The Bible and camels

Published 21 February 2014  |  
(Photo: emmelemma)

It may have made for a snappy headline but one biblical scholar has not been swayed by the recent claim that camels were not around at the times and places the Bible claims they were.

The claim was circulated by a story in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, which highlighted a study by archaeologists Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen from Tel Aviv University published earlier this month.

The study suggested that the domesticated camel did not appear in the Eastern Mediterranean region until around the tenth century BC, much later than the Bible's records referencing the animal in the times of Abraham and Jacob.

"The introduction of the camel to our region was a very important economic and social development," said Dr Ben-Yosef on ScienceDaily.com.

"By analysing archaeological evidence from the copper production sites of the Aravah Valley, we were able to estimate the date of this event in terms of decades rather than centuries."

If this were the case, it would call Biblical inerrency into question. The New York Times suggested that: "There are too many camels in the Bible, out of time and out of place ... 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."

Dr K Martin Heide, an expert on Semitic languages and cultures based at Philipps University in Marburg, Germany, sees things very differently.

In an article for Tyndale House, Dr Heide said: "This article points to the fact that large scale exploitation of the dromedary (single-humped camels) started in Israel in the tenth century BC. The article does not exclude minor appearances of the dromedary (which left no traces in the archaeological record) in Israel earlier."

For Dr Heide, the case put forward by Ben-Yosef and Sapir-Hen is not tempting him to throw out his Bible just yet.

"The Genesis narrator does not claim that the camel was in wide use in the second millennium BC," he writes.

"To the contrary, while Abraham and Jacob had camels (probably Bactrian, or double-humped, camels that were available in Mesopotamia), Isaac, who stayed in Canaan most of his time, seems to have used no camels. In addition, the final retreat of Jacob with his family to Egypt was all done on donkeys.

"Neither do we have to assume that they or the few people who may have used camels at that time buried their camels or deposited their bones at some special place for them to be found in our times.

"Only later, in the first millennium BC, when camels came to be exploited in the well-organised infrastructure of an established kingdom, can we expect to find archaeological footprints of their use."

Dr Heide continues by arguing cautioning that archaelogical evidence only paints part of the picture and that future excavations may shed new light on aspects of history, in this case the use of the camel in biblical times.

"Absence of evidence is not evidence of [the camel's] absence in Israel in the second millennium [BC].

"Proving that something did not exist at some time and place in the past can only be done on certain premises because proof of its existence may be unearthed at some future date."

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