“A PLACE FOR THE CAMELS” (Genesis 24:31b): Refuting the Claim That There Were No Domesticated Camels in the Holy Land at the Time of the Patriarchs

“A PLACE FOR THE CAMELS” (Genesis 24:31b): Refuting the Claim That There Were No Domesticated Camels in the Holy Land at the Time of the Patriarchs

© 2014, by John Tors. All Rights Reserved.

Introduction

The liberal Biblical scholarship Emperor has new clothes.  This particular new suit is the “Bible’s Phantom camels,[1] a claim by two Israeli archaeologists[2] that domesticated camels first came to Israel in “the last third of the 10th century B.C.,[3] which means that the Bible’s account in Genesis of camels during the time of the patriarchs centuries earlier is anachronistic and shows that the Bible “is not always reliable as verifiable history.[4]  Yahoo! News India was more blunt, asserting that “the science directly contradicted the Bible’s version of events[5] while The International Business Times was still more blunt, announcing that “Ancient camel bones have proved that the Bible is historically inaccurate.[6]

Liberal scholars were quick to comfort Christians, assuring us we could still appreciate the Bible as long as we didn’t think it actually told the facts about what happened in the past.  Princeton Theological Seminary professor Choon-Leong Seow told us that

The Bible has also never been a history book or a scientific textbook … “It is poetic truth rather than literary truth.”[7]

According to Eric Meyers, director of Duke University’s Department of Religious Studies:

We needn’t understand these accounts as literally true, but they are very rich in meaning and interpretive power.[8]

And Duke University religion professor Carol Meyers tells us that

The biblical authors, composers, writers used their creative imaginations to shape their stories, and they were not interested in what actually happened, they were interested in what you could learn from telling about the past.[9]

It doesn’t seem to occur to these scholars that if the writers of the Bible “were not interested in what actually happened” then they aren’ttelling about the past” at all, but simply making stuff up.  In that case, it is no “rich[er] in meaning and interpretive power” than, say, The Sword in the Stone or Pinocchio, and certainly not worth basing your life on.  Jesus said,

“If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:12)

By the same token, if we cannot trust Him on earthly matters, such as history and science, why would anybody in his right mind trust Him on spiritual matters and the things of eternity?  The same holds in regard to the Bible.

Now, if it were true that “Camels Had No Business in Genesis[10] and that these archaeologists had thus shown that the Bible “is not always reliable as verifiable history,” that would be problematic.  However, they have done no such thing. While the liberal scholars swoon over this emperor’s new clothes, the truth is that this particular emperor is buck naked – as always.  Liberal scholarship has heretofore failed to show that the Bible is not reliable, and their “O-for” streak continues here.  Move along, scholars; there is nothing to see here.

Let us consider in detail the case offered against camels in Genesis.  The charge is summed up as follows:

There are too many camels in the Bible, out of time and out of place.  Camels probably had little or no role in the lives of such early Jewish patriarchs as Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, who lived in the first half of the second millennium B.C., and yet stories about them mention these domesticated pack animals more than 20 times.[11]

Now, the crucial question, of course, is how many constitutes “too many” camels in the Bible.  The implication is that more than 20 timesis too many.  Yet this is misleading.  Let us do what liberal scholars seem remiss in doing, viz. examining the actual Biblical accounts carefully.

The first mention of camels in the Bible is in Genesis 12:

Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to dwell there, for the famine was severe in the land. And it came to pass, when he was close to entering Egypt, that he said to Sarai his wife, “Indeed I know that you are a woman of beautiful countenance. Therefore it will happen, when the Egyptians see you, that they will say, ‘This is his wife’; and they will kill me, but they will let you live. Please say you are my sister, that it may be well with me for your sake, and that I may live because of you.” So it was, when Abram came into Egypt, that the Egyptians saw the woman, that she was very beautiful. The princes of Pharaoh also saw her and commended her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken to Pharaoh’s house. He treated Abram well for her sake. He had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female servants, female donkeys, and camels. But the Lord plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. And Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister’? I might have taken her as my wife. Now therefore, here is your wife; take her and go your way.” So Pharaoh commanded his men concerning him; and they sent him away, with his wife and all that he had. (Genesis 12:10-20, bolding added.)

This happened not long after 2091 B.C.  It is evident from the account that Abram received his camels in Egypt and took them back with him to Canaan (the land that would later become Israel).  It is entirely possible that there were no other camels in that land at the time, and that these were the first, because, of those “more than 20 times” that camels are mentioned in Genesis (to be precise, there are twenty-two references), twenty-one refer to the camels of Abraham or of his grandson, Jacob.  So there is no indication that camels were common in Canaan at this time, or, indeed, that anyone other than Abram’s family had them.

The only other mention of camels in Genesis is in 37:25:

And they sat down to eat a meal. Then they lifted their eyes and looked, and there was a company of Ishmaelites, coming from Gilead with their camels, bearing spices, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry them down to Egypt. So Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is there if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother and our flesh.” And his brothers listened. Then Midianite traders passed by; so the brothers pulled Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt. (Genesis 37:25-28)

Here, the term “Ishmaelite” is used interchangeably with “Midianite” (see also Judges 8:22-26).  They are the descendants of Ishmael, Abram’s son through his wife’s maidservant, Hagar.  Hagar was an Egyptian (Genesis 16:1, 3; 21:9; 25:12), and after she was driven from Abram’s family, Ishmael lived in the Wilderness of Paran, between Egypt and Canaan, and Hagar took a wife from Egypt for him (Genesis 21:21).  In light of Ishmael’s close ties to Egypt, therefore, it is not unreasonable to suppose that his descendants also acquired camels from Egypt.  These Ishmaelites eventually became a nomadic people who lived as bandits and raiders, as well as caravan traders.[12]

Around the year 1876 B.C., Jacob and all his clan moved to Egypt, bringing their camels with them, and took up residence there (Genesis 46:1-7).  The Israelites would not return to Canaan until 1406 B.C., which means that for 430 years there may well have been no domesticated camels in Canaan at all.  After returning to Canaan and conquering the Promised Land, the Israelites lived as a decentralized and disunited people suffering frequently from foreign invasions and raids for about 300 years, with no chance to develop extensive foreign trade that would have required camels.  Throughout this entire period and, indeed, into the time of David, the only camels are those of the Midianites and their fellow raiders, the Amalekites.[13]

The first mention of camels being used by any Israelite people dates to the time that David became king, in ca. 1010 B.C.  The next mention involves the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon in ca. 947 B.C., as recorded in 1 Kings 10:

Now when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the Lord, she came to test him with hard questions. She came to Jerusalem with a very great retinue, with camels that bore spices, very much gold, and precious stones; and when she came to Solomon, she spoke with him about all that was in her heart … Then she gave the king one hundred and twenty talents of gold, spices in great quantity, and precious stones. There never again came such abundance of spices as the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon … Now King Solomon gave the queen of Sheba all she desired, whatever she asked, besides what Solomon had given her according to the royal generosity. So she turned and went to her own country, she and her servants. (1 Kings 10:1-2, 10, 13, bolding added.)

Inasmuch as Sheba “was in all probability the home of the Sabaeans in SW Arabia,[14] it is not surprising that the queen of Sheba had camels.  What is interesting to note is that Solomon at this point has been building up Israel as an economic and trading power, having established a merchant marine (1 Kings 9:26-28 cf. 10:22), but there is no mention of overland trade, which would require camels, until after the visit of the queen of Sheba.  Subsequent to that, Solomon has income from “the traveling merchants, [and] from the income of traders” (1 Kings 10:15a).  It is entirely likely, therefore, that Solomon obtained a large number of camels for trading from Sheba, either as part of the gifts the queen gave him at their meeting or through subsequent purchases.  Either way, Israel would have gone from having few if any camels to a significant number in very short order in the latter part of the 10th century BC.  And all subsequent occurrences of camels in the OT date to the 9th century B.C. and later.[15]

What is the upshot of all this?  Ironically, it is the supercilious Time article that tells us that

Historian Richard Bulliet of Columbia University explored the topic in his 1975 book, The Camel and the Wheel, and concluded that ‘the occasional mention of camels in patriarchal narratives does not mean that the domestic camels were common in the Holy Land at that period.’[16]

Just so – they were not “common” in Canaan in the patriarchal period, but that does not mean that Abraham and his family did not own camels or that the references in Genesis are incorrect.  On the contrary, the accounts in Genesis dovetail perfectly with Bulliet’s assessment.  The claim, then, that “There are too many camels in the Bible, out of time and out of place[17] is simply ridiculous.

The salient question then is whether the Egyptians had domesticated camels by the time of Abraham.  The answer is most certainly yes.  The following lists some of the archaeological evidence that has been found:

  • A pottery camel’s head from Maadi that dates to the predynastic period,[18] which is conventionally taken to have ended ca. 3100 B.C.
  • A terra cotta tablet showing a man leading a camel on which another man is riding (and is therefore clearly a domesticated camel), found near Gurna and dating to the predynastic period[19]
  • Three pottery camel’s heads dating to the First Dynasty (conventionally dated as 3100 – 2890 B.C.) that were found in two different ancient cities[20]
  • A limestone vessel “in the form of a recumbent pack camel” dating to the First Dynasty[21]
  • A rope made of camel hair dating to the Third or Fourth Dynasty (ca. 2686 – 2480 B.C.)[22]
  • Fourth Dynasty statuettes of camels[23]
  • A Sixth Dynasty (2494-2345 B.C.) petroglyph of a camel and a man at Aswan[24]

This list of discoveries is more than ample to prove that domesticated camels existed in Egypt at the time of Abram.  Those liberal scholars who still want to whine that this is not enough evidence are not to be taken seriously.  They are like the proverbial accused on the witness stand, who, when the prosecutor said, “How can you say you didn’t commit the crime when there are ten people here who saw you do it?” replies, “But I can show you a hundred people who didn’t see me do it!”

Therefore, the Biblical picture of Abram obtaining camels in Egypt and taking them to Canaan – where they may have been the only camels at the time – is completely consistent with the actual evidence, as is the real possibility that after Jacob’s relocation to Egypt with his camels there may have been no camels in Canaan for centuries.

Now, let us assess the actual claims of the two Israeli archaeologists and compare the evidence they adduce to the hype that has been generated.  We are told that:

Archaeologists Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel Aviv University released a new study that dates the arrival of the domesticated camel in the eastern Mediterranean region to the 10th century B.C. at the earliest, based on radioactive-carbon techniques.[25]

Researchers at Tel Aviv University used radiocarbon dating to establish exactly when the animals first arrived in Israel.  They found that camels were not present until centuries after the Age of the Patriarchs (2000-1500BC) and decades after the Kingdom of David.”26]

Archaeologists have used radiocarbon dating to pinpoint the arrival of domestic camels in the Middle East – and found that the science directly contradicted the Bible’s version of events.[27]

These assertions presume far too much.  It is impossible to use “radiocarbon dating to establish exactly when [camels] first arrived in Israel,” or to establish that “camels were not present until centuries after the Age of the Patriarchs,” as we shall see.

Let us unpack the study.  The authors state that “Most scholars today agree that the dromedary was exploited as a pack animal … not before the 12th century BCE,[28] but they lament that “observations have thus far not allowed for a dating resolution more precise than century level at best.[29]

To remedy this, the authors consider “new data from the well-researched copper production and trade centres of the Aravah Valley,[30] this data being “a substantial amount of radiocarbon dates for stratified contexts of the Late Bronze and Iron Ages … [which] enables high resolution studies of the chronological background of the faunal remains, while using absolute dates.[31]  On the basis of this data, they assert that

the first appearance of camels in the Aravah … occurred in the beginning of the last third of this century.[32]

They sum up their findings as follows:

Current data from copper smelting sites of the Aravah Valley enable us to pinpoint the introduction of domestic camels to the southern Levant more precisely based on stratigraphic contexts associated with an extensive suite of radiocarbon dates.  The data indicate that this event occurred not earlier than the last third of the 10th century BCE and most probably during this time.  The coincidence of this event with a major reorganization of the copper industry of the region—attributed to the results of the campaign of Pharaoh Shoshenq I—raises the possibility that the two were connected, and that camels were introduced as part of the efforts to improve efficiency by facilitating trade.”[33]

Now, there are problems with these claims.  Archaeology is not an exact science, as is, say, chemistry or physics.[34]  Findings are subject to interpretations that are sometimes wildly divergent.  (Indeed, Sapir-Hen and Ben-Yosef hint at this clearly when they write, “Although the site represents continuous smelting from as early as the late 12th century BCE (Ben-Yosef et al.2012) and despite the fact that Grigson (2012) assigns the bones to the earlier layers, we argue that the original stratigraphy reported by Rothenberg (1980) is confused, and that the bones all originate from the last occupation phase at the site, namely from the late 10th–9th centuries BCE (Layer I). The complicated nature of archaeological accumulation at smelting camps renders lateral stratigraphic correlations extremely difficult.[35])

The authors intimate that radiocarbon dating solves this problem by providing absolute dates, but radiocarbon dating involves its own set of unproveable assumptions that undermine its reliability.[36]

Nevertheless, let us assume that the dating is correct.  What have Sapir-Hen and Ben-Yosef proven?  They have proven that camels were not used at the copper works in the Aravah Valley prior to the latter part of the 10th century B.C. – and that is all.  Have they proven that a thousand years earlier Abraham and his descendants could not have had a relatively small number of camels in Canaan for the span of about a century, after which time they moved to Egypt?  No, of course not.  This is why the claim, for example, that “Researchers at Tel Aviv University used radiocarbon dating to establish exactly when the animals first arrived in Israel” is ridiculous.  The researchers cannot tell us even approximately when camels first arrived in Israel; all they can tell us is when camels were first used at the copper works in the Aravah Valley.  They certainly did not find “that camels were not present until centuries after the Age of the Patriarchs (2000-1500 BC) and decades after the Kingdom of David,” nor could they have done so; at most they can affirm that earlier evidence for camels in Israel has not been found – which does not mean that they were not there.  Based on the situation the Bible paints, as previously outlined, there was a small number of camels in Canaan owned by one family, father to grandson, for only a relatively brief period of time, so it is exceedingly unlikely we would find evidence of them.

What is particularly interesting is that Sapir-Hen and Ben-Yosef insist that the findings from the copper works in the Aravah Valley “demonstrate a sudden appearance of camels at the site, following a major change in the organization of production in the entire region … not earlier than the last third of the 10th century BCE and most probably during this time.[37]  The authors note

the coincidence of this event with a major reorganization of the copper industry of the region—attributed to the results of the campaign of Pharaoh Shoshenq I—raises the possibility that the two were connected, and that camels were introduced as part of the efforts to improve efficiency by facilitating trade.[38]

However, the attribution of this “major reorganization of the copper industry of the region” to Shoshenq I (called “Shishak” in the Bible) seems to be pulled out of thin air.  Shishak’s incursion into Israel is described in 2 Chronicles 12:

And it happened in the fifth year of King Rehoboam that Shishak king of Egypt came up against Jerusalem, because they had transgressed against the Lord,with twelve hundred chariots, sixty thousand horsemen, and people without number who came with him out of Egypt—the Lubim and the Sukkiim and the Ethiopians. And he took the fortified cities of Judah and came to Jerusalem … So Shishak king of Egypt came up against Jerusalem, and took away the treasures of the house of the Lord and the treasures of the king’s house; he took everything. He also carried away the gold shields which Solomon had made.” (2 Chronicles 12:2-4, 9)

According to this account, Shishak is merely engaged in smash-and-grab; he is not building up the local industries of the places he is looting.  Nor is there discernible evidence that Shishak did, in fact, do such building up – and the very idea is outré.  Indeed, there seems to be no reason whatsoever to attribute the “major reorganization of the copper industry of the region” to him.

On the other hand, Solomon, as we have seen, was very much involved in building up the economy of Israel, and he seemed to have a particular interest in accumulating metals, including vast quantities of gold, silver, and bronze (the primary ingredient of which is copper).[39]  It makes perfect sense to see him making use of newly imported camels to effect a “major reorganization of the copper industry of the region,” much more so than to see Shisak doing it.

In sum, then, what we have seen is that Sapir-Hen and Ben-Yosef’s research has in no way shown the Bible to be inaccurate.  On the contrary, their findings dovetail perfectly with the Biblical accounts so, if anything, they corroborate the Bible instead of contradicting it.

What, then, are we to make of the arrogant claims that “The new study again raises the age-old question of biblical accuracy;[40]Camel bones suggest error in Bible, archaeologists say;[41]Ancient camel bones have proved that the Bible is historically inaccurate as it was written hundreds of years after the events it describes;[42] and that “science directly contradicted the Bible’s version of events”?[43]  As we have seen, they are unjustified and, not to put too fine a point on it, rubbish.  Absolute rubbish.

As to the idea that “The study is going to ruffle the feathers of people who believe in biblical inerrancy, a doctrine popular among evangelical and other right-orthodoxy movements that says every word in the Bible is literally true,[44] that is naught but wishful thinking on the part of liberal skeptics.  Colour our feathers unruffled.


ADDENDUM

According to a press release accompanying the announcement of the research,

This anachronism is direct proof that the [Bible’s] text was compiled well after the events it describes.[45]

This may come as a shock to liberal skeptics, but we already know that parts of the Old Testament were compiled well after the events they describe.  Moses wrote Genesis in the 15th century B.C., in which book are described events that happened between 400 and 2,600 or more years before his time.  It should be noted, though, that there is evidence that he used written records in compiling Genesis that were handed down by Adam and others.[46]


Endnotes

[1] Dias, Elizabeth. “The Mystery of the Bible’s Phantom Camels.” Time World. Posted on February 11, 2014, at http://world.time.com/2014/02/11/the-mystery-of-the-bibles-phantom-camels/

[2] Sapir-Hen, Lidar and Erez Ben-Yosef. “The Introduction of Domestic Camels to the Southern Levant: Evidence from the Aravah Valley.” Tel Aviv 40 (2013), pp. 277-285

[3] Wilford, John Noble. “Camels Had No business in Genesis,” The New York Times, February 11, 2014, p. D3

[4] Quoted in Dias, op. cit.

[5] ANI, “Radiocarbon dating of ‘ancient’ camel bones suggest error in Bible.” Yahoo! News India. Posted at http://in.news.yahoo.com/radiocarbon-dating-39-ancient-39-camel-bones-suggest-081910601.html

[6] Osborne, Hannah. “Ancient Camel Bones Prove Bible Written Centuries after Genesis Events.” IB Times. Posted on February 6, 2014, at https://www.ibtimes.co.uk/ancient-camel-dna-proves-bible-was-written-centuries-after-events-genesis-1435352

[7] Dias, op. cit.

[8] Quoted in ibid.

[9] Quoted in ibid.

[10] Headline in Footnote 3

[11] Dias, op. cit.

[12] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0010_0_09678.html

[13] There is a mention in 1 Chronicles 5:18-22 that the sons of Reuben, the Gadites, and half the tribe of Manasseh made war with the Hagrites and seized their camels. It is not possible to date this precisely, and in any case the Hagrites were also Ishmaelites.

[14] Douglas, JD, et al. Eds. New Bible Dictionary (Second Edition). Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1982. p. 1098

[15] Camels are mentioned in the Book of Job, but the date and location of the events in this book are unknown.

[16] Dias, op. cit.

[17] Wilford, op. cit.

[18] Free, Joseph P. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 3:3, July 1944, p. 190.  Although the accepted Egyptian chronology is too stretched, these findings nevertheless predate the time of Abraham.

[19] ibid.

[20] ibid.

[21] ibid.

[22] ibid.

[23] ibid, pp. 189-190

[24] ibid. p. 189

[25] Dias, op. cit.

[26] Osborne, op. cit.

[27] ANI, op. cit.

[28] Sapir-Hen, Lidar and Erez Ben-Yosef, op. cit., p. 277

[29] ibid., p. 278

[30] ibid.

[31] Ibid., p. 279

[32] ibid, p. 281

[33] ibid., p. 282

[34] This does not include theoretical physics, which is not an exact science or a science at all, but simply the practice of using mathematics to create fairy tales.

[35] Sapir-Hen, Lidar and Erez Ben-Yosef, op. cit., p. 280

[36] See, for example, Woodmorappe, John. “Much inflated carbon-14 dates from subfossil trees: a new mechanism.” Journal of Creation 15:3 (2001), pp. 43-44

[37] Sapir-Hen, Lidar and Erez Ben-Yosef, op. cit., pp. 279, 282

[38] ibid., p. 282

[39] See 1 Kings 6:20-35; 7:15-51; 9:11-28; 10:2-29

[40] Dias, op. cit.

[41] Anonymous. “Camel bones suggest error in Bible, archaeologists say.” FoxNews.com. Posted on February 6, 2014, at http://www.foxnews.com/science/2014/02/06/camel-bones-suggest-error-in-bible/

[42] Osborne, op. cit.

[43] ANI, op. cit.

[44] Dias, op. cit.

[45] American Friends of Tel Aviv University, quoted in Anonymous. “Camel bones,” op. cit.

[46] Wiseman, P.J. Ancient Records and the Structure of Genesis: A Case for Literary Unity. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985.

Comments: 1

  1. The researchers cannot tell us even approximately when camels “first arrived in Israel; all they can tell us is when camels were first used at the copper works in the Aravah Valley.

    They can’t even tell us that. All they can actually say is the approximate date of death of the first camels to die at that site.

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