Getting over the camel hump

camel2By James W. Miller

Special to The Layman

News agencies throughout the world burst into Biblical deconstruction this week with the announcement of a new archaeological find about camels.  The discovery, published in Tel Aviv Journal out of Tel Aviv University, was that domesticated camels didn’t appear on the scene in Israel until around the 9th century BCE.  If this is the case, it means that the Genesis account of Abraham using 10 camels to transport goods (Genesis 24:10) a highly unlikely story.

The media leapt to call this an anachronism, such as when medieval paintings of Biblical characters dress them in French clothes and depict them hanging out in the gardens of a chateau.  This means, the media claims, that when the Biblical story of Genesis was written down, it must have been much, much later than the events that occurred, suggesting that the people who wrote it had no idea that camels weren’t even used back in Abraham’s day.

The entirety of the original paper is not easily available online.  I wrote to one of the two scholars who published the paper in Tel Aviv, Erez Ben-Yosef, who sent me a copy of the original article, which, I’m guessing, none of the press actually read.


Wait a minute

Stories like this become a Rorschach Test for the reader.  People who relish the thought of undermining the Church pounce on this as unequivocal proof that the Bible is wrong.  Look at the cavalier NY Times headline “Camels Had No Business in Genesis,” or the told-you-so wording at the Smithsonian, “Here’s Proof The Bible’s Tales Were Tweaked.”  Time Magazine is far more subtle, heading it “The Mystery of the Bible’s Phantom Camels” and rushes to find Biblical scholars who assure the reader that the Bible doesn’t have to be literally true in all its aspects.  With such overt bias polluting what should be objective research, we’re as likely to get the truth out of skeptical media as we are to get a camel through the eye of a needle.

For the layman, there should be a number of problems right off the bat with any kind of confident certainty on this.  Exactly how many camel remains do we have from the ancient world?  How do we know we have found them all?  Isn’t this just an argument from silence?  When did the sands of time get so rock solid?  So given the quick declaration of Biblical errors, it’s curious that no one has the remotest bit of skepticism about how much evidence we actually do and don’t have.  People have forgotten that prior to the 1880s, it was common for skeptics to argue that writing was not invented until the first millennium BC, making it impossible for Moses to have written anything.[1]  Subsequent discoveries simply proved this wrong.


The truth about camels

Speculation about camels in Genesis is not new.  The oldest fragment of Genesis we have is from the first century BC, perhaps , years after the events it describes.  William F. Albright said in the 1960s that the camels in Genesis were an anachronism.[2]  Another historian said in 1975 that camels were not widely domesticated in Israel during the Patriarchal period.[3]  However, there’s also no question that camels were present in the Middle East before that, at least in the wild.  Determining by the scant archeological remains of camels whether or not they were domesticated is not a black-and-white affair.

Scholars have shown that the domestication of camels in the Near East began earlier, and well before 2000 BC.[4]  This is attested by pottery and a terra cotta tablet that were discovered in Egypt showing images of men riding and leading camels which date to perhaps 3150 BC.[5]  There was also a 3-foot long, two-strand rope made of camel hair found in the 1920s in Egypt and dating to Third or Fourth Dynasty (2686-2498).  This was well before Abraham would have passed through Egypt and received a gift of camels (Gen. 12:16).  Outside of Egypt, camel bones were found in the ruins of a house in Mari (now Syria), believed to be some 4,000 years old.[6]  A Sumerian text from Nippur dated around 2000-1700 mentions camel’s milk, implying domestication.[7]  There are not many pieces of evidence surrounding the domestications of camels, but surely enough to suggest it was going on at some level.[8] In fact, it’s now believed that the first domesticated camels were probably used in Sharjah (modern UAE), because of the discovery of 10 times as many camel bones of domesticated dromedaries as any other site in the Middle East.[9]

Skepticism about the domestication of camels has been self-supporting.  One scholar discovered how clearly skeptics refuse to see what is right in front of their eyes.  He writes, “I remember doing research on the ancient site of Hama in Syria.  As I was reading through the excavation reports (published in French), I came across a reference to a figurine from the 2nd millennium which the excavator thought must be a horse, but the strange hump in the middle of its back made one think of a camel.  I looked at the photograph and the figurine was obviously that of a camel!  This scholar was so influenced by the idea that camels were not used until the 1st millennium, that when he found a figurine of one in the second millennium, he felt compelled to call it a horse!”[10]


What radiocarbon dating actually proved

What his paper actually says is that, looking at sites of copper smelting, the period in which camel remains first appear “probably” means they were first used as a pack animal at that time, and use as a pack animal would be the qualification for domestication.  What appears in the last third of the 10th century is actually “substantial quantities” of camel bones.  The wording itself shows that there are older remains, and it doesn’t in any way prove that small-scale use of camels couldn’t have been happening in Israel in Abraham’s time.  In fact, given that camel domestication has been proven to have taken place to the south and to the east of Israel in 2000 BC, the idea that a small population could have been using them in 2000 BC in Israel is in no way ruled out by the study.  Remember, the Genesis account only mentions 10 camels.  In fact, they even admit in a footnote that one bone was found dating from the 11th century BC.

Furthermore, they note that there is some debate about whether or not they are attributing the bones to the right layers, preferring a later date to an earlier date that other scholars give them.  They note, “The complicated nature of archaeological accumulation at smelting camps renders lateral stratigraphic correlations extremely difficult.” Again, they point out a previous study of a site with camel bones going back into the Bronze Age, but they dismiss this as unsure and go back to referencing camel remains when they “became common.” In the end, the study never even mentions the Bible.


The camel curve

So just to make completely clear what’s happening here, picture a camel’s hump.  At the left, there is very little incline.  It’s almost horizontal .  As the hump progresses, it gets higher and higher (this is usually called a bell curve).  The same is basically true of the process of camel domestication and the number of camels that would have been domesticated.  It started slowly, with only a few instances, and then progressed, until the use of camels was more and more common.  But no one can deny that Abraham might have been on the front end of the curve.  Certainly the nations around him were at it earlier than him.  The study is simply limited to the highest point of the curve – er, hump – and only as it pertains to copper smelting sites (hardly a study of wandering nomads).

None of what the media is insisting to have been proven is even claimed by the study.  This is just one more instance of media sensationalism produced by people who have not read and digested the sources they claim to be quoting.  So whether or not the skeptic likes it, Genesis is more likely just one more piece of evidence, like the painting on a cave wall, that camels were first used by people in Israel about four thousand years ago.


The Rev. Dr. James W. Miller is the author of “Hardwired: Finding the God You Already Know.”

[1] Schultz, Old Testament Theology, (1893).  He wrote, “It is plain that the narratives of the times before Moses are legendary. This is clear from the fact that it is a time prior to all knowledge of writing in Israel, when, indeed, writing was only beginning to come into use in Egypt.”

[2] E. Dias, “The Mystery of the Bible’s Phantom Camels,” Time, 2/11/14.

[3] R. Bulliet, The Camel and the Wheel, Columbia Univ. Press, 1975.

[4] Ibid.  Also see Oxford professor M.C.A. Macdonald, “North Arabia in the First Millennium BCE,” Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, vol. 2, 1995.  He writes, “Recent research has suggested that the 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.”

[5] J. Free, “Abraham’s Camels,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 3:187-193, 1944.

[6] K.A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and the Old Testament, 1966.

[7] T.D. Alexander, ed., Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, p.917, 2002.


[9] M. Olson, “Sharjah’s 3,000-year-old Clue to the First Domesticated Camels,” The National, 1/12 (

[10] R.W. Younker, “The Bible and Archaeology,” 2000.

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