One fairly common assertion by modern skeptics these days is the charge that the camels mentioned in the patriarchal narratives (from Genesis) did not exists in ancient Israel during the time of Abraham (1800-2000 BC). However, per the usual this is not the case, and is a misrepresentation of an ongoing debate among scholars and archaeologists. Therefore, in this post I will briefly outline the issue and facts concerning camels in the Ancient Near East.
First, it is completely false that camels did not exist in the Near East, which includes ancient Israel, in the days of the patriarch. Numerous camels have been excavated from the region by archaeologists that date to the time of Abraham and earlier. What skeptics are really referring to, or rather distorting, is the contention by some archaeologist that “domesticated camels” were not present during this time-period. Specifically, the recent findings of two archaeologists (Sapir-Hen and Ben-Yosef) at Tel Aviv University back in 2013 argued that domesticated camels did not appear in ancient Israel until about 1000 BC. This publication created a wave of news reports and articles by the popular media sensationalizing the issue, i.e. headlines reading “Archaeologist Find Disproves the Bible”. It should be noted that the archaeologists do not explicitly state that their findings contradict the Bible at all, but that did not stop the press from making that characterization in their reports.
The real issue here is that among archeologists, the view concerning the dates for the domestication of camels in the ancient Near East ranges from 900-3000 BC. Naturally, those skeptical of the Bible will prefer to believe the earlier dates, as it would mean that the domestication of camels came far too late to have been present during the time of Abraham as recorded in Genesis. Some archaeologists advocating the earlier dates (900-1200 BC) are Israel Finklestein and Neil Asher Siberman, who state “We now know … that camels were not domesticated … and were not widely used in that capacity in the ancient Near East until well after 1000 BCE.”. However, that view is not universally accepted and there is much evidence to support the later date range of 2000-3000 BC. Scholar Kenneth Kitchen has noted such evidence led respected archeological Egyptologist to conclude that “the extant evidence clearly indicates that the domestic camel was known in Egypt by 3000 BC.” Archeologists Chris Scarre also supports a later date, and has stated that “both the dromedary (the one-humped) and the Bactrian (the two-humped) camel had been domesticated since before 2000 BC.” Therefore as anyone can see, although some may claim that there is a consensus within archaeological circles, the reality is that such scholars still debate just exactly when the camel was first domesticated in the Near East — leaving a very wide range of centuries in dispute (900-3000 BC).
One must also remember that skeptics reputing that domesticated camels were not present in the Near East during the age of Abraham have a major problem with their premise. That is that they cannot cite one single piece of solid archaeological evidence in support of their claim. The reality is that the burden of proof is actually on skeptics to show that camels were not domesticated until after the time of the patriarchs. Instead, they only site the evidence after the age of the patriarchs, and then simply assure everyone that domesticated camels were absent any earlier — without one shred of archaeological evidence. It is entirely an argument from silence, which would be sufficient if there was no other evidence to lead one to believe otherwise. However, that is precisely what makes these claims most irritating, is that there are in fact many pieces of evidence that supports domesticated camels in the region, both during and before the time of Abraham. What stops some archaeologists from recognizing this is the fallacy of circular reasoning, i.e. since the evidence shows domesticated camels were not widely used until later times (after 1000 BC), they exclude the possibility that they could have been domesticated at all any earlier, and therefore do not consider evidence to the contrary. It is important to note, that just because camels were not as widely used in the region during the age of the patriarch (and prior), does NOT mean that they were entirely undomesticated at all. In fact, as referenced earlier, a considerable amount of supporting evidence shows that they were.
So what is the evidence for the domestication of camels in the ancient near east? Excavations conducted over a century ago established the presence of camels in Egypt dating from 2850-3100 BC. Although most evidence for their domestication still comes later, it nevertheless still preceded the age of the patriarchs. For instance, an ancient text from the city of Ugarit includes camels in a list of domesticated animals from the Old Babylonian period (1600-1950 BC). There is also a fodder-list from Alalakh dating to 1800 BC that includes fodder for camels. In case one does not know, fodder references food. Thus why would someone need to feed wild camels unless they were domesticated? Likewise another ancient text from early Mesopotamian history found at Nippur references camel milk. To state the obvious, people do not milk wild animals. Additionally, a cylinder seal from Syria dating to 1800 BC depicts two deities riding a camel, and although the figures depicted are pagan deities, it nevertheless demonstrates that camel riding was a familiar concept in ancient Mesopotamia during that time period. To that point, numerous figurines depicting domesticated camels have been discovered throughout the ancient world, including a copper alloy figurine of a camel with a harness dating as far back as the late 3rd millennium BC. It is currently located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Additionally, several clay models have been discovered depicting camels dating to 2500-2600 BC and camel carts dating to 2200 BC. Still need more, a rock inscription found near Aswan depicts a man leading a camel, and it dates to the Sixth Dynasty of Egypt, which is 2180-2345 BC. Thereby giving strong evidence for the domestication of camels in Egypt by at least 2200-2300 BC. There is even evidence in the ancient city of Mari of a camel buried at a home-dwelling dated to 2200-2400 BC.
Therefore in conclusion, the evidence for the domestication of camels during the time of the patriarchs is clear and compelling. That said, it is fair to say that there is certainly more evidence of domesticated camels in the post patriarch times than from the pre-patriarch era. However, that merely proves that camel as a means of transportation was more common, popular and widespread in later times. Although, I should note that while the Bible mentions camels were used for transportation, the texts also suggest that the donkey was still the most favored means of transportation for the patriarchs. Once more, as demonstrated there is ample external evidence which also supports the Biblical record that while camels were not widely used until later, they were still known and domesticated during this time. For anyone claiming the absence of domesticated camels during the Biblical patriarch age, they must deny a wealth of supporting evidence to the contrary – evidence that includes figurines, models, seals, burials and ancient texts. As stated in previous posts, people who want to believe something contrary to any evidence that detracts from the validity of their position will likely not be convinced by anything. However, for those of us with an open mind, there is more than enough sufficient evidence that we can say there is no conflict or issue concerning references to domesticated camels in the Genesis account of the patriarchs. But enough already, I think I have bloviated on this topic long enough.
Thank you for reading. I hope some may have found this post insightful.