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Could Abraham have had camels?

The Old Testament Book of Genesis, Chapter 12, tells the story of the calling of Abram, who would later be known as Abraham. He is generally reputed to have been the founder of the Jewish Nation. In verse 16 mention is made of his possessions:

“… and he had sheep, and oxen, and he asses, and menservants, and maidservants, and she asses, and camels.”

This is one of 22 mentions of camels in the Book of Genesis. However, a question arises as to whether these early references to camels in the region of the eastern Mediterranean can stand up to scrutiny.

That is because of a discovery made in 2014 in what had been ancient copper mines between the Dead and Red Seas. Camel bones were found at a particular level that could easily be dated, due to the use of radiocarbon techniques. No camel bones were found at any level deeper than the one in question.

(Painting by József Molnár – 1821-99)

This meant that the domestication of camels in the region could not have happened prior to the 9th century BC. That would have been far too late for Abraham, who was supposed to have lived at around 2000 BC.

This dating accords with the generally held view that the Book of Genesis was written in around the 6th century BC, when there were probably lots of camels in the region. The writers would have had no reason to doubt that there had been camels there back in Abraham’s day.

But of course this view does not go down well with those people who hold that the Bible cannot be wrong in any respect. It must therefore be the archaeologists and radiocarbon daters who are in error!

What do you think?

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Written by Indexer

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  1. Well, after reading all the arguments (pros and cons) on the existence of camel, I am not even going to venture on a challenge or an approval of any of them. Your post, as always, is well written and I am sure very well documented, although I am not an expert on the Bible and scientific discoveries. Your answers to all the arguments advanced by the readers seem very well founded even though the comments also seem well founded. I think this discussion might go on almost forever… but at least it brings about an exchange of ideas and ventures into a very long run of proposals and counter-proposals on the existence of camels….Thank you for a very interesting reading and also for all the comments that it sparked.

    • Thanks! As you know – given your interest in matters historical – proving anything in history is never easy, and this applies particularly to ancient history when people wrote with very little evidence to support their statements and often hundreds of years after the supposed events.

      History is often written with a view to making a point as opposed to telling the truth, even when it is known what the truth is. There is nothing new about fake news! We make a mistake when we assume that the motive of a writer in the remote past was to document an event. It was often to tell a story that explained a current circumstance, and a great deal of what is in the Judaeo/Christian Bible falls into this category.

      • I totally agree with you. As a matter of fact, on my last article on one of the explorers of North America, namely Jean Cabot, it is said that he, himself, basically never wrote anything down with his own hands. So, his adventures and discoveries were documented by third party people which might not have been as accurate as Jean Cabot’s recounts from his own writing… I realize that Jean Cabot was more recent than the writings of the Bible but still it explains a bit of some of the misconceptions that people might have on historical events.

  2. Not so fast. The fact that there are no known extra-biblical references to camels at the time proves nothing. We’re not exactly swimming in written material from that period. A lack of written records is not evidence pro or con.

    Keep in mind that, until not that long ago, scholars said that Jerusalem did not exist in the time of King David because there was no written record of it. That option is no longer available to them.

    Ur was a huge city by the standards of the day. It engaged in trading with a wide variety of peoples. It is not unreasonable to expect that they had camels even if there are no written records of them. However, there is a written record of camels in Ur at the time of Abraham. It’s found in the book of Genesis. There is no reason, other than skepticism, to distrust it.

    One more point, the Hebrew gamal which is translated camel, actually refers to beasts of burden which could be ridden but not eaten. Although camel is the most likely translation, it could also refer to other animals.

    • Camels in Ur? No problem – but we’re talking about camels in what was then Canaan, for which there is no archaeological – as opposed to written – evidence.

      On the question of Jerusalem, the evidence – again based on archaeology – is that the place existed at the time of King David but was nothing like the mighty city that the Old Testament would have you believe. It was probably no more than a village with a population of around 3,000 people – about the size of the one in which I live now!

      What must always be borne in mind is that the documents that turned into the Book of Genesis (and the rest of the Pentateuch) were written centuries after the events that they were supposed to describe. They were written for a specific purpose – namely to create the Jewish religion. There therefore told stories that would have been a mixture of passed-down oral legends and imagination on the part of their writers, who filled in the blanks to make the best fit as they saw it.

      • Abraham started out in Ur. If there is no problem with him having access to camels there, why couldn’t he have used a few to make his trip? That’s what camels were – and are, to some degree – used for.

        In 1000 BC, a town of 3,000 would be quite sizable. Most towns of the time had populations in the hundreds.

        While it is your opinion that the book of Genesis was composed from several documents, the theory arose because of a faulty assumption: that writing didn’t exist in the time of Moses, an idea that has long since been proven to be very false. There is no reason to believe that Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch.

        • There are lots of reasons for not thinking that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, one being that Moses almost certainly never existed!

          You are perfectly correct to say that writing existed at the time that Moses was supposed to have lived – the Egyptians were renowned for it. Indeed, they recorded everything that happened in the Egyptian Empire down to the smallest detail. That being so, how come there is not one mention in their archives of anything that relates to story told in Exodus, when apparently thousands of Hebrew slaves moved from one part of their Empire to another (which is what Canaan was at that time)? There is a very good answer to that question, namely that it never happened!

  3. Although the likelihood of Abraham having any real historicity has been shrinking by the decade, the counter-argument (to yours) could be advanced that since Abraham was originally from Mesopotamia he could have brought his camels from there. There is evidence that camels (Bactrian camels, as opposed to one-humped dromedaries, if I remember right) were domesticated there centuries before they were in the Levant.

    • Well, maybe! However, that would have counted as the introduction of camels to the area, which would presumably have bred and created a population, contrary to the archaeological evidence. Also, that would not explain the other mentions of camels in Genesis.

        • But that is how science works! You look for evidence to support a theory, and then keep looking for evidence that challenges that theory. If you find it, you change the theory; but if not, the theory stands.

          The discovery of levels at which fossils and bones are found is fundamental to the theory of evolution. For example, nobody has ever found human and dinosaur fossils at the same level, which should persuade the “dinosaurs were on the Ark” brigade, but for some reason does not!

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