BCE: Biblical Camels Explained | Aaron Koller | The Blogs
Aaron Koller
Aaron Koller

BCE: Biblical Camels Explained

Recent news reports advertise that “camel archaeology contradicts the Bible.” The claim in the press release issued by Tel Aviv University is that a study of camel bones in the Aravah Valley in the Negev demonstrates that there were no domesticated camels in Israel until the end of the tenth century BCE, decades after the reign of Solomon and centuries after the age of the Patriarchs.

Thus, it seems, Abraham could not have received camels in Egypt (Genesis 12:16), his servant could not possibly have brought ten camels with him on his quest for a wife for Isaac (Genesis 24), and Rachel could not have hidden her father’s idols in the camel cushion (Genesis 31:34).

The article, published by two young archaeologists, Lidar Sapir-Hen and Erez Ben-Yosef, is a very good one, and appropriately never mentions the Bible. In fact, the new information in the paper is not that domesticated camels were not found in Israel until much later than the Patriarchs – this has long been known – but the precise date of their introduction (late tenth century), and a hypothesis about the reason for their introduction (to increase international trade, under Egyptian influence).

All of this is nicely done.

The writers of the press release, however, spun the story as a clash between archaeology and Bible. This particular clash is an old one.

The giant of biblical studies, William Foxwell Albright, argued in the middle of the twentieth century that all references to camels in Genesis are anachronistic. But other scholars made three important points that have refined out knowledge of camels and of their presence within the Bible.

First, experts on the Arabian peninsula – as opposed to biblical scholars and archaeologist who work in the land of Israel – have concluded that despite the lack of textual evidence, the camel was probably domesticated, on a small scale, in the southern Arabian peninsula, by around 2000 BCE. This was the conclusion reached by Richard Bulliet in his book The Camel and the Wheel (1975), and also found in M. C. A. Macdonald’s article in the reliable collection Civilizations of the Near East (1995).

Second, camels are not used as pack animals in the stories of Genesis.  The archaeozoological evidence shows that camels were first used in Israel in the tenth century, but in Genesis camels are ornamental, rather than utilitarian, as observed by Nahum Sarna in his commentary on Genesis. In Genesis 24 and 31, only women ride on camels and its purpose in the stories seems to be mostly to impress others – which means that the whole point is that they were rare and exotic, not in common use, in the Patriarchal Age.

Finally, it should be observed that by the tenth century, in an Egyptian milieu, there was a far more important animal than the camel: the horse.  Yet no horse is ever mentioned in Genesis, because that truly would have been anachronistic.

In all, the new study of the camel bones is important in refining our knowledge of the rise of the use of camels in the international trade of the early first millennium BCE. These processes eventually led to commercial patterns connecting the Horn of Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and even regions farther east such as India, with Israel, the rest of the Levant, Egypt, and regions farther to the west such as Greece.

This is truly significant to both world and Jewish history and should not be sensationalized into just another clash between archaeology and the Bible.

About the Author
Aaron Koller is professor of Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University, and chair of the Beren Department of Jewish Studies. His latest book is Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Modern Jewish Thought (JPS, 2020).
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