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Camels and the Bible


Published: 11 February 2014 (GMT+10)
stock.xchng caravan-camels

There have been many news stories in the past weeks suggesting that an archaeological discovery proves error in Genesis, because domesticated camels were not in the Levant (Canaan/Israel and the surrounding area) until after King David’s time. But if we examine the actual biblical, archaeological, and historical evidence, we get a much better picture, and it is one that supports the historicity of the Bible.

The source of these claims is a 2013 paper titled “The introduction of domestic camels to the Southern Levant: Evidence from the Aravah valley”1 The paper presents the following:

  • Most scholars agree that camels were not used as pack animals before the 12th century BC.
  • But new evidence suggests that camels were only common as domesticated animals somewhere between 1000–600 BC.
  • A site in the Aravah valley yielded camel bones only from the 10th and 9th centuries BC, with no evidence of camels earlier or later.
  • Camels bones dated earlier than this are judged to be wild camels based on a number of factors, and the accuracy of the dating is brought into question.

The conclusion that skeptics and the media draw is that the Bible is anachronistic when it mentions camels in Abraham’s day, and so Genesis must have been written long after the events it portrays.

The biblical evidence

The first mention of camels in Scripture is in Genesis 12, after Pharaoh took Sarai into his palace. “He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels” (12:16). Job, widely regarded as living around the same time as Abram, had 3,000 camels at the beginning of the book, and twice as many at the end. He lived in Uz, which was in Arabia.

So the biblical evidence is that there were camels in Arabia around 2000 BC, and that Pharaoh had some too. This matches what we see from the archaeological record. A paper titled ‘The Camel in Ancient Egypt’ stated, “The proposed time of camel entry into Egypt after its domestication in Arabia was found between 2500 and 1400 BC”.2 So not only did domesticated camels exist, they were in Egypt when Abraham was there. So this fits the biblical account perfectly.

Interpreting the evidence

So we know that there were domesticated camels in Arabia and Egypt in Abraham’s day. And the Bible says that Abraham got his camels from Pharaoh. So why would there be no evidence of camels in Canaan for nearly 1,000 years?

For one thing, perhaps they weren’t yet common enough in Canaan to leave the sort of evidence that the study was looking for. If they were relegated to a few princes wealthy enough to import exotic pack animals, then we wouldn’t expect their bones to be all over the place.

For another, it is common to overestimate the amount of physical evidence available from that far back. The further back in time one tries to investigate, the more evidence has been destroyed. These archaeologists (and the breathless media even more) seem to have forgotten the principle that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Archaeologists have not yet learned their lesson

There is a long and glorious history of archaeologists claiming that what they see out at their dig sites contradicts the Bible, only to be proved wrong as later discoveries come to light. However, the evidence to disprove this spurious claim existed long before this latest argument was put forward.3

The lesson from this and similar stories is clear: the Bible is reliable and trustworthy, and any evidence that seems to call the biblical record into question will, when interpreted accurately, fit with the Bible’s historical record.

References and notes

  1. Sapir-Hen, L. and Ben-Yosef, E., The introduction of domestic camels to the Southern Levant: Evidence from the Aravah Valley, Tel Aviv 40:277–285, 2013. Return to text.
  2. Saber, A. S., The camel in ancient Egypt, Proceedings of the Third Annual Meeting for Animal Production Under Arid Conditions 1:208–215, 1998, p. 208. Return to text.
  3. For instance, see Caesar, S., Patriarchal wealth and early domestication of the camel, Associates for Biblical Research, biblearchaeology.org, 19 February 2009. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

Daniel D.
I find the way this article is written to be unfairly biased towards your favoured conclusion ie you are begging the question.
Before anything else, you cite "biblical evidence", which is not evidence at all within the scope of this argument - the Bible is text so it cannot here be counted as primary source. You cite a single paper in support of the biblical text and your favoured dating and conclude therefore that "this fits the biblical account perfectly", as if the argument were already concluded.
You then try to explain away the discrepancy which now would only appear discrepant (as you have already concluded the debate in your favour) by stating that "perhaps..." and "wouldn't expect..."; that "it is common... [to do such & such which is wrong]".
All in all, what you have definitely not done is disproven by way of actual original research and evidence of your own the claims made in the original paper. Your article is not very convincing.
Lita Cosner
Daniel, this is a lay-level article written in answer to over a dozen questions we received in a short period about this find. What I wrote was of a higher quality than the news reports that you'll find about this, which is a fairer standard than judging it against technical papers, which this was never intended to be.

In any case, you haven't disputed the central points of my article which are 1) camels were domesticated in Abraham's day and 2) they were located in Egypt and Arabia; and conveniently, the Bible claims that Abraham got his from Egypt.

Of course the article is biased. But so is the research and every single other article you're likely to read on the topic. If you manage to find a truly unbiased article, I'd like to read it!
David C.
...continuing on the actual research:

1. The research was carried out in the area north of Eilat where Egypt had scattered royal copper mines, well shown in Google Maps including some Street Level walkabouts. There's been plenty of research done here. This new work establishes early and late dates for finding pack camel remains, with reasonable accuracy, at the royal mines.

2. This suggests the first and last uses of camels at the mines, presumably for hauling copper ore to Egypt, but maybe also as work beasts on site. But Dr. Ben-Yosef then interprets his results as the earliest and latest dates for domesticated camels in the whole of the south Levant.

3. These copper mines were an Egyptian monopoly, jealously guarded, to feed the Nile Valley industries. Their main transport route would have been a guarded train direct to (probably) Cairo. Do the researchers link the camels to this, or infer a regular camel-train trade route from the Nile to the Levant via this area? The latter, it seems - though the coast route near the Mediterranean Sea has always been seen as the preferred trade route (and the escaping Hebrew slaves went another way specifically to avoid unwanted company, Exodus suggests).

4. So we might reasonably say that this research is unlikely to be connected with regular trade routes in the region, and we'd need to look elsewhere for dates of camel use in other parts of the Levant - some of which Lita has mentioned.

5. Finally, there does seem to be a divide between Arabian camels in Arabia and Egypt, and Bactrians in Mesopotamia and east. We might suggest that camel use in the Levant was rare, and would tend to be for journeying east or south to wild, dry regions - exactly where they are used today!
David C.
In general, scientists are very cautious about interpreting their findings; getting into politics can wreck your likelihood of getting the next grant! But a lot of archaeologists do seem to jump in with both feet!

I can't find the original article to check, but the Science Daily article seems to have a reasonably complete summary. It quotes the (lead?) archaeologist Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef rather tellingly:
"...we were able to estimate the date of this event [appearance of camels in the Levant] in terms of decades rather than centuries."

This Science Daily article has the headline "Finding Israel's first camels: Archaeologists pinpoint the date..." and leads with: "Camels are mentioned as pack animals in the biblical stories of Abraham, Joseph, and Jacob. But archaeologists have shown that camels were not domesticated in the Land of Israel until centuries after the Age of the Patriarchs (2000-1500 BCE). In addition to challenging the Bible's historicity, this anachronism is direct proof that the text was compiled well after the events it describes."

The journal goes rather further than the archaeologists, I think, but leaves us in no doubt both that Dr. Ben-Yosef does not believe the bible to be accurate as written, nor that he sees any problem widening his own research findings to the whole of the Levant. I'll post again with details.
Roger R.
How did the researchers tell the difference between "wild" and domesticated camels bones?
I believe the "wild camels remains they found were actually domesticated and used by the biblical individuals and others of their time
Lita Cosner
I believe the criteria that they used to differentiate wild and domestic camels, if it is as straightforward as the paper suggests, is actually valid. Using camels as pack animals results in different strains on their bones, and the wear patterns reveal whether it was wild or domesticated.

The 'problem' isn't if camels were domesticated by Abraham's day, it's where they were located. And the fact that they were scarce in Canaan (if that's true) isn't a problem for us, because Abraham got his camels in Egypt, where they had come over from Arabia.

So, like with many areas, they don't have the evidence wrong, but they are interpreting it wrongly.
John W.
Lita, your response to Todd is good: K.A. Kitchen, whom I cited in my previous post had a distinguished academic career as an Egyptologist and read widely in related areas of Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern history and archaeology. It is sad that some scholars of Old Testament history are those whom C.S. Lewis would describe as persons claiming to be able to see fern seed when it is plain that they cannot see elephants at ten yards away!
Charles S.
I enclose a section about camels from a article I have compiled 'Archaeology confirms the Bible'

The word ‘camel’ appears 23 times in the book of Genesis. Scholars declared that camels were not domesticated until around 500 BC. This is the ‘error’ most widely promoted in support of the idea that Moses could not have written the first five books of the Bible
Moreover, in an article that appeared in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies a half-century ago, Professor Joseph Free listed several instances of Egyptian archaeological finds supporting the domestication of camels
The earliest evidence comes from a pottery camel’s head and a terra cotta tablet with men riding on and leading camels. According to Free, these are both from predynastic Egypt (1944, pp. 189-190), which according to Clayton is roughly before 3150 B.C. Free also listed three clay camel heads and a limestone vessel in the form of camel lying down—all dated at the First Dynasty of Egypt (3050-2890 B.C.).
He then mentioned several models of camels from the Fourth Dynasty (2613-2498 B.C.), and a petroglyph depicting a camel and a man dated at the Sixth Dynasty (2345-2184 B.C.).
[Apologetics Press - online article]
Such evidence has led one respected Egyptologist to conclude that “the extant evidence clearly indicates that the domestic camel was known in Egypt by 3,000 B.C. — long before Abraham’s time
[KITCHEN, p.228]
The Egyptians would use camel trains in their trade with Canaan, Syria, Sumeria and other Middle Eastern nations. Camels would have soon been adopted by those people, long before the time of Abraham, who was born around 2000 BC.

FREE, Joseph, “Abraham’s Camels,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 3:187-193, July 1944
KITCHEN, K.A. ’ The Illustrated Bible Dictionary’, ed. J.D. Douglas , T
James P.
I can recommend another excellent academic article, by Dr Martin Heide, “The Domestication of the Camel: Biological, Archaeological and Inscriptional Evidence from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel and Arabia, and Literary Evidence from the Hebrew Bible” in Ugarit-Forschungen 42 (2010) pp 331–384. He concludes similarly that we have plenty of evidence for the existence of domesticated camels at the time of Abraham, even if they were not widespread or popular. It is accessible on the website www.academia.edu.
Jason C.
No Todd. I wouldn't appeal to the lack of physical evidence to counter your claims about Horus. I would point to the lack of historical evidence to support your claims.

There are some fascinating stories about Horus, including his interaction with his uncle Set, but healing the sick, rising from the dead etc are stories made up by modern atheists who believe in the Christ Myth, which is a position with less credibility among qualified historians than the YEC position has among qualified scientists.

Ironic is it not, that atheists will hold to a position with no credibility as long as it fits the narrative they want to believe.

Logic? Reason? Yeah right.
Todd S.
I would like to ask two questions.

1. As your expertise is on New Testament studies and not even the Old Testament, why should your word on the interpretation of this be taken as authoritative over that of a fully qualified team of archaeologists and historians?

2. Focusing on your 'absence of evidence is not evidence of absence', if I was to express my devout belief in Horus who healed the sick, rose from the dead, etc., and spoke of his important place in history, would you note cite the complete lack of evidence to his physical existence as proof he did not exist?
Lita Cosner
I fully concede my specialization is in the New Testament. However, my training includes assessing claims about the text in general. I cited an article by specialists agreeing with my conclusion, so I'm not asking anyone to rely on my expertise, per se.
A. M.
Now the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them, "Speak to the children of Israel, saying, 'These are the animals which you may eat among all the animals that are on the earth: Among the animals, whatever divides the hoof, having cloven hooves and chewing the cud; that you may eat. Nevertheless these you shall not eat among those that chew the cud or those that have cloven hooves: the camel, because it chews the cud but does not have cloven hooves, is unclean to you;
It seems likely that any/all camels in the Levant were destroyed as unclean. If burnt there would be no tangible remains
Lita Cosner
The time period we are talking about was hundreds of years before Moses. 'Unclean' animals were nevertheless suitable for other uses; i.e., they could use donkeys as pack animals, and so on.
John W.
The issue here is one of the heart.
Do I want to believe in God? The problem is that so often people don't want to believe in God, and this results in a mad panic to cover up the growing evidence of His existence.
John W.
K.A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2003), p338-339, provides excellent further supplementary data from the ancient Near East on the domestication of the camel and the Patriarchal Period of biblical history, including reference to a partially preserved figurine of a kneeling, laden camel from 19th/18th Century BC Byblos!
Steve G.
Thanks for that article, I was rather grumpy that it got front and centre on YahooNZ's website once I read what they were saying. It's things like this promoted by the media that show the attempts to discredit God's work by the enemy.
William M.
The article I read said that carbon dating disproves that camels were domesticated in Abraham's time. My question is, how would carbon dating tell you anything other than the age of the camel? Carbon dating can't tell you if a camel was domesticated, housebroken, or anything else other than age.
Lita Cosner
Domesticated camels apparently have different wear on their joints because of their use as pack animals. The earliest ones they found in Israel with this sort of evidence of domestication were dated later than Abraham. However, as the article stated, there are other considerations that the team should have noted, such as the existence of domesticated camels in Arabia and Egypt at that time.
Jason W.
The article plastered on the front page of yahoo with the title "Big Error in the Bible", is so slanted, so one-sided its unbelievable. If they are reaching for an argument based on when camels became domesticated, then really they must be desperate.
Bruce M.
Timely article. Today's Sacramento (Calif.) Bee has a 1/4 page article titled "Camel's Genesis role unlikely". And we know that anything printed in the paper is true!
Cecile J.
We dig because we seek information that will confirm the "lifestyle" of past civilizations, not to contend with the Bible. This age of Godless education has created people who dig to disprove the Bible and it is sad to see so many of them coming out of the woodwork. Education does not lead to wisdom, so they must keep on digging but never finding. We are the lost, not God, and they will never find Him in their digs, because He is not where they seek in their blindness. What is really painful is that they seem to actually read His word but see it as the material to be erased, thereby contending with it. Such blindness is appalling, but indicative of Godless thinking and beliefs. Yes, they prove over and over again that wisdom comes from God and that leaves them without.
Lita, your writings are such a joy to me. THANKS.
Chris M.
Lita. Many thanks for this article. Just like the BBC's report on the Higgs boson a while ago, I anticipated a response from CMI with this one too. We get many reports from BBC's radio 4 "Today" program first thing in the morning which really sets one up for the day with exasperation. I will share this one with friends. It's been said, we have unbelief thrust up our noses. How it must effect the young !

So again, many thanks CMI.
B. L.
(1) Camels are mentioned in a sumeric lexicon of tame animals from Ugarit (dated to the ancient Babylonian period 1950-1600 BC
(2) An ancient babylonian text has a food-recipe mentioning camel-milk as an ingredient
(3) a seal-imprint from around 1850 BC depicts two men sitting on an animal with two bulbs on its back. The imprint was announced in 1939 by C.H.Gordon, who categorized the animal as a camel. In 1977 the wellknown seal specialist Dr Edith Porada confirmed the animal to be a camel.
Jimmy L.
Thanks for this article. I recently read these stories as well. Looking at the Bible one doesn't find a whole lot of camels at all outside of Genesis. I noticed that they verified this with radiocarbon dating. When dealing with dates a few thousand years old is this dating method accurate?
Lita Cosner
The dating in this case isn't the problem, it's the interpretation of the evidence.
Sas E.
As Christians, we should not doubt what the bible says. I learn a lot everyday from reading the bible and I never knew about this:) I always wondered whether Lions for example only existed in Africa until I read 1 Samuel 17:36 where a young David killed a lion and a bear. We have to assume that animals like Lions and Bears were hunted to extinction over the years
Dean D.
So the scientist want it both ways.
If they cannot find intermediate forms to support their evolution story, then they say that they will be found eventually, so their hypothesis is still valid.
But when they can't find evidence of domesticated camels from the time of Genesis, then it definitely invalidates that book of the Bible. It could not possibly be that hey have just failed to dig in the right place, or conditions were not right for fossilisation, or dead domestic camels were eaten, or their dating methods are useless, or domestic camels that died were burned to prevent disease spreading throughout the herd, or any other reason their closed mind cannot deduce?
Eric J.
Seems like this is a pretty desperate reach to discredit the bible.
Dawid B.
Stories of this makes me think that we can even expect evolutionists to say that they dug 50 feet and found optical cables, assumption that they used optical telephone cables 1000 years ago. They went deeper and at 100 ft found copper - assumption: Copper was used for telephones 3000 years ago. They went deeper to 150 ft, found nothing, assumption : they used cell phones 5000 years ago.
Regards Dawid
Michael B.
Thanks for publishing this. I was tired of seeing these foolish news articles full of arrogant assumptions claiming to disprove the Bible.

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