Ancient Camel Bones Hammer Biblical Literalists

Ancient Camel Bones Hammer Biblical Literalists February 11, 2014

I don’t cover nearly enough important news stories related to religion or to camels. But I really can’t pass up this one since it’s about religion and camels.

The Old Testament repeatedly reports camels being used as beasts of burdens as parts of stories it claims happened during eras that we now know were actually before the actual historical domestication of the camel. The New York Times explains:

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. These camel stories “do not encapsulate memories from the second millennium,” said Noam Mizrahi, an Israeli biblical scholar, “but should be viewed as back-projections from a much later period.”

Dr. Mizrahi likened the practice to a historical account of medieval events that veers off to a description of “how people in the Middle Ages used semitrailers in order to transport goods from one European kingdom to another.”

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 in Israel and in Wadi Finan in Jordan. They sought evidence of when domesticated camels were first introduced into the land of Israel and the surrounding region.

The archaeologists, Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen, used radiocarbon dating to pinpoint the earliest known domesticated camels in Israel to the last third of the 10th century B.C. — centuries after the patriarchs lived and decades after the kingdom of David, according to the Bible. Some bones in deeper sediments, they said, probably belonged to wild camels that people hunted for their meat. Dr. Sapir-Hen could identify a domesticated animal by signs in leg bones that it had carried heavy loads.

The findings were published recently in the journal Tel Aviv and in a news release from Tel Aviv University. The archaeologists said that the origin of the domesticated camel was probably in the Arabian Peninsula, which borders the Aravah Valley. Egyptians exploited the copper resources there and probably had a hand in introducing the camels. Earlier, people in the region relied on mules and donkeys as their beasts of burden.

Does this mean the stories are entirely false?

“One should be careful not to rush to the conclusion that the new archaeological findings automatically deny any historical value from the biblical stories,” Dr. Mizrahi said in an email. “Rather, they established that these traditions were indeed reformulated in relatively late periods after camels had been integrated into the Near Eastern economic system. But this does not mean that these very traditions cannot capture other details that have an older historical background.”

That’s fine. But if the authors of these stories could not get even basic, naturalistic facts right, what rational basis is there to assume any of their fantastic supernaturalistic claims are true or that they carry a special wisdom being divinely revealed at all? Why think of it as a special book of wisdom when its values are actually outdated to the point of evil?

On these points, I recommend my post Why Progressive Interpretations Of The Old Testament Still Do Not Justify Its God Morally and my post Mutable Morality, Not Subjective Morality. Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

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