran, sitting on a “ship of the desert”.  (Guess she was interested in Land Cruises also!)

Understanding camel physiology helps us understand the messages of the Biblical text.  I think that the Biblical text was, indeed, written for people who were intimately familiar with the geology, geography, flora and fauna of the Land of Israel.  By reacquainting ourselves with these topics, we can enrich our understanding of the Bible.

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3 thoughts on “Ships of the Desert

  1. To make it even better, verse 20 describes how she “hurried” and “ran” to fill the water jugs. She performed this super human feat of kindness with alacrity and zeal! Add to the story that according to the Seder Olam Rabba, she was only 11 years old, (three according to the Zohar), it’s even more impressive. But just how much work are we talking about here? Rabbi Meir Spiegelman from Yeshivat Bircat Moshe in Maale Adumim writes that even assuming that each camel only drank 40 L each, (that’s 400L total), and considering the largest jug available carried 10L, that’s 40 trips to refill! In his words, “We’re talking about 2 hours of hard labour”, and at pace! Truly one of the greatest achievements in the history of kindness, by our dear mother Rivka.

  2. Pingback: More on Camels | Leiah Jaffe

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