The Nomadic Lifestyle
The key to success as a person of God
Before we specifically define the nomadic lifestyle and what makes one part of it, a few words of introduction are in order. The core idea of this presentation is that the adaptation of a specific lifestyle will bring about a desired spiritual result. To some that may not seem an earth shattering revelation. It is, however, in opposition to the current western understanding of spirituality and religion. If one is a Christian, one needs to believe certain things and once one accepts certain 'facts', one will become spiritual and the hope is, lifestyle change will result. In Judaism, one converts to a community, again after acknowledging certain 'truths' and this 'spiritual' step will result in the desire to adapt a certain lifestyle. The key to both is a 'conversion' which is supposed to create spirituality. Spirituality is the result of becoming mentally convinced a certain set of beliefs are true. Lifestyle is a secondary result of the primary aim of conversion.
The proposal here is that a certain lifestyle, regardless of belief, creates spirituality (and with it proper belief/worldview). I am defining spirituality this way-the expression of certain desirable characteristics such as love, the desire to help one's fellow man, a passion for justice as well as the more indefinite things such as 'experiencing God', however that may be defined. Lifestyle creates proper belief and experience by necessity; belief or experience do not create lifestyle. I think we have all seen too many failures here. A new approach is necessary.
One of the basic questions we may ask is 'how do I get in touch with God, how can I have an authentic spiritual experience'. This is not the place to define 'spiritual experience' but we can look at the examples in the biblical text for several clues. The clues will lead us to the conclusion that it is very rare for someone to have an encounter with God out of the blue even though it may occasionally appear that way. The patriarchs are the first and most obvious example. Avraham was a city dweller and he left Ur to sojourn in a land he was unfamiliar with. While travelling in the land of Canaan he encountered God on a regular basis. Yitzach and Ya'akov continued to live as nomads, never settling anywhere for long. When Israel settled in Egypt, they didn't hear from God until Moshe showed up. Moshe himself did not have his encounter with God until he left Egypt and spent forty years as a nomad. Israel had internalized the values of Egypt to too great an extent and rejected the promise of God as they stood on the threshold of taking the land. Only after the next generation grew up as nomads in the desert were they able to go into the land. David, the king 'after God's heart' developed that heart as a shepherd which is a basically nomadic lifestyle. Amos the prophet was a shepherd and many of them, like Elijah and Elisha were itinerant. Y'shua himself lived an itinerant lifestyle-'the son of man has no place to lay his head.' He required the same of his disciples.
The Bible is also filled with nomadic and agricultural imagery-shepherds, farmers, fields, millstones, etc. I don't believe that it is an accident of history that God is most clearly revealed in this context. In fact, one cannot understand the Bible if one does not understand the values and culture of the nomad. I believe there are several identifiable traits of the nomadic lifestyle that draw people close to God and create desirable character traits. I also believe that the opposite is true. If we develop and become part of a culture that does not have nomadic characteristics or is, in fact, in opposition to it, one will find it difficult, if not impossible, to become an authentic spiritual person. The following are several characteristics of the nomadic lifestyle. Avraham will be our 'test case' although much of what is said will apply to other biblical characters.
#1 Nomads are removed from the dominant cultures of their time
In Avraham's time the land of Canaan was relatively free of foreign entanglement. After Hammurabi and his descendants made Babylon great, it fell into decline at about 1600 BCE, ceasing to exert a broad influence. Egypt was invaded by the Hyscos around 1800 BCE and internal problems kept it busy for several centuries. This left the land of Canaan relatively free from their influence, political or otherwise. It's basic political entity was the city state whose influence was very limited and their power even more so. Ya'akov's sons could destroy the whole city of Shechem, including it's king. Abimelech approached Yitzach and said the latter was too powerful for his city to handle. Avraham's household destroyed an army of four kings and rescued Lot. The point here is that the patriarchs were not forced to submit politically or culturally to anyone.
After the decline of Babylon/Persia and Egypt, Greece, and later Rome, became the cultural and political powerhouses. Today there are three dominant cultural and political influences. The first is western, and specifically, American. European culture as a whole has been in decline since the passing of the British empire but American culture and political influence is felt in most places in the world. The second is Islamic. Once it was the dominance of Arab armies that exercised their power, now it is oil. Islam is a fast growing religion and states that subscribe to it are not confined to the middle east. Finally, there is far eastern culture, defined by India and China. Their influence is primarily through sheer numbers but they are in decline. Western influence is becoming more and more pervasive. China's adoption of Marxism, a western philosophy, accelerated that region's rejection of indigenous culture and Japan's loss in World War Two did the same for them.
Living a nomadic lifestyle or even adopting nomadic character within political units that have adopted one of these three cultures is very difficult. It's feasibility will depend on several factors including geography, political system and the strength of the dominant culture and how seriously the people who are part of it take it. This is because cultural norms demand various degrees of conformity to their customs and values. In a western democracy, one can choose not to participate in the civil religion without serious consequence. For example, one can choose not to celebrate Christmas or participate it in any way without going to jail or worse. In Islamic cultures, cultural conformity often has the force of law and the consequences for non-conformity are severe. That does not mean, however, it is easier to defy one or the other. One may conform out of a sense of fear or one can be, to put it bluntly, brainwashed. The totality of the legal, governmental, educational and entertainment systems are put in place to support the dominant culture. It is difficult and inconvenient not to participate in it. This is to say nothing of the force of law and rgulation that support it. Western democracies, including American representative democracy, are socialist. By definition, this means that the power of regulation and taxation are used to reward certain behaviors and punish others, or even make them impossible. These behaviors are, obviously, those that support the dominant culture and those that don't.
Avraham, as we have seen, left the political and cultural entity that exerted such power over him. Among the city states of Canaan, he had nothing to fear legally or politically from the canaanite kings around him because, quite simply, he was more powerful than they were. They could force Avraham to do nothing. Perhaps none of us can become militarily as powerful as Avraham but the truth is, the smaller the political entity, the less of a threat it is. As part of one of these dominant cultural/political entities, we are all at their mercy, mentally and physically. Avraham recognized these constraints. If a spiritual giant like Avraham saw bucking the dominant system as impossible, how can we claim differently?
#2 Nomads needed to be self reliant
Our previous point showed that nomads were under no one's control, politically or culturally. The flip side is that they were under no one's protection either. The purpose of the state, be it a country or a small canaanite city-state, is for mutual protection and benefit. In order to receive the benefits of the state, one needs to give up some things. These include one's wealth (taxes-the state costs money), individuality (one is now identified with the state one is part of) and freedom (the state has the right to tell you what rules to follow to receive the benefits).
In the Bible the extreme illustration is the story of Yosef and the famine in Egypt. For protection from starvation, the state took all their money, their land and their freedom. The Egyptians became slaves for food. It is nearly always the case that people are willing to give up more freedom in a crisis. In the United States this has been illustrated time and time again. The depression gave us the 'New Deal' which has resulted in the largest governmental structure the world has ever seen. More recently, 'homeland security' and the surrounding issues raised by terrorism have brought up the issue of trading freedom for security. In cities, when there is a shooting, honest people are willing to give up their own freedom to protect themselves (gun ownership) in the hopes that it will curtail those who care not at all about other people's freedom or person. War, or the threat of physical harm, and poverty are the largest motivators for giving up freedom and personal responsibility and relying on the state to provide these necessities.
Once it begins, this slide from freedom takes on a life of it's own. Western socialist democracies are the result of this. Personal responsibility is nullified because there is always someone else to blame for our troubles and there is the expectation that some one else (the state) will take care of it and provide for our needs. In the United States, the pervasiveness of lawyers assists us with the first one-finding someone to blame (often for our own stupidity or risky behavior) and making them pay. In Europe where 'cradle to grave' welfare is the norm, there is always a program or handout to meet the needs of those who are too lazy or stupid to make it on their own. Forgive me if I sound a bit Darwinian but hunger and survival are great motivators. In many European nations, unemployment is more attractive than working. It pays more than the take home pay for many jobs because of the high taxation necessary to support universal welfare. And they wonder why unemployment remains high?! In the United States before the depression and the 'New Deal', people were responsible for themselves, their own success and failure. Family ties were crucial because family and friends were the only 'safety net'. People worked harder because the price of failure was so great. Now we have turned the state into our parents, educators, family and community. We are more isolated because the primary relationship for all our necessities is between the individual and the state. The state, for it's part, gladly fills this role because the tendency of all government is to exert more control over the governed. The more dependency government creates, the more control it can exert. Socialism is the opposite of nomadic self-reliance.
What is the result? We have insulated ourselves from the created order and spend our whole lives in an artificial environment doing things that have nothing to do with providing our basic necessities. If we are honest with ourselves, we realize we can't do anything for ourselves anymore. We do not have the ability to fend for ourselves. We go through over a decade of public education, we can read and write and add but if we were suddenly deprived of the comforts of western society, (like the grocery store or our pre-fab home) we would die of starvation and exposure very quickly. Prepared and frozen meals have made the basics of cooking obsolete for many. Many don't know the first thing about the fundamentals of construction. If our transportation gives out, we rarely know the first thing about how to fix it. Few engage in gardening, hunting or fishing. If our clothes rip we go out and buy new ones. We used to engage in hobbies that taught us these skills even though we no longer needed them to meet our basic needs. Now we spend so much time working so as to add more elements to our artificial world that we have little time for such pursuits.
The nomad had to be what we refer to as a 'jack of all trades'. Three thousand years after Avraham, he might have been referred to as a 'renaissance man', someone who does a lot of things well and knows a lot about a variety of subjects. When something went wrong in the middle of the wilderness, the nomad had to know how to deal with it. He was an expert in animal husbandry, he was an agriculturist, a carpenter, cook, tailor, warrior and a thousand other things. Y'shua taught that we should not worry about providing for ourselves and we should look at the lilies and the sparrows as examples. Most interpret this to mean that we do not worry because God Himself comes down from heaven and meets our needs on an individual basis just as he does the plants and animals. Just the opposite is true. When one is confident and self assured, worry has no place. The lilies and sparrows know exactly how to provide their own needs. The sparrow does not fly around stressed out as to where to find food or how to build a nest. They know how to do it. If we knew how to provide our basic needs, we would not be stressed either. We may be inconvenienced on occasion, but when one's life is simple and one knows how to provide one's basic needs, what would there to be worried about?
The nomad was also responsible for his own safety. He did not have the state to protect him, and although we may think otherwise, neither do we. Sure, the state may be able to protect us from invasion by say, Canada, but who is going to protect you from the mugger or rapist or gang or terrorist? We do not have policemen on every corner nor should we. So it comes down to us, can we protect our person and property? I would say that the vast majority of us can not. And many of us have been taught that we shouldn't. Christianity and Judaism are now known as pacifist religions. Violence is discouraged and training to be violent, even in self defense, is not generally an acceptable practice. We have been taught that the truly spiritual person has God to protect him. No, the truly spiritual person is aware of his surroundings and any danger therein and has the ability and confidence to deal with it. Today, a nomad knows how to fight and shoot a gun. His family or clan can be quickly organized for self defense. I would dare say that few of us have this ability yet today's world demands it even if we are not nomadic. Think about this, if we reversed the roles of the hijackers and hijacked on 9/11, would the result have been the same? Do you think a couple of civilian Americans would have been able to take over a plane of Arabs with just boxcutters?! I don't think so, the Arabs would have fought back because their culture is different. We have been taught that our defense in not under our control. But it is our person, our life and it should not be so easily turned over to the state, especially with the knowledge that practically, the state cannot fulfill it's obligation. We should all have the skills necessary for our protection and provision. Self reliance is one of the keys to the nomadic life.
#3 Nomads were always immigrants and outsiders
By definition, a nomad has no national ties nor is he tied to anyone beyond his small family group. A nomad was never part of the 'in' group. A nomad is different in dress, speech, custom and worship than those of the surrounding peoples they encounter. In the days of Avraham the nomad was distrusted by the indigenous peoples and the nomad distrusted them. The were constantly wary of one another because they were different. Too often in our day, this translates into a 'one man against the world' mentality, particularly among religious folks. They alone have the truth, they alone live the right way, they alone are close to God and everyone else is lost, confused and/or going to hell. This makes such people offensive to those around them for they think only of themselves and their supposed 'holiness' or 'purity'. Such people rarely bring anyone any closer to God. Y'shua rightly described them thus; "you go over land and sea to make one convert and make him twice the son of hell you are!" Difference, even if it leads to success, is no reason for feelings of superiority.
The reason for this is that while there may have been distrust among nomads and indigenous people, they needed each other and developed symbiotic relationships. The nomad needed the acceptance of the surrounding peoples to survive and prosper. They needed to be diplomatic and cordial. The hellfire and brimstone religious crowd could learn a lesson here. As the saying goes, 'you attract a lot more bees with honey than with vinegar'. Hebrews 12:14 Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. There is parallelism at work here. Everyone wants to know how to be holy. The answer is that one is supposed to be in shalom with man and the world. But, you say, holiness means 'separation' and that is true. A person who is on harmony with all will stand out as unique from the rest of humanity.
We must be careful however. We can never sacrifice our integrity or values for the sake of shalom for shalom will not be the result if we do. Some religious folks have attempted to be too accommodating. For example, some churches have Halloween parties, Chanukah often becomes Christmass. The nomad, while cordial, must maintain his separation. Lot is a prime example. He moved close to Sodom and then into Sodom. He ceased being a nomad and would have been caught up in the destruction of the city had it not been for Avraham's intervention. Ya'akov could have become part of the Shechemites as well and disappeared as a separate group if Simeon and Levi had not murdered all the inhabitants. For a nomad, it was a fine line that needed to be walked. They needed to respect the customs of the surrounding peoples while maintaining their own unique identity and they keep free of personal entanglements that would endanger their way of life.
Today, the line is just as difficult. I have already given some examples but the most important and pervasive problems are those we deal with every day. 1 Peter 2:11 Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul.
The flesh could be defined as the ego. The truth is, whether you are one who goes toward the accommodating course of action or the 'stand alone against the world' path, the desire to satisfy the ego is at the root. The accommodator wants to be liked. We constantly do things that are influenced by what other people think of us. We want people to like us, we want to create a favorable impression, we want to fit in. Our culture defines what that means. Too often this leads to entanglements and unnecessary compromise. The stand alone person is simply an attention getter. He gets his ego stroked by getting noticed. In religious circles, this is the overly and outwardly pious person. In the secular culture it may be the pierced and tattooed crowd. The key is the ego. The nomad didn't care about such things. He did what he did out of necessity, his viewpoint was basically utilitarian. The key difference was that he understood the value of people and the world around him. He would not use people as objects but treated all with respect and dignity. Even Ya'akov blessed Pharaoh when he was going to sojourn in his land. Some of this may seem contradictory but it takes a lot of wisdom to walk the narrow line the nomad did.
#4 Nomads were pastoral, not urban.
This is related to number two, the need for self reliance. In a city or town, everyone relies on everyone else. We fill our little niche, our job or craft, and know little else. Someone else fixes things that break, someone else grows our food, someone else builds our shelter, provides our utilities and countless other things. The interesting thing is that even though our time is no longer taken up with our basic provision, life in a city or town (any socially organized permanent society) is very busy. There is always somewhere to go, something to do, some set of requirements or expectations such a society puts on the individuals within it that need to be met. We have to go somewhere to buy our necessities, we do not produce them at home. We need to go to work somewhere away from home. Society expects some involvement so there are events to go to or things our children are expected to be a part of. If there are no such needs, society creates them through entertainment and advertising. All thse things vie for our attention and take up our time. We wait in line, we wait in traffic, we wait through commercials.
Because we spend so much time waiting (doing nothing), the somethings we do must be made quicker, easier and more convenient. We fill our lives with time and labor saving devices. Take mealtime, for example. Not only do we not grow our own food, few take the time to prepare it. We don't have time to spend an hour or two to take raw food and turn it into something nutritious and natural. We would rather pop something into the microwave so we can have more time for other busy things. In the nomadic camp the preparation of meals gave time for mothers and daughters and the other women of the camp to socialize or just spend time in reflection. Mealtime itself was attended to by the whole family and was the social event of the day. How often do most families do that anymore?
Cities are noisy. There are always a million things going on and they all want our attention. With all the noise how can we expect to hear from God? If we try to sit still we can't because our culture has branded stillness as idleness and laziness. So if we try to do it we find we are bored. We have been conditioned to believe we must constantly be stimulated or entertained. We fill this need through work or popular entertainment. We have lost our imagination. Children who once had crafts and projects, tree houses and go-carts now watch T.V. or play video games. Adults are no better, their toys for passivity are merely more expensive. "Be still and know that I am God". Can we be still long enough to know anything?
As nomadic people went about their work, they talked, they spent time getting to know one another. I mentioned that women talked during mealtime. Men talked during work and some work events, like the time for threshing or the day at the market, were true social events. Everyone wants to know how to get to know God. If you and I are created in his image, getting to know one another is a good start. This is the opposite of the Christian ideal of the monk who lives alone in contemplation or the Jewish sage who is buried in books. This takes time and effort to get to know people and we don't often make it or have it. If we have one good friend we consider ourselves fortunate. Usually we are content to live our lives vicariously through the people we see on T.V. What we need to do is get out there and live, do something, go somewhere, meet someone. Nomads were not loners, they had a vibrant social structure. The isolation fostered on us by our busy city lives serves only to keep us trapped, alone and spiritually dead.
The reality is, we know we need to spend 'quiet time' with God. Some religious groups organize retreats to force people to do this although often they are so scheduled and structured time is not to be found. But the idea of the retreat, to leave the city for the woods, the idea that getting back to nature gets us closer to God is a truth the springs from deep within us. The nomad lived close to nature all the time. He knew its moods, its patterns and by understanding it and becoming part of it he knew a lot about God. Paul says that the creation reveals the creator. In the artificial environment of the city we cannot experience this. Through constant exposure to and dependence on the creation, we are forced to become one with the totality of God and His order. We may wish for it in an urban setting but it is only gained through physical experience.
#5 Nomads demonstrated strong decisive leadership
In a pastoral society, the father or patriarch of the family was the absolute authority. He was the master of his household. He decided when to leave and when to set up camp, he conducted all business, he arranged marriages and was the sole source of justice in legal matters. At times, he delegated this authority to his sons, or more rarely to others but there was no question where the buck stopped. It was Ya'akov who decided when to go back to Egypt during the famine, Yehudah ordered Tamar to be burnt for harlotry, Avraham sent his servant to find a wife for his son.
The reason such strong authority was necessary was because there was no safety net in nomadic society. The decisions made could lead either to the prosperity or the death of the whole clan. The line between life and death for a nomad was easy to cross and it could happen very quickly. The father needed to be knowledgeable, decisive, experienced and wise. He raised his children, particularly his sons to take his place, learn from his mistakes and carry on the traditions, not because they were nice ideas but because the future of the clan depended on it. If he didn't pass on what he learned to his children, the clan would die.
Current western culture frowns on such activity. It goes all the way back to the middle ages at least. The vast majority of the population were serfs, tied to the land with no opportunity to rise up or make decisions. The church discouraged reading so people would not think for themselves. The nobles and the clergy set themselves up as 'experts' inferring that the general populace could not make wise decisions. Today we are in a similar situation. 'Experts' and 'specialists' abound and their word is respected and believed no matter how outrageous it may seem. This is especially true where government is concerned. When someone is elected to high office, suddenly they become experts in everything from finances to medicine to military affairs to law to technology to ethics. If we question such things without position or several letters behind our names we are just kooks and uneducated fools. If we wanted to make a big decision or take decisive action, we are questioned mercilessly. President Bush's decision to attack Iraq as a result of a mountain of evidence that they were at least assisting in attacks on our citizens is questioned. It is a result of the feminization of our society. If men are decisive and strong they are neandrathals. Women who are decisive are 'butches'. No one is supposed to be self-assured and decisive.