Science, Scripture and Some Trouble with Camels

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There’s been a lot of fuss recently over camel bones found in the Aravah Valley in Israel. Two archaeologists from Tel Aviv University have dated the bones, which were found in an ancient copper smelting site, to the last third of the 10th century BC and claim that this represents the earliest appearance of domesticated camels. While their article doesn’t discuss how this relates to the Biblical accounts, the University’s press release states that their findings ‘further emphasize the disagreements between Biblical texts and verifiable history’. This led to articles in Time (The Mystery of the Bible’s Phantom Camels), The New York Times (Camels Had No Business in Genesis) and elsewhere.

The story seems simple. Camels first appear in the Bible in Genesis at the time of Abraham long before the archaeologists tell us domesticated camels first appeared in Israel. A straightforward conflict between science and the Bible with science winning as usual.

How should we react to stories like this? The first thing is not to jump to extreme and hasty conclusions. On the one hand, this includes not simply dismissing the Bible and, on the other hand, not simply dismissing science. One obvious question to ask is whether there really is a serious problem. We can’t simply assume that there must be just because a news item claims there is – it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the journalists might have got a bit carried away!

We also need to ask whether the alleged conflict is really doing justice to what the Bible says and what the scientific evidence shows? Even if the answer turns out to be ‘yes’ and there is no obvious way to resolve the conflict immediately, it still doesn’t mean that we are forced into deciding between science and the Bible. Perhaps we just don’t have all the evidence yet. Scientists often find themselves having to deal with apparently conflicting information and have to live with not being able to resolve it for a period of time.

There’s no difficulty in admitting that we don’t have all the answers. Perhaps thinking about the problem more will help or new evidence will shed more light. In the history of apparent conflicts between the Bible and archaeology, this approach seems to work quite well. For example, the existence of Belshazzar in the book of Daniel had long been questioned since his name did not appear in ancient records until the Nabonidus Chronicle was discovered which indicated that he was the effective ruler when his father, Nabonidus, spent 10 years in Arabia.

Back to the camels. Is the conflict as clear cut as the news items suggest? No. First of all, consider the scientific side of the story. The straightforward part concerns the dating of the bones. Let’s also assume that the distinction between domesticated and wild camel bones is straightforward. The argument that these were the first domesticated camels in Israel seems much less clear. It is based on the coincidence of a reorganization of the copper industry in the region occurring at the same time as the first appearance of domesticated camels in the same region and the hypothesis that the two events were linked, with the camels being introduced to improve efficiency. It’s not at all clear how persuasive this hypothesis is. At the very least, it seems questionable and certainly open to revision in light of new evidence.

Even if everything is granted so far, you might still wonder how the archaeologists could be so sure that there could not have been earlier domesticated camels elsewhere in Israel just because no earlier domesticated camel bones were found at their site. Absence of evidence of domesticated camels is not necessarily evidence of their absence. It could be evidence of their absence in some cases. Presumably, if camels were used in large numbers at the sites in question, evidence of their existence would be expected. But what about elsewhere in Israel if they were not found in large numbers? In this case it isn’t at all clear evidence of their existence would be expected, so the fact that we don’t have any such evidence isn’t surprising.

And what about the Biblical side of the story? As Dr. K. Martin Heide, of Philipps University Marburg, an expert on Semitic languages and cultures, points out:

The Genesis narrator does not claim that the camel was in wide use in the 2nd millennium BC. To the contrary, while Abraham and Jacob had camels (probably Bactrian, or double-humped, camels that were available in Mesopotamia), Isaac, who stayed in Canaan most of his time, seems to have used no camels. In addition, the final retreat of Jacob with his family to Egypt was all done on donkeys. … Only later, in the first millennium BC, when camels came to be exploited in the well-organized infrastructure of an established kingdom, can we expect to find archaeological footprints of their use.

In other words, the Bible gives us no reason to expect that there would be archaeological evidence of camels at the time of the patriarchs and so the fact that we don’t have any hardly constitutes evidence against the Biblical narratives.

It might be claimed that the problem is not just that domesticated camels were not in Israel at the time of Abraham, but that camels were not domesticated until much later. However, it is the dromedary (singled-humped) camel, which was the focus of the Tel Aviv study, that appears not to have been domesticated until later. There appears to be good evidence that the Bactrian camel was domesticated much earlier and was present in Mesopotamia at the time when the Bible indicates Abraham left Mesopotamia for Canaan.

In conclusion, it isn’t clear what all the fuss was about. No doubt there are plenty of unanswered questions about the domestication of camels, their first appearance in Israel and how this relates to the Old Testament narratives, but as is usually the case when it is claimed that science has disproved the Bible, it turns out that there really isn’t much of a problem at all.


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