Were camels domesticated in the time of Abraham?

The Challenge

WF Albright, one of the most famous 20th century archaeologists, argued that the camel was not domesticated until around the 1st millennium, well after the time of Abraham.1 This was considered persuasive by many Biblical scholars, who were convinced that references in Genesis to camels in Egypt during the time of Abraham2 are anachronistic. 3 4 5

The Evidence

Some evidence alleged for very early camel use in Mesopotamia has proved dubious,6 7 but Albright overlooked evidence for camel domestication reported by the French archaeologist Petrie in 1907.8 However, Petrie’s evidence for camel domestication during the Ramesside era in Egypt (1292-1069 BCE), was still too late for Abraham (from around 1900 BCE), though significantly earlier than Albright’s date.

Evidence for early camel domestication elsewhere in the Ancient Near East and North Africa is well documented, 9 10 11 12 and has been used to argue defend the Genesis account. 13 14 15 16 It is recognized domesticated camel caravans must have passed through Egypt at an early date, even though the Egyptians made no reference to them at this time. 17 18

Bulliet observes that evidence for the early domestication of the camel in Mesopotamia cannot be ignored on the basis of their absence in Egyptian evidence.19 He agrees with Albright that evidence for Syrian domestic camel use during the 3rd to 2nd millennium is absent,20 and argues the undisputed evidence of their use elsewhere in Mesoptamia indicates they entered the area on a very small scale as pack animals by rich traders, rather than being herded in large numbers.21 22

Firm evidence for very early camel domestication in Egypt has caused some scholars to reconsider the Biblical narrative.23 24 25

  1. According to Albright, any mention of camels in the period of Abraham is a blatant anachronism, the product of later priestly tampering with the earlier texts in order to bring more in line with altered social conditions. The Semites of the time of Abraham, he maintains, herded sheep, goats, and donkeys but not camels, for the latter had not yet been domesticated and did not really enter the orbit of Biblical history until about 1100-1000 BC with the coming of the Midianites, the camel riding foes of Gideon.’, Bulliet, ‘The Camel and the Wheel’, p. 36 (1990 ed., originally published 1975). []
  2. Genesis 12: 15 When Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. So Abram’s wife was taken into the household of Pharaoh, 16 and he did treat Abram well on account of her. Abram received sheep and cattle, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels. []
  3. ‘Some scholars have suggested that only with the 1st millennium B.C. was the camel fully domesticated’, Pratico, ‘Nomadism’, in Bromiley (ed.), International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, volume 3, p. 547 (rev. ed. 1988). []
  4. The almost unanimous opinion of Biblical scholars is that mention of domesticated camels in the Patriarchal narratives (Gn 12:16; 24:10; 30:43) constitutes an anachronism. Camels, they say, were not domesticated until late in the second millennium BC, centuries after the Patriarchs were supposed to have lived.’, Caesar, ‘Bible and Spade (13.77), 2000. []
  5. ‘There continue to be some scholars who follow Albright’s skepticism (1942; 1945; 1949: 207) that references to camels in the patriarchal narratives are anachronistic (e.g. Koehler-Rollefson 1993: 183).’, Younker, ‘Bronze Age Camel Petroglyphs In The Wadi Nasib, Sinai’, Bible and Spade (13.75), 2000. []
  6. ‘To be sure, one or two representations of camels from early Mesopotamia have been alleged, but they are all either doubtfully camelline, as the horsy looking clay plaque from the third dynasty of ur (2345-2308 B.C.), or else not obviously domestic and hence possibly depictions of wild animals,’, Bulliet, ‘The Camel and the Wheel’, p. 46 (1990 ed., originally published 1975). []
  7. ‘These five pieces of evidence, needless to say, may not convince everyone that the domestic camel was known in Egypt and the Middle East on an occasional basis between 2500 and 1400 B.C. Other early depictions, alleged to be of camels, which look to my eyes like dogs, donkeys, horses, dragons or even pelicans, might be more convincing to some than the examples described above.’, ibid., p. 64. []
  8. The pottery figure of a camel laden with water-jars was found in a tomb of the XIXth dynasty in the northern cemetery. There were no traces of a later re-use of the tomb; the style of the figure is of the rough fingered pottery of the XIXth dynasty, and quite unlike any of the moulded Roman figures; and the water-jar, is of the XIVIIIth-XIXth dynasty type and not of a form used in Greek or Roman times. Hence it is impossible to assign this to the age when the camel is familiar in Egypt, and it shows that as early as Ramesside times it was sufficiently common to be used as a best of burden.’, Petrie, ‘Gizeh and Rifeh’, in ‘Publications of the Egyptian Research Account and British School of Archaeology in Egypt’ (13.23), 1907. []
  9. ‘Camels are not anachronistic in the early second millennium BC, but find only sparing attestation and use both in Genesis and external sources then and until the twelfth century BC.’, Kitchen, ‘Historical Method and Hebrew Tradition’, Tyndale Bulletin (17.1.83), 1966. []
  10. ‘Both the dromedary (the one-humped camel of Arabia) and the Bactrian camel (the two-humped camel of Central Asia) had been domesticated since before 2000 BC.’, Scarre, ‘Smithsonian Timelines of the Ancient World’, p. 176 (1993). []
  11. ‘As far as hard dates go, the 2500-1500 B.C. suggested earlier for the introduction of the camel into Somalia is the best that can be done from available data. Given the stage domestication had reached by the time the camels and their owners crossed the sea, some additional time must be allowed for earlier stages. Taking this into consideration, it is easily conceivable that the domestication process first got underway between 3000 and 2500 B.C.’, Bulliet, ‘The Camel and the Wheel’, p. 56 (1990 ed., originally published 1975). []
  12. Found in a context datable to 2700 B.C., the remains led the excavators to argue that camel domestication began in Turkmenia and spread south (Compagnoni and Tosi 1978: 95–99). The domestic camel was apparently known to the inhabitants of the Indus Valley Civilization by 2300 B.C., although the species utilized remains open to question (Meadow 1984: 134 and references).’, Zarins, ‘Camel’, in Freedman (ed.), Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (electronic ed. 1996). []
  13. Archeological discoveries have now shown clearly that references to domesticated camels in Genesis are by no means anachronistic, as some earlier scholars supposed. While camel caravans seem to have been used regularly only from the Late Bronze Age onward, archeologists have found numerous bones of domesticated camels. Thus when Parrot was excavating Mari, he found camel bones in the ruins of a house dated in the pre-Sargonic period (ca 2400 B.C.). An eighteenth-century-B.C. relief from Byblos pictured a camel in a kneeling position, and a socket on the back showed that the animal’s hump and its load had been attached separately. In accord with patriarchal traditions, cylinder seals from Middle Bronze Age Mesopotamia showed riders seated upon camels.’, Harrison, ‘Genesis’, in Bromiley (ed.), International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, volume 3, p. 547 (rev. ed. 1988). []
  14. ‘Excavations in eastern Arabia, an area once believed to be a cultural backwater unworthy of archaeological investigation, have turned up evidence that camels were first domesticated by Semites before the time of Abraham. Much of this evidence has been examined by M. C. A. MacDonald of the Oriental Faculty at the University of Oxford’, Caesar, ‘Bible and Spade (13.77), 2000. []
  15. ‘the principle area of extensive early camel domestication was the Syro-Arabian desert, due west of Ur, Abraham’s birthplace (1995: 1356).’, ibid., p. 77. []
  16. ‘possession of camels by Semitic travelers endowed them with a special advantage over those who did not, particularly in economic and political terms. This conforms to the Genesis image of the Patriarchs as wealthy, respected individuals who could hold their own against monarchs and chieftains.’, ibid., p. 78. []
  17. Horses and camels were not represented in Old Kingdom Egypt and camels are said to have been introduced into Egypt much later than horses.’, Daly, ‘Egyptology: the missing millennium: ancient Egypt in medieval Arabic writings’, p. 102 (2005). []
  18. ‘In view of the very early caravan links between Arabia and the Nile Valley, it would be very surprising if the camel had not reached Egypt before the first millennium BC; doubtless there were religious reasons for the lack of representations of this animal earlier than this. Camels could have been first introduced to Egypt from 1680 BC by the invading Hyksos, but it is not until the end of the second millennium that references to them begin to be found;’, Fage, ‘The Cambridge history of Africa: From the earliest times to c. 500 BC’, volume 1, pp. 288-289 (1982). []
  19. Yet it is very difficult to explain away all of the evidence pointing to the camel’s presence outside the Arabian peninsula prior to the year 1400B.C. The effort is better spent looking into the reasons why the evidence from this early period is so very scarce.’, Bulliet, ‘The Camel and the Wheel’, p. 36 (1990 ed., originally published 1975). []
  20. ‘The archaeological record, as Albright affirms, shows no indication of camel use in the Syrian area during the period in question, 2500-1400B.C.,’, ibid., p. 64. []
  21. ‘Indeed, they must have played little or no part in the ordinary herding economy of the time. The most satisfactory explanation of this circumstance is that the camel was known because it was brought into the area by traders carrying goods from southern Arabia but that it was not bred or herded in the area. It is worthy of note that whereas the citations from the Bible associating camels with Abraham and his immediate descendants seem to fit the generalized pattern of later camel use in the area, they could also fit a pattern in which camels were very uncommon. The largest number of animals mentioned in those episodes is ten, and those ten are probably most of what Abraham had’, ibid., pp. 64-54. []
  22. But it has been demonstrated that the camel was already in use during the period in question and that its probable homeland was southern Arabia. It is much more reasonable, therefore, to assume that the camel was the main carrier on the incense route from the very beginning, or nearly so, and that the Semitic tribes of the north came to know the camel in this way in very small numbers. In other words, the presence of camels in the Abraham story can be defended and the story treated as primary evidence of camel use without disputing Albright’s contention that camel-breeding nomads did not exist in Syria and northern Arabia at that time.’, ibid., pp. 66-67. []
  23. ‘However, in various parts of the country some evidence for the presence of camels has been uncovered, associated with dates as far back as the predynastic period (Free 1944:191).’, Daly, ‘Egyptology: the missing millennium : ancient Egypt in medieval Arabic writings’, p. 102 (2005). []
  24. ‘In the Egyptian Fayum province was found a camel-skull dated to the ‘Pottery A’ stage, i.e. within the period c. 2000–1400 BC, the period from the Patriarchs practically to Moses; see O. H. Little, Bulletin de l’Institut d’Égypte 18, 1935–6, p. 215.’, Kitchen, ‘Camel’, in Wood & Marshall (eds.), ‘New Bible Dictionary’, p. 160 (3rd ed. 1996). []
  25. ‘However, there is now a growing body of scholars who believe that camel domestication must have occurred earlier than previously thought (prior to the 12th century BC) and that the patriarchal narratives accurately reflect this (e.g., Ripinsky 1984; Coote and Whitelam 1987: 102; Zarins 1992: 826; Borowski 1998: 112–18).’, Younker, ‘Bronze Age Camel Petroglyphs In The Wadi Nasib, Sinai’, Bible and Spade (13.75), 2000. []

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