About that Camel and Abraham

camelLast week a bit of a media kerfuffle emerged after several media outlets reported that a “new discovery” cast doubts about the “accuracy and truthfulness” of the Bible. This was not stunning news, these kinds of report happen often. Specifically here, the pieces were referring to an archeological discussion about camel bones.

The reports appears to center around a piece written by Martin Hiede, back in 2010, titled “The Domestication of the Camel: Biological, Archaeological andInscriptional Evidence from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel and Arabia,and Literary Evidence from the Hebrew Bible.”

Certainly other, more informed folks, have written about this and given their more informed perspectives on the archeology behind this. Essentially, these qualified archeologists were excavating the site of an ancient copper smelting camp in the Aravah Valley when they found some leg bones from camels. After dating the bones to about BCE 900, they also noted that the bones showed no signs of domestication. This brings doubt to the use of camels in Genesis 12:16; 24:35; 30:43; 37:25 where camels are referenced in ways that demonstrate domestication.

However, the reports of the Bible’s utter demise seem, yet again, to be overstated.

As a means of working through this “new issue” let’s apply a couple of thoughtful apologetic processes consider the claim:

  • One of the first things I did upon hearing that the Bible’s testimony was suddenly both under scrutiny and possibly undermined, yes that should be read ironically, was consult a couple of technical commentaries I have in my study. One of the commentaries, Nahum Sarna’s excellent installment for the JPS Torah Commentary, written in 2001, points out the issues of early domestication against the certain archeological evidences (pg 96.) Sarna points out that this issue has been known for a while and there are some responses. He suggests that, perhaps, we are dealing with a different species of camel than is found elsewhere. So, two points here: 1) this isn’t a new problem and 2) very good, very informed scholars have already provided some responses.
  • Then we look deeper at the archeological discovery and note that negative evidence is tenuous at best and, in the words of Professor Hiede, “Proving that something did not exist at some time and place in the past is every archaeologist’s nightmare because proof of its existence may, despite all claims to the contrary, be unearthed at some future date” (337) This is not an exhaustive discovery since the site being excavated isn’t the entire ancient world. Other evidences may spring up in the future, the responsible action is to note the challenge and not make wild claims.
  • Even if this text comes from a later redactor, a reasonable claim in Old Testament scholarship, including evangelical scholars, this doesn’t mean the text suddenly a) isn’t inspired, b) isn’t coherent with the teaching of the Bible. We stand at such a distance from the inscripturation of the biblical text, especially the Hebrew Bible, that many references and idiomatic language can be lost in translation. However, an honest and forthright investigation of the text doesn’t take every “new story” uncovered four years after its publication and blow it up out of context.
  • If we trust in the media establishment to communicate authentically and with scholarly nuance we are setting ourselves up for failure. As Anthony LeDonne has aptly pointed out, even the media’s reporting they are confusing 900 BCE with CE 900…a difference of 1800 years. When scholars in the field, such as Alan Millard write concise letters to the editor much of the issues are cleared up. This is because these scholars have seen the issues before and also know of the contrary data that exists. Archeology is not the enemy of the faithful, yet too many reporters make their money off false-dichtomies like this.

 

The biblical text can be confusing at time and, in light of the scant archeological data around it, hard to comprehend as well. However, we will all do well to consider the actual arguments being offered and then see where scholars are in dealing with the primary issues. For evangelicals, and other Christians, we can have confidence in an inspired text that, though thoroughly troubling at times, is an inspired text that accomplishes what it sets out to do when properly understood amid its pre-modern times.