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Debate continues over camels in the book of Genesis

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On Monday, February 17,. Billy Hallowell of The Blaze weighed in on the ongoing debate over whether or not a recent archaeological study that suggests there were no domesticated camels being used in Israel during the time of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob proves that the Old Testament is not a reliable historical source.

According to Elizabeth Dias of Time, "Once upon a time, Abraham owned a camel. According to the Book of Genesis, he probably owned lots of camels. The Bible says that Abraham, along with other patriarchs of Judaism and Christianity, used domesticated camels — as well as donkeys, sheep, oxen and slaves — in his various travels and trade agreements. Or did he?

"... archaeologists Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel Aviv University released a new study that dates the arrival of the domesticated camel in the eastern Mediterranean region to the 10th century B.C. at the earliest, based on radioactive-carbon techniques.

"Abraham and the patriarchs, however, lived at least six centuries before then. The New York Times... announced, 'There are too many camels in the Bible, out of time and out of place … these anachronisms are telling evidence that the Bible was written or edited long after the events it narrates and is not always reliable as verifiable history.' Behold, a mystery: the Case of the Bible’s Phantom Camels."

The general idea is that the scholars who compiled the stories in the book of Genesis added many historically inaccurate details, much like how the most commonly known versions of the King Arthur legends have the knights wearing armor that wouldn't have existed when people began telling stories about Merlin and the heroes of the Round Table and behaving according to codes of chivalry that were invented several hundred years later.

A recent Patheos article written by George Conger gave an overview of how journalists at newspapers such as The New York Daily News and websites such as The Huffington Post have been writing about the archaeological findings. The consensus seemed to be that if the study was right, and there were no camels in Israel in the time of Abraham, then nothing in the Old Testament could be trusted.

Conger went on to say, "The gist of the report in publications like the Huffington Post, IBT and the Fashion Times (yes the Fashion Times) among a score of others is that 'No camels = No God.'”

However, there are more conservative scholars who have been arguing against the findings of Ben-Yosef and Sapir-Hen. In a recent Christianity Today article, Gordon Govier cited several experts who believe that Abraham easily could have owned some camels because people in Mesopotamia and Egypt had domesticated them as early as 3,000 B.C.

According to Govier, "Two recent academic papers written by evangelical scholars—Konrad Martin Heide, a lecturer at Philipps University of Marburg, Germany; and Titus Kennedy, an adjunct professor at Biola University—both refer to earlier depictions of men riding or leading camels, some that date to the early second millennium B.C.

"Among other evidence, Kennedy notes that a camel is mentioned in a list of domesticated animals from Ugarit, dating to the Old Babylonian period (1950-1600 B.C.).

"He concludes, 'For those who adhere to a 12th century B.C. or later theory of domestic camel use in the ancient Near East, a great deal of archaeological and textual evidence must be either ignored or explained away.'"

The Blaze article by Hallowell offers more evidence to suggest that maybe people have been overstating the significance of the age of the camel remains Ben-Yosef and Sapir-Hen found.

According to Hallowell, "As the debate continues, Dr. Andrew Steinmann, a professor of theology and Hebrew at Concordia University-Chicago, is addressing these very questions. In an interview with Issues, Etc., a Christian radio station, Steinmann recently made an important clarification about the study that was released by [Ben-Yosef and Sapir-Hen].

"The two examined camel bones that showed signs of carrying heavy loads, finding through radiocarbon dating that the bones were from the 10th century, CNN reported. But the Bible claims that Abraham was using the animals as early as 2100 B.C.

"'What these archaeologists are doing … is when they read about somebody like Abraham having camels, they’re saying, "Aha! The Bible is saying that camels were widespread in Palestine during this period of time, and there’s no archaeological evidence for that,"' Steinmann said.

"The professor isn’t arguing that there is vast evidence for the widespread use of domesticated camels in the eastern Mediterranean region; he says there isn’t. But Steinmann said that this isn’t at all what the Bible proclaims, according to The Christian Post.

“What it is showing is that somebody who originally came from Mesopotamia, like Abraham, he did have some camels,” Steinmann said, according to a transcript prepared by Stand to Reason.

"The professor argued that other mentions of camels in the Old Testament were tied to people related to Abraham, but that there is no mention of Israelites owning the domesticated animal."

Steinmann added that people were training and riding camels in Iran and Mesopotamia long before Abraham, who oriignally lived in Ur of the Chaldees (which may have been a Sumerian city in a region that is now southern Iraq and Kuwait), traveled to Israel with his family.

According to Hallowell, "'At least 1,000 years before Abraham, dromedary camels — the single hump ones — were domesticated, and Bactrian camels probably 500 years after that,' [Steinmann] said. 'So we know people in Iran did it, and it spread into Mesopotamia. We have good evidence from Mesopotamia that there were domesticated camels then."

All this discussion of the history of camels in ancient Israel may not sway people who are using the study to justify why they don't accept stories in the Old Testament as being historically accurate or literally true. The counter examples provided by other experts suggest that arguing about how plausible it would be for Abraham to have owned some camels is kind of silly, since he easily could have brought them with him from places where they were commonly used as beasts of burden.

People of faith who consider the Bible to be the inerrent word of God now have more evidence to cite if somebody brings up the camel controversy as a reason to not accept what the Old Testament says, so that at least has some value--not only for Christians, but for Jews and Muslims as well.

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