A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Would Abraham Have Walked a Mile for a Camel?

RJS at Jesus Creed has a thoughtful and excellent post on the over-sensationalized flap as to when camels were domesticated in the ancient Near East. The evidence does suggest that in the time of the patriarchs and matriarchs, camels were not likely domesticated, Genesis clearly mentions domesticated camels. While it is not an unimportant question, the controversy itself is much ado about nothing.

By the way, today is Wednesday. Do you know what day it is?
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There has been something of a stir around the internet and on the news the last  week or two. It seems that a couple of archaeologists at Tel Aviv University published a paper suggesting that the earliest appearance of the domesticated camel in Israel an environs was ca. 930 BCE (pdf here) (BCE = before common era, essentially the same as BC). Off hand this seems fascinating, but not terribly surprising. Yet it raises issues with the interpretation of scripture. The story has hit the major news channels, blogs, and Christianity Today.


Perhaps evidence will be found for domesticated camels in Israel ca. 2000 BCE, but probably not. The lack of evidence to date, despite evidence for other forms of livestock,  makes it seem rather unlikely that camels were part of the picture in 2000 BCE or even at the time of Gideon. That they were around at the time of David seems quite possible, although not in large numbers.

I don't think any of this undermines the significance of Genesis or the rest of the Old Testament as the word of God. But it does mean that we have to rethink the way we approach the text. Although we find real history in the text of the Old Testament, we must also remember that the history is told according to ancient Near Eastern norms and practices. These are not the same as modern expectations. Camels are incidental to the story and it doesn't really matter if this detail was shaped by later experience or not.  At the time of the exile and later camels were simply an expected part of the landscape. I rather expect that any wealthy man of that time would have camels among his livestock, especially for long distance travel, and this assumption found its way into the story.

Many of the stories that have hit the news over the last couple of weeks sensationalize both the finding and its consequences. This is not the straw that broke the bible's back, nor does it mean that Judaism was invented during the Babylonian exile and projected it back into the distant past as one blogger claimed.

There is a message for us as Christians however. We have to learn to read scripture for the sweep of the story and for the mission of God in human history calling out his people.  Genesis is a story of the origins of Israel as the people of God. Whether camels were part of the picture or not doesn't really matter.
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The entire post can be read here.

2 comments:

John Partridge said...

On the other hand, there seems to be a fair amount of archeological evidence that shows the domestication of camels at 2000, and even 3000 BCE. I saw this article yesterday:

http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2014/02/17/The-Date-of-Camel-Domestication-in-the-Ancient-Near-East.aspx#Article

Allan Bevere said...

John,

Thanks for the link.

I think RJS in her post was contesting the interpretation of such evidence. I am not much of an expert in the field of camel domestication archaeology (there's an exciting field), so I cannot say for sure. But I think RJS' point at the end of the post is important. While there is clearly history in the patriarchal narratives (and there must be history), whether Abraham actually owned camels or whether a later editor assumed it because by then wealthy people owned camels is not a significant issue.