Camels in the Bible on Hump Day

Posted By on February 12, 2014

It’s Wednesday and, wouldn’t you know it, someone sent me a link to the following article: “Will Camel Discovery Break the Bible’s Back?”

In case you’re not up on the problem of camels for the Bible (shame on you), here’s an excerpt:

“. . . a scientific report [has] establish[ed] that camels, the basic mode of transportation for the biblical patriarchs, weren’t domesticated in Israel until hundreds of years after Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are said to have wandered the earth.”

This actually isn’t new. The evidence for camel domestication in Canaan has long been a topic of discussion. The patriarchal narratives (e.g., Gen 24) suggest camels were domesticated in the early second millennium B.C., much earlier than this report.

The article is written by OT scholar Joel Baden. Surprisingly, it doesn’t mention that there is good evidence for ancient camel domestication in the regions near to Canaan — including places from which Abraham came and the patriarchal families spent time. Is it beyond the pale to think the patriarchs could have brought a herd of camels with them, or traded for them? Why would that be unfathomable? Really?

(Sigh). Maybe I’m just grouchy today.

At any rate, here’s another excerpt from the IVP Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch about camels and historical criticism.

The paleozoologic, iconographic and textual evidence concerning the domestication of the camel in the ancient Near East is ambiguous, but it seems clear that the camel (including both the Bactrian two-humped camel [camelus bactrianus] and the one-humped dromedary [camelus dromedarius]) had been domesticated in lower Mesopotamia and southern Arabia by 2500 B.C. (Hesse, 217; Staubli, 184–85; Borowski, 112–18). R. Younker has recently discussed some petroglyphs depicting camels being led by human figures in the Wadi Nasib, Sinai. These petroglyphs were discovered in close proximity to a Proto-Sinaitic inscription found by Gerster in 1961, which he dates not later than 1500 B.C. Zarins (1825–26) notes that osteological remains from Shahr-I-Sokhta in eastern Iran in a context dated to 2700 B.C. clearly indicate a domesticated camel. In the Arabian Peninsula bones found at Umm-an-Nar and dated to the late third millennium B.C. would also support the view of an early domestication of the camel. Some bone remains have been found at Arad in an Early Bronze context (c. 2900 B.C.; cf. Wapnish), although it is not clear whether they indicate a domesticated animal. Looking from the angle of Jordan, J. Sauer has argued that the camel was definitely domesticated by the third millennium B.C. but that its widespread use only began to emerge during the final moments of the Late Bronze Age. It would thus appear that Abraham’s “camel connection” is not a good example for an anachronism but rather can be confidently explained in the context of either the early or late date connected to the patriarchal period, beginning around the end of the third millennium B.C. O. Borowski (113) has made the interesting observation that camels were instrumental in the establishment of desert nomadism with its change in lifestyle. The Genesis story of Abraham leaving the urban center of Ur and becoming a gēr (“stranger, traveler, man without an established residence,” Gen 15:13; 23:4) living in a tent does coincide with this function.

For the record, readers will know I don’t buy the Ur (S. Mesopotamian city state) as the place from which Abram came. I’d put him as coming from one of the other regions mentioned that had camels (N. Mesopotamia, Ura; see here and here).

Addendum 2/23/2014 – Todd Bolen posted an informative essay on this issue at his Bible Places blog that I recommend. It deals with some material published in 2011 in Ugarit Forschungen by Martin Heide.


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14 Responses to “Camels in the Bible on Hump Day”

  1. Jonnathan Molina says:

    I read the articles plus the one from National Geographic (which interestingly states that the biblical angle was a byproduct of the research while the NY Times articles states that it was the motivation for the dig) and I understand where the researchers are coming from: if there are no domesticated camel bones found buried in the sediment corresponding to that age (only wild ones as they say) and you don’t come across them until much later then it’s a perfectly reasonable to conclude this may have been when they were introduced to the area. But as Dr. Heiser points out we don’t even know if we have the right area for sure and there are other reasons why we may not have found older bones in that particular area, especially for a *nomadic* people. I for one wouldn’t have a problem if it turned out they camels were written in by a later author (as the articles suggest) as historically accurate detailed records of the ancients weren’t as focused on capturing every detail as it was in capturing main events and happenings impacting the audience, from what I understand. It would be nice to see some cohesiveness with a fossil record and the biblical account but it hardly ‘breaks the back’ of Christianity (or Judaism) in my opinion. Next thing they’ll tell us is that the sky isn’t really made out of metal.

  2. Len says:

    I like it when you respond when your grouchy. We find out what you really think. BTW thanks for your prospective on the issues. I’ve been following you since before you started the Myth that is true and have learned a lot. Your at the top of my go to list for scholars. God Bless.

  3. Patrick says:

    Assuming Abraham brought domesticated camels into Canaan, there likely wouldn’t be much evidence of it today would there? Just 3 generations of a family until it’s removed for 400 years to Egypt.

    Not a lot of camel remains to study.

    Archaeology is limited, if you looked for evidence of slavery in the USA, I doubt archaeology would provide it. What is it going to unearth, old wood huts slaves lived in ?

    We had segregated housing for black folks during WWII where I live and not one of those “hutments” remains, so you can’t prove via archaeology that we segregated black housing as recently as 1945 here. You can via current photos we have.

    • MSH says:

      agreed; it’s spottier than we like to think. But on the other hand, what is unearthed yields more information due to modern technologies e.g., DNA).

  4. blop2008 says:

    Mike, you had another entry about Cyrus Gordon’s most recent article and findings about his 1950 article; you should include a reference to that as well.

  5. Noel says:

    Have you read the Bible Unearthed by Finkelstein? A jew questioning the historicity of the patriarchal stories as well as the Exodus and Conquest? Did Joshua really battle at the walls of Jericho?

    • MSH says:

      I have. It was one of two books I required for the undergrad class I taught at the local university. The other one had a more positive view. This is pretty common among Jewish archaeologists.

  6. cjacques says:

    Proof that camels existed in patriarchal times:

    He rides one, so it must be true, right?!

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