Domesticated Camels in Genesis

by Stephen Caesar

Domesticated Camels

Critics of the Bible have claimed that the Genesis account is in error when it mentions camels owned by the Patriarchs (Gen. 12:16, 24:63, 30:43). Theses critics claim that camels were not domesticated until 1200 BC-about 600 years after Abraham. But archaeology has revealed considerable pre-Patriarchal evidence that camels were domesticated in Mesopotamia, the land of Abraham's birth.

A Sumerian text written before Abraham's time states, "O Dumuzi, provide me with camel's milk-the milk of the camel is sweet, the cream of the camel is sweet" (Oppenheim 1960: 2). For F. Leo Oppenheim of the University of Chicago, this is proof that camels were "mentioned as domesticated" that far back in history (ibid.).

A plaque found at Tell Asmar, dating from 2500 to 2000 BC, depicts a rider on an animal looking remarkably like a one-humped camel (Dostal 1979: 127). Walter Dostal, an expert on dromedaries (one-humped camels), described the animal as "a dromedary being ridden" (1959: 16). For him, the plaque refutes the theory of late camel domestication, because critics "did not take into consideration all the archaeological facts (e.g. Tell Asmar)" (ibid. 21, n. 13). He concluded: "On the basis of archaeological evidence we can safely assume that this [i.e., camel domestication] had already begun in the third Millennium BC" (ibid. 25).

Archaeologist André Parrot found camel bones in Mesopotamian houses dating before Abraham. He concluded from the finds: "[T]he mention of the camel is surely not an anachronism.…Abraham's servant, having gone ‘to the city of Nahor,' could therefore well accept from Rebecca her offer to bring water to the ten camels that he had brought with him (Gen. 24:10-11)." To Parrot, these discoveries vindicated French scholar René Dussaud, "who rightly rejected" the theory that camels were not domesticated until 1200 BC (1959: 323).

We also have evidence from Syria, which Abraham traversed when going from Ur to Canaan. A seal from the 18th century BC depicts two people riding a bactrian (two-humped) camel (Porada 1977: 1-4). From this image, scholars Edith Porada and Dominique Collon concluded, "The appearance of this animal at a time of intensive commercial activity in Western Asia suggests that the bactrian camel assumed the role of a pack animal on international routes at an earlier date than is generally assumed" (1977: 345). An 18th-century Syrian ration-list mentions "one [measure] as fodder for the camel" (Wiseman 1959: 29; Bulliet 1990: 64). Yale's Albrecht Goetze commented, "This early occurrence of camels…to be fed and therefore domesticated, is worthy of special note" (1959: 37).

Richard Bulliet, an expert on animal domestication, concluded from this find "that in the 19th and 18th centuries BC when Abraham and his immediate descendants appear to have lived, camels were already known in small numbers in the northwestern corner of the Arabian desert…" (1990: 65). Dr. Manfred Weippert of Germany similarly remarked, "The patriarchs, who were certainly nomads with small cattle, may well have possessed the odd camel in Palestine, so that the mention of camels in Genesis need not necessarily be considered anachronistic" (1971: 107, n. 18).

References:

Bulliet, R. (1990). The Camel and the Wheel.

Collon, D., and E. Porada. (1977). "23rd Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale." Archaeology 30:5.

Dostal, W. (1959). "The Evolution of Bedouin Life." In F. Gabrieli, L'Antica Società Beduina.

Dostal, W. (1979). "The Development of Bedouin Life in Arabia Seen from Archaeological Material." In A. Abdalla et al., Studies in the History of Arabia, vol. 1.

Goetze, A. (1959). "Remarks on the Ration Lists from Alalakh VII." Journal of Cuneiform Studies 13.

Oppenheim, A. (1960). Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, vol. 7.

Parrot, A. (1955). Review of La Pénétration des Arabes en Syrie avant l'Islam by René Dussaud. Syria 32.

Porada, E. (1977). "A Cylinder Seal with a Camel in the Walters Art Gallery." Journal of the Walters Art Gallery 36.

Weippert, M. (1971). The Settlement of the Israelite Tribes in Palestine.

Wiseman, D. (1959). "Ration Lists from Alalakh VII." Journal of Cuneiform Studies 13.

Stephen Caesar is currently completing his master's thesis in anthropology/archaeology at Harvard University. He is the author of the e-book The Bible Encounters Modern Science, available at www.1stbooks.com.