February 2014 Archives

Genesis and Camels

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Earlier this week the NYT published a critique of Genesis based on, of all things, the appearance of camels within its narratives, and I'm starting to see more and more discussion of this, virtually all of it simply repeating the claims of that article, without much at all in the way of careful reflection on the problems in the broader thesis that it puts forward, which I don't think the evidence actually supports.

This isn't actually a very new objection. Scholars have long objected that there isn't a lot of evidence of domesticated animals within the Canaanite region during that time. But there is evidence of domesticated animals in Egypt and Mesopotamia during the period Genesis describes, and the NYT article even mentions that, and it says they were more commonly used more by those nomadic peoples living in the more desert regions. The only thing new here is some carbon dating of the bones of camels, along with techniques for measuring properties of the bone, which can allow them to determine whether they were wild or domesticated and had to carry greater weight for much of the time.

I think there are several reasons to be very skeptical of the conclusions the NYT article draws. Here are a few:

1. Genesis doesn't report lots of camels being used during the time of the patriarchs, as the article claims. They are sometimes listed among the animals they owned, but usually it's in smaller numbers, and the only reports of their being used for riding are to cross the desert regions or when referring to nomadic peoples like the Midianites who lived within such regions.

2. Abraham and Lot had to cross that desert to get to Canaan, and the only animals they could have used would have been camels. The NYT article even says that no other animals would be able to make that journey so easily, and even their skepticism doesn't apply to that sort of trip. So if Abraham did come from a region where camels were used regularly at this time (as the article admits), and he had to use them to cross the desert (as the article admits), it stands to reason that he wouldn't have killed them all when he got there and would have had at least a small enough number remaining when he had to send his servant to find a wife for Isaac and so on, and we know they kept their own cultural identity and may have been hesitant to trade their camels because of their relatively small number and inability or procure more while there. They might  have increased in number during the time he was living in Canaan, as long as there were only a relatively small number of them in this period, belonging precisely to his family, but that doesn't mean we should think there would be evidence of the larger number of them that the NYT article seems to expect there would be if they had them.

3. Abraham is portrayed as being rich, and the existence of a small number of camels in the lists of animals he owned is presented in the book as evidence of his wealth. If they were common around him, the small number of camels would seem insignificant compared with the huge number of other animals he had. But even a smaller number is presented as evidence of his great wealth. So the portrayal of his camels in the book fits nicely with the claim that the locals didn't have them.

4. If his family only used them when traveling across the desert or on long journeys (as the narrative itself indicates) but just maintained them as domesticated by not pack animals or riding animals, then even the ones that they did have might not have appeared to be domesticated by the methods of measuring the bone density and such that these scientists have been using.

5. So I think at best the conclusion being put forward here goes way beyond the evidence. If someone were to conclude from the Genesis narrative that camels were being used throughout the Canaanite region the way the article assumes the book presents things, then it would create a problem. It's still an argument from silence, but it would be odd for there to be no preserved camels from this period if they were that commonly used. But the Genesis narrative doesn't present such a picture, and there's no reason to think the picture it does present is unlikely to have produced the (lack of) evidence this new research provides.


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