A fairly common charge against the Bible is that the Patriarchal narratives contain a number of anachronistic details, the domestication of camels being one of them. Based on the findings of two archaeologists at Tel Aviv University, Israel (Sapir-Hen and Ben-Yosef, 2013), a flurry of recent articles have claimed that camels mentioned in the patriarchal narratives constitute an anachronism, and that domesticated camels did not appear in ancient Israel until around the 10th century B.C. It should be quickly pointed out, however, that the archaeologists do not state explicitly their discovery contradicts the Bible. The popular media, however, has done quite a job—perhaps predictably so—in sensationalizing the issue.
The views of camel domestication in the ancient Near East range from the early third millennium B.C. to the ninth century B.C. Those skeptical of the historicity of the biblical narratives generally believe that camels were domesticated far too late to have made an appearance during the time of the patriarchs. Egyptologist Donald Redford states: “[C]amels do not appear in the Near East as domesticated beasts of burden until the ninth century B.C.” (1992, p. 277). Archaeologists Israel Finklestein and Neil Asher Silberman state: “We now know through archaeological research that camels were not domesticates 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 B.C.E.” (2001, p. 37). Even W.F. Albright, who was a staunch defender of the Bible, stated, “the domestication of the camel cannot antedate the end of the 12th century B.C.” (1951, p. 207).
The later use of camels is well attested. The Assyrian monarch Esarhaddon (681-669 B.C.) mentions kings of Arabia giving him camels to carry water for a military incursion into Egypt in 671 B.C. Likewise, the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III (c. 825 B.C.)—which depicts Jehu of Israel giving tribute to the Assyrians—indicates that the Assyrians received “two-humped camels” from Egypt. Furthermore, scholars have long known that merchants preferred camels to donkeys for traversing arid regions in the first millennium. The question is whether any evidence of the domesticated camel exists to support their appearance in the book of Genesis.
EVIDENCE OF CAMEL DOMESTICATION IN THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST
Evidence shows that camels were known as early as the 4th millennium B.C., and domesticated before the beginning of the second. Biblical scholar Joseph Free surveyed the available evidence and concluded that the camel was well known in Egypt from earliest times, as early as the Fourth Dynasty (Free, 1944). Michael Ripinsky notes that excavations carried out over a century ago established the presence of camels in Egypt dating back at least to the First Dynasty (3100-2850 B.C.) with additional evidence indicating they were known in Pre-Dynastic times (prior to 3100 B.C.) (1985, 71:136-137). Although the domestication of the camel may have come much later, it nevertheless preceded the age of the patriarchs.
Ancient texts mention the camel in passing, but do so in ways that indicate they had been domesticated early in Mesopotamian history. A lexical text found at Nippur known as HAR.ra-bullum, alludes to camel milk (Archer, 1970, 127:17). To risk stating the obvious, one does not simply milk a wild animal. Another text from the ancient city of Ugarit mentions the camel “in a list of domesticated animals during the Old Babylonian period (1950-1600)”, suggesting that it, too, was domesticated (Davis, 1986, p. 145). A fodder-list from Alalakh (18th century B.C.) includes the line 1 SA.GAL ANSE.GAM.MAL (269:59), translated as “one (measure of) fodder—camel” (Wiseman, 1959, 13:29; translation in Hamilton 1990, p. 384). Animals in the wild do not need feeding; they forage for themselves.
A cylinder seal from Syria (c. 1800 B.C.) depicts two short figures riding a camel. Gordon and Rendsburg state, “The mention of camels here [in Genesis 24] and elsewhere in the patriarchal narratives often is considered anachronistic. However, the correctness of the Bible is supported by the representation of camel riding on seal cylinders of precisely this period from northern Mesopotamia (1997, p. 121). While the riders on the seal seem to be deities, it nevertheless demonstrates the concept of camel riding (for illustration and discussion, see Gordon, 1939, 6:21; Collon, 2000, Fig. 8).
Numerous discoveries of figurines depicting domesticated camels have been found from a wide range of locations in the ancient world. From the territory of Bactria-Margiana near present-day northern Afghanistan (late 3rd to early 2nd millennium) comes a copper alloy figurine of a camel equipped with a harness, now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Terracotta models of camel-drawn carts (dating as early as c. 2200 B.C.) have been discovered at the city of Altyn-Depe in present-day Turkmenistan (Kirtcho, 2009, 37:25-33). A bronze figurine of a kneeling camel found in Byblos (19th-18th century B.C) is incomplete, with the hump (and its load) missing. However, the figurine has a slot in its back where the hump could be attached separately. Early in the 20th century, excavations conducted by the British School of Archaeology at Rifeh, Egypt explored a tomb and discovered a pottery figurine of a camel bearing a load of two water jars. Based on the pottery in the tomb, William Flinders Petrie dated it to the Nineteenth Dynasty (c. 1292-1187 B.C.) (Ripinsky, 1985, 71:139-140).
A rock inscription in hieratic (a type of Egyptian script) found near Aswan has an accompanying petroglyph of a man leading a dromedary camel. It is thought to date to the Sixth Dynasty (c. 2345-c. 2181 B.C.; Ripinsky, p. 139). If interpreted correctly, this petroglyph gives evidence of the domestication of the camel in Egypt roughly 2300-2200 B.C., centuries before the patriarchs ever visited. Additional petroglyphs in the Wadi Nasib, Sinai include a depiction of a man leading a dromedary. One author tentatively dates these petroglyphs to 1500 B.C. based on the presence of nearby inscriptions whose dates are known (Younker, 1997).
Finally, a curious piece of evidence comes from the ancient city of Mari. A camel burial (c. 2400-2200 B.C.) was discovered within a house. Ancient people often buried their animals, and this could hardly be explained away as a wild camel wandering into a home and subsequently buried by the occupants.
CAMEL DOMESTICATION AND THE PATRIARCHS
In the final analysis, we can say that the evidence for the domestication of the camel in patriarchal times is clear, but limited. Clear, because the evidence indisputably points to the domestication of the camel very early. Limited, because the camel does not appear to have been widely used, and the few and rather brief allusions to camels in texts seem to mirror the limited role they played in the ancient Near East at that time. As regards the Bible, the evidence suggests that the camel was indeed used for transportation, even if it was not the most popular choice of animals available to ancient travelers and workers.
The Bible records the existence of domesticated camels in the patriarchal narratives, but their footprint is actually quite small. They are listed among the very last items in the total wealth of both Abraham (Genesis 12:16) and Jacob (30:43; 32:7,15). They are mentioned as being used for travel by the patriarchs (Genesis 24:10-64; 31:17,34) and by the Midianites (Genesis 37:25). The Egyptians used them for transport as well (Exodus 9:3). Despite their use for transportation, however, the donkey appears as the favored mode of transportation for the patriarchs. In the ancient Near East as a whole, the same might be said during the early second millennium B.C.—the camel was known and domesticated, but not widely used until later.
Free makes an important observation that applies today just as much as it did a half century ago: “Many who have rejected this reference to Abraham’s camels seem to have assumed something which the text does not state. It should be carefully noted that the biblical reference does not necessarily indicate that the camel was common in Egypt at the time, nor does it evidence that the Egyptians had made any great progress in the breeding and domestication of the camel. It merely says that Abraham had camels” (Free, 3:191). Kitchen sums up the matter: “[T]he camel was for long a marginal beast in most of the historic ancient Near East (including Egypt), but it was not wholly unknown or anachronistic before or during 2000-1100” (2003, 339, italics in orig., emp. added).
Those claiming the absence of domesticated camels during the patriarchal age must deny a wealth of evidence to the contrary. Indeed, the evidence is both early and spread over a large geographical area. It includes figurines, models, petroglyphs, burials, seals, and texts. While some of this evidence is relatively recent, some of it has been known for over a century. Critics often claim that believers refuse to consider any evidence that has a bearing on the validity of their faith. It would appear that in the case of Abraham’s camels, the opposite is true.
Albright, William Foxwell (1951), The Archaeology of Palestine (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books).
Archer, Gleason (1970). “Old Testament History and Recent Archaeology from Abraham to Moses,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 127:3-25.
Collon, Dominque (2000), “L’animal dans les échanges et les relations diplomatiques,” Les animaux et les hommes dans le monde syro-mésopotamien aux époques historiques, Topoi Supplement 2, Lyon.
Davis, John J. (1986), “The Camel in Biblical Narratives,” in A Tribute to Gleason Archer: Essays on the Old Testament (Chicago, IL: Moody Press), pp. 141-150.
Finkelstein, Israel and Neil Asher Silberman (2001), The Bible Unearthed (New York, NY: The Free Press).
Free, Joseph P. (1944), “Abraham’s Camels.” Journals of Near Eastern Studies, 3:187-193.
Gordon, Cyrus H. (1939), “Western Asiatic Seals in the Walters Art Gallery,” Iraq, 6[1:3-34.
Gordon, Cyrus H. and Gary A. Rendsburg (1997), The Bible and the Ancient Near East (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.), fourth edition.
Hamilton, Victor P. (1990), The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Kirtcho, L. B. (2009), “The Earliest Wheeled Transport in Southwestern Central Asia: New Finds from Alteyn-Depe,” Archaeology Ethnology and Anthropology of Eurasia, 37:25-33.
Kitchen, Kenneth A. (2003), On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Redford, Donald B. (1992), Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).
Ripinsky, Michael (1985), “The Camel in Dynastic Egypt,” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 71:134-141.
Sapir-Hen, Lidar and Erez Ben-Yosef (2013), “The Introduction of Domestic Camels to the Southern Levant: Evidence from the Aracah Valley,” Tel Aviv, 40:277-285.
Wiseman, Donald J. (1959), “Ration Lists from Alalakh VII,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies, 13:19-33.
Younker, Randall W. (1997), “Late Bronze Age Camel Petroglyphs in the Wadi Nasib, Sinai,” Near East Archaeological Society Bulletin, 42:47-54.