The Curious Case of Camels

So Jacob arose, and set his sons and his wives on camels.—Genesis 31:17

Many biblical skeptics have claimed that camels in the Bible are anachronistic and portrayed in ways that are historically inaccurate. For example, a transcript of a National Public Radio show proclaims:

"Camels as a means of transportation abound in the Old Testament. When Abraham sends a servant to look for a bride for his son Isaac, that servant chooses Rebecca. And why? Because of her kindness in offering to water the camels. That’s just one of dozens of camel cameos in the Bible, mostly in the book of Genesis, but scholars have long suspected that those camel caravans are a literary anachronism."

Time Magazine joins in:

"The Bible says that Abraham, along with other patriarchs of Judaism and Christianity, used domesticated camels—as well as donkeys, sheep, oxen, and slaves—in his various travels and trade agreements. Or did he? . . . "

"The phantom camel is just one of many historically jumbled references in the Bible."

Can the integrity of the Bible survive this onslaught? The answer is a resounding “yes.”

Let’s look at how Christians and Jews have responded to these rather serious charges of inaccuracy. Dewayne Bryant surveys the record of use of camels in the ancient Near East:

"The camel was well known in Egypt from earliest times, as early as the Fourth Dynasty [c. 2613-2494 B.C.]. . . . Although the domestication of the camel may have come much later, it nevertheless preceded the age of the patriarchs. . . . A cylinder seal from Syria (c. 1800 B.C.) depicts two short figures riding a camel."

He outlines the mention of camels in the Bible:

"The Bible records the existence of domesticated camels in the patriarchal narratives, but their footprint is actually quite small. They are listed among the very last items in the total wealth of both Abraham (Gen. 12:16) and Jacob (30:43; 32:7,15). They are mentioned as being used for travel by the patriarchs (24:10-64; 31:17,34) and by the Midianites (37:25). The Egyptians used them for transport as well (Exod. 9:3). Despite their use for transportation, however, the donkey appears as the favored mode of transportation for the patriarchs. In the ancient Near East as a whole, the same might be said during the early second millennium B.C.—the camel was known and domesticated, but not widely used until later."

Archaeologist Joseph P. Free makes the crucial distinctions:

"Many who have rejected this reference to Abraham’s camels seem to have assumed something which the text does not state. It should be carefully noted that the biblical reference does not necessarily indicate that the camel was common in Egypt at the time, nor does it evidence that the Egyptians had made any great progress in the breeding and domestication of the camel. It merely says that Abraham had camels."

Kenneth Kitchen sums up the matter similarly:

“The camel was for long a marginal beast in most of the historic ancient Near East (including Egypt), but it was not wholly unknown or anachronistic before or during 2000-1100.”

Orthodox rabbi and Bible scholar Joshua Berman offers fascinating related insights:

"Camels in Genesis are right where they belong. It is true that camels were not domesticated in Israel until the time of Solomon. But read Genesis carefully and you see that all its camels come from outside of Israel, from Syria, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, where there is ample evidence of domestication of the camel during the period of the patriarchs. . . ."

"But what about the camels that carried Joseph off to Egypt (Gen. 37:25)? Here, too, Scripture tells us that the camels arrived from outside of Canaan. And just as the spices they bore surely came from the east, so, too, we may surmise, did the camels. And while Jacob rode camels on his trek back from Mesopotamia (31:17; cf. 30:43), nowhere in Genesis does anyone ride a camel originating in Canaan. In the Joseph story, the brothers descend to Egypt exclusively on donkeys (42:26-27; 43:24; 44:3, 13); that’s what people rode in Canaan. And thus when Joseph sends them to fetch Jacob, he provides them with donkeys and she-asses (45:23); those were the animals they knew how to handle."

We hope you enjoyed this excerpt from
The Word Set in Stone: How Archaeology, Science and History Back Up the Bible.

Get your copy, sit back, and prepare for an adventure!

Mar 25th 2024 Dave Armstrong

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