Camels Help Bible Readers Get Over the Hump of Bible Skepticism

This is the blessing of apologetics — one’s faith gets strengthened all the time by seeing how the Bible is right again and again

Nicolas Poussin, “Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well,” 1648
Nicolas Poussin, “Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well,” 1648 (photo: Public Domain)

One of the arguments that atheists like to make against the Bible is what they see as numerous “anachronisms” — that is, things that “shouldn’t exist” at the time and place that the Bible claims for them. One of them, whom I have debated many times, recently claimed, “camels were simply not used” in the 19th century BC in Egypt by Joseph “as domesticated animal transportation.”

The folks he cites take shots at camels in Egypt during the time of Moses and the Exodus (generally dated by non-radical scholars at 13th-12th century BC). But in fact, excavations more than a century ago proved the use of camels in Egypt at least as far back as the First Dynasty (3100-2850 BC). That predates Joseph by some 900 years or more, and Moses by 1500 years.

A rock inscription found near Aswan, Egypt, has a petroglyph showing a man leading a camel. It was dated to the Sixth Dynasty (c. 2345-c. 2181 BC). That is evidence of domesticated camels in Egypt centuries before Abraham, Joseph or Moses visited or lived there.

The Bible says that Abraham obtained camels as a gift from the Egyptian Pharaoh (Genesis 12:16). But how did the Egyptian Pharaoh at the time of Abraham obtain camels, which were not known to exist there in his time? Torah expert Judah Landa explains:

“Most likely Pharaoh obtained these exotic animals either as a gift from an Arabian camel herder or he traded/bartered for these uniquely capable and useful creatures. I say ‘Arabian’ because by all accounts (to be discussed later) the earliest domestication of the Dromedary camel occurred on the Southern Arabian Peninsula, …

“Combining the genetic data with the historical and archaeological evidence leads to one focus of domestication for the Dromedary in the Southern Arabia Peninsula sometime between 3000 and 2500 BCE, and another focus of domestication for the Bactrian in Eastern Central Asia at about 2000 BCE.

“During this period (1900-1200 BC or so), virtually every biblical mention of camels references their origin or use from outside of Canaan. Joseph’ brothers traveled to Egypt on donkeys (Gen 42:26–27; 43:24; 44:3.13). Many Bible skeptics make the mistake of asserting that the Bible indicates widespread use and/or domestication of camels in Canaan or later Israel during these times. It does not, so this is a red herring. As so often, the biblical skeptic doesn’t know the Bible very well.”

To verify this, I did an online search of all the appearances of “camel” in the Old Testament. Genesis 37:25, for example, refers to camels possessed by “Ishmaelites coming from Gilead” (RSV). Gilead is in present-day Jordan — close to Israel, but not in it.

The Bible never refers to Moses riding on a camel. It simply notes that Egyptians had them and that they shouldn’t be eaten as part of the dietary prohibitions in the Jewish Law. When Judges 6:4 refers to these enemies killing animals of Israel, no camels are mentioned. Rather, they left “no sheep or ox or ass.”

What Christians and observant Jews claim is that large-scale domestication and use of camels in Israel began only during the late 10th-century BC. The Bible is in harmony with what archaeology confirms. In 1 Chronicles 5:21 it states that the Israelites “carried off fifty thousand ... camels” from the Hagrites. This was “in the days of Jeroboam king of Israel” (5:17).  

Jeroboam was the first king of the northern kingdom of Israel (as opposed to Judah). He reigned for 22 years, sometime in the last third of the 10th century BC. In other words, this was right before the first archaeological evidence of widespread camel use in Israel, in the 9th century BC.

A press release from Tel Aviv University about “Israel’s First Domesticated Camels” noted, “In all the digs, they found that camel bones were unearthed almost exclusively in archaeological layers dating from the last third of the 10th century BCE or later.” This is precisely during the reign of Jeroboam, when the Bible stated that the Israelites obtained 50,000 camels from the Hagrites — quite enough to start widespread domestication!

The Hagrites, from whom the Israelites got 50,000 camels, lived east of Gilead across the River Jordan from Israel in present-day Jordan — close to where the researchers mentioned in the above article say was the area with the first significant appearance of camels in the region (Aravah Valley in Jordan, in particular).

Thus, the Bible was exactly correct about the time (the same 30 years the two archaeologists mention) and the general location. What more can one ask for? We even have the story of how widespread camel domestication in Israel commenced.

1 Samuel 27:9 states that King David (some 50-60 years earlier) took some camels as spoils, but doesn’t say how many. They may have been very few, for all we know; hence would not likely show up in archaeological digs.

The question of all these details concerning camels in the Bible had never crossed my mind in my entire 44 years as a committed Christian (40 of those as an apologist).

But as a result of an atheist challenge I wrote three lengthy replies, and have discovered a wealth of wonderful and delightful confirmations that the Bible is historically accurate and in accord with archaeology (minus its most radical proponents), as always. Were it not for this atheist’s absolute intransigence, I would never have learned all of these fabulous things.

Consequently, my overall case concerning camels in the Bible and in Israel is exponentially stronger now than it was when I began the debate. This is the blessing of apologetics — one’s faith gets strengthened all the time by seeing how the Bible is right again and again, and how its critics continually flounder with weak, indefensible positions.