Domesticated Camels in Genesis not yet Confirmed by Science

At least, that’s how a more objective headline regarding the recent findings of two Israeli archeologists might read (though I suppose one could quibble about the “yet.”) Instead we get headlines like “Is Camel Discovery the Straw the Broke the Bible’s Back?” and “Camels had no Business in Genesis.” I suppose Christians should be used to the spin applied by liberal reporters slavering for license to encourage the disregard of parts of God’s Word that they don’t like. But what did these archeologists actually discover? Have they really disproved the Bible?

The American Friends of Tel Aviv University summarize the findings this way:

Camels are mentioned as pack animals in the biblical stories of Abraham, Joseph, and Jacob. But archaeologists have shown that camels were not domesticated in the Land of Israel until centuries after the Age of the Patriarchs (2000-1500 BCE). In addition to challenging the Bible’s historicity, this anachronism is direct proof that the text was compiled well after the events it describes.

That is certainly a bold claim. What evidence do they present? Well, the archeologists examined an unspecified number of ancient copper smelting sites in a specific area of Palestine: the Aravah Valley. Here they found an unspecified amount of camel bones buried in various layers of soil. Most of these bones showed signs of wear-and-tear consistent with having frequently carried heavy loads. The earliest of these bones (11th to 9th century B.C. according to carbon-dating) is well after the time of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob who, according to Genesis, used domesticated camels. There were older camel bones that were also discovered, but these did not have the same signs of wear-and-tear, leading the researchers to conclude that they were wild. From this, they speculate that domesticated camels did not exist in Palestine when the Bible talks about them, proving that these were, at best, later additions to the text by an ignorant people who thought camels had always been there.  At worst, of course, these later ignoramuses simply made up all the stories for the sake of political expediency.

Well, that is one explanation of the findings. But is it the only one, or even the best? In a way “findings” isn’t really an accurate description because the conclusion hinges entirely on what was not found.  It is unfortunate that highly educated individuals need to be reminded that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” but this seems to be a clear case of such forgetfulness. One of the reasons that this is a good proverb is that there are often many reasonable explanations for why you did not find what you were looking for.  After all, there are almost always more places that you did not search than places that you did.  Indeed, it is not difficult to find alternate explanations for the lack of bones in this case either.  Off the top of my head, it is possible that:

  • The operations at these sites did use domesticated camels earlier, but these particular bones haven’t been uncovered yet.
  • Camels were used elsewhere in Palestine, but not in these particular copper operations.
  • Camels were only used sparsely in Palestine at the time of the Patriarchs, but more heavily later on leading to a disproportionate likelihood of finding later bones.
  • Abraham’s camels were brought from elsewhere (he was, after all, not native to the area.)
  • The older camels that were found were indeed domesticated, but used more lightly (After all, the sites either were or were not regularly active that early. If they were not, one would not expect to find bones related to the operation. If they were, it seems odd to me that wild camel bones would be found there.)

And these don’t even consider any possible difficulties with radiometric dating or other potential technical errors in these findings.

Devotees of Scientism, of course, would not have cause to consider these alternatives because science has not yet supplied evidence for any of them. They are only allowed to acknowledge a belief in whatever has been offered up through official use of the scientific method. However, those with a longer view of history will recognize how often academic findings are overturned—particularly when it comes to claims of Biblical inaccuracy.

Take the Gospel of John, for example. Due to a lack of evidence, a presumption of legendary material, and speculation about the amount of time needed for legends to develop, the academic consensus for many decades had been that the Gospel of John was written no earlier than 170 A.D. This, of course, all changed in 1934 when somebody unexpectedly found a fragment of it dating to around 100 A.D. tucked away in a library in Manchester. As it turns out, it wasn’t that no early copies existed—it’s simply that they had not yet been found and identified. Interestingly enough, no revision was made to the academic presumption of legend—they simply adjusted downward their speculation about how long it takes legends to develop.

Episodes like this serve to illustrate that an ounce of evidence is worth a pound of speculation & presumption. In the case of the domesticated camels of the Patriarchs, however, lack of evidence and speculation is all the archeologists are really left with. The only thing that was found was nothing, and the search was hardly exhaustive.

To be sure, it is not unreasonable for these archaeologists to conclude that domesticated camels were a later introduction to the area than what the Bible indicates. For those who already think the Bible is bunk, there is not yet any good reason to believe camels were present any earlier. The alternative explanations I offered are simply maybe’s which themselves have no evidence. At the same time however, claiming that their findings amount to “direct proof” is a gross overstatement at best and entirely fallacious at worst. A newly discovered lack of evidence does not rise to the level of proof one way or the other. Consequently, it is not at all unreasonable for those who already believe that the Bible is actually true to continue believing so. After all, we do have a good reason to think there’s another explanation. After all, we have the testimony of a Book accredited by the Son of God Himself. Whatever the headlines suggest from day-to-day, wisdom and history suggest that the Biblical view will eventually come out on top.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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