OK, everyone, hold your horses! Or your camels, as the case may be.
There’s been a lot of fuss recently about what our hairy humped friends do or don’t mean for the veracity of the Bible. A new report by archaeologists claims camels weren’t domesticated in ancient Israel before 930 bc, and yet the Bible has characters riding the beasts centuries earlier. This week Sydney Morning Columnist Sam de Brito used this ‘finding’ in his column to gleefully proclaim yet another nail in the coffin of the Bible—proof, he reckons, that the Bible is merely a fragile human construct.
So, is this the straw that broke the camel’s back of biblical truth and accuracy?
No such luck. De Brito’s piece simply provides another example of the wearying genre of trivial contemporary scepticism.
In our hurry to discredit the Bible and rid ourselves of its influence, we’ve overlooked a few crucial facts.
First, the camel issue is not new. In fact, it was already old news when I first encountered it in my undergraduate days during the early 1990s. For it to hit the headlines today is like suddenly finding out the East Germans had erected a wall around part of Berlin. Not only is it bizarre, but also a lot has happened since!
Secondly, the archaeologists’ report looks at camel bones found at copper mines on Israel’s desert fringe. It discovered the camels were used as pack animals at these mines and dated the bones to c. 930 bc. That’s interesting enough but it’s a massive leap to then conclude camels weren’t domesticated before this. The report doesn’t consider the other overwhelming evidence that our helpful humped friends were being used in the region for centuries beforehand.
For example, we have carvings from Egypt of humans leading one-humped dromedaries from c. 2200 bc, and perhaps earlier. How did these camels get there from their native Arabia? These ships of the desert didn’t sail across the Red Sea. And Moses wouldn’t be born for centuries yet, so they can’t have opportunistically crossed at the parting of the Red Sea either! They must have swung through or close by Israel instead.
What’s more, we have texts from ancient Syria dated to c. 1900 bc mentioning people using camel’s milk. This is roughly the time Abraham would have ridden a camel through that area on his way to Israel. We have similar texts dated to the same period from Mesopotamia, where Abraham was born. Are we to suppose that camels were domesticated up and down the highways of the Ancient Near East, but not at the region’s intersection in Israel and Jordan?
I fear it’s not the ancient authors demonstrating their flaws on this one, but the modern ones. There may have been a period when camels weren’t used much by locals in Israel, but this doesn’t disprove their use at earlier times. The evidence is clear: camels were domesticated throughout the Ancient Near East well before 930 bc.
While we’re setting the record straight, we should also correct another misconception that has arisen in all the excitement. The classic Christian belief that the Bible is divinely inspired does not mean the human authors must have been perfect. On the contrary, Christians have always believed God used flawed human beings in all their historical particularity to give shape to his word.
We don’t disparage Michelangelo’s David or da Vinci’s Last Supper because the artists were products of a time less developed and less scientific than ours. Rather, we acknowledge their genius. That might be harder to do with authors who are even further removed from our own time, but surely we can try. To do so, we may need to disavow ourselves of the claim that the Bible merely illustrates moral lessons while paradoxically being full of superstition and prejudice.
Perhaps the Bible is more than a collection of moral parables. Perhaps it’s an account of God’s tortured relationship with humanity, marvellously retold by those at the historic heart of the relationship. Or is it easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for us moderns to admit we might learn something—even something divine—from our ancient forebears?
In any case, swallowing this headline about camels is little more than straining over a gnat.
Dr George Athas is a Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity, and he teaches Hebrew and Old Testament at Moore Theological College. He specialises in ancient Israel and is the author of The Tel Dan Inscription: A Reappraisal and a New Interpretation (Sheffield Academic Press, 2003).