The latest Bible ruckus: Oh those camels!


With new research questioning the Bible’s report that domesticated camels existed as early as Genesis, the efforts to knock this down appear defensive rather than empirical. But Rebekah was certainly watering something. Thoughts?


Some breathless online news headlines from recent weeks:

“Camel Bones Suggest Error in Bible” (Fox News)

“Camels Don’t Belong in Old Testament” (Forbes magazine)

“Camels Had No Business in Genesis” (The New York Times)

“The Mystery of the Bible’s Phantom Camels” (Time magazine)

“Will Camel Discovery Break the Bible’s Back?” (CNN).

“Archaeology Find: Camels in ‘Bible’ Are Literary Anachronisms” (National Public Radio).

Even joined the fray: “Error in Bible? Archaeologists Think So.”

It all started with an academic article (.pdf here) last October in the journal of the Institute of Archaeology at Israel’s Tel Aviv University. Archaeologists Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen applied radiocarbon and other dating methods to an ancient copper smelting site where camel bones were present, located in the Aravah Valley south of the Dead Sea. From this and the dearth of camel evidence elsewhere they concluded that camels were not used as beasts of burden in the region till “the last third of the 10th Century” B.C. (the era of the Bible’s King Solomon, famed for Temple-building and legendary mines).

Few paid attention till a February press release declared this research is “challenging the Bible’s historicity” and provides “direct proof” that biblical narratives about the patriarchs in the Book of Genesis were “compiled well after the events.” Like all ancient matters that’s open to debate, and caution is advisable since archaeological evidence is spotty by nature. A maxim in this field reminds us that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

As those headlines demonstrate, the latest Bible ruckus involves more than how many camels can dance on the head of a copper mine. That’s because Genesis says people owned camels as far back as 1700 to 2000 B.C., including the patriarchs Abraham (earliest reference is Genesis 12) and Jacob (Genesis 30-32). The most familiar mention (yes, Kenneth) comes in Genesis 24, where Rebekah kindly offers water to Abraham’s servant and his camels, whereupon he chooses her as Isaac’s wife.

If the Tel Aviv scenario proves valid across the Mideast then the Old Testament contains a mistake.

Many folks won’t be troubled by that, but it’s a serious problem for those who believe the Word of God must be perfectly error-free (“inerrant”), even on such historical incidentals. As if to ratify their concern, the skeptics at the Council for Secular Humanism quickly trumpeted the Tel Aviv news.

Camel bones associated with human remains date back 1 million years, according to the multi-volume Anchor Bible Dictionary (1992). But those would have been wild camels. The question here is when humanity tamed camels as pack animals or to carry passengers through the desert. This dictionary says “domestic camels may have been known” as early as the biblical patriarchs. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, in an article updated last December, says the one-humped Arabian camel or dromedary was domesticated about 2000-1300 B.C., thus possibly reaching back to the patriarchs, and by 2500 B.C. for the two-humped Bactrian camel native to Iran and Afghanistan. Archaeology Odyssey magazine reports that the dromedary was domesticated in southeastern Arabia “perhaps as early as the third millennium B.C.” and thus prior to the patriarchs.

Arguments about the Genesis camels are (so to speak) old stuff. Eminent Johns Hopkins University archaeologist William F. Albright (1891-1971) often defended the history in Genesis but figured the camel mentions were anachronistic mistakes. On the conservative side, University of Liverpool archaeologist Kenneth A. Kitchen defends Genesis in On the Reliability of the Old Testament (2003). He says there are “traces of camels” in Arabia and Egypt from the third millennium B.C. and five specific finds somewhat later. Kitchen concludes that as the Bible itself indicates camels were “marginal” and yet “not wholly unknown or anachronistic before or during 2000-1100. And there the matter should, on the tangible evidence, rest.” The evangelical magazine Christianity Today cites recent academic papers by Konrad Martin Heide of Philipps University in Germany and Titus Kennedy of America’s Biola University about depictions of men riding or leading camels in the early second millennium, including a text from Ugarit (Syria) from 1950-1600 B.C.

Scot McKnight, a scholarly evangelical who blogs at, takes the so-what approach. He figures Genesis was edited into the version we know many centuries after the patriarchs, and cites several cases where conditions known in later times were read back into the Bible’s narratives about earlier events. Therefore “it is possible that camels were included in the story simply because they were part of the common experience” of the later editors and readers. Indisputable evidence for domesticated camels in Abraham’s time may turn up “but probably not,” he concludes. However “I don’t think any of this undermines the significance of Genesis or the rest of the Old Testament as the word of God.”

Further materials on the debate, starting with the full Tel Aviv article, in .pdf form.

Then McKnight’s response and responses to his response.

Jewish scholar’s response and responses to his response.

Kitchen’s Old Testament overview with notes on camels.

A conservative answers Albright (1998)

The Rev. George Conger's earlier GetReligion piece on this media mini-storm.

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