This month has seen op-ed pieces in CNN and other locales saying that recent discoveries about domesticated camels in Israel prove the Bible has erred. I have seen two such articles, one on CNN and the other in the Huffington Post. The gist of the claim is that there has been a recent discovery that shows that domesticated camels in Israel go back to the 10th century BC. The alleged error is that the Bible claims that such camels went back to the patriarchs several centuries earlier. Thus, it is said that the find proves a biblical mistake. Some of the writing has been quite cute. Is this "camel discovery" one that will "break the Bible's back"?
I read the first piece in the Huffington Post and went, come on. I read the second in CNN from a Professor of Old Testament at Yale and asked myself, is he really thinking through this very carefully? The professor cheekily added a reference to a Babylonian flood tablet and a round ark that somehow discredits the flood account of Genesis. He said that had not been a good year so far for Genesis. Are people aware of what is going on here? Here is my problem with the spin that has been placed on this group of finds, even if that spin comes from someone in the field at one of our top universities.
The camel find claims to show that the earliest domesticated camels in Israel go back to the late 10th century BC. The problems involve the word earliest AND the nature of archaeology. One needs to realize that archaeology deals with recovered remains and the realization that we have not found everything that was (and surely will never recover most of what was). So how do we know these testifying camels are the earliest domesticated camels ever in Israel? We do not know that. It would be one thing to claim that the earliest evidence we NOW possess about domesticated camels goes back to the 10th century. But what we have now does not equal all there was, all of what may be out there, or even all we may one day come across.
I am reminded of where we were for a long time with OT manuscripts. Our oldest texts were from the 900s AD. Then we found the Dead Sea Scrolls and our earliest manuscript knowledge leapt back 1000 years, a full millennial broad jump back deeper into history. Many things we claimed to know about manuscripts, their accuracy in copying, and writing had to be redone in light of this new knowledge. In other words, there is no way to claim or know that the earliest bones we have are of the earliest domesticated camels that existed. Those bones do not come out of the ancient dust with a tag on them saying, "earliest bones ever of a trained camel."
When it comes to the flood, the tablet also was an important find. However, it also was overhyped as the tablet is a variation on a long known theme. Babylonian flood stories have been known for some time. The Epic of Gilgamesh has been discussed for decades. It is the Babylonian story of a great flood, a story that is not just Babylon's alone nor Israel's. Other cultures also have such stories. So might that not be seen as evidence in human memory of such a catastrophic event that several cultures note it? What the tablet shows is one version of such an event. Does it prove Genesis to be wrong? What causes us to accept the Babylonian version over Genesis, simply the claim it is older (and that dating claim could also be discussed)? In other words, there is also room for conversation on this one.
So what do these types of editorials actually show?
The camel claim reflects an amazing lack of knowledge about ancient studies and their limitations, as well as a gullibility of many today and also in some academic circles to hype anything that is anti-biblical without giving any opportunity for hearing the other side of the case.
The take on Noah shows a difference about how to read the Bible against its Ancient Near Eastern backdrop, a perfectly appropriate conversation to have because it is an exceedingly complex and somewhat exotic conversation about many cultures from centuries ago.
These one-sided presentations of truly exciting, ancient finds do no one a real service in terms of real news. This is not a case of a conservative screaming do not tread on my sacred book. It is a plea that we let evidence only address what it is capable of addressing, nothing more or nothing less.
Let's have a full-orbed conversation about what such finds mean and what they may imply with all sides out on the table, not just a single voice. These conversations are important because they do deal with how we view sources that have long had a venerated place in our world. With Hollywood also weighing in with portrayals, such as the soon to be released "Noah" movie, the questions become more vivid for people.
What we are left with in the case of the camel find is an empty claim that is like saying a camel is able to go through the eye of a needle. That I can say it does not make it so. The Bible's back is not broken by a find that claims to be the earliest when we have no way of knowing if in fact the bones found are the earliest domesticated camel bones that existed in the region.
What we are left with in the flood tablet is evidence that more than one culture looked back to such an event. What that may mean is that what we have easily dismissed merely as myth and made up may actually point back to a genuine memory of a truly catastrophic human event, a part of our collective past.
Maybe what is missing in the claimed proof is the actual proof. Maybe what is needed is a better, more well-rounded conversation.