Domesticated Camels in the Book of Genesis

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The Bible tells us that camels were used as pack animals already in the days of Abraham. The pharaoh of Egypt gave Abraham camels, among other presents, for the sake of Sarah, whom he wanted to marry (Genesis 12:16). Later, when Abraham's servant Eliezer was sent to northern Mesopotamia to find a wife for Isaac, the pack animals he made use of were camels (Gen.24:10,32,63).

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Learned Biblical critics have repeatedly stressed that domesticated camels did not exist so early in history and that they figure in the book of Genesis as anachronisms added later to the text, or even provide proof that the stories are unreliable. Domesticating camels in order to use them as pack animals did not come into use till about 1100 B.C., they say. Some scholars arrived at this conclusion because they had not seen any older texts relating to domesticated camels. Assyrian texts dating from the 11th century B.C. are the first to report about pack camels. W.F. Albright, the once famous Biblical archaeologist, was among those who shared the opinion that the statements about camels in Genesis were anachronisms. In his view, camels were not employed on international trade routes much earlier than the 12th century B.C.1

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ARCHAEOLOGICAL FACTS REGARDING DOMESTICATED CAMELS

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Archaeological research has provided proof that criticism against the truth of the above-mentioned Biblical passages is untenable.

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First some information about the two species of camels and their homelands. One species is the two-humped Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus) which comes from elevated desert areas in central Asia. As an adaptation to cold weather and snow it has long hairs, and shorter legs than the other species, the dromedary. The latter (Camelus dromedarius) comes from the Arabian deserts and has one hump. Camels of this species can stand the prolonged heat of deserts in Nort Arabia and Africa. The two species are interrelated.2

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Scholars hold different views about the time when domesticated camels first appeared on the scene. In the opinion of R. Bullet the taming of camels was practised even before 2500 B.C.3 According to F.E. Zeuner it started somewhere between 2900 and 1900 B.C.4 Both scholars thus think that domesticated camels occurred already before Abraham, whom we date at about 1900-1725 B.C.

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The oldest pieces of evidence about dromedaries being domesticated have been found in Umm an-Nar, a city on an island in the Persian Gulf off the coast of Oman. Here 200 bones and teeth of camels have been excavated together with objects dating back to about 2700 B.C.5 Notwithstanding this, most archaeologists hold on to their view that dromedaries were not used in international trade caravans until the 12th century B.C.

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The earliest evidence that Bactrian camels were domesticated originates from Shahr-i-Sokhta in the east of Iran. A jar filled with camel's dung and fragments of camel's hair, dating back to about 2500 B.C., has been discovered here.6

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In 1977 archaeologist Edith Porada carried out a study of a cylindrical seal found in Syria; it shows two small figures riding on a two-humped animal, obviously a camel. The seal dates back to the 18th century B.C. The small figures most probably depict a god and a goddes.7 This could point to the use of domesticated camels in that period; however it could also mean that the camel was known as a wild animal on which only gods were able to ride.

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Collan and Porada anyhow concluded that Bactrian camels were used as pack animals in international trade earlier than what is generally believed.8

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CAMELS IN EGYPT

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In 1985 M. Ripinsky described a number of objects from ancient Egypt showing evidence that camels were already used as pack animals in older times. A tomb that was dated to the first dynasty (about 300 B.C.) and opened in 1905 contained a lime-stone vase that had the shape of a lying dromedary. This could mean that domesticated camels occurred even then. According to Zeuner the vase depicts a dromedary that carries a burden. H.S. Smith of London University not only agreed that the tomb dated back to the first dynasty, but pointed out that pictures of camels existed in Egypt already in the pre-dynastic period (before 3000 B.C.).9

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An earthenware head of a camel from times previous to the first dynasty was found in Maadi near Cairo in 1930. However, this does not yet provide conclusive evidence that camels were domesticated in those early times. A rock carving of similar age depicting a dromedary and other animals was found in Wadi Natash el-Raiyan, in the eastern desert, also around 1930.

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In a gypsum quarry, under half a meter of gypsum powder, a string made of camel's hair was found. Pottery from the same layer was dated to the third or early fourth dynasty (about 2640-2500 B.C.). The string had presumably been used by a miner to keep his clothing together. This too is just a piece of evidence that camels were known in Egypt even in those days. The hairs for the string may very well have been obtained from a wild dromedary that had been caught.

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DEFINITE PROOF OF EARLY DOMESTICATION

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At the beginning of the 20th century a statuette of a dromedary carrying two water jars was found in a tomb at Rifeh. The tomb was in use during the 19th dynasty, which reigned in the 13th century B.C., and was not used again in later times. The water jars were of the type used during that century. Another piece of evidence that dromedaries were used as pack animals in Egypt as early as 1300 B.C. was a glaze picture of a dromedary with water jars found in Benha.

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Definite proof that dromedaries were already domesticated in early times was given in 1912. Near Aswan a rock painting was discovered which showed a man pulling along a dromedary on a rope, plus seven hieroglyphic characters. On account of the writing G. Möller dated the inscription to the period of the sixth dynasty (2320-2150 B.C.), and G. Schweinfurth concluded to the same period for the painting on account of its style.10

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This find, which has not become widely known, presents conclusive evidence that Egypt had domesticated dromedaries as early as 2200 B.C. or even earlier, anyway long before the days of Abraham. The allegation of certain scholars that statements about camels in the book of Genesis are anachronisms only exposes their lack of knowledge.

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NOTES

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1. P. Wapnish, Camel Caravans and Camel Pastoralists at Tell Jemmeh, JANES 13, 1981, p. 104-105.

2. Idem, p. 104.

3. R. Bulliet, The Camel and the Wheel, Cambridge Mass. 1975, p. 56.

4. F.E. Zeuner, A History of Domesticated Animals, Londen 1963, p. 344.

5. Wapnish, op. cit., p. 105.

6. Idem, p. 106.

7. R.D. Barnett, Lachish, Ashkelon and the Camel, in: J.N. Tubb, Palestine in the Bronze and Iron Ages. 

     Papers in Honor to Olga Tuffnell, Londen 1985, p. 16.

8. D. Collon and E. Porada, 23rd Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, Archaeology 30, 1970, p. 343-345.

9. M. Ripinsky, `The Camel in Dynastic Egypt', JEA 71, 1985, p. 136.

10. Idem, p. 138.

Latest update: april 17 2019