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Were there camels in the Middle East during Bible times?

translate camels in the Bible

Old Testament books connect camels with figures such as Abraham (Genesis 12:16), Jacob (Genesis 31:17), and Job (Job 1:3). Critics sometimes claim these references prove those texts were written long after their supposed events. The skeptic claims camels were not domesticated until well after the times of the patriarchs. This is presumed to mean that whoever invented those passages did not know this and recorded something historically false. Those conclusions not only badly misinterpret the Bible, but they also misrepresent what researchers and archaeologists have discovered. Looked at fully and logically, nothing in the Bible conflicts with established history.

Since the precise location and timing of Job is unknown, most criticism about camels focuses on Abraham. A common formulation of this attack suggests that the Bible speaks of camels being widely known and used during Abraham’s time, around 2000 BC, even though camels were not domesticated until after 1000 BC. Therefore, says the critic, those biblical references were made up by a later writer who didn’t know the correct details. While these claims may match popular assumptions, they aren’t what the Bible says.

Common to all variations of this criticism is assuming information that is not there. Or stretching information to unreasonable conclusions. A 2014 study from the University of Tel Aviv in Israel is most often mentioned in this argument. That study involved radiometric dating of camel bones found near an ancient copper smelting site. The oldest bones at the site date to around 900 BC. This, it was posited, meant camels were not used in that region prior to that time. Skeptics will then claim the Bible indicates widespread, common use of camels centuries earlier. Neither conclusion makes sense.

Secular history indicates that camels were domesticated as early as 3000 BC. They are recorded in Mesopotamian art and text prior to 2000 BC. This included use of camels for milk, meat, hide, transport, and trade. Careless skeptics speak of Abraham and his experiences in the Near Middle East, forgetting that Abraham was originally from Mesopotamia (Genesis 11:26–28). He relocated to Canaan but was not born and raised there (Genesis 12:1–4).

Scripture also doesn’t claim that camels were everywhere in Canaan during the lives of men like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Those patriarchs owned camels; this doesn’t mean everyone did. Since Abraham came from outside of Canaan, his family’s use of camels would have been seen as a sign of wealth—and this is how most references in Genesis are framed.

Claiming that the oldest bones found at an industrial site establish a firm date for the start of camel domestication is illogical. Instead, the finding would suggest well-developed use of camels no later than that date. The lack of camel bones in some ancient cities is also not a sign of their absence. Large, expensive animals have rarely been left to rot wherever they fall. Dairy and beef farms have bred and sold hundreds of thousands of cattle for decade after decade, but the grounds of those farms have virtually no cattle bones.

In short, animals don’t need to be common to a region before someone can own them or write about them. Scripture doesn’t claim that camels were widely used and established in Canaan. When Abraham was born in Mesopotamia, camel domestication was already centuries old. There is no reason to think he could not have brought camels when he moved into Canaan. Archaeological evidence supports the idea that camels were used in the wider region long before Abraham’s life, though they were not adopted as quickly or fully in Canaan as they were elsewhere.

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Were there camels in the Middle East during Bible times?
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This page last updated: March 26, 2024