Wednesday, February 12, 2014

On Abraham's Camels

Recently, an archaeological report has been making its rounds claiming that the book of Genesis' mentions of camels being used by the patriarchs (eg. in Gen. 12:16) are anachronistic, as camel bones unearthed in the Arabah Valley were dated to having been no later than the 10th century BC, many centuries after the days of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Naturally, this report has been seized upon by numerous news sites, claiming that this proves that the Bible is historically unreliable. For example, one editor for the New York Times states:
These anachronisms are telling evidence that the Bible was written or edited long after the events it narrates and is not always reliable as verifiable history. These camel stories “do not encapsulate memories from the second millennium,” said Noam Mizrahi, an Israeli biblical scholar, “but should be viewed as back-projections from a much later period.”[1]
The problem is that, as is the case with discoveries in almost every academic discipline, archaeological discoveries tend to get oversimplified by news sources, who tend to extrapolate conclusions that are not warranted by the actual data. In particular, the conclusions mainstream news outlets have come to regarding the accuracy of the Bible based on this report demonstrate a failure to understand how Archaeology works. There are two main points which indicate why this is the case:

First, Archaeology as a discipline is constantly in flux. I have taken Archaeology courses in the University of Toronto, and I learned early on that new discoveries are constantly overturning old ones, and the interpretations of specific pieces of archaeological data are constantly being disputed. The fact that the oldest camel bones that we know of in the Arabah valley are dated to the tenth century BC does not negate the possibility that even older camel bones are waiting to be unearthed in the region.[2]

Second, the geographical locale where camel bones were dug up is too narrow. The book of Genesis takes place over a wide variety of locations throughout the Ancient Near East. Once one widens the geographical region being studied, one finds that there are plenty of references to domesticated camels that are much older than the camel bones from the Arabah valley. For example, Joseph Free cites various inscriptions of camels carrying water jugs in Egypt that date to as old as the 15th century BC.[3] Going further back than that, we have texts from the city of Alalakh in northern Syria which are dated to the 18th century BC, and mention camels as pack animals.[4] 

In light of these pieces of documentary evidence, the idea of Abraham owning camels becomes much more plausible. I would conclude with the following statement by Free:
[W]ith the above evidence for the knwoledge of the camel in the earlier periods, it would appear somewhat presumptuous to set completely aside as an anachronism the reference to Abraham's having camels in Egypt. Our evidence thus provides another argument for accepting as authentic the picture of the patriarchal period presented in the Old Testament.[5]


[1] John Noble Wilford, “Camels Had No Business in Genesis,” New York Times, 10 February 2014,

[2] Skeptics of the Bible would do well to take this into consideration, as hasty conclusions based on tentative historical data have been the pitfall of many outdated arguments against the Bible in the past. For example, before Hittitology became an established field in Ancient Near Eastern studies, skeptics during the 19th and early 20th centuries jeered at the mention of Hittites in the Old Testament, claiming that the they were just a figment of the Old Testament authors' imaginations. Today, we have many documents and excavated sites belonging to the Hittite civilization, proving beyond doubt that the Bible was right about their existence all along.

[3] Joseph P. Free, “Abraham's Camels,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies (1944): 189,

[4] Donald J. Wiseman, “Ration Lists from Alalakh VII,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 13 (1959):29, Victor Hamilton provides a translation of the phrase “1 SA.GAL ANSE.GAM* MAL*,” rendering it as “one (measure of) fodder--camel.” See Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis 1-17, NICOT (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995), 384.

[5] Free, “Abraham's Camels,” 193.


  1. "claiming that this proves that the Bible is not historically unreliable"?

    1. Oops, double negative. Fixed! Thanks for pointing it out.