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A Bone to Pick: Why Did We Hear Only One Side of the Camel Argument?

Two Israeli scholars discovered camel bones at an ancient copper mine on the Israeli-Jordanian border, and according to radiocarbon dating these bones dated from the days of Solomon with few traces of earlier extant camel bones; therefore, said the scholars, camels were not domesticated in the days of Abraham.
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I have a bone to pick with some journalists -- a camel bone. Several months ago, two Israeli scholars, known for their minimalist views regarding the Bible, made a stunning announcement. They had discovered camel bones at an ancient copper mine on the Israeli-Jordanian border, and according to radiocarbon dating these bones dated from the days of Solomon with few traces of earlier extant camel bones; therefore, said the scholars, camels were not domesticated in the days of Abraham. References to camels in Genesis are thus spurious and fabricated centuries after the described events.

News organizations widely reported this story, but none of the articles I read provided any countering views or demonstrated any further research into the subject. What I saw instead was a series of one-sided headlines. CNN labeled the story: "Will Camel Discovery Break the Bible's Back?" The New York Times announced: "Camels Had No Business in Genesis." Yahoo reported: "Appearance of Camels in Genesis Called Sign of Author's Distance from History." Another headline said: "Study of Camel Bones Suggests the Bible May Be Wrong." Yet another: "Camel Archaeology Contradicts the Bible."

It didn't take long for the hyperbolic headlines to seep into the popular culture. One night a few weeks ago my wife and I were watching an episode of The Big Bang Theory featuring the brilliant but nerdy scientist Sheldon Cooper, whose mother is portrayed as a crazy fundamentalist Christian. Sheldon, on his way to see her, was eager to tell her how camel bones had punctured her beloved book of Genesis.

As I followed this story, I searched in vain for an interview or even a sentence from dissenting academicians, of whom there are many. I subsequently conversed and corresponded with a rich handful of eminent professors who quite easily disputed the claims made in the papers, and I wondered why none of them had been called or quoted in the press.

I also learned the camel debate was nothing new. Discussions about the role of camels in the book of Genesis have been raging for over a hundred years. In an 1899 book, for example, Oxford Professor Thomas K. Cheyne claimed camels were anachronistic in Genesis, thus calling into question the book's accuracy. So much for breaking news!

Since Cheyne's time, however, findings have been unearthed disproving his allegations. True, camels weren't as numerous in antiquity as sheep or goats or dogs. They were specialized "vehicles" for long hauls across the desert. They are listed in Genesis as the last and the least of Abraham's livestock. But exist they did and domesticated they were.

I was especially impressed by the research of Dr. K. A. Kitchen, Professor Emeritus of Egyptology at the University of Liverpool in England. As the world's leading expert on the Egyptian Third Intermediate Period, he has written over 250 books and articles. The Times of London called him "the very architect of Egyptian chronology." His book, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, is a modern classic.

I learned several things from Dr. Kitchen and from other sources. While we wouldn't expect to find tons of archaeological evidence from camels from 4,000 years ago, we do have a camel skull excavated in Egypt from times associated with the patriarchs, and a separate camel jaw. We have a piece of ancient pottery shaped like a camel. We have a figurine discovered in Babylonia of a kneeling camel. We have references to camels in ancient Sumerian documents and from the excavations at Ugarit. We have pictures of camels painted on shards of pottery from ancient times; and if you think these figures are horses you have to explain away the humps. Camel bones were discovered in the ruins of a household in Syria dating to before the days of Abraham. An ancient text from the general epoch of Abraham was discovered in a city in southeastern Iraq that clearly implies the domestication of camels by its allusions to camels' milk. We even have a three-feet long portion of a rope braided out of camel's hair, found near Cairo in the 1920s and dating from before the days of the patriarchs. Lexical lists from Mesopotamia indicate camels were domesticated for desert travel in the days of Abraham, approximately 2000 B.C.

Dr. Kitchen sums it up this way:

"There are other traces of camels much earlier, e.g., in Egypt and Arabia in the third millennium, and also in our overall (Abrahamic) period. But the examples just given should suffice to indicate the true situation: The camel was for long a marginal beast in most of the historical ancient Near East (including Egypt), but it was not wholly unknown or anachronistic before or during (the time of the patriarchs). And there the matter should, on the tangible evidence, rest."

In his book, The Ancient Orient and Old Testament, Dr. Kitchen additionally wrote, "It is often asserted that the mention of camels and of their use is an anachronism in Genesis. This charge is simply not true, as there is both philological and archaeological evidence for knowledge and use of this animal in the early second millennium B.C. and even earlier."

In his book, A History of Israel from the Bronze Age Through the Jewish Wars, Dr. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., adds:

"There seems to be more than passing evidence that the camel already was domesticated by patriarchal times in the first half of the second millennium B.C. Support for this concept is gathered from archaeological evidence of skeletal remains along with illustrations of camels at excavation levels belonging to the third and second millennia B.C."

After reading from a variety of archaeologists and talking to a range of scholars, I came away with greater confidence in the credibility of the book of Genesis than prior to the controversy. I also came away with greater skepticism in the unbiased narrative of news stories relating to biblical discoveries. Call me a skeptic of the skeptics, but it seems to me it might be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for some scholars to admit the Bible might be often right after all.