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Research: Did the Patriarchs Have Camels? Adulterating the Bible

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Archives / 1953 / May



Research: Did the Patriarchs Have Camels? Adulterating the Bible

Siegfried H. Horn

Professor of Archeology and History of Antiquity, S.D.A. Theological Seminary


The Bible represents Abraham as a possessor of camels (Gen. 12:16), sending his servants to Haran with a caravan of ten camels to secure a wife for Isaac (Gen. 24:10). It describes the Egyptians as possessing camels in the time of the Exodus (Ex. 9:3) and hints at an acquaintance of the Israelites with that animal by prohibiting the eating of its meat (Lev. 11:4).

These references to apparently domesticated camels in the Pentateuch have been considered as interpolations of late editors into the original books. W. F. Albright, who defends the "historicity of the account of the Exodus," saying that "there is no longer any room for the still dominant attitude of hypercriticism toward the early historical traditions of Israel," 1 voices only two pages further on some doubt about the correctness of the early records of Israel because of the references to camels:

"It is interesting to note that camels are mentioned only once in the whole of the Pentateuch,2 aside from probably anachronistic allusions in a few passages in Genesis and from the mention of the camel among unclean animals." 3

The consensus of modern Bible critics on this subject is expressed very succinctly by Robert Pfeiffner, of Harvard University, who states that "the assumptions that camels were used in Egypt in ancient times" belong to "the most obvious errors" of the books containing the passages of Genesis 12:16 and Exodus 9:3.4

These two quotations illustrate the problem the fundamentalist faces in defending a Mosaic date of the Pentateuch and the historicity of the patriarchal stories. If it is true that the camel was not domesticated in the early second millennium B.C. and the patriarchs could have had asses but no camels at that time, we would be compelled to admit either that a later writer projected the conditions under which he lived back into earlier times or that the whole story is fictitious.

Attempts have been made in the past to show that camels were in use during the patriarchal period. The conservative writers of such articles did, however, not realize the weakness of using reliable and questionable material side by side.6 The existence of the wild camel in the third or second millennium B.C. is not questioned by the critics, but they do question the use of the domesticated camel in the Fertile Crescent of the ancient Near East during that time. The finding of camel bones in prehistoric or very early historic sites* is, therefore, no proof that camels were used at that time as beasts of burden.

The present state of our knowledge about the camel has been summarized by Albright in his book The Archaeology of Palestine, from which the following quotation is taken:

"In the eighteenth century B.C. the ass was the chief beast of burden. In the Cappadocian and the Mari tablets we hear of caravans of asses, but never of caravans of camels; the oldest published reference to the camel dates from the eleventh century B.C. Moreover, the great mass of archaeological evidence now available yields only two or three doubtful representations of the camel during the entire period from the beginning of the third to the end of the second millennium B.C. Efforts to attribute more representations of the camel to this long period have so far been unsuccessful. Of course, there can be no doubt that wild camels were common in North Africa and south-western Asia in neolithic and chalcolithic times; representations of them are found on the cliffs which line the Nile Valley and at Kilwa in Transjordan, while camel figurines were not uncommon in late predynastic Egypt.' It would appear that the early wild camel was nearly exterminated in the regions bordering on the Fertile Crescent in the course of the third millennium, and that it was slowly domesticated in more remote parts of Arabia during the second millennium. Our oldest certain evidence for the domestication of the camel cannot antedate the end of the twelfth century B.C. These facts do not necessarily prove that earlier references to the camel in Genesis and Exodus are anachronistic, but they certainly suggest such an explanation." 8

To this statement should be added one made even more recently in which Albright admits that in some instances the domesticated camel may have been known in the Middle Bronze period (late third and early second millennium B.C.).9 This is almost an admission that Abraham may have had camels and that the early references to this animal in Genesis and Exodus are not so anachronistic after all.

The present writer finds it impossible to agree with Albright's statement (taken from the quotation given above) that "the great mass of archaeological evidence now available yields only two or three doubtful representations of the camel during the entire period from the beginning of the third to the end of the second millennium B.C." The collections made by the present writer during the last several years have produced numerous "doubtful" pictorial representations of the camel from that period which will not be quoted in this article, and the fol lowing more or less reliable representations showing that the camel was more in use in Egypt, Palestine-Syria, and Mesopotamia prior to the first millennium B.C. than is generally assumed.

Petrie found a pottery camel's head with objects of the first dynasty (beginning of the third millennium B.C.10), at Abydos in Egypt, a discovery which led him to the conclusion that the camel had been known during that early period, died out afterward, and was reintroduced in later times.11

A small limestone vessel in the form of a recumbent pack camel was found in a burial of the first dynasty and published as such by Scharff.12 When the zoologist Hilzheimer pointed out that no evidence of camels exists for that time from elsewhere, Scharfle retracted his previous assertion without explaining how this camel figure had intruded an undisturbed First Dynasty burial.13

The following evidence is of a different nature but even stronger proof for the use of the camel in Egypt during the Pyramid Age. Miss Caton-Thompson found in gypsum quarries of the Faiyum a three-feet-long rope which through a microscopic examination proved to be made of camel's hair. The excavator says that there is "no possibility of an error in the dating of therope either in the Third [2665-2615 B.C.] or, at latest, the early Fourth Dynasty [2615-2502].""

The next certain piece of evidence is a pottery figurine of a camel laden with water jars, found by Petrie in a tomb of pure Nineteenth Dynasty (1321-1201 B.C.) contents at Rifeh in Egypt-15

From the lands of Syria and Palestine we have two representations of the camel dated to the first half of the second millennium B.C.

The Phoenician port city of Byblos has furnished us with the earliest figurine of a camel. Found in a temple foundation deposit of the eighteenth century B.C., it shows a camel in a lying position, so characteristic of this animal.16 Albright points to the missing hump and considers it to be an ass.17 This view, however, seems to be untenable. The animal depicted does not at all look like an ass but has all the features of a camel. It is true that the figurine shows no hump, but there is a hole on the back suggesting that the hump had been fashioned separately and inserted in this hole. The possibility cannot be excluded that a riding man or some burden was intended to be fastened to the back of this animal by way of the hole, but in view of the other features pointing to a camel, it is more likely that the missing part is the hump.

Macalister found a figurine representing a camel's head in the Palestinian city of Gezer. It came from a stratum that he labeled "Second Semitic," corresponding to the late Middle Bronze Age of a more recent nomenclature, which makes it only slightly later than the By blos example.18

Mesopotamia has furnished us several representations of the camel from the earliest pre-historic period down to the time when the evidence becomes plentiful toward the end of the second millennium B.C.

A clay figurine of a dromedary or the one-humped camel was found in the district of the Anu-Zikkurat at Uruk (Biblical Erech). This object is dated by the excavators in the Obeid period which they assign to the fourth millennium B.C. Hilzheimer, who had caused Scharff to doubt the genuineness of the camel figure found at a prehistoric site of Egypt (see above), states that the animal represented certainly bears the features of a dromedary, and expresses his astonishment about this early occurrence.18

From Tell el-Asmar, the ancient Sumerian city of Eshnunna, comes a clay plaque, probably from the Ur III level (2052-1943 u.c). Henri Frankfort, the excavator, says that it "shows a rider on an animal in which one would like to discover a camel but for the fact that the use of the camel in Mesopotamia at that period remains unproved." 20 As the features of the animal represented show dearly that only a camel can be meant, as A. Pohl rightly remarked,3,1 this plaque provides the evidence that the camel was in use during that time.

The Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore possesses a cylinder seal which Cyrus Gordon dates in the period from 1600-1300 B.C. It depicts two figures in long robes facing each other on the humps of a Bectrian camel, of which Gordon remarks that it is "probably the earliest known clear occurrence of the two-humped camel in art."

* The excavations at Aqar Quf, the ancient Dur Kurigalzu, brought to light a "small, beautifully sculptured head of a camel" in terra cotta. This object has been dated by the excavators in the fourteenth century B.C.23 Beginning with Tiglath-Pileser I 2* (1114- 1076 B.C.), the camel is more frequently mentioned in Mesopotamian inscriptions and on reliefs, showing that its domestic use had become more common than previously.

After the available evidence has been listed it is admitted that the clear cases of camel representations for the third and second millenniums B.C. are not numerous. However, the fact that representations of camels dating from those millenniums have been found at all in Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia proves that the domesticated camel was known during this period.

Those who maintain a critical attitude to ward the Pentateuch have claimed that the camel was not in use during the patriarchal period simply because the evidence for that early time was lacking. Statements to this effect made in the course of the last fifty years have had to be modified periodically when new discoveries showed that some use of the domesticated animal was evident during the time of the patriarchs. For instance, the evidence for Mesopotamia, consisting of four representations of the camel before the eleventh century B.C., has come to light only very recently, the earliest of these four representations being published in 1937.

This shows that the critical scholar pronouncing a Biblical statement as anachronistic for lack of supporting evidence has to modify his statements after every new discovery. The fundamentalist, on the other hand, believing his Bible even in points where proof for its veracity is lacking, receives with every new discovery stronger evidence that his faith is solidly founded. No need exists for him to change his attitude in regard to Biblical statements.

The fact that no ancient Egyptian word for the camel has been discovered so far, and that the camel is never depicted in Egyptian tomb scenes, seems to point out that the dynastic Egyptians did not possess many camels. However, it would be an erroneous conclusion to think that the camel was entirely missing among the domestic animals of the Egyptians, because some representations of domesticated camels, a rope of camel's hair, and the statement of Exodus 9:3 point in a different direction. The same holds true for the land of Canaan and Mesopotamia.

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1 W. F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity (2d ed., Baltimore, 1946), p. 194.

2 Albright does not state which text he has in mind.

3 "Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity, p. 196.

4 'Robert Pfeiffer, Introduction to the Old Testament (New York, 1941), p. 154.

5  See for instance the article "Abraham's Camels," written by the conservative professor Joseph P. Free.

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