Did Camels Exist in Biblical Times?

5 reasons why domesticated camels likely existed

The Caravan of Abram

Abraham’s Camels. Did camels exist in Biblical times? Camels appear with Abraham in some Biblical texts—and depictions thereof, such as The Caravan of Abram by James Tissot, based on Genesis 12. When were camels first domesticated? Although camel domestication had not taken place by the time of Abraham in the land of Canaan, it had in Mesopotamia. Photo: PD-1923.

Did camels exist in Biblical times?

Some Biblical texts, such as Genesis 12 and 24, claim that Abraham owned camels. Yet archaeological research shows that camels were not domesticated in the land of Canaan until the 10th century B.C.E.—about a thousand years after the time of Abraham. This seems to suggest that camels in these Biblical stories are anachronistic.

Mark W. Chavalas explores the history of camel domestication in his Biblical Views column “Did Abraham Ride a Camel?” published in the November/December 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. Although he agrees that camel domestication likely did not take place in Canaan until the 10th century B.C.E., he notes that Abraham’s place of origin was not Canaan—but Mesopotamia. Thus, to ascertain whether Abraham’s camels are anachronistic, we need to ask: When were camels first domesticated in Mesopotamia?

Chavalas explains that the events in the Biblical accounts of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs (Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Israel and Rachel) have been traditionally dated to c. 2000–1600 B.C.E. (during the Middle Bronze Age). Camels appear in Mesopotamian sources in the third millennium B.C.E.—before this period. However, the mere presence of camels in sources does not necessarily mean that camels were domesticated.
 


 
In the free eBook Exploring Genesis: The Bible’s Ancient Traditions in Context, discover the cultural contexts for many of Israel’s earliest traditions. Explore Mesopotamian creation myths, Joseph’s relationship with Egyptian temple practices and three different takes on the location of Ur of the Chaldees, the birthplace of Abraham.
 


 
The question remains: When were camels domesticated in Mesopotamia?

In his examination of camel domestication history, Chavalas looks at a variety of textual, artistic, and archaeological sources from Mesopotamia dating to the third and second millennia. We will examine five of these sources here:

1. One of the first pieces of evidence for camel domestication comes from the site of Eshnunna in modern Iraq: A plaque from the mid-third millennium shows a camel being ridden by a human.

2. Another source is a 21st-century B.C.E. text from Puzrish-Dagan in modern Iraq that may record camel deliveries.

3. Third, an 18th-century B.C.E. text (quoting from an earlier third millennium text) from Nippur in modern Iraq says, “the milk of the camel is sweet.” Chavalas explains why he thinks this likely refers to a domesticated camel:

Having walked in many surveys through camel herds in Syria along the Middle Euphrates River, I believe that this text is describing a domesticated camel; who would want to milk a “wild camel”? At the very least, the Bactrian camel was being used for dairy needs at this time.

4. Next, an 18th-century B.C.E. cylinder seal depicts a two-humped camel with riders. Although this seal’s exact place of origin is unknown, it reputedly comes from Syria, and it resembles other seals from Alalakh (a site in modern Turkey near Turkey’s southern border with Syria).

5. Finally, a 17th-century text from Alalakh includes camels in a list of domesticated animals that required food.

syria-camel-seal

Camel Domestication. When were camels first domesticated? This impression of an 18th-century B.C.E. cylinder seal from Syria depicts a two-humped camel with riders. The seal and other archaeological discoveries shed light on camel domestication history, suggesting that camel domestication had occurred in Mesopotamia by the second millennium B.C.E. Photo: ©The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

Although domesticated camels may not have been widespread in Mesopotamia in the second millennium, these pieces of evidence show that by the second millennium, there were at least some domesticated camels. Thus, camel domestication had taken place in Mesopotamia by the time of Abraham. Accordingly, Chavalas argues that the camels in the stories of Abraham in Genesis are not anachronistic.

Learn more about the history of camel domestication in Mark W. Chavalas’s Biblical Views column “Did Abraham Ride a Camel?” published in the November/December 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Subscribers: Read the full Biblical Views column “Did Abraham Ride a Camel?” by Mark W. Chavalas in the November/December 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a subscriber yet? Join today.
 


 
In the free eBook Exploring Genesis: The Bible’s Ancient Traditions in Context, discover the cultural contexts for many of Israel’s earliest traditions. Explore Mesopotamian creation myths, Joseph’s relationship with Egyptian temple practices and three different takes on the location of Ur of the Chaldees, the birthplace of Abraham.
 


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Camel Domestication History Challenges Biblical Narrative

Bible Animals: From Hyenas to Hippos

The Animals Went in Two by Two, According to Babylonian Ark Tablet

The Enduring Symbolism of Doves

No, No, Bad Dog: Dogs in the Bible

Cats in Ancient Egypt

Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt
 


 

Posted in The Ancient Near Eastern World.

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  • Wes says

    The Battle of Kadesh took place between the forces of the New Kingdom of Egypt under Ramesses II and the Hittite Empire under Muwatalli II at the city of Kadesh on the Orontes River near the modern Lebanon–Syria border. It is generally dated to 1274 BC in Egyptian chronologies, and is the earliest battle in recorded history for which details of tactics and formations are known. It is believed to have been the largest chariot battle ever fought, involving between 5,000 and 6,000 chariots in total…

    There are numerous contemporary murals of the event commissioned by Ramses the II. Horse drawn chariots are depicted. No camels described in the baggage train. No cavalry mounted on camels on either side. Otherwise, we would here of it as argument six.

    In the first chapter of Job, his wealth is measured in terms of seven thousand sheep and three thousand camels. We are left with many questions about this man and his trials. He is apparently not from Judah or Israel. But yet whether his story is ancient or relatively new ( e.g., the introductory and concluding chapters) might rest with the story of camel domestication.

    One of the reasons this issue comes up is that the bones and stables for camel caravans are not showing up in the Levantine until about the 10th century due to the expansion of the Assyrian Empire. But a Concordance check for “camel” or “camels” shows the term in accounts of events supposedly a millenium prior.

    Looking at a Concordance, in Genesis 34, Rachel even mentions a saddle. Camel saddles start appearing somewhere in central Asia around 1200 BC.

    Granted that overland caravans supplied the Mediterranean with tin and ores from as far away as Afghanistan, it is more likely that the traffic was with donkeys.

  • Rick says

    The linked article “Camel Domestication History Challenges Biblical Narrative” suffers the same pitfall. The camels in Gen 12 were in Egypt, not in the Land.

  • Pannobhasa says

    I can take a middle path between Jeff and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Just because something is described in the Bible, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is true, or false either. Even some of the more mythological stuff do doubt has roots in empirical fact, just as the Iliad is a mythological account of a war that probably really happened. So Genesis mentioning domesticated camels is just an interesting (?) subject that archeologists can try to prove or disprove. Maybe Abraham really existed, and Achilles also, and maybe Abraham owned camels. I dunno.

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