Science, Tech & Environment

Camel bones challenge the timing of some Bible stories

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Camels still work as beasts of burden in many parts of the world.

Camels play a significant supporting role in the Bible and its imagery. Think of the "three wise men."

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It's entirely plausible that the wise men came from the east, by camel, as traditional assumption might suggest. But the Bible also places camels in many older stories, where it seems they don't belong. Domesticated camels appear dozens of times during the period known as the age of the Patriarchs, the era of Abraham, Moses and Isaac. The same goes for the time of the Kings, when David and Solomon ruled.

Camels have been seen as anachronistic for some time. But now, it's been proven beyond reasonable doubt that camels were not domesticated in the historic land of Israel prior to the 10th century BC. In fact, scientists are sure this happened pretty close to 930 BC. And in one specific location: the copper mines of the Aravah Valley.

"We see two different phases," says Erez Ben-Yosef, one of the Tel Aviv University archaeologists who published the evidence late last year. "The earlier phase with only donkeys and mules, and the later phase — in the 10th and 9th centuries [BC] — with ample camel bones."

Apparently, you can tell whether a camel was used as a beast of burden by the damage to its legs. The leg bones of a camel hunted for meat look quite different.

Ben-Yosef says camels may have been domesticated earlier in other parts of the world, but their arrival in Israel transformed the local economy. "It opened opportunities of trade with the Arabian peninsula and beyond: the famous incense trade, with perfumes from Yemen," he says. The introduction of the camel as beast of burden in ancient Israel also coincided with a comprehensive shake-up of the local copper mining industry.

Bible and Torah literalists are dismissing the scientific evidence. But the new dates are not entirely good news for those who believe the Bible is completely mythological, either. Some argue that those who first wrote down the oral traditions of the Jewish people simply allowed the context of their own times to filter in.

But another argument is that we have, until recently, been completely wrong about the chronology of the Bible.

"I don't know when is the time of the Patriarchs, that's the problem," says Israel Finkelstein, another archaeologist and bible scholar from Tel Aviv University. "I think that we are now kind of liberated from the little bit naive thinking that the Patriarchs can be dated in the second millenium BC, only because they appear in the Bible in the beginning, and that there is a sequential history of ancient Israel in the Bible."

Finkelstein is one of several scholars who, in the last few years, have argued that the Biblical stories of the Patriarchs probably overlap in some way with the time of the Kings like David. And he says the evidence, archaeological and otherwise, clearly places these episodes from the 10th century BC onwards. That is hundreds of years after the conventional thinking.  

"I would use this information the other way around, which means the fact that we have references in Genesis, in the 'time' of the Patriarchs, to domesticated camels is a very good indication that we are relatively late in history, which means we are not in the second millenium BC."

Finkelstein knows his findings are unwelcome to some, but he says "I am not in the business of making people happy or unhappy. I am in the business of conducting research."