Recently CNN, Time magazine and the New York Times, just to name a few, reported in various articles that scientists have discovered that camels were not domesticated until the 10th century B.C., and that since the Bible reports in Genesis that Abraham (around the 19th century B.C.) was using camels, the Bible must therefore be in error. For some it is proof that the Pentateuch was written much later than the time of Moses, in a time when camels were already domesticated, and that this later writer just presumed that it had been so for ages, when he ‘fabricated’ his story about Abraham. They then conclude that the Bible is not reliable for verifiable history.
This conclusion is based on the findings of two Israeli scientists who examined two sites, one in Israel and one in Jordan, where they had found ancient camel bones. Based on the number of animal bones, and fact that lesions on the bones are mainly found on animals from the 10th century B.C., they concluded that the camel wasn’t domesticated as a pack animal until the 10th century B.C. The wear and tear on the animals carrying heavy packs left traces on the bones of the animals. The need to transport vast quantities of copper over long distances required the domestication of the camel at this time. While some scholars had argued that the camels were originally domesticated for the use of their milk, the Israeli scholars dispute this claim based on the evidence of the lesions and the fact that a lot of male camels were used. While some of the dating of the camel remains in previous studies was based on relative dating (dating the strata in which the bones was found), the Israeli scholars based their findings on the carbon-14 dating of the bones, and come to the rather precise date of the domestication of the camels in the last third of the 10th century B.C.
The late domestication of the camel has been argued by scholars for the last 60 years. And yet, extensive evidence for at least sporadic use of camels has been found in texts, pictures, and seals in which camels are depicted in domesticated situations well before this time. Let’s look at some of the evidence:
- A text from the city of Alalakh (18th century B.C.) lists as part of the ration list, camel food. Why would you need to feed a camel unless it is domesticated?
- In a house at Mari, camel bones were found dating from 2400 B.C.
- A relief from Byblos (18th century B.C.) shows a camel kneeling, indicating its use as a beast of burden.
- The oldest evidence of camel domestication is from Yemen dating back to the 27th century B.C.
- A picture of a camel being ridden by a human is depicted in the ruins of Tall Halaf in Iraq, dating back to the 29th century B.C.
- From Egypt we have a terra cotta tablet with men riding on and leading a camel from a pre-dynastic Egyptian period (well before Abraham’s time).
- In a Sumerian text from Nippur (19th Century B.C.), we find reference to camels’ milk, which seems to allude to some domestication of the animal.
How can we explain the new findings, given the data referencing the use of camels before the 10th century B.C.? A number of observations need to be made:
- Widespread domestication at a later period does not preclude the limited use of the animal in domesticated fashion from an earlier period. Martin Heide, of Philipps University Marburg, an expert on Semitic languages and cultures who has written the most recent comprehensive study on this topic, argues this point in a recent web article.
- We have to be careful with arguments based on the absence of what we hope to find. Heide states “Absence of evidence (of camel bones) is not evidence of absence (of the camel) in Israel in the 2nd millennium. Proving that something did not exist at some time and place in the past can only be done on certain premises because proof of its existence may be unearthed at some future date.”
- We have to faithfully represent what Bible is and is not stating. The Bible does not argue for a widespread use of the camel as a domesticated animal in the 19th century B.C. It describes at least a limited use of these animals in certain settings, and it seems only for a limited period of time. (Camels are said to have been used by Abraham, but no camels are mentioned in the story of Isaac; Jacob again seems to have used camels, but again no camels are mentioned in connection to Joseph).
- If the use of camels in domesticated setting was rather limited at first, we should not be surprised that no remains of domesticated animals are found in the 2nd millennium B.C. Only in later times when the use of camels as domesticated animals was more widespread do we find some of the remains. Still, the number of the remains is only a fraction of the animals that were once used.
- Even when the camel was domesticated during the 1st millennium B.C., very few references to camels are made in the literature or inscriptional evidence from the Ancient Near East. If we do not find many written references to the camel when it was clearly domesticated, it is not surprising that we do not find many references to camels before this time, even though a thousand years earlier some people had already made use of the camels in a domesticated way.
Based on these arguments, I believe the claim that Bible has been proven wrong is just false.
Below are a few excellent resources on the topic:
- R. Bulliet, The Camel and the Wheel, Cambridge Mass., 1975.
- Stephen Ceasar, “Patriarchal Wealth and Early Domestication of the Camel”, Bible and Spade, 2000
- Martin Heide, “The Domestication of the Camel: Biological, Archaeological and Inscriptional Evidence from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel and Arabia, and Literary Evidence from the Hebrew Bible” in: Ugarit Forschungen 42 (2010), (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag 2011), p. 331–384.
- M.C.A. MacDonald, “North Arabia in the First Millennium BCE,” in Civilizations of the Near East, ed. J. Sasson, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1995).
- F.E. Zeuner, A History of Domesticated Animals, London, Harper and Row, 1963.
 John Noble Wilford, “Camels Had No Business in Genesis” New York Times, February 14, 2014
 Lidar Sapir-Hen and Erez Ben-Yosef, “The Introduction of Domestic Camels to the Southern Levant: Evidence from the Aravah Valley” in Tel Aviv 40 (2013), pp. 277-285.
 The sites are from the Late Bronze-Early Iron Age sites of Timnah and Wadi Faynan.
 Sapir-Hen and Ben-Yosef, “The Introduction Domestic Camels”, p. 278.
 Ibid., p. 279.
 Ibid., p. 277.
 William F. Albright, “Zur Zähmung des Kamels. Aus einem Brief von Prof. W. F. Albright an Dr. Walz vom 19. Febr. 1949” in Zeitschrift für alttestamentische Wissenschaft, N. S. 21 (1950), p. 315.
 Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, NICOT, p.384.
 “… the cultural context from which 200 camel bones and teeth were recovered suggests that the dromedary may have been domesticated in the eastern part of the peninsula during the 3rd millennium B.C.E., perhaps as early as 2700 B.C.E.” Paula Wapnish, “Camel Caravans and Camel Pastoralists at Tell Jemmeh”, Journal of the Ancient Near East Society 13, 1981, p. 105.
 M.F. von Oppenheim, Der Tell Halaf, Eine neue Kultur im ältesten Mesopotamien. (F. A. Brockhaus, Leipzig, 1931), p.140
 Joseph Free, “Abraham’s Camels”, Journal of Near Eastern Studies 1944, p. 189-190
 K. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and the Old Testament, (London: Tyndale Press, 1966), p. 79.
 See M. Heide, “The Domestication of the Camel,” in UF 42 (2010), p. 369.
About Jan Verbruggen
Dr. Jan Verbruggen is a Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary. He originally came from Belgium, where he taught for 6 years at the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit, Heverlee and ministered as a pastor for 3 years. He has published a number of articles in Dutch at various magazines and journals in the Netherlands and Belgium. Jan Verbruggen serves as an elder at Hinson Memorial Baptist Church, Portland Oregon. His most recent publication is "Deuteronomium" (commentary on Deuteronomy in Dutch), Groen, Heerenveen, 2008.