Monday, 17 February 2014

Camels had every right to be in Genesis

"Camels Had No Business in Genesis", shrieked the headline in a recent science article in the New York Times. John Noble Winford tells us that:
"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. 
"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.”
Needless to say, this article promoted the usual sophomoric banter, but little substantive comment about the question of whether the reference to camels in the Bible is a flat out anachronism. Turns out that things are not quite as simple as our atheist friends would like us to believe.

The references to camels in Genesis have long been cited as evidence against the historicity of the patriarchal narratives, a fact which suggests that those who eagerly seized on this story to discredit the Bible haven't really been paying attention to Near Eastern archaeology. (Such ignorance tends to go with the atheist territory, alas.)  20th century archaeologist WF Albright advanced the view that camels were not domesticated in the ancient Near East until the 1st millennium CE. 

Albright's views were quite popular among Biblical scholars, but the archaeological evidence shows that dogmatism is ill-advised. Day and Harrison note that:
‘Archeological discoveries have now shown clearly that references to domesticated camels in Genesis are by no means anachronistic, as some earlier scholars supposed. While camel caravans seem to have been used regularly only from the Late Bronze Age onward, archeologists have found numerous bones of domesticated camels. Thus when Parrot was excavating Mari, he found camel bones in the ruins of a house dated in the pre-Sargonic period (ca 2400 B.C.). An eighteenth-century-B.C. relief from Byblos pictured a camel in a kneeling position, and a socket on the back showed that the animal’s hump and its load had been attached separately. In accord with patriarchal traditions, cylinder seals from Middle Bronze Age Mesopotamia showed riders seated upon camels.’ [1]
Certainly, the existence of camel bones in the mid-3rd millennium BCE, around 500 years before the time during which Abraham is said to have lived is evidence enough to caution against any blanket dismissal of the historicity of references to camels in the Levant in the 2nd millennium BCE. Stephen Caesar makes this point ably:
Recent discoveries, however, have shown that this dismissal is unwarranted. Excavations in eastern Arabia, an area once believed to be a cultural backwater unworthy of archaeological investigation, have turned up evidence that camels were first domesticated by Semites before the time of Abraham. Much of this evidence has been examined by M. C. A. MacDonald of the Oriental Faculty at the University of Oxford and an epigraphist specializing in ancient North Arabian and Aramaic inscriptions. He wrote:
Recent research has suggested that domestication of the camel took place in southeastern Arabia some time in the third millennium [BC]. Originally, it was probably bred for its milk, hair, leather, and meat, but it cannot have been long before its usefulness as a beast of burden became apparent (1995: 1357).
With this third millennium date for camel domestication in mind, let us look at the approximate date of the Patriarchal era. According to Exodus 12:40, the Israelites dwelt in Egypt for 430 years; according to 1 Kings 6:1, the Temple of Solomon was built 480 years after the flight from Egypt. Since most archaeologists date the construction of the Temple to the tenth century BC, simple arithmetic brings us back to the period of the 19th or 18th centuries BC, well after the first domestication of the camel. When we juxtapose the Biblical date for the Patriarchs with MacDonald’s date for the earliest camel domestication, the claim of anachronism evaporates. [2]
However, even if for the sake of argument we grant that the references to camels is an anachronism, it does not follow that the patriarchal narratives are ahistorical. Anyone remotely familiar with the history of Western art would be aware of anachronisms in such paintings where biblical characters are drawn in contemporary clothing. Is it possible that something similar could have happened here? Wilford's NYT article quoted Noam Mizrahi, professor of Hebrew culture studies at Tel Aviv University:
Dr. Mizrahi, a professor of Hebrew culture studies at Tel Aviv University who was not directly involved in the research, said that by the seventh century B.C. camels had become widely employed in trade and travel in Israel and through the Middle East, from Africa as far as India. The camel’s influence on biblical research was profound, if confusing, for that happened to be the time that the patriarchal stories were committed to writing and eventually canonized as part of the Hebrew Bible. 
“One should be careful not to rush to the conclusion that the new archaeological findings automatically deny any historical value from the biblical stories,” Dr. Mizrahi said in an email. “Rather, they established that these traditions were indeed reformulated in relatively late periods after camels had been integrated into the Near Eastern economic system. But this does not mean that these very traditions cannot capture other details that have an older historical background.”
One would hope that Mizrahi's caution would be followed by other sceptics, but as usual, it's easier to spin a good anti-apologetic story than actually take the time to verify one's facts.


1. Harrison, ‘Genesis’, in Bromiley & Hanson (eds.), International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, volume 3, p. 547 (rev. ed. 2002).
2. Caesar S "Patriarchal Wealth and the Early Domestication of the Camel" Bible and Spade (2000) 13:77