Is the Bible Wrong about Camels?

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 02/14/2014

According to Professor of Theology and Hebrew Dr. Andrew Steinmann in an interview on “Issues, Etc.,” recent headlines like “Camels Had No Business in Genesis” and “Will Camel Discovery Break the Bible’s Back?” aren’t quite accurate. He says the problem isn’t as much with the archaeology as it is with the archaeologists’ understanding of the Bible:

The Bible very clearly shows people from Mesopotamia and the Arabian Desert having camels early on, and we in fact know from other archaeological evidence in Iran (which doesn’t involve any Bible interpretation) that camels were domesticated long before Abraham’s time, which is about the first time camels are mentioned in the Bible. At least 1,000 years before Abraham, dromedary camels—the single hump ones—were domesticated, and Bactrian camels probably 500 years after that. So we know people in Iran did it, and it spread into Mesopotamia. We have good evidence from Mesopotamia that there were domesticated camels then.

What these archaeologists are doing, though, is when they read about somebody like Abraham having camels, they’re saying, “Aha! The Bible is saying that camels were widespread in Palestine during this period of time, and there’s no archaeological evidence for that.”

Well, indeed, there’s no archaeological evidence for widespread use of camels in Palestine at this time, but that’s not what the Bible is saying. What it is showing is that somebody who originally came from Mesopotamia, like Abraham, he did have some camels. And then the other mentions of camels in Genesis and in the early part of the Bible have to do with either people related to Abraham that were living in the Arabian Desert (for instance, the Ishmaelites...have camels when they come and buy Joseph and take him down to Egypt), or other peoples like that, associated with the Arabian Desert—the Amelekites...who live on the edge of the Arabian Desert are mentioned a number of times having camels. But there’s no mention of Israelites owning camels....

The Bible just doesn’t give any evidence for the assumption that these archaeologists are making that [the Bible says] there’s widespread use of domestic camels in Israel....

When asked for a response to the charge that “what we’re seeing here is obvious evidence that someone’s been tampering with the text and unwittingly gave themselves away by putting camels in Abraham’s possession”:

My response is just the opposite—that they show that they’re very accurate, because they confine it to people from Mesopotamia or the Arabian Peninsula. If this person was going to give himself away, you would expect [to see] him depicting the Canaanites having camels, or people like that. But he doesn’t say the Canaanites or the Phoenicians are making extensive use of camels.

And so by looking at the evidence in particular, and not just saying, “Well, Abraham has camels, so they must have been used all throughout Israel. Yeah, we don’t have any archaeological evidence for that”—well, that’s true, but if it’s only Abraham and people passing through that are using camels, well, then you wouldn’t expect to find a lot of camel bones there in the archaeological evidence during the period of Abraham or even later.

Again, it’s the problem of [the archaeologist’s] assumptions. He’s assuming that if camels are mentioned at all, the Bible must be wrong, rather than looking at the evidence and the distribution of where camels are mentioned, and then that reveals a lot more.

Listen to the rest of the interview. For more information, see articles in Apologetics Press, CrossExamined.org, and Christianity Today.