There are too many camels in the Bible, out of time and out of place.
Camels probably had little or no role in the lives of such early Jewish patriarchs as Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, who lived in the first half of the second millennium BC, and yet stories about them mention these domesticated pack animals more than 20 times. Genesis 24, for example, tells of Abraham’s servant going by camel on a mission to find a wife for Isaac.
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.”
Mizrahi likened the practice to a historical account of medieval events that veers off to a description of “how people in the Middle Ages used semi-trailers in order to transport goods from one European kingdom to another.”
For two archeologists at Tel Aviv University, the anachronisms were motivation to dig for camel bones. They sought evidence of when domesticated camels were first introduced into the land of Israel and the surrounding region.
The archeologists, Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen, used radiocarbon dating to pinpoint the earliest known domesticated camels in Israel to the last third of the 10th century BC – centuries after the patriarchs lived and decades after the kingdom of David, according to the Bible. Some bones in deeper sediments, they said, probably belonged to wild camels that people hunted for their meat.
The findings were published recently in the journal Tel Aviv and in a news release from Tel Aviv University. The archeologists said the origin of the domesticated camel was probably in the Arabian Peninsula.
“One should be careful not to rush to the conclusion that the new archeological findings automatically deny any historical value from the biblical stories,” Mizrahi said in an e-mail.
Moreover, for anyone who grew up with Sunday school images of the Three Wise Men from the East arriving astride camels at the manger in Bethlehem, whatever uncertainties there may be of that story, at least one thing is clear: By then, the camel in the service of human life was no longer an anachronism.