Camels in Genesis

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imageThe old overstated claim that camels could not have been used by the Patriarchs has recently been resurrected in the media. This is not an argument from evidence but from silence, the weakest of all arguments. And even the evidence isn’t entirely lacking! More than anything, it is a matter of scientific overreaching.

In the Daily Reyd last Wednesday, I linked to and commented on an article claiming that recent findings prove that the camels were not in Israel during the times of the Pentateuch and therefore any mention of the animals must be an anachronism: Camel Archeology Contradicts the Bible. Monday’s NY Times had another article claiming that this discovery proves that the Pentateuch was “written or edited long after the events it narrates”: Camels Had No Business in Genesis.

This is overreaching and not even new. This issue has been discussed for decades. As I noted in yesterday’s Daily Reyd, Prof. Aaron Koller of Yeshiva University responded on Monday: BCE: Biblical Camels Explained.

Kenneth Kitchen writes (On the Reliability of the Old Testament, pp. 338-339):

Camels were last and least of Abraham’s possessions (Gen. 12:16), and in his time were used solely for the long-distance, desert-edge trip to Harran and back by his servant to obtain Isaac’s bride (24:10-64 passim). They were among the last named in Jacob’s wealth (30:43; 32:7, 15) and again were used solely for the long trip from Harran back to Canaan (31:17, 34). The desert-traveling Midianites used them (37:25). This is remarkably little. Then, at the time of the exodus and after (thirteenth century at the latest), they occur once among Pharaoh’s transport animals (Exod. 9:3) and twice in lists of creatures not to be eaten (Lev. 11:4; Deut. 14:7). Not much of a presence at all!

What about external sources between circa 2000 and 1200? We first consider the early second millennium (vaguely patriarchal), for which we have the following: from Egypt, a camel skull from the Fayum, “Pottery A” stage of occupation, within circa 2000-1400; from Byblos, a figurine of a kneeling camel, hump and load now missing (originally fixed by a tenon), about nineteenth/eighteenth century; from Canaan, a camel jaw from a Middle Bronze tomb at Tell el-Far’ah North, circa 1900/1550; from north Syria, a cylinder seal of the eighteenth century (of deities on a camel), in the Walters Art Gallery; and from mentions of the camel in the Sumerian lexical work HAR.ra-hubullu, going back in origin to the early second millennium….

[T]he camel was for long a marginal beast in most of the historic ancient Near East (including Egypt), but it was not wholly unknown or anachronistic before or during 2000-1100.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student recently served on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

One comment

  1. Perhaps a more modern analogy would illustrate the point. There is a well-known historical story that in the late 8th Century, the Frankish emperor Charlemagne sent an emissary to the Caliph in Baghdad, Harun al Rashid. The latter sent him back some presents, including an elephant, which was almost unknown in Western Europe at the time. At the time, the elephant wasn’t all that common in Arab lands, either, but apparently it (or the ability to get one and send it as a present) was a symbol of wealth and power.

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