Camels Disprove the Bible: Am I Missing Something?

Darrell L. Bock's picture

This week has seen op-ed pieces in CNN and other locales saying that recent discoveries about domesticated camels in Israel prove the Bible has erred. I have seen two such articles in the last week, one on CNN and the other in the Huffington Post. The gist of the claim is that there has been a recent discovery that shows that domesticated camels in Israel go back to the 10th century BC. The alleged error is that the Bible claims that such camels went back to the partriarchs several centuries earlier. Thus, it is said that the find proves a biblical mistake. Some of the writing has been quite cute. Is this "camel discovery" one that will "break the Bible's back"?

I read the first piece in the Huffington Post and went, come on. I read the second in CNN from a Professor of Old Testament at Yale and asked myself, is he really thinking through this very carefully? Are people aware of what is going on here? Here is my problem with the spin that has been placed on this find, even if that spin comes from somenone in the field at one of our top universities.

The find claims to show that the earliest domesticated camels in Israel go back to the late 10th century BC. The problems involve the word earliest AND the nature of archaeology. One needs to realize that archaelogy deals with recovered remains and the realization that we have not found everything that was (and surely will never recover most of what was). So how do we know these testifying camels are the earleist domesticated camels ever in Israel? We do not know that. It would be one thing to claim that the earliest evidence we NOW possess about domesticated camels goes back to the 10th century. But what we have now does not equal all there was, all of what may be out there, or even all we may one day come across.

I am reminded of where we were for a long time with OT manuscripts. Our oldest texts were from the 900's AD. Then we found the Dead Sea Scrolls and our earliest manuscript knowledge lept back 1000 years, a full millennial broad jump back deeper into history. Many things we claimed to know about manuscripts, their accuracy in copying, and writing had to be redone in light of this new knowledge. In other words, there is no way to claim or know that the earliest bones we have are of the earliest domesticated camels that existed. Those bones do not come out of the ancient dust with a tag on them saying, "earliest bones ever of a trained camel."

So what does this type of editorial actually show? It reflects an amazing lack of knowledge about ancient studies and their limitations, as well as a gullibility of some elements in the media today and also in some academic circles to hype anything that is anti-biblical without giving any opportunity for hearing the other side of the case. This does no one a real service in terms of real news. This is not a case of a conservative screaming do not tread on my sacred book. It is a plea that we let evidence only address what it is capable of addressing, nothing more or nothing less. What we are left with is an empty claim that is like saying a camel is able to go through the eye of a needle. That I can say it does not make it so. The Bible's back is not broken by a find that claims to be the earliest when we have no way of knowing if in fact the bones found are the earliest domesticated camel bones that existed in the region. Maybe what is missing in the claimed proof is the actual proof.

Comments

I thought the same thing when I read this on CNN and the NYT- claims go far beyond the evidence. However, this finding may yet pose a challenge. The key bit of evidence is that they also found earlier camel bones in several dig sites in the area, but these were determined to be wild camel bones. Thus, the archaeologists seem to have a fairly complete record of the transition from wild to domesticated camels from several dig sites in the area of the Arava Valley. This would indeed prove that domesticated camels were not widely used in that area prior to 930 BC.  Not sure how this can be generalized to all of Israel, though, let alone challenge the Genesis narratives about the Patriarchs owning small numbers of camels that they perhaps brought from other lands such as Egypt (Gen 12:16). It might pose a problem, though, for Judges 6:5, which speaks of very large numbers of camels owned by the Midianites and Amalekites from just east of the Arava Valley around 1300s B.C. 

Darrell L. Bock's picture

Jesse: Thanks for this but I still have one question, why would one bury wild camels together? If these were part of herds, then how do we know they are "wild"? The conclusion may be correct, but I do wonder.

Apparently there are lesions on the bones of the domesticated camels due to the weight they carried, in this case loads of ingots from the copper mines in the area. The theory is that the Egyptian King Shishak brought in camels to transport the copper more efficiently after he conquered Judah. I'm no expert, but it occurs to me that if bone lesions on these heavily burdened camels are used as a baseline for determining what counts as a "domesticated" camel, then perhaps many of the supposedly wild earlier camels were in fact domestic camels that were exploited for milk, meat, or lighter pack duties. The authors of the study reject that possibility, as well as artifact evidence for an earlier domestication of camels, and even bone evidence dated to the 11th-12th centuries which they dismiss as limited and "unclear".  The report of the scientists paints a much more complicated picture than the media reports suggested and merits further attention, study, and discussion by people competent in these areas.  
The report is available here: http://archaeology.tau.ac.il/ben-yosef/pub/Pub_PDFs/Sapir-Hen&Ben-Yosef13_CamelAravah_TelAviv.pdf

Darrell L. Bock's picture

Nice note, Jesse. Thanks for this.

 
It must be obvious that popular culture / media/ scholars jump on almost anything that will justify their anti-biblical positions.  Your points on archeology should be noted before any acceptance of the claims.  Most articles seem to be reposts of an original - a text criticism field day.  


Additionally, if the articles are accurate portrayals of the findings and the archeologists, there are three problems I see.  The first is that they seem to have gone with an agenda that led them to their conclusion.  "For two archaeologists at Tel Aviv University, the anachronisms were motivation to dig for camel bones at an ancient copper smelting camp in the Aravah Valley..."  How did they know that camels in the Bible were an anachronism?  Did their prior motivations or suppositions lead to their conclusions? 


Second, there is the seeming assumption that the lower, older, layers of bones were not domesticated.   They noted the leg bones were weaker (possibly less dense or thick) and concluded these were wild.  But would not adaptive evolution posit that the leg bones would develop thickness over generations as they adapt to this change in environmental conditions, being pack animals?  Wouldn't this point to the older layers showing camels with lesser bone strength?  And wouldn't this growth perhaps take dozens or more generations? 


And third, as you noted, why are these camels all in this same area?  There seems to be an assumption made that they were just being eaten and not domesticated.  Could they not first be domesticated herd animals and then used as pack animals over time?  Certainly, a mixing of uses could be occurring during these transitions.
It will be interesting to read their report.  But I think these questions need to be answered.  Am I missing something or not understanding it correctly?

Darrell L. Bock's picture

All fair questions, I think. Thanks.

Could it also be said that many things (eg. how Jews fished, ate or wrote say 2000 years ago ) have been shown to be true through the Bible, but the media never reports this because it doesn't sell subscriptions? Why does the media believe they know more about life in those days than the Bible authors? Do they ever question Homers The Odyssey? Why the constant one-way voice on these issues? Anti-Christian bias.
I implore all believing experts, like Dr. Bock, to do more to get the word out about the "proofs" or whatever you want to call them, of the Bible. Why should the Bart Ehrmans of the world get all the media attention???
I know, I know, the media may ignore you or pass you off as a "blind faither", but surely you could do something to get media attention? How about an All Nude NT Scholar conference?? I, of course, would skip the conference, but you'd certainly get attenton. Think about it!

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