3 votes, average: 4.33 out of 53 votes, average: 4.33 out of 53 votes, average: 4.33 out of 53 votes, average: 4.33 out of 53 votes, average: 4.33 out of 5 (3 votes, average: 4.33 out of 5)
You need to be a registered member to rate this post.

More on Camels and Genesis

I have received some interesting responses, both in comments on the blog and privately, about my post yesterday on domesticated camels in the land of Palestine. Some readers are (re-)convinced that you can’t trust the Bible for one blasted thing; others think that it’s just a picayune point since camels are not really much of a big deal in the narratives of Genesis. So maybe I should provide a bit of background and explain what I see to be the significance of this new finding.

First, on camels. The word “camel” (Hebrew: GML) occurs twenty-four times in the book of Genesis, always in connection with the Patriarchs, and in contexts involving each of the big names: Abraham (only one time, 12:16 – God blessed him with lots of camels), Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph (again only one time, 37:25; he was taken to Egypt by a group of traders with a caravan of camels). The greatest concentration of references is in the story of Isaac and Rebecca in Genesis 24, but there are several references to camels in the life of his son Jacob. In all these instances it is crystal clear from the context that we are talking about domesticated camels, being put to human use – not wild camels roaming around in the wilderness.

There have been many debates over the years over how / when to date these patriarchal narratives – a term for the stories found in Genesis 12 -50 (in Genesis 12 God calls Abraham to go to the promised land; in Genesis 50 his descendants four generations later are living away from the promised in Egypt, where they have fled, under the protection of Joseph, to escape a famine in Canaan). The next book is Exodus, the story of how they escaped slavery in Egypt. So the rough dating is that the exodus probably occurred – if it occurred (I don’t think it occurred, so perhaps I should say the exodus is *thought* to have occurred) – at the beginning of the 13th century BCE (so say, 1290 BCE). The children of Israel were in Egypt for 400 years. So the story of Joseph and his brothers would have been at the end of the 18th c. BCE or the very beginning of the 17th. And their great-grandfather Abraham then would have been around 1750-1800 BCE. Something like that.


FOR THE REST OF THIS POST, log in as a Member. If you don’t belong yet, NOW’S YOUR BIG CHANCE!!!

You need to be logged in to see this part of the content. Please Login to access.

Abraham and Jesus?
Camels and the Book of Genesis



  1. Avatar
    FrancisDunn  February 6, 2014

    …By the way, were thses ONE or TWO hump camels…LOL

  2. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  February 6, 2014

    Are there undisputable anachronisms in the NT that are of major relevance in terms of how they affect the reliability and theology of the texts?
    As always, thanks a lot.

  3. Avatar
    Hank_Z  February 6, 2014

    Bart, do most critical scholars believe the patriarchs existed?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 9, 2014

      I don’t know! Most scholars are from faith communities, and I don’t know what most would say. My hunch is that those theologically invested in the texts or the traditions they contain tend to think there are historical bases for their stories, to one degree or another.

  4. Avatar
    EricBrown  February 6, 2014

    Isn’t a camel just a horse designed by committee? Maybe before the committee met, the word just meant “horse”.

  5. Avatar
    toddfrederick  February 6, 2014

    In almost all cases, the stories in Genesis and many of the other documents that reflect upon the beginning times, were just stories that were told from generation to generation. As time went on, I see no reason to doubt that those who began putting the stories in writing simply inserted the kind of animal with which they were familiar. To me that is a plausible answer to the camel issue.

    I’m more interested in Balaam’s talking donkey (Numbers 22) 😀

    I think this was done involving many different issues even through the time of the writing of the New Testament.

    I tend to side with those who say there is very little we can trust as historically and verifiably accurate in the Bible. These are faith documents and, though likely have some roots in history, most were written to make a faith statement (which is OK, IMO)

  6. Avatar
    drdavid600  February 6, 2014

    Good example of one mention of a solar power station.

    I think the problem of camels is only a minor detail to those determined for the Bible to be the Word of God. It is not, for numerous reasons, all of which can be denied in isolation, just as evolution has been denied throughout my life and now climate change.

    Unless people are willing to look at all the evidence, they are not empiricists. They are lawyers. They are partisans. They are liars for what they think is good, at least by omission. Fine, people are what they are. A good empiricist will come to accept that eventually, as well as knowing from mountains of evidence that we are the product of natural selection, even if God really does nudge something here and there, and that the Bible was written by men, not God.

    The entire Torah is suspect. Anyone who can’t start there probably denies climate change, too. It’s amazing.

    • Avatar
      Charlie04  May 18, 2014

      What do you mean by “climate change”?

  7. Avatar
    AmenRa  February 6, 2014

    Very enlightening Dr. Ehrman. The Bible Unearthed by Neil Silberman and Israel Finklestein have come to similiar conclusions not only about Abraham and the patriarchs but Moses, David and Solomon to some extent that these figures are legendary if not mythological.

    Now since the historical Jesus is biologically tied to these legends, would it not concluded that: 1. The Jesus narrative is mythological, even if a Jesus apocalyptic prophets existed. In other words a story was built around him by the literalist church. 2. The practice of this kind of literary genre was common among educated Jews, therefore the sources for the Jesus story could not be written by unlearned fishermen, but skilled Jewish writers most likely in Alexandria, Egypt, since many hellenized Jews and mystery schools were there.

    Futhermore, mythologizing humans or non-humans is not a necessarily bad thing is it? Writing legends and mythology is not deceptive or a form of lying is it? Can not it have a spiritual or psychological benefit?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 9, 2014

      Good question, but I don’t think so (about Jesus). See my post today. And no, I don’t think legends and myths are “lies.”

      • Avatar
        dikelmm  August 31, 2014

        These legends and myths may not be lies but they are not historically accurate. If a doctor prescribes a discredited course of treatment for an illness, he or she is guilty of malpractice, whether he or she believes it is correct or not. It seems to me that a preacher who states or implies that Biblical myths or legends are historically accurate (and I think the overwhelming majority do) is equally guilty of of a kind of spiritual malpractice, whether they believe those tales or not. Do you agree?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  August 31, 2014

          Interesting idea. I guess one difference is that if you agree with your preacher you’re not likely to die of an overdose. 🙂

          • Avatar
            dikelmm  September 1, 2014

            True but, let’s face it, the are separating so many people from their money based on threats and promises which would be so much less potent if the congregants knew much of what was in the Bible is, to put it mildly, of questionable veracity.

  8. Avatar
    James Dowden  February 6, 2014

    So do you think that the Priestly author spotted the anachronism? As far as I can see, the only place he even mentions them is at 11.4 (to say one’s not allowed to eat them).

    • Avatar
      James Dowden  February 6, 2014

      (And that should have been “Leviticus 11.4”, just before anyone wondered what on earth I was on about…)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 9, 2014

      My guess is that he simply had no reason to mention camels.

  9. Avatar
    Yentyl  February 7, 2014

    From Dr. Charlie Dyer, The Land and The Book:

    Perhaps you saw this article today. Here’s what the headline DOESN’T say: First, buried in the article itself is an admission that the archaeologist DID find a “few camel bones” at the site but decided they must have belonged to “wild camels.” (How does one determine a bone is from a “wild” as opposed to a “domesticated” camel?) Second, archaeologists have determined the camel was domesticated as early as the fourth millennium B.C. (Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, 1:696). Finally, the lack of camels isn’t at an Israelite site isn’t surprising given the fact that (a) they were considered “unclean” animals and (b) their primary use was by desert nomads to the south and east. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia notes that camels “were taken as spoil of war from the Amalekites and other tribes, but nearly the only reference to their use by the later Israelites was when David was made king over all Israel at Hebron, when camels are mentioned among the animals used for bringing food for the celebration (1Ch 12:40). David had a herd of camels, but the herdsman was Obil, an Ishmaelite (1Ch 27:30). Nearly all the other Biblical references to camels are to those possessed by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Ishmaelites, Amalekites, Midianites, Hagrites and the “children of the East” (see “camel” in the online version of the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia). The archaeological find doesn’t “disprove” the Bible…but, of course, that conclusion wouldn’t generate headlines, or funding or future archaeological digs!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 9, 2014

      Thanks for the alternative view. But I would say that I don’t think one can trust the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible for up-to-date or reliable and disinterested scholarship….

    • Avatar
      willow  February 10, 2014

      However dense it may be, I tend to wonder why one wouldn’t have owned non-domesticated camels. If they were, say, a food/hide source, or even used for trade, why couldn’t they have been herded like sheep and cattle?

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  February 10, 2014

        If they were being herded, then they were domesticated, no? (Sheep are considered domesticated if they’re being herded, I believe)

        • Avatar
          willow  February 10, 2014

          Humm. I tried to ride a cow, once. It didn’t go so well, and wouldn’t consider the particular herd that cow came from, domesticated, if only because they were being “kept” against their will, made known by the fact that they would break out of the pastureland every chance they got, and like camels, I suppose, they would roam the countryside quite content to be without such refineries as fresh hay, salt licks and man. Especially man. They were quite resistant to being rounded up and herded back to pasture. I would think that something “domesticated” which I (perhaps wrongly) define as more or less tamed, or at least semi-dependent, wouldn’t be so resistant.

          But then, what the heck do I know about camels? Don’t even get me started about sheep!

          Quite an interesting lecture, this, from Metzger. Does he sound like you, or do you sound like him, when it comes to talking about copies of copies of copies and the like?


          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  February 12, 2014

            I’m afraid this is a point he typically did not stress….

  10. Avatar
    maxhirez  February 7, 2014

    I understand that most scholars doubt the Exodus account and that several deep and creative theories about the origins of the Hebrews have grown out of the various disciplines. Have you got a favorite explanation or narrative of how the area went from “Canaanite” to “Hebrew” control? And seeing as your profession is textual criticism, of what does that practice inform us on the topic?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 9, 2014

      Yup, but it’s too long for a quick reply. Well, OK, short story: I think various people in the land eventually came over to the worship of Yahweh and then rewrote how they got there in the first place….

  11. Avatar
    fishician  February 7, 2014

    The idea that the Pentateuch was written by Moses shows the power of tradition. Even a non-scholar can read it and find obvious evidence that it was not written by Moses and certainly came from various sources. Although some translations, like the NIV, try their best to obscure the details so that it is not obvious to the casual reader.

  12. Avatar
    TubaMike  February 7, 2014

    This is great information. I learn so much from reading your books and this blog. For years, I had questions, thoughts, opinions and beliefs on religion and more specifically, Christianity. However, I did not have answers to my beliefs and questions until I found your writings. And so this morning, while thinking about this post, it occured to me that you, sir, are my Book of Revelations! Thanks for all that you do.

  13. Avatar
    jhague  February 7, 2014

    I agree with you that the stories are not historical but are made up stories. I have Christian friends who think the stories have to be true since the stories are so detailed with names, places, events, etc. Why are the biblical stories that are not historical so detailed?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 9, 2014

      Lots and lots and lots of books are highly detailed but not historical. Read a Dickens novel!!!

      • Avatar
        jhague  February 27, 2019

        Do you have any idea why the author had Jacob be the father of twelve sons with four different women rather than just one woman?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 1, 2019

          I assume because it never occurred to him that it was problematic, since polygamy was common in his world.

          • Avatar
            jhague  March 1, 2019

            Much of Genesis seems so much like a soap opera!
            1. Is it also thought that the stories in Genesis have been passed down orally and details have been added as the stories are retold? Then when the stories were finally written down, the author could again edit the story to his/her liking?
            2. I assume the reason for having women not able to have children but then through God’s intervention become pregnant is to show God’s power and that the resulting chlld is special?

          • Bart
            Bart  March 3, 2019

            1. Yes, for centuries! 2. Yup.

          • Bart
            Bart  March 3, 2019

            1. Yes, indeed. for centuries. 2. Yup.

  14. Avatar
    willow  February 8, 2014

    From a former stomping ground, and for your consideration, Bart:


    Camels, camels, everywhere?!?

  15. Avatar
    Jim  February 8, 2014

    But, but if the dating of the domesticated camel is wrong then everything in the Bible is totally wrong. (I’m a Young Earth Camelist).

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 9, 2014

      No, that doesn’t follow. If your friend gives you bad directions to get to his house, it doesn’t mean that he’s wrong about everything he’s ever said.

  16. Avatar
    jmorgan  February 8, 2014

    “These stories were then combined and put into the sources, which later were composed into one big narrative ”

    One thing that surprises me is that some authors of the Old Testament don’t appear to be concerned about contradictions, which are glaring. One doesn’t even need to do a horizontal comparison between different books. Just read the first 2 chapters of Genesis in linear order for 2 different contradicting creation accounts. On the other hand, take Mark as an example. Although Mark contradicts other authors in the New Testament, he doesn’t contradict himself (to my knowledge). Whatever sources Mark used in constructing his Gospel, he has “forced” them to all to reconcile in his account.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 9, 2014

      Good point. But it is AMAZING how hard it is for most people who read the Bible to see discrepancies before they are pointed out to them. Writers too probably don’t easily notice discrepancies in their accounts/views (judging from term papers I’ve read….)

  17. Avatar
    Eric Rodvan  February 8, 2014

    “As I’ve intimated, my own view is that these patriarchal narratives are not historical accounts of people who actually lived and did the things ascribed to them. I see them as highly legendary, narratives told by the people of Israel – after they became the people of Israel (say in the 11th or 10th centuries) — about their “early days.” Stories circulated for years and years in different parts of the land, among different tribes of people who were later said to have all been part of Israel. These stories were then combined and put into the sources, which later were composed into one big narrative (say in the 6th c BCE). I do not see them as historical records, but more as something like “founding legends” that help explain to the people who they are in light of their (imagined) past.”

    If that’s the case then why can’t the same be said about Jesus of Nazareth?

  18. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 8, 2014

    Thanks for reviewing this in your usual easy to understand and detailed way. I also think these stories are legendary, but it takes these “minor details” to build our knowledge of what was historical and what was legendary. And as the recent, almost 3-hour, “Creation Museum” debate shows, it takes a lot of these minor points to build a convincing argument about what was and what was not historical.

  19. Avatar
    jerzo9  February 11, 2014

    Yentyl asked, How does one determine a bone is from a “wild” as opposed to a “domesticated” camel?”

    Apparently there are signs or scars in the bone markings in the leg bones that reveal that a “domesticated” camel carried heavy loads. This analysis is standard practice and can be seen in any beast of burden or even in humans that have carried heavy loads or do serious weight training.

  20. Avatar
    bobnaumann  February 12, 2014

    Although I agree that accounts in Genesis are not historic events, I’m not sure I buy the lack of domesticated camels as evidence. Domesticated camels were used in the Arab peninsula as early 2000BCE. Since the Levant was a major trade route throughout the bronze age, I would imagine that camel caravans were not unknown to the people living there. Since camels are best suited for long distance travel over desert lands, the people in the Levant probably had no real reason to domesticate them.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 14, 2014

      How do you know they were used in the Arab peninsula as early as 2000 BCE?

      • Avatar
        bobnaumann  February 14, 2014

        There is a good article on the history of camels in Wikipedia that talks about domesticated camels in Somalia and southern Arabia as early as 3000 to 2500 BCE. I admit I didn’t check their references.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  February 15, 2014

          Yes, a lot of people say this. Often because they’ve heard it. It always pays to check the references!

You must be logged in to post a comment.