Camels and the reliability of the Old Testament

Funny-Camel-25Last week a couple of people drew my attention to the news that archaeologists had discovered that camels were domesticated later than we had thought. Did this rock my faith? Why should it? Because the early OT accounts mention camels as domesticated at an earlier period—so clearly must be mythological constructions read back to an earlier period to provide a justification for later action. Andrew Brown makes this point strongly and explicitly in his Guardian blog.

There are 21 references to camels in the first books of the Bible, and now we know they are all made up.

I was planning to do some research for a blog post, but happily found that it has been done for me. So I am breaking with my usual practice and reposting this from Tyndale House in Cambridge. (Tyndale House is an excellent research centre that also produces some very helpful material for study and apologetics.):

News outlets are abuzz with the story that recent archaeological discoveries have shown the Bible to be totally wrong about camels. You can read sample stories in HaaretzFox NewsTimeThe Guardian, or the New York Times.

Tel Aviv University announced the findings of two of its own professors here, which summarizes this Tel Aviv journal article written by Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen. Many news agencies appear to have derived most of their information from the Haaretz story.

There is a significant difference in emphasis between the scholarly article and the press release, but what is most eye-catching is the press release’s emphasis that archaeological evidence demonstrates that domesticated camels did not appear in Bible lands until after 1000 B.C. Yet the Bible seems to present Abraham and other patriarchs using camels much earlier.

We asked Dr. K. Martin Heide, of Philipps University Marburg, an expert on Semitic languages and cultures, to comment. Concerning the article in the journal Tel Aviv. Heide notes:

This article points to the fact that large scale exploitation of the dromedary (single-humped camel) started in Israel in the 10th century BC. The article does not exclude minor appearances of the dromedary (which left no traces in the archaeological record) in Israel earlier. The authors’ only reference to the patriarchs is, “This [i.e. the introduction of the dromedary in the southern Levant] together with the depiction of camels in the Patriarchal narrative, has generated extensive discussion regarding the date of the earliest domestic camel in the southern Levant” (p. 277).

Heide continues:

Absence of evidence (of camel bones) is not evidence of absence (of the camel) in Israel in the 2nd millennium. 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.

The Genesis narrator does not claim that the camel was in wide use in the 2nd millennium BC. 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.

All this points to a more complex history of the use of pack animals in the 2nd millennium BC.

Neither do we have to assume that they (some families only!) 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-organized infrastructure of an established kingdom, can we expect to find archaeological footprints of their use.

For more information, readers can read Heide’s 62-page technical essay on camels here.

Some further reflections

This episode is a good example of what happens when scholarly research is appropriated by popular media, and an anti-Christian ideological twist is thrown in.

1. Any nuance in the academic work is lost in the media desire for simple and simplistic answers. In fact, not only have the details of the academic research been lost, reporters don’t appear to have carefully read the OT texts which they are refuting either.

2. Questions of method simply disappear. Here, I think Martin Heide puts his finger on the key issue: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. We are exploring issues at some of the earliest periods of known human history, and it is easy to over-claim on the basis of supposed evidence. In fact, most archaeological research has confirmed, rather than undermined, the realities of life from the period suggested by the patriarchal narratives.

3. For some strange reason, despite the fact that we are indisputably at the end of Christendom, it still appears to sell newspapers or (in Andrew Brown’s case) attract page views to knock the Christian story, whilst confirmation of it is just not news. (Curious that this never happens with the Qur’an!) The same dynamic is at work in the recent BBC programmes about textual criticism, ‘Bible Hunters.’

Finally, I would be very interested to hear from anyone who actually reads all 62 pages of Heide’s technical essay on camels!

(As you can see from the picture, I think it is the camels who have the last laugh!)

Additional note

There is a lovely piece on this over at ABC religion by George Athas, a Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity, who also teaches Hebrew and Old Testament at Moore Theological College. After summarising the evidence for domesticated camels much earlier than this archaeological evidence, he concludes:

Perhaps the Bible is more than a collection of moral parables. Perhaps it’s an account of God’s tortured relationship with humanity, marvellously retold by those at the historic heart of the relationship. Or is it easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for us moderns to admit we might learn something – even something divine – from our ancient forebears?

Nicely put.

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