It’s Wednesday and, wouldn’t you know it, someone sent me a link to the following article: “Will Camel Discovery Break the Bible’s Back?”
In case you’re not up on the problem of camels for the Bible (shame on you), here’s an excerpt:
“. . . a scientific report [has] establish[ed] that camels, the basic mode of transportation for the biblical patriarchs, weren’t domesticated in Israel until hundreds of years after Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are said to have wandered the earth.”
This actually isn’t new. The evidence for camel domestication in Canaan has long been a topic of discussion. The patriarchal narratives (e.g., Gen 24) suggest camels were domesticated in the early second millennium B.C., much earlier than this report.
The article is written by OT scholar Joel Baden. Surprisingly, it doesn’t mention that there is good evidence for ancient camel domestication in the regions near to Canaan — including places from which Abraham came and the patriarchal families spent time. Is it beyond the pale to think the patriarchs could have brought a herd of camels with them, or traded for them? Why would that be unfathomable? Really?
(Sigh). Maybe I’m just grouchy today.
At any rate, here’s another excerpt from the IVP Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch about camels and historical criticism.
The paleozoologic, iconographic and textual evidence concerning the domestication of the camel in the ancient Near East is ambiguous, but it seems clear that the camel (including both the Bactrian two-humped camel [camelus bactrianus] and the one-humped dromedary [camelus dromedarius]) had been domesticated in lower Mesopotamia and southern Arabia by 2500 B.C. (Hesse, 217; Staubli, 184–85; Borowski, 112–18). R. Younker has recently discussed some petroglyphs depicting camels being led by human figures in the Wadi Nasib, Sinai. These petroglyphs were discovered in close proximity to a Proto-Sinaitic inscription found by Gerster in 1961, which he dates not later than 1500 B.C. Zarins (1825–26) notes that osteological remains from Shahr-I-Sokhta in eastern Iran in a context dated to 2700 B.C. clearly indicate a domesticated camel. In the Arabian Peninsula bones found at Umm-an-Nar and dated to the late third millennium B.C. would also support the view of an early domestication of the camel. Some bone remains have been found at Arad in an Early Bronze context (c. 2900 B.C.; cf. Wapnish), although it is not clear whether they indicate a domesticated animal. Looking from the angle of Jordan, J. Sauer has argued that the camel was definitely domesticated by the third millennium B.C. but that its widespread use only began to emerge during the final moments of the Late Bronze Age. It would thus appear that Abraham’s “camel connection” is not a good example for an anachronism but rather can be confidently explained in the context of either the early or late date connected to the patriarchal period, beginning around the end of the third millennium B.C. O. Borowski (113) has made the interesting observation that camels were instrumental in the establishment of desert nomadism with its change in lifestyle. The Genesis story of Abraham leaving the urban center of Ur and becoming a gēr (“stranger, traveler, man without an established residence,” Gen 15:13; 23:4) living in a tent does coincide with this function.
For the record, readers will know I don’t buy the Ur (S. Mesopotamian city state) as the place from which Abram came. I’d put him as coming from one of the other regions mentioned that had camels (N. Mesopotamia, Ura; see here and here).
Addendum 2/23/2014 – Todd Bolen posted an informative essay on this issue at his Bible Places blog that I recommend. It deals with some material published in 2011 in Ugarit Forschungen by Martin Heide.