(Photo: Reuters/Jumana ElHeloueh)
A professor of theology and Hebrew from Illinois has refuted the claims of Israeli archaeologists that camels could not have been used for transportation by Jewish patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob because the animals weren't domesticated in Israel until hundreds of years after they lived.
"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," Dr. Andrew Steinmann of Concordia University-Chicago tells Issues, Etc., a Christian radio station.
Two archaeologists at Tel Aviv University, Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen, claimed earlier this month they have dated the earliest domesticated camels to the end of the 10th century BC. "In addition to challenging the Bible's historicity, this anachronism is direct proof that the text was compiled well after the events it describes," the university said in a statement.
Steinmann agrees there's no archaeological evidence for widespread use of camels in Palestine at this time, but adds that that's not what the Bible is saying.
Amy Hall, a staff with the Christian group Stand to Reason, has transcribed the professor's interview on her blog.
"What it is showing is that somebody who originally came from Mesopotamia, like Abraham, he did have some camels," she quotes the professor as saying. "And then the other mentions of camels in Genesis and in the early part of the Bible have to do with either people related to Abraham that were living in the Arabian Desert (for instance, the Ishmaelites…have camels when they come and buy Joseph and take him down to Egypt), or other peoples like that, associated with the Arabian Desert-the Amalekites…who live on the edge of the Arabian Desert are mentioned a number of times having camels. But there's no mention of Israelites owning camels…."
Steinmann was also asked about the charge that the new archaeological finding is proof that "someone's been tampering with the text and unwittingly gave themselves away by putting camels in Abraham's possession."
On the contrary, the findings show that Old Testament accounts are "very accurate," the professor responds. "Because they confine it to people from Mesopotamia or the Arabian Peninsula. If this person was going to give himself away, you would expect [to see] him depicting the Canaanites having camels, or people like that. But he doesn't say the Canaanites or the Phoenicians are making extensive use of camels."
Some other scholars are responding to the findings by defending the Old Testament in their own ways.
Noam Mizrahi, a professor of Hebrew culture studies at Tel Aviv University, tells The New York Times one must not rush to the conclusion that the findings automatically deny any historical value from the biblical stories. "Rather, they established that these traditions were indeed reformulated in relatively late periods after camels had been integrated into the Near Eastern economic system. But this does not mean that these very traditions cannot capture other details that have an older historical background."
Writing for CNN's Belief Blog, Joel S. Baden, an associate professor of Old Testament at Yale Divinity School, says for those who believe the Bible to be fundamentally true, this is hardly going to change any minds. "For those who believe it to be entirely false, this is surely not the most damning piece of evidence."
The presence of these camels in the story highlights "the essential humanity of the biblical writers: like the best authors, they simply wrote about what they knew," adds Baden, author of The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero. "The biblical authors simply transplanted the nomadic standards of their time into the distant past."