Camels were a common sight throughout Bible times, particularly in cities and villages along caravan routes, where these long-distance beasts of burden might pause for a night before trudging on to their destination. In addition to being a means of
transportation, camels were also a source of milk and meat for Israel’s neighbors (though they are listed among the unclean animals for Israel and therefore not used for food-Lev 11:4). Camel hair was woven to create a rough but durable material from which Bedouins still create tents and people like John the Baptist occasionally sewed simple garments (see Matt 3:4).
Wild and Unruly
Some camels, called dromedaries, were cultivated for riding and racing. Jeremiah used this type for riding and racing. Jeremiah used this type of camel as a symbol for wayward Israelites who followed other gods (Jer 2:23). In this way camels parallel the symbolic use of donkeys-a supposedly cultivated and trained animal that has become wild and unruly.
We can in the life of Abram and Job that camels were considered a symbol of wealth. Someone who owned 3,000 camels, as Job did, would have been considered a millionaire in today’s terms. Camels were also considered a powerful component of an army’s battle resources. The Midianites who oppressed Israel in Judges 6 wielded a vast cavalry mounted on camels.
Much later, Jesus created an unexpected symbolic picture with the camel by way of hyperbole: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25). The idea of a large animal like a camel being compressed to pass through a needle’s eye is a ludicrous but effective way to emphasize that wealth has no standing when someone is seeking admission to God’s kingdom. Jesus also found camels a handy symbol for important matters when he pointed out to the scribes and Pharisees, “You blind guides! You strain gnats out of your wine, but you swallow camels” (Matt 23:24). He was highlighting the hypocrisy of giving great attention to an exacting idea to the tithe (making sure that you gave a tenth of every herb and spice in your possession) while neglecting the large matters of “justice, mercy, and faithfulness. . .the most important things in Moses’ Teachings” (Matt 23:23).