Since the 19th century, many Westerners have claimed that today’s Arab nomads preserve aspects of the lifestyle of the ancient Hebrews who, led by Moses, traipsed through the Sinai desert on their way to the promised land. In Bedouin Culture in the Bible, Clinton Bailey, who has spent decades living with and studying Bedouin in Israel and elsewhere, presents an updated version of this thesis. Edward Greenstein writes in his review:
Bailey . . . suggests that the Israelites depicted in the Bible may have been Bedouin or of nomadic background. To be sure, one is impressed by the many ways in which the biblical milieu seems to be of a piece with that of the Bedouin. [He] describes and explains Bedouin practices, values, and sensibilities with unusual empathy. Although some of his explanations of ancient Hebrew manners and customs from the present-day Bedouin experience sound outlandish but plausible, others are either erroneous or improbable.
The concept of vengeance is an example of the former. In one of the most intriguing suggestions in the book, Bailey interprets the biblical law of talion (“an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”) not as a license to get even but rather as a constraint on excess: you may take an eye for an eye, but no more than that.
When Deuteronomy 6:9 and 11:20 enjoin the Israelites to “write [the divine teachings] on the doorposts of [their] houses and on [their] gates,” following a well-attested ancient Near Eastern method of proclamation, the educational purpose is plain: “recite [the divine teachings] to your children” (6:7) and “teach them to your children” (11:19). Bailey, however, goes far afield in comparing the Bedouin practice of daubing sacrificial blood on the entrance to their tents for the sake of divine blessing. The correspondence is superficial: writing on a doorpost here, daubing blood on a tent-flap there. A more obvious parallel to the Bedouin custom is the ritual of the Hebrews smearing the blood of the paschal lamb on the doorposts of their houses during the tenth plague in Egypt (Exodus 12:21–23), where the explicit purpose is to ward off the spiritual being enacting the plague.