Camels in the Bible

The image displayed below “Ploughing with Camel and Cow” is a scanned copy of a small gelatine silver print (probably from the mid-1920s) of an American Colony photograph taken between 1898 and 1911 and published by Fr. Vester & Co. whose shop was in Jerusalem, just inside Jaffa Gate. The photograph shows a ploughing scene probably taken in southern Palestine. The plough is driven by the farmer and the animals are led by a boy in front.

Ploughing w camel and ox

There is something very jarring about this scene. The camel, tall and lithe, suited to journeys across the desert and the cow or ox, short and heavier-set, expected to pull the plough together. The yoke sits at an extreme angle on the animals’ backs. The Biblical text in Deuteronomy 22:10 immediately springs to mind: Thou shalt not plow with an ox and an ass together.
The rabbis explained that “Scripture spoke what was customary,” that is, people were accustomed to plow with an ox or an ass, but the prohibition applies equally to plowing with any two other species and in fact other activities like riding, leading, and driving with them (Mishna Kilaim 8:2).

Camels are first mentioned in the Bible in Genesis 12:16

And because of her [Sarai], it went well with Abram; he acquired sheep, oxen, asses, male and female servants, she-asses, and camels.

The word “camel(s)” appears 23 times in 21 verses in the book of Genesis. The first book of the Bible declares that camels existed in Egypt during the time of Abraham (12:14-17), in Palestine in the days Isaac (24:63), in Padan Aram while Jacob was working for Laban (30:43), and were owned by the Midianites during the time Joseph was sold into Egyptian slavery (37:25,36).

Most scholars, including W.F. Albright, American archaeologist and biblical scholar, who supports the historicity of the patriarchal narratives, conclude that references to camels and hence the domestication of camels are an anachronism, added by a later scribe.

Finkelstein and Silberman confidently asserted:

We now know through archaeological research that camels were not domesticated as beasts of burden earlier than the late second millennium and were not widely used in that capacity in the ancient Near East until well after 1000 BCE.

However, more recent archaeological discoveries: a pottery camel’s head and a terra cotta tablet with men riding on and leading camels from predynastic Egypt (before 3150 BCE), three clay camel heads and a limestone vessel in the form of camel lying down (3050-2890 BCE), a petroglyph depicting a camel and a man (2345-2184 B.C.) and a rope made of camel’s hair found in the Fayum oasis suggest that camels were domesticated as early as the third millennium, before the time of Abram, dated to the earliest part of the second millennium BCE.

Much of this evidence has been examined by MacDonald of the University of Oxford who concludes:

Recent research has suggested that domestication of the camel took place in southeastern Arabia some time in the third millennium BCE. Originally, it was probably bred for its milk, hair, leather, and meat, but it cannot have been long before its usefulness as a beast of burden became apparent.

On a jeep tour of the Judean desert we saw this herd of camels. Doesn’t the hill in the background look just like a camel hump?



2 thoughts on “Camels in the Bible

  1. Shmuel Browns Post author

    In new research from Tel Aviv University, carbon dating of the earliest discovered domesticated camel bones found at ancient copper smelting sites in the Arava shows that camels were introduced to Israel only around the 9th century BCE (that is decades after King David and conflicts with the Biblical account that the Patriarchs had camels). Camels are believed to have been domesticated as pack animals around 2000 BCE in the Arabian peninsula and were likely introduced to Israel by the Egyptians.

    from the article Camel archaeology contradicts the Bible


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