Q&A: Does the Bible Misrepresent the Domestication of Camels?

camel-sunset-domesticated-1A Facebook friend named Oliver recently asked for help addressing an unusual challenge to biblical inerrancy. A skeptical friend of Oliver’s claimed that the Bible misrepresents the timing of camel domestication. He wrote, “If the Bible can’t even get that right, how can I believe the rest of what it says?”

I admit I had not heard of this particular objection until Oliver brought it to my attention.
It turns out to be a relatively recent challenge. In late 2013, two researchers from Tel Aviv University reported that domesticated camels first appeared in Israel around 930 BC.1 Yet Genesis mentions domesticated camels several times. For example, in Genesis 12, Pharaoh gifts Abraham (then Abram) with camels and later, in Genesis 24, Rebekah offers to draw water for a camel caravan. The camel use described in Genesis would have taken place around 2000 to 1500 BC.

Skeptics have been quick to note that the mention of camels in Genesis is a significant discrepancy. It indicates, they say, that this portion of Scripture was written at a much later date than previously thought and not by Moses, as tradition has it. According to Israeli biblical scholar Noam Mizrahi, the camel stories in Genesis “should be viewed as back-projections from a much later period.”2 Mizrahi continued, “These traditions were indeed reformulated in relatively late periods after camels had been integrated into the Near Eastern economic system.”3

The Israeli archeologists didn’t undertake their work on camel domestication in order to test the Bible’s reliability. They simply wanted to determine when dromedary camels (the one-humped variety) were first domesticated in the Levant. The domestication of camels permitted long distance trade across the desert for the first time, connecting Arabia with India. This connectivity had huge social and economic impacts.

To determine when camels were first domesticated in Israel, the researchers focused their excavations on copper production sites in the Arabah Valley of Israel. They reasoned that the timing of camel domestication should be marked by evidence for major changes in the production practices in the region because the people would have had beasts of burden available to carry supplies and mined copper. They discovered the sudden appearance of camels at that site in layers that date to around 930 BC. The anatomical features of the camels’ leg bones show evidence that they were used to carry heavy loads. The researchers noted similar evidence from other archeological sites and concluded that this was the time camels became domesticated in the Levant. Camel remains have been recovered in layers earlier than 930 BC, but the researchers argued that these camels were most likely wild animals hunted as a food source.

From my vantage point, the researchers make a compelling case that camels were first domesticated in Israel several hundred years after the camel use recorded in Genesis. But does this mean that the Bible is unreliable? Hardly.

Archeological evidence indicates that dromedary camels were first domesticated in the southeastern Arabian Peninsula around 3000 BC. Genetic evidence indicates that Bactrian camels (the two-humped species) were domesticated in China and Mongolia around 4000 to 3000 BC.4 These dates mean that it is possible that the patriarchs counted camels amongst their livestock, even if these animals were not widely used throughout the Levant between 2000 and 1500 BC. This explanation becomes even more plausible when one considers that Abram acquired his camels from the Egyptians (Genesis 12:16). According to scholar Andrew Steinmann, all additional mentions of camels in Genesis refer to people related to Abraham or people who were associated with the Arabian Desert (the location of dromedary camel domestication).

The Bible never “claims” that domesticated camel use was widespread in the Levant at the time of the patriarchs, just that Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph possessed domesticated camels—again, most likely through their association with the Egyptians—completely consistent with the archeological and genetic data.

Notes:

  1. Lidar Sapir-Hen and Erez Ben-Yosef, “The Introduction of Domestic Camels to the Southern Levant: Evidence from the Aravah Valley,” TEL AVIV 40 (2013): 277–85.
  2. John Noble Wilford, “Camels Had No Business in Genesis,” New York Times, February 10, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/11/science/camels-had-no-business-in-genesis.html.
  3. Ibid.
  4. R. Ji et al., “Monophyletic Origin of Domestic Bactrian Camel (Camelus bactrianus) and Its Evolutionary Relationship with the Extant Wild Camel (Camelus bactrianus ferus),” Animal Genetics 40 (August 2009): 377–82, doi:10.1111/j.1365-2052.2008.01848.x
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