everybody…put the camel bones down and step away before someone gets hurt

everybody…put the camel bones down and step away before someone gets hurt February 19, 2014

Camel bones and the Bible have made the news lately, as in this online article, which is pretty sober and worth reading.

The scholarly article that started all this recent hubbub can be found here, which sports the perfectly boring scholarly title “The Introduction of Domestic Camels into the Southern Levant: Evidence from the Aravah Valley.”

Some media outlets, however, have (surprise) gone for the jolt factor, claiming that this is a “new” discovery that reveals that the Bible is a pack of lies, God no longer exists, and portends various apocalyptic scenarios, like the Cubs winning the World Series this year.

Sometimes archaeological finds are unfortunately reported in an exaggerated manner because (1) news outlets are sometimes ridiculous, and (2) archaeological digs need serious funding and without showing some sort of results funding may dry up.

The jolt factor is unfortunate, not only because it can bury truly interesting finds under a blanket or hype, but also because it encourages conservative responses that likewise are geared more to responding to hype than the scholarly issues behind it.

For example, the quick response to the camel bone “discovery” at Christianity Today claims to lay all this camel nonsense to rest, counseling that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions and that evangelical scholars have our back on this one.

I think we just need to take a step back here and calm down.

The article itself (linked above, written by Lidar Sapir-Hen and Erez Ben-Yosef), is a scholarly article that doesn’t claim to expose the heretofore unknown issue of camel domestication in the Patriarchal period, which is an almost universally understood anachronism in Genesis. The authors claim, rather, to have found further evidence for supporting this claim.

Of course, the authors’ argument can be contested, and archaeologists do that–a lot. But responses to the article should not treat this one scholarly study in isolation from what archaeologists have studied and concluded for quite some time: the presence of camels in Israel in the 2nd millennium BC is a problem, and this joins other anachronisms (like the presence of Philistines in Genesis) to suggest strongly that whatever history there is in the Patriarchal stories must also account for the clear 1st millennium BC coloring of those stories.

This point is not in the least controversial and to suggest that it is–either by those reporting the findings or those wishing to contest the findings–is bad form, and misleading.

In this respect, the CT response is a bit disappointing to me, for a couple of reasons.

First, its readers will not gather from it just how well ensconced in the academic study of the Bible (including by evangelicals) the notion of anachronisms in Genesis is. It suggests that all this camel business is just the latest attempt on the part of a sensationalistic media to discredit the Bible. That is false.

Second, the article also suggests, not too subtly, that the archaeologists who did this field work aren’t very good at their job. One problem, we are told, is that they limited themselves to one small geographic area and didn’t consider the full range of evidence of camel domestication elsewhere.

But their study was intended to focus on the Levant–where the Patriarchs were–not “elsewhere.” I’m willing to bet that the authors of the article know very well what is out there beyond the patch of real-estate they were working on and how to interpret their findings in light of that larger scope.

We are also told that, “Archaeologists usually remember that ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.'” “Usually” subtly implies that these archaeologists have forgotten this dictum of archaeology, but I seriously doubt that is the case. I’m sure this isn’t their first rodeo, and we should assume they are weighing a lot of evidence in drawing their conclusions.

Also this slogan can become–and in fact has become, in my opinion–a clever way of evading difficult conclusions by holding things perpetually at bay. After all, sometimes absence of evidence IS evidence of absence. But the CT article subtly suggest that evangelical scholarship takes the more rigorous academic high ground of not jumping to conclusions like Lidar Sapir-Hen and Erez Ben-Yosef are.

Anyway, bottom line as I see it:

  1. Camel domestication in the Patriarchal period (early 2nd millennium BC) in general is a problem with or without this recent article.
  2. It is perfectly OK to hope that perhaps more evidence will be forthcoming to support the Bible’s depiction of 2nd millennium life, but as it stands the presence of anachronisms in general in Genesis is not seriously disputed and cannot be tabled simply by “refuting” this one article.
  3. The presence of anachronisms does not in and of itself render Genesis historically valueless, but it does likely tell us something about the time when these stories were written and the perspective of the writers. A helpful analogy I first heard from Daniel Fleming at NYU is that Genesis is like a Renaissance painting of Madonna and Child: Mary and Jesus look like Italian nobility.
  4. Any credible defense of the historical accuracy of Genesis needs to take seriously anachronisms and other indications of later authorship rather than feel the pressing need to hang historical accuracy on 2nd millennium authorship. To try to make that case in essence undoes several centuries of biblical scholarship, which I feel is highly ill-advised.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Lisa

    I don’t understand why it’s so hard to understand that the God who could make a full-grown man (Adam) is the same God who could make a full-grown earth (complete with dinosaurs!).

    • BL

      I’ve never seen anyone argue that He *couldn’t*. The question is whether He *did*. He gave us brains to use and evidence to examine, and the reasonable conclusions drawn by science in no way undermine my faith.

    • It is very hard not to see your model of God as intentionally deceiving us. This is because when we assume (i) uniformitarianism; (ii) evolution, we make new, cool discoveries. They lead to safer buildings (against earthquakes and more) and medical technology which saves lives. Why would God create a reality where believing in falsehoods lead to excellent things that he would seem to value (safety and health)?

      Can you give an example of God deceiving us for our good in the Bible? I cannot. I do think it’s accurate to use the word ‘deceive’, here. If beliefs cannot be tested by evaluating the actions they lead to in real life (judge a tree by its fruit), then we are stuck with Gnosticism; the early Church was very much against Gnosticism, [as I recall] because of its bad fruit!

      • ctrace

        >This is because when we assume (i) uniformitarianism; (ii) evolution, we
        make new, cool discoveries. They lead to safer buildings (against
        earthquakes and more) and medical technology which saves lives

        Thus demonstrating the difference between education and indoctrination.

      • ctrace

        Are you deceived because Adam was created as a grown man? Is God to be put on the stand and accused of deception by you because Adam was created as a full grown man? Did Jesus deceive when He turned the water into wine? Did He deceive when He did any of His miracles?

        You (and your theory of evolution) can’t even answer which came first, the chicken or the egg, and you would dismiss God’s supernatural act of Creation (from nothing) by calling it deception?

        • Dorfl


          There were animals laying eggs long before anything evolved that you would recognise as a chicken.

          • ctrace

            I don’t know if it’s sad or hilarious that you got 11 likes on that response. These are the types of things (teleological reality) evolutionists could blithely pass over when evolutionists thought cells were mere blobs of protoplasm. It was flat-earth theory from the beginning.

        • Pete

          By equating a miracle of Jesus with God creating the universe you are linking totally different events together to support your belief. Obviously Jesus did not decieve when he turned water into wine, thats just hyperbole to make your argument look credible. God has revealed himself to us in two books, namely the Bible and his Creation.
          There is no biblical evidence to support that God created the earth with the appearance of age, to make that assumption is to read your own interpretation into scripture. If Occam’s razor is applied, the burden of proof rests firmly on you to prove that the light of dead stars we see millions of lightyears away is actually God giving an old appearance to nature to fit with the Bible. Logically, biblically and scientifically that doesn’t make any sense.

          • ctrace

            The pure analogy is the first one I cited, which you self-servingly ignored: the creation of Adam as a full grown man. Was God being deceptive in that act?

  • Shaun

    Pete, any chance you could quickly highlight some of the other most notable anachronisms and other indications of later authorship in a follow up post?

    • Carlos Bovell

      From what I recall, Pete talks about this some in his Exodus commentary. You might start there…

  • herewegokids

    Hahaha… yes, step away everybody! Thanks for being a voice of reason!

  • John Shakespeare

    ‘Genesis is like a Renaissance painting ofMadonna and Child: Mary and Jesus look like Italian nobility.’ Excellent analogy. Lots to explore in that comparison. Very, very helpful. Thank you.

  • Relevant as ever: The Science News Cycle.

  • Dan

    I was really surprised not to see something about how this works fine with an incarnational model of scripture 😉

  • Carlos Bovell

    Leadership Journal (sister publication of CT) has a companion article entitled,

    “Don’t Let Abraham’s Nonexistent Camels Destroy Your Faith”

    How stressful to be an inerrantist Christian! Evangelical students should not have to live like this!

    • ctrace

      History suggests it’s the those who think they keep finding error in the Bible who are the ones having the problems. Archaeology tends to disappoint them over and over. But their side has never been overly remorseful at being wrong.

      • Carlos Bovell

        When an error pops up that can’t be controverted, just move the goal posts and say that the Bible is being read wrong. Then the “history” you refer to (of interpretation?) can always be made to look however you need it to look in order to keep the faithful convinced that history’s always on their side.

        Another point is this: you seem awfully nervous about the prospect of being wrong, about making a mistake, about having the Bible have a mistake, about not having reliable (= no errors allowed anywhere?!) source of knowledge (as your apologetic schema has you setting things up). Can you see the artificial asymmetry you are imposing on your belief structure?

        Generally speaking, if archaeology is wrong, then it’s wrong and we’ll seek to correct it. If evolutionary theory needs to be modified, then let’s modify it. Exciting stuff! If the history of ancient Israel needs to be rewritten, then let’s re-write it. How much we’ll learn along the way! If the documentary history of scripture has to be adjusted, then let’s adjust it. It’ll be interesting because the Bible’s compositional history is so convoluted, it’s might even be too difficult to map.

        But if the Bible’s inerrancy gets threatened–like (and for the record this is a ridiculous situation inerrantists put themselves in) by those camels that may never have belonged to Abraham–well, that’s it then! we should call it quits because our faith has been destroyed. Don’t you see how absurd this is?

        Even if, for whatever reason, you can’t see it, can’t you at least empathize (hypothetically or whatever) with students who can’t go on with a life of “faith” so feeble as this?

  • John Hawthorne

    Pete: I was going to address the CT Camels story in my Tower of Babel post because it fit the idea of wall-building so well but I was running long so I skipped it. I did write a tweet to them that at best they could say “some scholars disagree.” But they were too busy defending turf, so it’s easier to just dismiss the scholars.

  • ctrace

    “The first mention of camels in Scripture is in Genesis 12, after
    Pharaoh took Sarai into his palace. “He treated Abram well for her sake,
    and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and
    female servants, and camels” (12:16). Job, widely regarded as living
    around the same time as Abram, had 3,000 camels at the beginning of the
    book, and twice as many at the end. He lived in Uz, which was in Arabia. So the biblical evidence is that there were camels in Arabia around 2000 BC,
    and that Pharaoh had some too. This matches what we see from the
    archaeological record. A paper titled ‘The Camel in Ancient Egypt’
    stated, “The proposed time of camel entry into Egypt after its
    domestication in Arabia was found between 2500 and 1400 BC”.
    So not only did domesticated camels exist, they were in Egypt when
    Abraham was there. So this fits the biblical account perfectly.”


    • ctrace

      Oh, my. Just went over to that Christianity Today article and found out the scientists (love that word, coined in 1830, has such a crazy hat sound to it these days) used *radiocarbon dating* to make their claims. With such dating methods what happens is they get usually wildly different results; so they tend to go with what best fits their preconceptions and deligate all the other results – famously – as ‘noise.’

    • Muff Potter

      I much prefer he asses and she asses. The Elizabethan text (Gen 12:16) has soooo much more penache.

  • C. Bauserman

    It just makes sense. People write according to what they know, in their time. And if they write concerning a past time, they write about what has been passed down through oral tradition or from what they know (or think they know) about that historical period, most likely committing anachronisms as they go. It’s no different than the book of Daniel most likely being written during a later date and trying to compare one empire (Babylon) to another (possibly Greece?) through heightened theological rhetoric, an old story carried down from a timeless tradition being used to reflect a more current political reality.

  • elcalebo

    What respect I had for CT is almost totally gone by now. Often, simply following the links from their news reactions shows that the paragraphs in which the links appear are seriously misrepresenting the facts. (they’ve also deleted a couple of my comments calling them out on that)

  • Andrew Dowling

    Well, the media headlines seemed to assume that most Christians adhere to a more literalist, inerrant position . . .which is the only ‘faith’ that would be shaken by such a minor finding. Then CT, which may be the most widely read Christian publication in the U.S (I’m just guessing)., basically gives the alarmists their ammunition and then some with their ridiculous and juvenile response,

  • Brain P.

    Is something on something else being not newsworthy more or less not newsworthy than the not newsworthy thing itself? (And what does that say about my lameness of a comment.)

  • Archeology shows the OT is mythological folklore until the time of King Hezekiah, 700BCE or so, roughly the time that it was written, and then it begins to maintain some historical accuracy.

  • Hanan
    • Carlos Bovell

      The point is not that camels won’t break the Bible’s back (clever!) because there actually were camels after all (maybe there were, maybe there weren’t), but rather that we should come to a place in our spiritual journeys where we don’t have to fear what they conclude about the camels because our account of biblical authority is not vulnerable to being broken that way.

      • ctrace

        Who’s fearful? This is a strawman. Do you understand faith? I mean, just even a systematic theology definition of faith? We enjoy seeing the world hitting their head against the Bible like hitting an anvil.

        • BT

          Kind of a horrible analogy. I don’t think the vision of someone’s head on an anvil is enjoyable in the least.

          I think that reflects a certain narcissism in our evangelical culture today.

          • ctrace

            Maybe what you enjoy isn’t what you need to hear.

          • BT

            Or maybe the evangelical world has lost a heartfelt concern and respect for the lost. We should not rejoice in someone’s banging their head on the bible. Rejoicing should be reserved for those that find God, not in those who fail to.

        • Rick Presley

          Answers in Genesis represents the most visible view of “the fearful” who insist on a literal interpretation. This “discovery” pretty much undermines their presuppositions.

  • I too was a bit surprised about the brouhaha trying to make the camel story out as something new.

    Not only is the camel anachronism not new in academic circles, it is not new in the popularizations of OT archeology. E.g., look in Israel Finkelstein’s books and popularizations by his associates.

  • In your point #2 when you say “It is perfectly OK to hope” seem to support the desperation to protect the historicity of the Jewish scripture. Maybe it was a hat tip to those not fully on board with skepticism.

    It is obvious, as you write, that the scriptures were not written anywhere near the time they report and it is clear that most of it is contrived to make their literary points. Do you think the authors had camels in their area of the world at that time. I can’t imagine they injected animals from distant lands into their stories. But I certainly can imagine them inventing Patriarchs to accomplish their literary goal.

  • Gregory Peterson

    Sort of reminds me of people who think that Native Americans have always had horses.

  • Pat

    So, when it is convenient, an evolutionist can say to the creationist that the “absence of evidence is NOT the evidence of absence” because they can’t find transitional fossils. But when a creationist says the same thing to suggest that just because they haven’t found evidence of camels during a specific time doesn’t mean that there weren’t any camels, is not ok? As a creationist, the most wearisome part of this whole debate is the absolute disrespect that naturalists show creationists. When I am speaking to a naturalist, at no time do I think that person hasn’t given the matter considerable thought. And at no time, do I accuse them of being stupid or close-minded. Why is it acceptable for a naturalist to be disrespectful to a creationist? When I ask a question that the naturalist doesn’t have an answer to, instead of saying, “Gee, I don’t know.” they bring out the insults that I have been brainwashed and have been sold a bill of goods. And they say this without even the slightest consideration that MAYBE, JUST MAYBE, they’re the ones that have been brainwashed and sold the bill of goods.

  • Guest

    The article itself (linked above, written by Lidar Sapir-Hen and Erez Ben-Yosef), is a scholarly article that doesn’t claim to expose the heretofore unknown issue of camel domestication in the Patriarchal period, which is an almost universally understood anachronism in Genesis.

    Camel domestication in the Patriarchal period (early 2nd millennium BC) in general is a problem with or without this recent article.

    Respectfully, I don’t think that the issue is as clear cut as you make it sound.

    Domesticated camels, while perhaps not common, were certainly not unknown in the early second millennium BC, and even as far back as the third millennium BC. There are numerous textual references and faunal remains that indicate as much.

    An honest reading of the biblical texts has to admit that Genesis is not claiming that domesticated camels were common in the MB or LB, but merely that they were in use by some people. Which is exactly what we find in the archaeological record.