The following New York Times article, reprinted in the Waterloo Region Record on February 15, 2014, makes a claim that seems to undermine the historical reliability of the book of Genesis. In an effort to be fair, I am reprinting the article here followed by my analysis.
Camels had no business in Genesis
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 B.C., 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 archaeologists at Tel Aviv University, the anachronisms were motivation to dig for camel bones at an ancient copper smelting camp in the Aravah Valley in Israel and in Wadi Finan in Jordan. They sought evidence of when domesticated camels were first introduced into the land of Israel and the surrounding region.
The archaeologists, 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 B.C. — 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. Sapir-Hen could identify a domesticated animal by signs in leg bones that it had carried heavy loads.
The findings were published recently in the journal Tel Aviv and in a news release from Tel Aviv University. The archaeologists said that the origin of the domesticated camel was probably in the Arabian Peninsula, which borders the Aravah Valley. Egyptians exploited the copper resources there and probably had a hand in introducing the camels. Earlier, people in the region relied on mules and donkeys as their beasts of burden.
"The introduction of the camel to our region was a very important economic and social development," Ben-Yosef said in an interview. "The camel enabled long-distance trade for the first time, all the way to India, and perfume trade with Arabia. It's unlikely that mules and donkeys could have traversed the distance from one desert oasis to the next."
Mizrahi, a professor of Hebrew culture studies at Tel Aviv University who was not directly involved in the research, said that by the seventh century B.C., camels had become widely employed in trade and travel in Israel and through the Middle East, from Africa as far as India. The camel's influence on biblical research was profound, if confusing, for that happened to be the time that the patriarchal stories were committed to writing and eventually canonized as part of the Hebrew Bible.
"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 email. "Rather, they established that these traditions were indeed reformulated in relatively late periods after camels had been integrated into the Near Eastern economic system. But this does not mean that these very traditions cannot capture other details that have an older historical background."
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.
The New York Times
The title of the article makes a bold statement with no nuances. According to the 2013 study of camel bones in two locations in the Middle East, we are told that camels could not have figured in the stories of the Patriarchs Abraham, [what about Isaac], Jacob and Joseph. However, this piece shows a lack of investigative reporting and a huge assumption.
Lack of investigative reporting
The article states that camels are mentioned more than twenty times in Genesis, but it fails to explore the first mention in Genesis 12: 16. Contrary to what the article would lead us to believe not everything documented in Genesis took place in Palestine. Looking closely at the text above, we can see that Abraham acquired his camels in Egypt. There is firm evidence in a 1998 study by A.S. Saber, “The camel in Ancient Egypt” that “camel entry into Egypt after its domestication in Arabia was found between 2500 and 1400 B.C.” The Bible depicts Abraham and his descendents as nomadic people, so the fact that they interacted with other cultures and civilizations should not be shocking to anyone. When Abraham returned to an area in the Negev, Bethel and Ai, why would he leave his animals behind? Certainly there were no climate reasons why the camels from Egypt could not live in a different region.
The article bases its conclusion upon dating of the “earliest known domesticated camels in Israel.” There could be other remains buried across the more than 100,000 square kilometers that comprise modern-day Israel and Jordan. Moreover, evidence from the era of the Patriarchs may not have survived to the present day. A principle in archaeology is that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Why, then, would archaeologists and journalists be so quick to say all mentions of camels in Genesis are anachronisms? The prerogative of an archaeologist is to share what is found, not theorize based on what is not found.
Finally, the last paragraph of the article takes another jab at biblical historicity by presenting a caricature of the account of the Magi, “whatever uncertainties there may be about that story.” The Scripture in Matthew 2 never mentions the mode of transport this group, whose number is never limited to three, used to travel to Bethlehem. Greater thoroughness in reading what the Bible actually says would help journalists and Christians alike.