Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The problem of camels in the book of Genesis

by Salman Hameed

It seems that camels pose a historical problem for some of the accounts in the book of Genesis. It seems that camels were domesticated in the region decades/years after some of the Biblical events involving camels were supposed to have taken place. Is it a big deal? It depends on how you use Genesis. The creation accounts in Genesis often show up in evolution debates. Critics point to the contradictory stories in Genesis 1 and 2. I think such criticism misses the point - and just like the anachronism of camels in Genesis, such criticism tries to read the Genesis account of creation as if it is a scientific description. But far more embarrassingly, people like Ken Ham and his organization, Answers in Genesis, indeed read Genesis as a scientific book and make a mockery of common sense by claiming that the universe/world is 6000 years old.

The camel story, however, has to do with more immediate historical events. Again, if your emphasis is on the larger message of Genesis, then this should not matter to you as well. Nevertheless, this is an intriguing connection of science and religion:
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. 
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.”
Dr. Mizrahi likened the practice to a historical account of medieval events that veers off to a description of “how people in the Middle Ages used semitrailers in order to transport goods from one European kingdom to another.” 
For two archaeologists at Tel Aviv University, the anachronisms were motivation to dig for camel bones at an ancient copper smelting camp in the Aravah Valley in Israel and in Wadi Finan in Jordan. They sought evidence of when domesticated camels were first introduced into the land of Israel and the surrounding region. 
The archaeologists, Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen, used radiocarbon dating to pinpoint the earliest known domesticated camels in Israel to the last third of the 10th century B.C. — centuries after the patriarchs lived and decades after the kingdom of David, according to the Bible. Some bones in deeper sediments, they said, probably belonged to wild camels that people hunted for their meat. Dr. Sapir-Hen could identify a domesticated animal by signs in leg bones that it had carried heavy loads. 
The findings were published recently in the journal Tel Aviv and in a news release from Tel Aviv University. The archaeologists said that the origin of the domesticated camel was probably in the Arabian Peninsula, which borders the Aravah Valley. Egyptians exploited the copper resources there and probably had a hand in introducing the camels. Earlier, people in the region relied on mules and donkeys as their beasts of burden.
Read the full story here.

On a similar note, also check out this NOVA episode from a few years ago on The Bible's Buried Secrets. It does a nice job of highlighting research methodologies in history and archaeology that are finding accuracies and inaccuracies in the Biblical accounts. The ending is a bit bleh….but the beginning is good, and then there are some excellent segments on the Exodus, the Canaanite cities, and the search for the YHWH. Here is the whole show - almost two hours: 


Asad M said...

There are too many discrepancies in the Biblical accounts of Exodus and the Conquest of Canaan by Israelites that it is almost impossible to fit these events in a specific time period in history to believe them literally. Modern archaeologists and historians like Israel Finkelstein (in his book “The Bible Unearthed”) find no evidence for the patriarchs (Abraham, Jacob, Joseph), Moses’ Exodus or the conquest of Canaan. Finkelstein perceives a political will at work behind biblical texts that exaggerate or even make up events so that David & Solomon are linked to Abraham through a single lineage. One God, one nation, one state, one lineage, one place of worship, this how is the writers of the Old Testament in the 7th & 6th century BCE had constructed an appealing narrative in ancient Israel. Nevertheless, the OT is a work of genius and The Exodus is quite inspirational (e.g. MLK used it to good effect in the Civil Rights movement).

Interestingly, the Quranic accounts of Patriarchs (in various Surahs) do not mention any camels nor are there exact figures of Moses leading 600,000 men out of Egypt (as in Bible, include women & children and that is 2 million or approx 20% of Egypt’s population at that time) and the Conquest of Canaan is not there at all. But then does not mean that there is no Arabian folklore there….

Salman Hameed said...

Asad - I completely agree with you there. But there is a fascinating difference between the way we think (or perhaps ought to think) of science in scriptures versus the veracity of historical stories. Although I think the "historical stories" can also be considered as fables/folklores just as one can interpret "scientific" claims in scriptures.

On a side note, the discussion of historical events in the Quran was one of the reasons for Mu'tazila to believe that Quran was a created - and did not exist forever (the whole bit about God's speech etc).

Everette Hatcher said...

Camels did exist in the Old Testament!!! DESPITE THE ASSERTIONS IN YOUR ARTICLE evidence continues to amass that camel domestication was widely known earlier. Randall Younker adds Late Bronze Age I petroglyphs (Greek = rock/carving) depicting domesticated camels from the Sinai to that evidence. What about the dating of the bones used by Dr.Lidar Sapir-Hen and Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef of Tel Aviv University in this case on the camel? Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell takes them to task in the article "The Bible Wins the Debate with Carbon-Dated Bones." http://thedailyhatch.org/2014/02/13/despite-what-lidar-sapir-hen-and-erez-ben-yosef-of-tel-aviv-university-say-camels-did-exist-during-the-time-of-the-old-testament/

Mohamed said...

On a side note, the discussion of historical events in the Quran was one of the reasons for Mu'tazila to believe that Quran was a created - and did not exist forever (the whole bit about God's speech etc)."

That's fascinating, Dr. Hameed.

A nice write-up on the story, too!