Camels and Christmas


What's a camel or two between friends? And thereby hangs a tale with more than Christmas overtones.

We read in Genesis 37:25 that while Joseph's brothers were eating, after they had put him down the well, they saw a group of Ishmaelites travelling from Gilead to Egypt. Their camels were laden with spices and resins.

Now that seems straightforward. Except a Bible scholar I was talking with said it could not be. "No camels," he said. "What do you mean, no camels?" I asked.

"It's an anachronism," he said. "Explain," I said. "Well, an anachronism is where a later piece of history gets confused about where it really fits and mistakenly gets put into an earlier period." But I couldn't see how that might apply to camels at all, and said so.

"The point is," my colleague replied, "camels were not domesticated until about 1200 BC. The story of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (and Jacob's eleventh son Joseph) is maybe a thousand years before that. The legendary one hump camel, the dromedary, was a wild, untamed species, on the other side of the Jordan river, usually found far out into the Arabian desert. If there were any camels to be be found at Joseph's place and time, in all probability they were wild ones. Apparently no one had been able to domesticate them. Very stubborn creatures."

"Okay. But what about other cultures. Didn't the Egyptians work camels?" I asked. "No. There is no archaeological evidence of other older civilizations to support the Bible idea of a camel train at this time. What it does do is support the idea of a train or caravan of donkeys."

Those wonderful, ancient stories of the patriarchs were, of course, not written down when they happened because written language hadn't been invented. Early Hebrew (proto-Sinaitic) was in fact the first grammatical language, a development beyond Egyptian hieroglyphics and the cuneiform of Sumeria.

So when all the old stories were written down, gradually brought together over centuries, edited, woven in that incredible narrative we call Genesis, it was only natural that the odd anachronism or two crept in. The camel train of Genesis is a prime example. Sometimes Christians argue passionately against the Bible scholars and archaeologists. I think that's a shame. We want learning and wisdom in the Church, after all it's a basic Christian virtue. The point in the Joseph narrative, however, is quite different. It is about being sold into slavery by one's brothers. Can you imagine your own kith and kin doing it - selling you out? Quite frightening really.

Can you imagine giving away the intellectual heritage of Christianity to appease some noisy fundamentalists?

To briefly return to the camels. Interesting to me, is the fact that in the Christmas narrative, the wise men of the east are always depicted travelling on camels. The Bible, however, makes no mention of how they travelled. Thus do we snatch fantasy from the jaws of truth. Celebrating Christmas 21st century-style throws into sharp relief our common assumptions, both in Church and secular society.

And that is precisely why this kind of question over the camels has an application with considerable relevance to the Gospels. Sometimes we assume too much altogether, start out on the wrong track entirely. Let's see how that happens by examining one of the key Gospel stories. This is about Jesus walking on the water, over stormy seas, to disciples in fear of their lives.

The peculiar assumption that almost everyone makes is that somehow this story is a miracle about defying gravity. So whether they are fervent believers or equally fervent detractors, once we make the assumption this is a story about a miracle over the laws of nature we get on the wrong track.

I think it is possible the story does have a natural explanation. It is certainly true that long pebbly bars form and extend out from the shores of Lake Galilee, and these are often hidden a few centimeters under the water.

Quite possibly Jesus was observed walking out on the water thirty or forty meters, perhaps out to the very edge of one of these bars, shouting encouragement to Peter. It's as if he strode the very waves of the storm. So, was there a literal walking on water, a defying gravity? I doubt it. I am, sure the Bible is saying so much more than just a literalism. It's telling us something like this.

The storms of life come to everyone. Life which is wonderful and exquisite throws at us broken relationships, murderous brothers, ailing relatives, painful and lethal diseases, the loss of children, the loss of one's mental faculties, the loss of dignity.

It's like the boat heeling over, catching us unawares and then we are sinking fast. Can't swim, can't breathe, can't go on living, but we hear the Christ voice insistent - I am with you! Stand! Walk with me! Walk towards me! Have enough faith and you no longer drown but you walk as if through the waters of the storm itself. The atheist loves to assume this is a story about defying gravity, because then he can say no one defies gravity. The fundamentalist loves to assume likewise this is a story about defying gravity because then he can say there is no other miracle like this, so Jesus must be God.

Both sides miss the point. It's possible to be ardent and err at each extremity. This is not a story about gravity at all - it's a story about finding courage in the face of life's worst storms where we fear, where we fear greatly, for our own lives and the lives of those we love.

I have no interest in entering a sterile debate about whether Jesus walked on water, because both those who affirm and those who deny have involved themselves in an illusion over Scriptural meaning. But I do have a great deal of interest in Jesus reaching out to Peter in his moment of distress. For inasmuch as Peter needs Christ, so do I. My need I must acknowledge. What he saves me from is not the storm but the storm of my own illusions about myself. For the only person who can undo me from my conscience, who can undo the deep structures of meaning and life and friendship, is myself. Why bother with the illusion that this is a story about defying gravity? Instead, face the truth from within the story itself. We are all invited to walk upon the stormy seas of life with Christ himself - we are all anti-gravity machines, if you like - if we have the very specific understanding that Christ walks those stormy waves with us. The Gospel leads us to the ineffable moments of truth.

Ineffable means beyond telling, when words fail us because we know but we cannot tell, we cannot say. The ineffable moment is when you think you are going down, drowning in the waves, but you don't. Look, then - after the storm has passed and the sky is clear and blue and the seas silver diamond and calm and the sun beats down with a great golden light - and think. Did you make the storm come? Did you make it vanish? No. The mystery of life and all its ineffable grandeur remains.

You didn't create it, but as surely as you live, you enter every moment with a conscious awareness that either you can cooperate with all that life gives you or you won't. That is why the stories of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph resonate with us across 4,000 years of human history. They encountered the living God. Despite their crude and primitive customs, they found themselves as people. Exactly so for rough and ready Peter the fisherman. He finds Jesus reaching out as the waves threaten to send the boat to the bottom and instead is touched by the ineffable mystery, saved, spared, preserved, conserved not for self and selfishness but for purpose and service, to keep the message going of saving, sparing, conserving, preserving, encouraging, befriending, walking the waves.

You see these stories whether of the Old Testament or New, can be read to create difficult illusions, confounding your reason and your knowledge, making nonsense of life itself. Or they can be read as creating profound allusions. They allude to life, they allude to the mystery, they allude to God and to God's Christ.

You hear them as a child in Sunday School and what power they weave in the imagination when told well. Then you hear them as an adult and a whole new critical faculty unfolds around them. Often a person rejects them as just Sunday School stories. Then, later on, something unexpected occurs. The person of faith comes to what the French philosopher Paul Ricouer calls the second naivete. It doesn't mean an uncritical word for word fundamentalism, but rather a joyous approach to the Scriptures which demonstrate the encounter of ordinary people with the divine mystery, the ineffable God

I say ordinary people, and I mean it. The characters you find in the pages of the Bible were very unsophisticated people who lived in conditions and places and times which we only guess at. But what is extraordinary that across time and culture they find the same call of God, the same mysterious depth. We cannot explain the ineffable, but we know it, we experience it. I cannot make it happen for you. No one can. No, what each of us must do is find the experience out of his or her living, his or her own moment of truth, his or her moment of recognition that God is indeed for real.

Real as if we walk upon the water like Peter. Real as if we struggle all night long weary and are smote on the hip like Jacob. Real as if like Joseph we stand in peril of our life, yet convinced God has a purpose for us. Real as if we faced terrible aggression with the weak force of love. Real as if we had learnt from Christ himself that we have lost self-regard for service, lost sin for grace, lost being lost to being found, saved from ourselves not for ourselves alone but for the completion of our personality, our soul for purposes beyond our imagination.

I conclude by reiterating that life is an immensity. God saves us not to send us to heaven but to equip us for the innumerable challenges in this immensity. Integrity, integration of body, mind and soul, come by embracing the immensity, by embracing the hand of Christ who reaches out. Learn to walk on water. You were born to do it. It's quite gravity defying. Like camel trains of an alive imagination journeying to Christmas and beyond.

© David Bell, all rights reserved