Camels and tigers and bears, oh my!

The silly season is early this year. With editors and most top-tier reporters away in August on vacation (along with the subjects of their stories — need to set the proper precedence of seniority at the start of this story) the late summer is the time when the second team knocks out stories that leave readers asking: “what were they thinking?”

True — there are exceptions to this venerable custom. What would Easter or Christmas be without stories proclaiming what “the science” tells us about such events. Perhaps the massive snowstorms in the Northeast have kept the A-team in bed for some publications? Otherwise I would be hard pressed to explain the thinking behind the editorial line taken in a spat of stories reporting on a paper published by two archaeologists at Tel Aviv University.

The gist of the report in publications like the Huffington Post, IBT and the Fashion Times (yes the Fashion Times) among a score of others is that “No camels = No God.”

The absence of camel remains at an archeological site in Israel dated to the time of Abraham demonstrates the Bible is false — or as the Fashion Times headline tells us “Historical ERROR in Bible’s Old Testament, REVEALED: Radiocarbon Dating of Camel Bones Shows Inconsistency.”

I like the screaming ALL CAPS used for error and revealed — one need read no further to see where that story is headed.

The New York Daily News was a little more cautious in its story “Israeli archeologists’ discovery suggests the Bible is wrong about camels.” It reported:

New archeological evidence is throwing cold water on the biblical image of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph riding camels through the desert. A team of Israeli archaeologists has studied the oldest-known camel bones from this ancient period and the results are in — camels reportedly started plodding around the eastern Mediterranean region centuries after the Bible tells us they did.

After analyzing the facts from radioactive-carbon dating, Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel Aviv University claim the domesticated animal arrived on the biblical scene near the 10th century B.C. Scholars believe Abraham lived at least six centuries before that, Time reports.

Still, stories about the Jewish patriarchs contain more than 20 references to the domesticated camel, according to The New York Times. In Genesis 24, Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac. The servant traveled on his master’s camels.

I laughed out loud when I read this. Perhaps it was out of caution that its reporter might not have been able to verify the information the New York Daily News cites the New York Times for the flash news that there are camel references in Genesis.

Time does a much better job with this story. Reporter Elizabeth Dias lays out the facts and then proceeds to pour cold water on the hyperbole — taking as her target the New York Times’ account.

The New York Times, in a story about the finding today, announced, “There are too many camels in the Bible, out of time and out of place … these anachronisms are telling evidence that the Bible was written or edited long after the events it narrates and is not always reliable as verifiable history.” Behold, a mystery: the Case of the Bible’s Phantom Camels.

The discovery is actually far from new. William Foxwell Albright, the leading American archeologist and biblical scholar who confirmed the authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls, argued in the mid-1900s that camels were an anachronism. Historian Richard Bulliet of Columbia University explored the topic in his 1975 book, The Camel and the Wheel, and concluded that “the occasional mention of camels in patriarchal narratives does not mean that the domestic camels were common in the Holy Land at that period.” Biblical History 101 teaches that the texts themselves were often written centuries after the events they depict.

Time also puts this story in context, noting Biblical scholars have long been aware of apparent anomalies. It quotes a number of liberal Biblical scholars to flesh out the conundrum of Biblical history v. a Biblical faith.

The Bible has also never been a history book or a scientific textbook, explains Choon-Leong Seow, professor of Old Testament language and literature at Princeton Theological Seminary. Interpreting the Bible is a little like studying Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper, he says. Modern viewers do not consider the Christ figure in da Vinci’s painting an accurate portrait because we know it was painted centuries after the supper happened, but that does not take away from the artist’s spiritual message about Jesus’ last night with his disciples. “For us who believe that this is Scripture, Scripture is important as it has formative power, it forms the people, and it transforms,” Seow says. “It is poetic truth rather than literary truth.”

Understanding the Case of the Phantom Camel as a fight between archeological evidence and biblical narrative misses the entire spiritual point of the text, as far as scholars are concerned. Anachronisms and apocryphal elements do not mean the story is invalid, but instead give insight into the spiritual community in a given time and place. In this case, camels were a sign of wealth and developing trade routes, so it is likely that the biblical writer used the camel as a narrative device to point out power and status. “We needn’t understand these accounts as literally true, but they are very rich in meaning and interpretive power,” [Duke University's] Eric Meyers says.

I would have liked to have seen Time ask conservative Biblical scholars — say someone from the Dallas Theological Seminary — for their view on the camel controversy. It would have improved an otherwise great story.

Contradictions and difficulties with the historical veracity of the Pentateuch were a major news item at one time. That would have been in 1862 when the Anglican Bishop of Natal (South Africa) John William Colenso released the first of what became a seven part series of books examining the historicity of the first six books of the Old Testament.

Colenso, a one time mathematics teacher at Harrow and the author of the standard mathematics textbook for secondary schools in the mid-Nineteenth Century, demonstrated that some of the claims laid down in the Pentateuch were mathematically impossible. The battle has raged back and forth for the last 150 years, but some newspapers will always report the latest developments as breaking news that will shatter the foundations of faith.

It is a commonplace of the Jewish and Christian scholarly tradition that the Torah or Pentateuch was not written contemporaneously with the events it describes. Conservative scholars who follow the traditional teaching that Moses was the author of the Torah would not dispute the fact that he lived long after the events described in Genesis.

The author or authors of Genesis who transcribed the oral tradition of Abraham may have understood a word to have a meaning in their day that differed from its historical past.

Perhaps the word gamal was one such word. Could it have meant a beast of burden in Abraham’s time and by the time the stories were set down in writing a gamal came to be understood to mean the domesticated dromedary, the one-humped Camelus dromedarius?

As an aside, I find it amusing that some of the newspaper stories on this issue are assuming Abraham was a true historical figure, but the stories of camels in Genesis is a myth. Much of the historical critical Old Testament scholarship of the Twentieth century would believe the camels were real, but it was Abraham who was the myth.

Walter Beltz for example dismisses Abraham as mythical character akin to Aeneas.   … eine mythische Person… Die Gestalt Abrahams ist eine mythische Schopfung. (Walter Beltz, Gott und die Gotter: Biblische Mythologie, Aufbau-Verlag Berlin und Weimar, 1975, p. 109.) Or they have held that the accounts of Abraham’s life as portrayed in Genesis “is an inextricable tangle of history and myth.” (Manfred Barthel, Was Wirklich in der Bibel Steht, trans. by Mark Howson, What the Bible Really Says, Wings Books, 1992, p. 63.)

Time does the best job of all in presenting this story. But it too could have used a bit more balance. Better yet, read the original piece from Tel Aviv University and decide for yourself. You might be surprised in light of the press reports cited above to discover there is only one reference to the Old Testament in the paper when in the first paragraph the authors state the “Patriarchal narrative” had led some scholars to suggest an earlier date for the domestication of the camel in Israel than could be supported by their archeological finds. That’s it.

 

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About geoconger
  • wlinden

    How about coverage of the rabbit/hyrax controversy?

  • The Deuce
    • PalaceGuard

      Thanks!

  • The Ubiquitous

    This is of a kind with the controversy that somewhere bats are listed as birds — well, back when it was written, bird merely meant “flying creature” or somesuch, and not the modern definition.

    Similarly: Is there a part of the bible that said “camel” and went on to describe a large hump or two on the back of a beast of burden in such a way that it could not describe some other beast of burden?

    • The Deuce

      It could be, but there’s no reason to resort to that. We have good evidence that there was camel domestication in Egypt and elsewhere (Sumeria, etc) well before Abraham’s time. It just wasn’t common in Canaan because camels are mainly for long distance travel in flat, arid areas, and Canaan is hill country. In fact, camels never really became popular there for that reason. The two patriarchs that are mentioned as having camels are Abraham and his grandson Jacob, which makes perfect sense, as they were the two that spent part of their lives as nomads, traveling long distances across flat areas. Abraham isn’t mentioned as having camels until after Egypt, and Jacob isn’t mentioned as having them until after his trip back to the homeland in Mesopotamia.

      The Bible doesn’t say they got them in Israel, in other words, but actually suggests the opposite. So the circumstantial evidence actually lines up very well with the extra-biblical evidence.

      • Innocent Bystander

        As well as the fact that any journalist who got within 50 yards of a beginning class on logic would know that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”


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