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Sunday, February 16th 2014


Camels in the Ancient Near East

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: Foggy again

CamelI really hadn't intended to write about camels. But since the topic keeps coming up, I feel that I need to state my observations on this issue (or, really non-issue). The difficulty is that it's hard to respond to something when there's really nothing to respond to, which is usually the case with an argument from silence.

Recently a National Geographic article by the Israeli journalist Mairav Zonszein has called the public's attention to the fact that archaeologists have discovered evidence of domesticated camels in the Aravah valley. This area runs along the southern part of the north-south border between Israel and Jordan. The discovery shows that the valley had been a source of copper from the 14th century into the 9th. In keeping with standard practice, the archaeologists worked through various levels of accumulated debris. They discovered that the first few levels they excavated (representing a more recent period of time) contained remnants of camels that, judging by the condition of their bones, were used to carry heavy loads of copper. But once they dug deeper than that (to more ancient times), there was no evidence of camels. More specifically, the camels first appear in the time frame between 930 and 900 BC; they remain until the mining ceased in that area about a century later.

The article does more than report this discovery. Please keep in mind that what follows was not a part of the archaeological data. Zonszein clarifies that "the biblical angle wasn't the focus of the recent research, though, just an after-the-fact observation." It would have been better if he had said, "an after-the-fact interpretation." He believes that this find constitutes evidence that domesticated camels did not exist in the Levant prior to the late 10th century BC. And thereby it raises questions that impact the veracity of the Bible.

While there are conflicting theories about when the Bible was composed, the recent research suggests it was written much later than the events it describes. This supports earlier studies that have challenged the Bible's veracity as a historic document.

The discrepancy that Zonszein and like-minded folks see is that camels are mentioned in the Bible in conjunction with events that are supposed to have occurred much earlier. He cites Genesis 24:11, which reads, "He made the camels kneel beside a well of water outside the town at evening. This was the time when the women went out to draw water."  (HCSB)The person referred to is Abraham's servant who had been sent out by his master to find a wife for Isaac. But Abraham lived much earlier than the tenth century, and, since camels were not known until then, the account could not have been written any earlier. Zonszein states:

Historians believe these stories took place between 2000 and 1500 B.C., based on clues such as passages from Genesis, archaeological information from the site of the great Sumerian city of Ur (located in modern Iraq), and an archive of clay tablets found at the site of Mari (in modern Syria).

Please note that Zonszein is primarily addressing the dates of the Bible's composition; he appears to accept the historicity of the patriarchs to some extent. But in his view the mention of camels in the context of Abraham's life constitutes an anachronism, and thus the truthfulness of the account as it is given in the Bible is also in doubt. Assuming that there was a "real" Abraham, he could not have kept camels.

Zonszein relates a theory on how camels first came to the Levant. Apparently they had been in use in Arabia and Egypt prior to that time. The appearance of camels at the mining site fits right around the time that Pharaoh Sheshonq I (Shishak in the Bible) invaded the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, destroying 41 towns and despoiling Solomon's treasure in Jerusalem. The article speculates: "After Egypt conquered the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, it may have reorganized the copper business and introduced camels as a more efficient means of transport than the donkeys and mules used previously." Once camels had been employed in the copper mines, their use spread rapidly, making significant contributions to the economy and culture of the Hebrews.

Herewith my responses, starting with some minor observations and moving on to hopefully more significant points:

  • From the information given, there certainly seems to be no good reason to doubt that camels were first used in the Aravah valley no earlier than ca. 930 BC.
  • It just struck me that NG is stating dates in terms of BC, rather than the contrived BCE. How refreshing!
  • A date around 2100 BC for Abraham is just as supported by the sources Zonszein mentions as the later ones. It has the additional advantage of coinciding with the chronology we can build on the Bible's own data. Still, in this case, as long as Abraham lived significantly earlier than the tenth century BC, it makes little difference.
  • However, the previous point leads us to the usual problem with this kind of historical criticism of the Bible ("higher criticism"). We find the usual oscillation between accepting the truth of the Bible's historical content and of modifying it. The only record that we have of the Patriarchs is in the Hebrew Bible. So, if we accept that they were historical persons, with what warrant do we decide what particular details in the account are true or false?
  • In this case, the answer to the above question seems to be easy: Archaeology has given us a corrective. But the arbitrariness still persists. We are confronted with the next question: Where does the corrective stop? Can we limit it to the existence of domesticated camels at the time of Abraham, or are we also compelled to be skeptical concerning the entire complex of stories?  In other words, if we cannot have Patriarchs with camels, can we still have Patriarchs without camels?
  • If the biblical content somehow led us to conclude that there were no camels in the Levant prior to, say, the fifth century BC, the finding of camel remains in the tenth century would be a serious challenge to the truth of the biblical account. But the theory promoted in the article goes into the opposite direction. It seeks to demonstrate the non-existence of camels prior to an archaeological confirmed date for the existence of camels. It is an inductive argument to the non-existence of something, which can be extremely weak, as this one is.
  • One cannot base a strong inductive generalization for the earlier absence of domesticated camels in the Near East based on this discovery.
    • Such a generalization suffers from inadequate data. You can think of it as an appeal to silence/ignorance or as a hasty induction. No matter how you construe it, the appearance of camels in the Aravah valley in the 10th century does not make it improbable that domestic camels may have been in use prior to that time, particularly in light of the next sub-point.
    • The negative generalization suffers from a serious case of sample bias. This archaeological site is an ancient mine that apparently was in strong use for a long time. It is exactly the kind of place where one would find a large amount of artifacts of burden-bearing beasts. More specifically, if there are camel bones to be found, this would be one of the first place where one should look. The fact that they show up in this place no earlier than the late tenth century BC is an interesting phenomenon that hopefully will receive more attention, but hardly a sufficient basis for any further assertions that are not the product of speculation.
    • Keep in mind that ultimately archaeology is about what has been found somewhere, not about what was there, let alone what was not there. This principle may seem obviously narrow, but an archaeologist interpreting his finds ignores it at his peril. Archaeology can accumulate enough evidence to substantiate theories, but its conclusions (as in any other scientific enterprise) must be as carefully delimited as possible. Despite the fact that Israel and archaeology may be linked in our minds, there has not been sufficient archaeological work (and possibly never will be) to affirm what will not or cannot be found (other than inanities). Just think of how long it took to run across these ancient camels. 
  • The idea of domesticated camels in the Levant in earlier times is not without probability.

Let me quote Sonszein's conclusion:

Archaeological excavations in the Aravah Valley have turned up bones of camels from earlier periods, perhaps even before the start of the Neolithic (about 9,700 B.C.), but those were probably wild animals that ran free, never burdened with the weight of copper ingots on their back.

It is indeed doubtful that camels would have carried massive loads of copper in the neolithic period. But to what extent they ran free is not as obvious. It is not at all clear that in these 8,000 or so years, individuals might not have domesticated camels and used them to carry lighter burdens in other areas.

So, does this issue result in a tie? Are we in a standoff because the critics have not proven that there were no domesticated camels in the area prior to 930 BC, and I have not proven that there were camels earlier than that?

Not at all. The burden of proof lies with the person disputing the veracity of a document. To say that one should not accept the truth of the biblical account until there has been independent archaeological evidence for the existence of camels at the time makes a mockery of historiography. The story of the Patriarchs includes the presence of camels. We accept the historicity of the Patriarch and, unless there is good reason to the contrary, we include the presence of camels alongside them as well. Neither the recent finds in the Aravah valley nor the arguments by Mairav Zonszein constitute sufficient reasons to the contrary. Zonszein has not made his case, and we are free to believe that Abraham's servant took his camels to the well.


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