These words from Isaiah 60 were written after the exiled Israelites had returned to Jerusalem from seventy or so years in captivity in Babylon, and things were not as they hoped. The temple and the city walls were in ruins, and the people who had been left behind had fallen away from the faith.
The prophet has a word of hope for the returning exiles. Things will get better. Whether or not it may look like it now, the light has come. The glory of God is upon you. Instead of war horses trampling your cities, camels, those beasts of trade, will come from the south to bring the finest of goods, and economic prosperity will return. Most important of all–God’s name will be praised.
When I was on my Sabbatical trip to the Israeli and Jordanian wilderness, I saw lots of camels. Our first night in the wilderness, in the Negev, as soon as we arrived at our camp, before we went to our shelters, we were placed in twos on camels for a trip out into the rocky, uneven terrain.
The camels kneel so that one can get on, none too gracefully for the camel or for me, and it is with quite a jerk that they rise to walking position. Camels travel about nine miles an hour and can easily go up and down hills–though not that easily for those trying to stay on. I’m told they can carry five hundred pounds of cargo, so Sister Pilar, a Roman Catholic nun from Spain, and I met the weight restriction.
It is because of the camels’ ability to carry large loads over very difficult terrain with little water and food made them the preferred cargo vehicle in the Holy Land for thousands of years.
When we were traveling around the wilderness for nearly two weeks, camels were a common sight. In fact, in the same way that here in Texas we have signs warning about deer and cows crossing roads, there were frequent signs to watch out for traveling camels.
When we in Wadi-Rum, a wilderness area in Jordan, we traveled out in the no-road area in the back of small pick up trucks, bouncing as we went (we were probably disobeying every safety concern that we’d have had in the States). From time to time, Bedouins and their camels went past us. I suspect we were the more unfamiliar sight.
I imagine that it was this passage from Isaiah, about the Lord’s presence with tangible signs of camels and gold and frankincense, that colors our reading about the coming of the Wise Ones to see the baby Jesus bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The three gifts have morphed into three Wise Ones, and the three are always pictured riding to Bethlehem on camels, although these last two details (number of visitors and camels) are not included in Matthew’s account of the visit.
When I was studying in the Holy Land, it was proposed that that the Wise Ones, rather than coming from Persia, might have instead traveled the Spice Road towards Bethlehem via Petra, south of Jerusalem in present day Jordan, east of the Dead Sea. There are pictures of camels carved on the walls of sheer rock when walks into that long hidden city. They would have then followed the well traveled road to Avdad, in modern day Israel, far south in the Negev. That these Wise Ones might have come from the east and south, from present day Saudi Arabia (Midian) or Egypt (Ephah) or Ethiopia (Sheba), make the passage heard from Isaiah in many churches this feast of the Epiphany a bit more thought-provoking. Yes?
I travel to St. Mary’s tomorrow for my first Sunday since August. Hopefully I am more wise. Hopefully I’ll bring gifts to share. I know that I’ll meet the Presence of Christ in the people I have missed so very much. Like the Wise Ones who traveled home by a different way, we’ll be listening for the road that God is calling us to travel next.