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Camels and the Bible

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Published: 11 February 2014 (GMT+10)
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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.

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