Camels in the OT

National Geographic has recently circulated an article indicating that camels were not in use in Israel until the ninth century BC, and concludes that this is solid “evidence” that the account of Genesis is incorrect. The difficulty is that this is a very old argument. Gleason Archer addressed this point in his seminal work on Old Testament introduction (Gleason Archer, for those who may not know, was a major evangelical scholar and one of the most important Old Testament scholars of the twentieth century). In reality, this is a recycled argument that has simply been given a great deal of publicity – more than the discovery itself deserves. Unfortunately, when it comes to popular level criticism of the Bible, sensationalism tends to be weightier than sound scholarship. The following facts are a few things you should know about this study:

• There is definite evidence that camels were in use before Abraham’s time, including evidence from around 2000 BC in Palestine, as well as a figurine of a rider from around 3000 BC, several works of art, and Camel bones buried under a home.

• The archeological survey involved is limited to a particular location: the area around Aravah; not the entire land of Israel, as the internet article suggests. The extrapolation to the remainder of Israel requires the assumption of facts that are not evident. The archeologists assume that camel use in Palestine began in Aravah, but they have done little to demonstrate that claim.

• Genesis does not describe the widespread use of camels in the Patriarchal period. The references to camels in Genesis are limited to those who travelled outside of Palestine. Abraham came to Canaan from Mesopotamia, where camels were almost certainly in use, and there are no references to his owning camels prior to his travel to Egypt. Likely, camel use actually was fairly rare in earlier periods, but rare is not synonymous with non-existent.

• There is substantial evidence to suggest that the Torah (including Genesis) was written before the ninth century. Many modern scholars assume that most of the Torah was written during the Babylonian captivity (this is called the Documentary hypothesis). However, this hypothesis has been open for challenge for some time. The Nuzi Tablets demonstrate that the Abraham narratives are accurate to the customs of the fifteenth century, customs long out of use by the time of the Babylonian captivity. Additionally, the discovery of the Hittites led to the additional discovery that the Torah is written in the format of a Hittite Suzerainty treaty. This form of literature was likewise out of use by the time of the Babylonian captivity, and most likely was forgotten, as well.

All said, I would suggest that the entire article should be listed as a massive overstatement of the implications of the study’s findings, and is much ado about nothing.

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