Camels in Genesis (or Did Abraham Really Own Camels?)

This post came up after I read an article by the NYT entitled “Camels Had No Business in Genesis”.

I am amazed at how easily some people draw absolute conclusions from fragmentary evidence (even worst when they claim to be scientists), and how often the same negative arguments about the Bible are revitalized again and again.

Before I quote my evidence on the subject, I would like just to comment the fact that the scientists in this article draw their conclusions from radiocarbon dating. As they should know, this kind of dating is not conclusive, since much things can affect such a dating. Of course this kind of dating is a great resource, and can provide us with useful data, but we must remember to draw conclusions with caution… Times and again, things have proved wrong with this kind of dating, because of the extraneous factors involved. I did not notice such caution from the scientist involved.

So, now I will quote a couple of scholars and their assessment of the subject:

Despite the admission of Albright[1] that sporadic domestication of the camel might have gone back several centuries before the end of the Bronze Age, there are still writers who assume that the few references to camels in the patriarchal sagas (Gen. 12:16; 24:64) are anachronistic.[2] Prior to their full-scale domestication in the twelfth century B.C., camels were used to a limited extent as beasts of burden, a fact that is evident from their mention (GAM.MAL) in an eighteenth-century B.C. cuneiform list of fodder for domestic animals, discovered at Alalakh in northern Syria.[3] In addition, the excavations of Parrot at Mari uncovered the remains of camel bones in the ruins of a house belonging to the pre-Sargonic era (ca. 2400 B.C.).[4] A relief at Byblos in Phoenicia, dated in the eighteenth century B.C., depicts a camel in a kneeling position, thus indicating the domestication of the animal in Phoenician circles some centuries prior to the Amama Age.[5] Albright’s objection that the animal depicted on the relief had no hump and could not therefore be considered a camel was refuted by de Vaux, who pointed out that there was a socket on the back to which the hump and its load had been attached separately.[6] Other evidence for the early domestication of the camel consists of a jawbone recovered from a Middle Bronze Age tomb (ca. 1900-1600 B.C.) at Tell el-Farah,[7] and cylinder seals found in northern Mesopotamia, dating from the patriarchal era and depicting riders seated upon camels.[8] The foregoing ought to be sufficient to refute the commonly held view that references to camels in Genesis are “anachronistic touches” introduced to make the stories more vivid to later hearers.[9]

R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 311.

 ***

 It was the contention of many archaeolo­gists, Albright included, that the references to camels as included in Abraham’s holdings in livestock (Gen. 12:16) and as employed by his servant who conducted the courtship of Rebekah (Gen. 24:10, 14, 19-20) were anachro­nistic embellishments coming from later cen­turies. Likewise the mention of camels as employed by the slave traders who purchased Joseph on their way down to Egypt (Gen. 37:25). This deduction was drawn from a lack of clear extrabiblical reference to camels prior to the twelfth century in any of the archaeological dis­coveries made before 1950. But like so many arguments from silence, this contention must be abandoned as discredited by subsequent find­ings. Kenneth Kitchen points out (AOOT, p. 79) that even apart from a probable (but disputed) eighteenth-century allusion to camels in a fod­der list from Tell Atshana (as attested by W. G. Lambert in BASOR, no. 160 [Dec. I960]: 42-43), there is undoubtedly a reference to the domesti­cation of camels in some of the lexical lists from the Old Babylonian period (2000-1700 B.C.). An early Sumerian text from Nippur alludes to camel’s milk (cf. Chicago Assyrian Dictionary [I960]: 7:2b). Back in the twenty-fifth century B.C., the bones of a camel were interred under a house at Mari (André Parrot, in Syria 32 [1955]: 323). Similar discoveries have been made in Palestinian sites in levels dating from 2000 B.C. onward. From Byblos in Phoenicia comes an incomplete camel figurine dating from the nine­teenth or eighteenth century (Roland de Vaux, in Revue Biblique 56 [1949]: 9). More recent discov­ery has further shown this negative judgment to be unjustified. (Cf. R. J. Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology, vol. 2 [Brill, 1965], chap. 4, pp. 194-213; “The Coming of the Camel,” p. 197). Forbes cites an early Dynastic limestone vessel shaped like a recumbent pack camel; also dis­covered are pottery camels’ heads from Hierakonpolis and Abydos in the Egyptian First Dynasty (p. 198). Also included is a figurine of a recumbent camel at Byblos during the Middle Kingdom Period (p. 203). Oppenhelm found at Gozan (Tell Halaf) an orthostat of an armed camel rider which was dated 3000 B.C. or at least early 3rd millennium. A small camel figurine discovered at Megiddo closely resembles Dynasty I types. Middle Kingdom camel bones were found at Gezer (p. 209). The Akkadian term for male camel is ibulu/udra/uduru; for female camel, udrate; for dromedary, gammalu (E-G v:116.10); in Coptic, jamūl. (The Sumerian term was ANŠE A-ABBA: “an ass of the sea-lands or dromedary”). Once again the Old Testament record has been vindicated as a com­pletely trustworthy and historical account, despite the temporary lack of archaeological confirmation.

Gleason Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, p. 144.

***

The first Biblical references to domesticated camels occur in the stories of Abraham. He owned them (Ge 12:16), and his servant used them as pack animals (24:10). Camels are also mentioned in the stories of Jacob (30:43; 31:34; 32:15) and Joseph (37:25) and were found among the Amalekites, Ishmaelites and Midianites.

Scholars have debated the historicity of these references to camels because most belieeve that these animals were not widely domesticated until approximately 1200 B.C., long after the time of Abraham. Arguments in support of later domestication of the camel include:

Neither the Mari tablets from the eigh­teenth century B.C. nor the fourteenth-century B.C. Amarna correspondence mentions domesticated camels.

During the patriarchal period the donkey apears to have been the animal primarily used for transport. For example, the “Beni Hasan painting,” which depicts Semites bringing goods to Egypt during the Twelfth Dynasty (1900 B.C.), pictures donkeys rather than camels being used in caravans.

On the other hand, we do see clear evi­dence of camel domestication in the first mil­lennium, much later than the time of the patriarchs. For example, Assyrian wall relief artwork depicts men riding camels into war.

Other evidence does suggest that at least some camels were domesticated earlier. Bone fragments and other archaeological remains have led some scholars to postulate a third millennium date for camel domestication. Although many scholars regard this evidence as inconclusive because it is difficult to distin­guish wild from domesticated animals using only bone samples, other evidence, as de­scribed below, suggests that people were rely­ing on camels in some manner:

  • A braided cord of camel hair from pre-dynastic Egypt has been discovered.
  • A Sumerian text refers to camel’s milk.
  • An Old Babylonian text from the early second-millennium Ugarit describes the camel as a domestic animal.

Thus, the evidence does not force us to regard the appearance of domesticated camels in Genesis as anachronistic. Such tamed animals probably were rare during the second millennium, however, and may have been owned almost exclusively by wealthy people.

NIV Archaeological Study Bible, p. 41. 


[1] FSAC, p. 165; cf. J. P. Free, JNES, III (1944), pp. 187ff.

[2] BHI, p. 72; BANE, p. 204; cf. R. Walz, ZDMG, Cl (1951), pp. 29ff., CIV (1954), pp. 45ff.

[3] D. J. Wiseman and A. Goetze, JCS, XIII (1959), pp. 29, 37; D. J. Wiseman, The Alalakh Tablets (1953), No. 269:59; S. Moscati, Rivista degle Studi Orientali, XXXV (I960),; p. 116; cf. W. G. Lambert, BASOR, No. 160 (1960), p. 42.

[4] A. Parrot, SRA, XXXII (1955), p. 323.

[5] P. Montet, Byblos et VfLgypte (1928), p. 91 and pi. 52.

[6] W. F. Albright, JBL, LXIV (1945), p. 288; R. de Vaux, RB, LVI (1949), p. 9 n. 4f.

[7] Ibid., p. 9 n. 8. Cf. C. H. Gordon in Biblical and Other Studies, p. 10.

[8] The Tell Halaf sculptured relief (LAP, p. 55 and pi. 25) is far from being “one of the earliest known representations of the camel.” For the early domestication of the camel in India see M. Wheeler, The Indus Civilisation (1953), p. 60.

[9] BHI, p. 72; K. A. Kitchen, NBD, pp. 181ff.

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