A Camel Controversy

February 24, 2014 at 5:15 am 1 comment


Camels 1And you thought it was it only impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

As it turns out, threading camels isn’t the only thing that’s impossible according to some archaeologists.  Domesticating them before the tenth century B.C. also turns out to be quite the trick.  Writing for the New York Times, John Noble Wilford provocatively declares, “Camels Had No Business in Genesis.”[1]  Wilford explains:

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. Genesis 24, for example, tells of Abraham’s servant going by camel on a mission to find a wife for Isaac.

How does Wilford know that camels had no role in the era of the biblical patriarchs?  He cites a study, recently published by two archaeologists from Tel Aviv University, which employed radiocarbon dating to test some camel bones found in the Aravah Valley.  This study found the bones to be from the last third of the tenth century B.C., which, Wilford notes, is “centuries after the patriarchs lived and decades after the kingdom of David, according to the Bible.”  So there you have it.  Thanks to some late breaking bones, Genesis is discredited – at least the parts that talk about camels.

Now, before we fall prey to camel chaos, a few things should be noted.  First, the Tel Aviv archaeologists, by declaring that camels could not have been used in the way Genesis 24 describes them, are making an argument from silence.  Their assumption runs like this:  because we do not have domesticated camel fossils dating before first millennium B.C., there must have been no domesticated camels before the first millennium B.C.  The Bible must be wrong.  But a lack of evidence does not necessitate a lack of existence.  One need to only think back to 1961.  This was the year the “Pilate Stone” was discovered at Caesarea Maritima.  It had an inscription dedicated to the emperor of Rome at the time, Tiberius Caesar:  “To the Divine Augustus Tiberieum:  Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judea has dedicated this.”  Before this stone was discovered, because there was no hard archaeological evidence of Pontius Pilate, many assumed that Pilate was a fictional character, made up out of the sacred authors’ over-active imaginations.  Whoops.  So much for that argument from silence.

It should also be noted that the archaeologists who discovered these bones do not even have complete silence in favor of their argument against camels during the time of the biblical patriarchs.  They only have archaeological silence.  There are extra-biblical references to domesticated camels prior to the first millennium B.C.  Titus Kennedy, adjunct professor at Biola University, notes that a camel is mentioned in a list of domesticated animals from Ugarit, dating anywhere from 1950 to 1600 B.C.  In an interview with Christianity Today, Kennedy explains:

For those who adhere to a twelfth century B.C. or later theory of domestic camel use in the ancient Near East, a great deal of archaeological and textual evidence must be either ignored or explained away …

[Israel] doesn’t have much writing from before the Iron Age, 1000 B.C. … So there aren’t as many sources to look at. Whereas in Egypt, you have writing all the way back to 3000 B.C. and in Mesopotamia the same thing.[2]

Kennedy concludes that there were not only domesticated camels at the time of the biblical patriarchs, but before the time of the biblical patriarchs.  Thus, the biblical record is quite believable.  There is no reason that Abraham could not have acquired “sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels” (Genesis 12:16), just as Genesis says.

Ultimately, the difficulties with the premature conclusions drawn from this discovery reach much deeper than simply whether camels were around in the second millennium B.C.  These difficulties are summed up in Wilford’s conclusion:

These anachronisms are telling evidence that the Bible was written or edited long after the events it narrates and is not always reliable as verifiable history. These camel stories “do not encapsulate memories from the second millennium,” said Noam Mizrahi, an Israeli biblical scholar, “but should be viewed as back-projections from a much later period.”

In other words, the Bible cannot be trusted to get its facts straight – at least not all of them.  When reading the Bible, then, skepticism must be given preference over faith.

Finally, if I assume camels could not have been in Genesis based on an argument from paleontological silence, it is only reasonable for me to assume that a Savior cannot rise from death based on medical science.  After all, doctors have long known that dead people tend to stay that way.  Thus, Jesus’ resurrection must have never happened.   But if this is true, then my “faith is futile; I am still in my sins … [and] I am to be pitied more than all men” (1 Corinthians 15:17, 19).  Wow, that’s a downer.

Let’s hope the archaeologists are wrong on this one.  After all, I don’t really like to be pitied.


[1] John Noble Wilford, “Camels Had No Business in Genesis,” New York Times (2.10.2014).

[2] Gordon Govier, “The Latest Challenge to the Bible’s Accuracy:  Abraham’s Anachronistic Camels?Christianity Today (February 2014).

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