/ Apologetics / The Camel Conundrum – 5 Reasons the Camel Find Does Not Undermine Biblical Reliability

The Camel Conundrum – 5 Reasons the Camel Find Does Not Undermine Biblical Reliability

Craig Smith on March 18, 2014 - 8:04 am in Apologetics, Bible, Craig Smith, Genesis

If you haven’t already heard, you probably will soon:  a recent archaeological find in Israel has sparked off a new round of attacks on the historical reliability of the Bible.

In short, Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef and Dr. Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel Aviv University have recently released the findings of their study of the Aravah Valley (on the Israel-Jordan border) in which they determined that the earliest evidence of domesticated camels there dates to the 9th century B.C.[1] On the basis of this evidence they have asserted that domesticated camels were first introduced into Israel during this time period. 

So what’s the problem?   The problem is that the book of Genesis describes camels as having been in use in this region long before the 9th century.  Camels are mentioned in conjunction with Abraham and Jacob, [2] two individuals from the time of the Patriarchs which dates to between 2000 and 1500 B.C.  If Ben-Yosef and Sapir-Hen are correct that domesticated camels were not present in Israel prior to the 9th century, then this would be an example of a historical inaccuracy in Genesis.

Media outlets have jumped on this apparent conflict with all the sensationalism we’ve come to expect from an industry that depends on manufacturing controversy.  “Camel bones suggest error in bible” Fox News proclaimed.[3]  “Earliest Camel Bones Contradict Bible,” said Nature World News.[4]  Even the popular TV sitcom Big Bang Theory managed to work the charge into a recent episode.

In addition to suggesting that this is all proof of the a historical error in the Bible, it has also been asserted that this is proof that the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) was written much later than Christians claim; i.e. it was written during a later period in which camels were in use and the authors mistakenly wrote details of their contemporary culture back into the stories they were inventing about their earlier history.[5]

If people know you’re a Christian (and I hope they do!), chances are you’ve had someone ask you about this apparent contradiction and, if you’re like many believers, you’re not quite sure how to respond.  So, in the interest of both addressing any concerns you might have personally and giving you some helpful resources to use in speaking truth into our culture, here are 5 things you should know about the recent Camel Conundrum

5.  These same excavations uncovered camel bones in layers older than the 9th century.

Some of the more sensational headlines about this find have proclaimed that the “earliest camel bones contradict the Bible”[6] yet this is a gross misrepresentation of the archaeological find itself.  The focus of the archaeologists’ study was on domesticated camels, identified by a thickening of the leg bones, presumably from the heavy loads they carried.  It is apparently true that such thickened camel bones have so far only been found in Aravah Valley layers dated to the 9th century and later.  However, Ben-Yosef and Sapir-Hen also found camel bones in earlier layers…they just didn’t bear the characteristics associated with camels used to carry heavy loads.  Consequently, these bones are thought to have been from wild camels.[7]  The title of the scholarly publication which touched off this recent attack on the Bible makes this quite clear; “The Introduction of Domestic Camels to the Southern Levant: Evidence from the Aravah Valley”[8] (emphasis added).

Let’s be clear:  there is no debate that camels were already present in this region.  The debate is simply over whether or not camels had been domesticated prior to the 9th century in this region.

4.  These excavations focused on camels apparently used for hauling ore from copper mines.

Ben-Yosef and Sapir-Hen were excavating areas used for copper mining rather than typical living areas.  As noted by the archaeologists themselves: 

The appearance of domesticated camels in the Aravah Valley appears to coincide with dramatic changes in the local copper mining operation.[9]

Remember that the primary distinction between the camel bones dated after the 9th century B.C. and those dated prior to this is the thickened leg bones which are assumed to indicate domesticity.  But it may well be that the thickened bones do not point to the introduction of domesticated camels here, but to camels suddenly being used to move exceptionally heavy loads.  If from the 9th century on, the camels in this region were being used to haul ore fairly short distances, say from the mine to a nearby smelting site, they might well have been more heavily loaded than would have been typical of domestic camels used elsewhere in Israel for other purposes (like riding).  In this case, the less-thick bones found in earlier layers here (and elsewhere in Israel) would not necessarily indicate wild camels but could point to domestic camels that were used to carry lighter loads.  Certainly we know from far more recent history that work animals like horses being used in mining and logging operations were often subjected to hardships far greater than those experienced by their cousins living on a family farm or being ridden about by a circuit preacher.  If we were to compare the 19th century remains of horses used in mining operations to the 15th century remains of horses used for normal transportation, would we also conclude that horses were not domesticated until the 19th century?

3.  These excavations focused on a very particular region of Israel.

Even if it were the case that the thickened bones of camels found in the 9th century (and later) layers indicated the introduction of domesticated camels there, this would not mean that there were no domesticated camels anywhere else in Israel.  It would simply mean that domesticated camels came into use (or perhaps wide-spread use; see below) in the Aravah Valley during the 9th century.   Numerous studies focused on the remains of domesticated camels would have to be undertaken throughout Israel before we could know if the findings in the Aravah Valley are at all indicative of when domestic camels were introduced in other regions.

2.  The Aravah Valley findings speak only to the wide-spread use of domestic camels in that particular region after the 9th century B.C.

Assuming that the domestic vs. wild camel distinction (see above) on the basis of thickened leg bones is correct, the appearance of a large number of bones from domesticated camels after the 9th century B.C. says only that there were large numbers of domesticated camels in the region after this date.  No one is claiming that the excavations have uncovered the remains of every camel that died in the region.  Consequently, the appearance of numerous bones in a particular layer simply says that there were more such bones at that period, thus making them more likely to be discovered.

 Imagine that there was a small family farm on a 10-acre plot of land which kept only one cow at a time for many generations.  Now imagine that after 200 years, the newest farm owner decided to bring in 100 head of cattle.  If an archaeologist were to start looking for cow bones on that 10-acre plot, chances are that he/she wouldn’t find any cow bones prior to the layer when there was a large herd living there.  It’s not that there aren’t any cow bones to be found in the earlier layers, it’s just that they’re much less likely to be found when there are so few of them in any given layer.  Most archaeological digs would find lots of cow bones at the 200-year layer but very few – or none at all – in the older layers.  But a careful archaeologist doing such a study could only conclude that at the 200 year mark there was an increase in the number of cattle present on that farm.  He/she could not say with any certainty that there were no cows there prior to the 200 year mark.

In effect, using Ben-Yosef and Sapir-Hen’s study to say that there were no domestic camels in that region prior to the 9th century B.C. is an argument from silence:  “we haven’t found earlier evidence of domesticated camels, so there weren’t any domesticated camels.” 

1.  There is good evidence that domesticated camels were being used in Israel prior to the 9th century B.C.

So far we have focused only on the reasons that Ben-Yosef and Sapir-Hem’s study do not give sufficient cause to doubt the Bible’s historicity with respect to when domesticated camels first appeared in Israel.  In other words, everything we have looked at so far is really a critique of the argument that some media outlets are advancing.  But beyond these critiques, it is useful to build a more positive argument for the Bible’s accuracy about this matter, which we can do rather easily.

First, there is the fact that there are several indications that camels had been domesticated in Egypt as early as 3150 B.C.  Such indications include a pottery camel’s head and a terra cotta tablet depicting men riding and leading camels as well as petroglyphs and camel-hair ropes.[10]  At least one respected Egyptologist has concluded on the basis of such evidence that “the domestic camel was known in Egypt by 3,000 B.C.”[11] Genesis speaks of trade between the Patriarchs and the Egyptians (Gen 12:10), so it is certainly possible that the Patriarchs learned about domesticating camels from the Egyptians.  Moreover, the first mention of domesticated camels in the Bible is found in Gen 12:16 which states that an Egyptian Pharoah “treated Abram well … and gave him sheep and oxen and donkeys and male and female servants and female donkeys and camels.”  Perhaps the first domesticated camels in Israel came directly from Egypt where the extra-biblical evidence suggests they were first tamed.

Second, there is the fact that there is evidence of domesticated camels in Mesopotamia, Syria and Sumer around 2,000 B.C., very near to the time of Abraham.[12]  While none of these locations are within Israel proper, it must be noted that Israel is on the trade route between Egypt and these areas.  So if the camel was first domesticated in Egypt and this practice later spread to Mesopotamia, Syria and Sumer, it would almost certainly have first gone through the Patriarch’s country.  Isn’t it reasonable to think that, having seen domesticated camels traveling through their land, the inhabitants of what would later become Israel looked to do the same thing with wild camels already present in the region?

Third, the Bible itself says that there were domesticated camels in Israel during the time of the Patriarchs.  Now, admittedly, one cannot simply use a statement from the Bible to prove that the Bible is reliable. This would be terrible reasoning.  However, it is equally terrible reasoning to say that there is no evidence that there were domesticated camels in Israel during Abraham’s time when the Bible clearly states that there were.  One may ultimately decide to reject the validity of the evidence from the Bible, but one cannot say that such biblical claims do not constitute evidence at all.  This would be like a defense attorney trying to get the judge to throw out a case against his client by saying “there is no evidence that my client was even at the scene of the crime” even though there is an eyewitness who claimed to have seen him there.  Of course, the defense attorney can work to show that the witness is unreliable and therefore should not be listened to, but this must be done on the basis of evidence and argumentation, not simply because evidence from one witness doesn’t square with evidence from another witness.  One cannot simply say “this witness is unreliable because what she says contradicts what another witness says…and since we don’t need to admit the testimony of an unreliable witness, what she says is now irrelevant.” That would never work in a court of law and it should not be allowed to remain unchallenged in any other sort of discussion.

The fact is that the Bible does claim that domesticated camels existed in Israel during the time of the Patriarch and this claim must be taken as evidence.  Now, if this claim directly contradicts all the other evidence, we might have reason to discount its validity.  But the reality is that the biblical claim fits perfectly in line with the evidence of when domesticated camels first appeared in regions to the west (Egypt) and east (Mesopotamia, Syria, Sumer) of Israel.  The only thing the biblical claim doesn’t cohere well with is sensational, unwarranted and illogical extrapolations of a limited-focus archaeological excavation in the Aravah Valley.

[1]Finding Israel’s First Camels. American Friends of Tel Aviv University. Posted on aftau.org February 3, 2014.

[2] Gen 12:16, Gen 24, Gen 30, et al.

[3] http://www.foxnews.com/science/2014/02/06/camel-bones-suggest-error-in-bible/

[4] http://www.natureworldnews.com/articles/5900/20140205/earliest-camel-bones-contradict-bible-archaeologists.htm

[5] Wilford, J. N. Camels Had No Business in Genesis. The New York Times. Posted on nytimes.com February 10, 2014.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “The few camel bones found in earlier archaeological layers probably belonged to wild camels, which archaeologists think were in the southern Levant from the Neolithic period or even earlier.” - http://www.aftau.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=19673

[8] Sapir-Hen, L. and E. Ben-Yosef. 2013. “The Introduction of Domestic Camels to the Southern Levant: Evidence from the Aravah Valley”. Friends of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University. 40: 277-285.

[9] http://www.aftau.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=19673

[10] Free, Joseph P., “Abraham’s Camels,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 3 (July 1944), 187-193.

[11] Kitchen, K.A., The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, ed. J.D. Douglas (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1980), 1:228.

[12] Kitchen, K.A., Ancient Orient and Old Testament (Chicago: InterVarsity Press, 1966), 79.

March 25, 2015 - 5:02 pm in Apologetics, Bible

What About Those Funny Footnotes? – or, a Short Primer on Text Criticism for Christians

Anyone who has read the Bible with serious intent to understand it will almost certainly have come across the occasional strange annotation, often in a footnote, that says something like “Many manuscripts…” or “the earliest manuscripts and many others…”,…

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  • March 20, 2014

    Well said!

    Teressa Mahoney