by Stephen Caesar
Domestication of Camels Predated Abraham
Another target of skeptics was the fact that Genesis mentions domesticated camels in the time of the Patriarchs (Gen. 12:16; 24:10; 32:7). According to critics, the camel was not domesticated until around 1200 BC, several centuries after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived. Recent discoveries have shown that this dismissal is unwarranted. Excavations in eastern Arabia have turned up evidence that camels were first domesticated by Semites before the time the Patriarchs were supposed to have lived.
Much of this evidence has been examined by M. C. A. MacDonald, member of the Oriental Faculty at the University of Oxford and an epigraphist specializing in ancient North Arabian and Aramaic inscriptions. He wrote: "Recent research has suggested that the domestication of the camel took place in southeastern Arabia some time in the third millennium [BC]. Originally, it was probably bred for its milk, hair, leather, and meat, but it cannot have been long before its usefulness as a beast of burden became apparent." 1
According to biblical chronology, the Patriarchs lived in the period of the nineteenth or eighteenth centuries BC, since the Israelites dwelt in Egypt for 430 years (Ex. 12:40), and the Temple of Solomon was built 480 years after the Exodus (1 Kgs. 6:1). Since the Temple was built in the tenth century BC, simple arithmetic places the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob well after the first domestication of the camel. When we juxtapose the biblical date for the Patriarchs with the date for the earliest camel domestication, the claim of anachronism evaporates.
There is an additional point raised by these recent findings. According to a map accompanying MacDonald's article, the principle area where domesticated camels were first used extensively was the Syro-Arabian Desert, due west of Ur, Abraham's birthplace.2 Additionally, MacDonald noted that the pre-patriarchal domestication of camels by Semites so close to Ur eventually "made possible direct traffic between major centers of civilization and trade, across regions which had previously been regarded as impassable barriers. The inhabitants of the Syro-Arabian Desert thus held the key to the crossing of these regions, and this gave them a commercial and strategic importance to the rulers of the states around them that was out of all proportion to their economic and military strength.3
As Prof. MacDonald points out, the newly-domesticated camel was used to traverse rough, inhospitable terrain such as that between Mesopotamia, where Abraham was born, and Canaan, where he and his offspring eventually settled. This, of course, is in keeping with the frequent mention of camels in the biblical story of three individuals who expended considerable effort traveling between Mesopotamia and Canaan (Gen. 12:4-5; 24:10ff; 28:2-5).
(to be continued)
Stephen Caesar is currently pursuing his master's degree in archaeology at Harvard University.
He participated in that institution's excavation at Ashkelon in June and July of 2000.
1. M. C. A., MacDonald, "North Arabia in the First Millennium BCE," in Vol. 2 of Civilizations of the Near East,
J. M. Sasson, ed. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1995), p. 1,357.
2. Ibid., p. 1,356.
3. Ibid., p. 1,357.