Are domesticated camels in the Old Testament an anachronism?

By Seek Theos

(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

For those with a short attention span, I’ll cut right to the chase. No, the mentions of camels in the Old Testament are not in any way in error or evidence in support of the “Documentary Hypothesis” which is briefly summarized by the following:

The documentary hypothesis envisioned the gradual evolution of the Pentateuch beginning with the Yahwist and Elohist historical narratives which were written in the 10th through 9th centuries B.C.E. and eventually combined. To these narratives were added the Deuteronomist’s work in the 7th century and finally a Priestly writer brought the whole together in the 5th century. [1]

So-called skeptics readily seize upon the allegedly problematic mentions of camels in the Old Testament text evidenced by the following quote from individuals seeking to criticize Old Testament history:

“We know that through archaeological research that camels were not domesticated as beasts of burden earlier than the late second millennium and were not widely used in that capacity in the ancient Near East until well after 1000 BCE.” [2]

This is no minor gripe, mind you. If skeptics were able to prove the documentary hypothesis and thus show that Moses definitely did not write the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible), it would mean that the entire Bible could be based misrepresentations and deception. It is quite obvious why this is problematic.

The allegedly anachronistic mention of the camels possessed by Abraham, then referred to as Abram, in Genesis 12:16 is, in fact, supported by extra-biblical evidence.

Indeed, the mention of camels is common throughout Genesis and the Old Testament in general (other mentions include several throughout the entirety of Genesis 24; Genesis 30:43; Genesis 31:17,34; Genesis 32:7, 15; Genesis 37:25; Exodus 9:3; Leviticus 11:4; etc.). Therefore, if camels were totally absent in the time of Abraham, significant problems would arise.

Thankfully the Bible is not a work of fantasy or a later creation of editors, evidenced by the fact that we have indeed discovered much evidence for camels in that time period.

Eric Lyons writes:

Perhaps the most convincing find in support of the early domestication of camels in Egypt is a rope made of camel’s hair found in the Fayum (an oasis area southwest of modern-day Cairo). The two-strand twist of hair, measuring a little over three feet long, was found in the late 1920s, and was sent to the Natural History Museum where it was analyzed and compared to the hair of several different animals. After considerable testing, it was determined to be camel hair, dated (by analyzing the layer in which it was found) to the Third or Fourth Egyptian Dynasty (2686-2498 B.C.). In his article, Free also listed several other discoveries from around 2,000 B.C. and later, which showed camels as domestic animals (pp. 189-190). [3]

For even more compelling evidence read the rest of Lyons’ article here.

According to Columbia University history professor Richard Bulliet, “[T]his type of utilization [camels pulling wagons] goes back to the earliest known period of two-humped camel domestication in the third millennium B.C.” [4]

The case continues to get stronger when one learns:

Recent research has suggested that domestication of the camel took place in southeastern Arabia some time in the third millennium [BC]. Originally, it was probably bred for its milk, hair, leather, and meat, but it cannot have been long before its usefulness as a beast of burden became apparent [5]

For even more evidence see this article.

Even more evidence is constantly being uncovered. Marlie-Louise Olsen writes for The National:

According to 3,000-year-old evidence discovered at two excavation sites in Sharjah, people in what is now the UAE were probably the first to domesticate the wild camel.

A team from Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia has been digging at the sites in Tell Abraq and Muweilah along the border with Umm Al Qaiwain since early December.

The excavations have revealed almost 10 times as many bones of domesticated dromedaries as at any other single site in the Middle East. [6]

In order to avoid making this article unreasonably lengthy, we’ll just throw out some additional articles for those really interested in digging deep (no pun intended) into this issue:

  • Compagnoni, B. and M. Tosi, 1978. The camel: Its distribution and state of domestication in the Middle East during the third millennium B.C. in light of the finds from Shahr-i Sokhta. Pp. 119–128 in Approaches to Faunal Analysis in the Middle East, edited by R.H. Meadow and M.A. Zeder. Peabody Museum Bulletin no 2, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, New Haven, CT.
  • Younker, Randall W. (1997), “Late Bronze Age Camel Petroglyphs in the Wadi Nasib, Sinai,” Near East Archaeological Society Bulletin, 42:47-54.
  • Also see this article which includes several other reliable sources.

[1] Schniedewind, W. (2000). Historiography, Biblical. In D. N. Freedman, A. C. Myers & A. B. Beck (Eds.), Eerdmans dictionary of the Bible (D. N. Freedman, A. C. Myers & A. B. Beck, Ed.) (594). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.

[2] Finkelstein, Israel and Neil Asher Silberman (2001), The Bible Unearthed (New York: Free Press). p. 37. Cited by Apologetics Press

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

[4] Bulliet, Richard (1990-05-20) [1975]. The Camel and the Wheel. Morningside Book Series. Columbia University Press. p. 183.

[5] MacDonald, M. C. A. (1995) North Arabia in the First Millennium BCE. Pp. of Civilizations of the Near East, Vol. 2, ed. J. M. Sasson, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. p. 1357

[6] Olson, Marie-Louise. “Sharjah’s 3,000-year-old Clue to the First Domesticated Camels.” The National. N.p., 8 Jan. 2012. Web. 16 Sept. 2012. <http://www.thenational.ae/news/uae-news/sharjahs-3-000-year-old-clue-to-the-first-domesticated-camels>.

I’d love to hear your opinion, take a look at your story tips and even your original writing if you would like to get it published. I am also available for interviews on radio, television or any other format. Please email me at [email protected]

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