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The Camels of Genesis - not so anachronistic after all

Camels Genesis WF Albright Archaeology

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#1 Ken Gilmore

Ken Gilmore


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Posted 17 February 2014 - 09:45 PM

Most people by now would have heard of the minor controversy that surrounded the publication of a paper by Israeli researchers Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel Aviv University, which used radiocarbon dating to clarify the time when camels were first domesticated in the eastern Mediterranean. Their date of the end of the 10th century BCE is several centuries prior to the time in which the  biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were said to have lived, and has been used to question the historicity of those records.


Anyone remotely familiar with the archaeological background of the OT will realise that this is old news. The 20th century archaeologist WF Albright argued decades ago that references to camels in the early chapters of Genesis were not based on fact as camels were not domesticated in this region until the 1st millennium BCE. As long ago as the mid-1970s, scholars were asserting that:


According to Albright, any mention of camels in the period of Abraham is a blatant anachronism, the product of later priestly tampering with the earlier texts in order to bring more in line with altered social conditions. The Semites of the time of Abraham, he maintains, herded sheep, goats, and donkeys but not camels, for the latter had not yet been domesticated and did not really enter the orbit of Biblical history until about 1100-1000 BC with the coming of the Midianites, the camel riding foes of Gideon.’ [1]


This is the context of the Ben-Yosef and Sapir-Hen paper; trying to discover when camels were first domesticated in Israel. That many people thought this was yet another line of evidence to argue against the Bible merely reflects their ignorance as this has been a matter of discussion for some time.


However, the evidence for camel domestication is not an open and shut case:


Archeological discoveries have now shown clearly that references to domesticated camels in Genesis are by no means anachronistic, as some earlier scholars supposed. While camel caravans seem to have been used regularly only from the Late Bronze Age onward, archeologists have found numerous bones of domesticated camels. Thus when Parrot was excavating Mari, he found camel bones in the ruins of a house dated in the pre-Sargonic period (ca 2400 B.C.). An eighteenth-century-B.C. relief from Byblos pictured a camel in a kneeling position, and a socket on the back showed that the animal’s hump and its load had been attached separately. In accord with patriarchal traditions, cylinder seals from Middle Bronze Age Mesopotamia showed riders seated upon camels. [2]


A recent paper by Martin Heide examines the subject, and argues that the camel may in fact be the Bactrian, rather than the dromedary:


The archaeological evidence points to the fact that the Bactrian camel was domesticated before the dromedary and was put into use by the middle of the 3rd millennium or earlier. The gradual spread of the Bactrian camel from the areas east of the Zagros Mountains to the west seems to have reached the Mesopotamian civilization sporadically by the middle of the 3rd millennium and more frequently at the end of the 3rd / beginning of the 2nd millennium. [3]



It should be stressed that the claim that camels were not domesticated in Canaan prior to the 1st century may well be true. However, two of the patriarchs either came from Mesopotamia, or spent some time there, and the evidence for camels in Mesopotamia prior to the 1st century as mentioned above is quite solid. If so, then one would expect to see no overt references to camels in the Isaac narratives:


The “camel” ( גָּמָל gāmāl) in the patriarchal narratives may refer, at least in some places, to the Bactrian camel. Abram is seen as having employed camels for long-distance journeys in north-south direction, very probably commencing in upper Mesopotamia. From there, he migrated to Canaan and moved further down to Egypt (Gen 12:5.9.16). The same can be said for the opposite direction, from Canaan to upper Mesopotamia and back again (Gen 24:10–64). His son Isaac, who dwelt all his life in Canaan, is not portrayed as having used any camels. His grandson Jacob, however, who spent a considerable time of his life in upper Mesopotamia, did not only use, but bred a small herd of camels (Gen 30:43; 31:17; 32:7.15). After he had settled down in Canaan again, camels are not seen as belonging to his moveable property any more. Albright’s dictum that “any mention of camels in the period of Abraham is a blatant anachronism” (Albright, 1942, 96) is questionable.100 The archaeological and inscriptional evidence allows at least the domesticated Bactrian camel to have existed at Abraham’s time. In the daily life of the patriarchs, however, the camel played a minor role. The later Hebrews never adopted it and regarded it as unclean (Lev 11:4). [4]



Todd Bolen from BiblePlaces Blog has more on this article here. (Due acknowledgements to him for alerting me to this article)




1. Bulliet, ‘The Camel and the Wheel’, p. 36 (1975).

2. Harrison, ‘Genesis’, in Bromiley & Hanson (eds.), International Standard Bible Encyclopediavolume 3, p. 547 (rev. ed. 2002).

3. Heide, Martin. 2011 “The Domestication of the Camel: Biological, Archaeological and Inscriptional Evidence from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel and Arabia, and Literary Evidence from the Hebrew Bible.” Ugarit-Forschungen 42: 331–84.

4. ibid. p 368

Edited by Ken Gilmore, 17 February 2014 - 09:46 PM.

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” - Galileo Galilei

Also tagged with one or more of these keywords: Camels, Genesis, WF Albright, Archaeology

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