| Where Recherche duTemps Perdu
---- meets Kirchliche Dogmatik
I 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.
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:
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.