Patriarchal Wealth and Early Domestication of the Camel -- By: Stephen Caesar

Journal: Bible and Spade (Second Run)
Volume: BSPADE 13:3 (Summer 2000)
Article: Patriarchal Wealth and Early Domestication of the Camel
Author: Stephen Caesar

Patriarchal Wealth and Early Domestication of the Camel

Stephen Caesar

A Ninth century BC relief from Tell Halaf, Syria, showing a man riding a camel. Development of the behind-the-hump saddle (see Gn 31:34) bolstered use of the camel for travel as well as for transport.

The Genesis account of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob suggests all three were wealthy men. While scholars generally view references to camels in relation to these patriarchs as anachronistic, author Stephen Casear points out that is not the case. He adds that the mention of camels actually helps explain the source of the patriarchs’ wealth. — Ed.

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. Even the great William F. Albright, well known for his support of the historicity of the Patriarchal narratives, concluded that references to camel domestication in the book of Genesis were incorrect (1964: 153, n. 2).

Recent discoveries, however, have shown that this dismissal is unwarranted. 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 and an epigraphist specializing in ancient North Arabian and Aramaic inscriptions. He wrote:

Recent research has suggested that domestication of the camel took place in southeastern Arabia some time in the third millennium [BC]. 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 (1995: 1357).

With this third millennium date for camel domestication in mind, let us look at the approximate date of the Patriarchal era. According to Exodus 12:40, the Israelites dwelt in Egypt for 430 years; according to 1 Kings 6:1, the Temple of Solomon was built 480 years after the flight from Egypt. Since most archaeologists date the construction of the Temple to the tenth century BC, simple arithmetic brings us back to the period...

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