For the second time in a week, I find myself writing about the book of Genesis, addressing yet another concern about its historicity. This time, the world of biblical scholarship is abuzz with the news that two archaeologists from Tel Aviv used radiocarbon dating to “prove” that camels were not domesticated in Israel until the 10th century BC – nearly a millennia after Genesis alleges that Abraham gallivanted around the Middle East on camels.
The news has been a coup for those who mock the validity of the biblical record, as well as for those who have insisted that the biblical accounts were written far later than conservative believers have insisted. The latter group doesn’t necessarily say that the Bible has been invalidated by this discovery, but that, indeed, the Genesis stories were written far after they were alleged to have taken place. The later authors, it is postulated, then anachronistically projected back into the stories details that were true of their own contemporary time, but would be out of place when the stories supposedly took place. Thus, though Genesis may be trustworthy in broad strokes, and for the purposes for which it was written, the actual historical details can’t be relied upon.
So what are we to make of these allegedly misplaced camels? For those of us who maintain a “high view” of Scripture, how do we reconcile what the Bible maintains, over-against what archaeology has unearthed?
First of all, let’s make something clear: our faith does not rest upon whether Abraham rode a camel. If we were to discover that Abraham rode kangaroos rather than camels, it would not be enough to destroy our faith in God – or the Bible. As a Christian, my foundation is Christ and Him crucified, not the accuracy of every little detail the Bible proposes.
At the same time, as a Seventh-day Adventist Christian I am not a verbal inerrantist. I do not believe that every single word of the Bible was meticulously chosen by God, and the biblical authors were simply machines that churned out what God insisted they write. Though the Bible is God’s word, it was also written by humans.
Of course, there is a balance. Though it was written by humans, I am not in the position to be able to differentiate between the God-parts and the man-parts. And I do also bear a concern for the historical validity of its claims. After all, if we start pecking away at its historical accuracy, how can we trust its accuracy of any other claim?
Yet with all this said, my main reason for writing this post is not necessarily to defend the Bible’s historical accuracy against all other evidence, but simply to examine the confounding logic that is being employed by those who are proclaiming the death of the Bible’s historical claims.
The logic that has been used is, in a word, mind-boggling.
It goes something like this: archaeologists dug up some camel bones in Israel and Jordan, did radiocarbon dating on them, and came to the conclusion that camels were not domesticated until the 10th century BC. Or, in the words of the New York Times article that broke the story here in the United States:
For two archaeologists at Tel Aviv University, the anachronisms were motivation to dig for camel bones at an ancient copper smelting camp in the Aravah Valley in Israel and in Wadi Finan in Jordan. . . . The archaeologists, Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen, used radiocarbon dating to pinpoint the earliest known domesticated camels in Israel to the last third of the 10th century B.C. — centuries after the patriarchs lived and decades after the kingdom of David, according to the Bible.
Note, first of all, that the archaeologists were motivated by an a priori belief that the camels mentioned in Genesis were an anachronism. This is because a number of biblical scholars and archaeologists for centuries have been of the belief that camels don’t belong in Genesis. So this recent news is not a new attempt, or a new claim. They’ve been trying to disprove the Bible’s accuracy on this point for a long time. And thus, these two archaeologists were motivated by this agenda.
But here’s the real stupendous part: the article says that these archaeologists dug up camel bones from the “Aravah Valley in Israel” and the “Wadi Finan in Jordan” which is enough, apparently, to draw conclusions about the history of camels in the entire Middle East for its entire history.
Did I miss something?
Apparently, these archaeologists haven’t found the bones of every camel that has ever lived in the Middle East? (In fairness, the New York Times article uses a pregnant qualifier when it says that they were trying to pinpoint the “earliest known domesticated camels.” This is a passing acknowledgement that there may indeed be camels that are still as of yet unknown, which may be incredibly surprising to some people [tongue, firmly planted in cheek].)
Such conclusions, based upon very limited data, would be akin to concluding that there are no McDonald’s in the state of Vermont, since its capital, Montpelier, does not have one. It reminds me of this classic quote from Mark Twain: “There is something fascinating about science,” he wrote, “One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”
Of course, these archaeologists would say that their research into the camel problem is not insignificant. They have made a great investment in the problem, concluding for decades that the best evidence they have unearthed indicates that there were no domesticated camels in the Middle East as far back as the Bible alleges.
And yet, this is certainly not a unanimous opinion – which is the other issue. Much like my previous discussion of the alleged contradictions of Genesis 1 and 2, which critical scholars and popular media outlets would have us believe is an already-settled fact, the historical accuracy of the Bible is not as fraught with scientific inaccuracy as these aforementioned people would have us believe. And it is thus not a case of naive Christians having to choose between our holy book, which is scientifically inaccurate, or science, which is biblically inaccurate. We can have our cake and eat it too; we can have both.
For example, note the observations of Randall Younker, professor of Old Testament and Archaeology at Andrews University, about the presence of domesticated camels in that region and at that time:
My own research, however, and that of several other scholars, has shown that there is actually plenty of evidence for domesticated camels from the second millennium BC. Some of this evidence includes a bronze figurine of a camel in a kneeling position found at Byblos and dated to the 19th/18th centuries BE; a gold camel figurine in a kneeling position from the 3rd Dynasty of Ur (2070-1960 BC); a petroglyph at Aswan in Egypt which shows a man leading a camel by a rope (writing next to the picture suggests its dates to 2423-2263 BC); and a figurine from Aabussir el Melek, Egypt showing a recumbent camel carrying a load (dated to the 3rd millennium BC). To these examples, I can take pride in adding another that was discovered by myself (Younker 1997), along with colleagues, Dick and JoAnn Davidson (our children), William Shea and David Merling during an excursion into the Wadi Nasib in the Sinai during the month of July 1998. There I noticed a petroglyph of a camel being led by a man not far from a stele of Ammenemes III and some famous proto-Sinaitic inscriptions discovered by Georg Gerster in 1961. Based on the patina of the petroglyphs, the dates of the accompanying inscriptions and nearby archaeological remains it would seem that this camel petroglyph dates to the Late Bronze Age, probably not later than 1500 BC. Clearly, scholars who have denied the presence of domesticated camels in the 2nd millennium BC have been committing the fallacy of arguing from silence. This approach should not be allowed to cast doubt upon the veracity of any historical document, let alone Scripture.
Younker goes on to make this critical observation:
It is interesting to note how, once an idea gets into the literature, it can become entrenched in conventional scholarly thinking. I remember doing research on the ancient site of Hama in Syria. As I was reading through the excavation reports (published in French), I came across a reference to a figurine from the 2nd millennium which the excavator thought must be a horse, but the strange hump in the middle of its back made one think of a camel. I looked at the photograph and the figurine was obviously that of a camel! This scholar was so influenced by the idea that camels were not used until the 1st millennium, that when he found a figurine of one in the second millennium, he felt compelled to call it a horse! This is a classic example of circular reasoning.
And that’s the great irony in all this: though I am not an archaeologist, it would seem to me that out of all disciplines, an archaeologist would be the least likely person to draw sweeping conclusions about what didn’t or couldn’t have taken place. After all, there is always more to dig up, isn’t there? Today’s conclusions can often be tomorrow’s fodder. So perhaps humility is in order (much to the chagrin of Time, National Geographic, CNN, et. al, who have been eager to proclaim the death of biblical accuracy in light of this recent “discovery”).