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Picture this. It’s Christmas time; your tree is covered in glistening ornaments and twinkling lights, there’s most likely a star or angel at the very top. Somewhere, in your home, church, or community, you see a nativity scene. Even those who are not Christian will admit that the nativity scene is very familiar. At the center is the baby Jesus, surrounded by Mary, the Three Wise Men, some sheep, sometimes a cat or dog, and often, one or more camels. Even if the camels aren’t present in the rendition you’re seeing, you know they were there. How else would the Three Wise Men travel with their gifts for the baby Jesus? Camels were a vital part of this story, and they play a prominent role throughout many stories in the Bible. But can you imagine if these camels disappeared? Recent findings have suggested that camels’ role in the bible could possibly have been a work of fiction. How does this change these stories? Does it matter? What are the impacts on Christianity if these findings are accurate?

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Mention in the Bible

One of the most significant presence of camels in human culture has been their role in the bible. The dromedary camel is mentioned a total of 62 times in the bible, which is quite a high frequency. It is the tenth most referred to animal, and most of these references are found in the Old Testament (Irwin 6). One example of such passages is Genesis 24:11, which says, “And he made his camels to kneel down without the city by a well of water at the time of the evening, even the time that women go out to draw water” (Zonszein). Camels in the bible have been considered a very strong piece of evidence in the determination of the time period of camel domestication in the Middle East, given that evidence revealing this time has been unclear. Historians believe that Genesis took place between approximately 2,000 and 1,500 BC. This time period has been estimated by archaeological evidence in the site of the great Sumerian city of Ur (modern Iraq), and from evidence found at the site of Mari (modern Syria). After extracting this archaeological evidence, radiocarbon dating is used to determine the age of the specimens (Zonszein). This would mean camels would have had to be domesticated in the area for several generations prior to this time period to be an accurate account of their role in the bible.

Timna copper mines, Erez Ben-Yosef

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Camels in the Bible: Extensively Used and Undervalued 

The camel’s role in the bible is important, but as with other roles camels have filled in history, underrated. The camel is often portrayed in the bible as carrying very important goods or people. The baggage of the Queen of Sheba is carried on a camel when she visits Solomon (Kings I, 10:2). Camels are often seen as responsible for carrying many goods, such as a passage in Genesis which says, “And the servant took ten camels of the camels of his master, and departed; for all he goods of his master were in his hand: and he arose, and went to Mesopotamia” (Genesis 24:10). The most frequent mention of camels in the bible, however, is in mentioning their drinking alongside their master. Again in Genesis, it is mentioned “And when she had done giving him drink, she said, I will draw water for thy camels also, until they have done drinking” (Genesis 24:19). This is a very common mention for camels throughout Genesis, in fact, it’s quite interesting the number of passages that are devoted to mentioning the watering of camels. These depictions are almost always of a commoner or peasant drinking alongside their camel, perhaps to demonstrate that both man and camel filled a similar role in biblical society; a laborer and a subject to a higher master. Thus, camels are depicted as a very large part of society during biblical times, though in a very low position. The camel is not only portrayed carrying value loads, but also in war (1 Samuel 30:17 ; Isaiah 21:7). The camel is also gifted several times in the bible, showing its economic value during these times. Camels are given, along with cattle, to Abraham by Pharaoh (Genesis 12:16). Their value is shown also in carrying large and valuable loads, such as when Benhadad of Damascus sent a gift to Elisha, “forty camels’ burden” (2 Kings 8:9). The camels of the bible, despite their extensive use, are not symbolized as noble creatures. Camel meat was not to be consumed, given that it was considered an unclean animal (Leviticus 11:4 ; Deuteronomy 14:7). Despite their prominent role in transport of goods and people, it is clear that camels in biblical times were assigned a role of a pack animal, and not regarded much higher. Furthermore, John the Baptist is portrayed as wearing camel’s hair (Matthew 3:4 ; Mark 1:6), which set him apart from royalty, who wore a softer, more luxurious fabric (Easton). With the above references, it can be inferred that camels were considered commonplace animals, that despite their role in travel and trade, were not considered any more noble than the average peasant. This highlights another example of exploitation of camels in history, given that camels serve an important role, but are taken for granted. Despite their role, they are still considered dirty, unclean, work animals.

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Recent Findings: Disproving Camels in the Bible

As mentioned above, Genesis was estimated to have taken place between 2,000 and 1,500 BC. The current cultural impact of the camel in the bible revolves around alleged historical inaccuracies that are demonstrated by dating of the bible, and dating camel domestication in the Middle East. After doing recent radiocarbon testing, archaeologists Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen have estimated that domesticated camels arrived in the region much later than the biblical stories; around 930 to 900 BC. The evidence for this study has been gathered from sites of copper production in the Aravah Valley, also discussed elsewhere in this blog. This region was the primary location of copper production from around 14th century BC to the 9th century BC. Archaeologists have placed a massive amount of camel remains in the area during what would have been the peak time for copper production, meaning camels were likely used as the primary pack animals to transport the copper out of the area. Once again, the camel’s use centers around their economic value, and in this situation, they would have been the most efficient means of moving mass quantities of copper out of the area for trade over other animals such as mules and donkeys. The Arab peninsula, which borders the Aravah Valley, would have been a logical passageway for camels to move out of the valley and into the Levant, the eastern Mediterranean region where it is believed biblical stories such as Genesis, took place.  This movement of copper would have opened a gateway for the Levant to new economic possibilities, and likely would have marked the beginning of domesticated camels travelling into the region (Zonszein).


These recent findings are of quite great consequence to many Christians who’s religion is based around the accuracy of the bible. According to these recent findings, the domesticated camel portrayed in the bible would have actually arrived in the area around 500 years after the time when they were described in the bible. As explained by one of the archaeologists involved in the discovery, Ben-Yosef, “This is a very good example that the stories were written at a much later time than they supposedly took place. The editor of these stories knew the camel was a draft animal used in his time for traveling across the desert, so of course Abraham, Jacob and David used camels. We call it an anachronism; he projected the reality that he knew at his own time.” Though even the archaeologists who made the discovery have stated that these time discrepancies do not necessarily mean that the stories in the bible are all falsified, the findings still do certainly have an impact on culture, both for Christians and those in other religions. Given that camels play such a major part in the stories of the bible, if the evidence is true and camels could not have possibly existed in the region at the time, this means a large portion of the stories have clearly been created, leading to certain levels of doubt about the reality of other portions of the stories as well (Carrington).

Many Christians have responded quickly to the controversy surrounding the discovery of a possible historical inaccuracy. Some Christian news sources have responded to these recent findings. Many Christians have declared that the conclusions are overstated, and the findings cannot be extrapolated to declare that domesticated camels could not have existed in the area before the oldest fossils have been found. One Christian news outlet quote Titus Kennedy, stating, “It doesn’t tell us that camels couldn’t have been used in other nearby areas earlier than that” (Govier). Regardless of the realities behind the story, the camel remains at the center of very important discussion in Christian culture. The discovery is likely to have cast doubt in the eyes of at least some Christians, and it will certainly be a subject of contention among Christians and non-Christians for some time. The topic has partially been so hotly contested given the role of camels in society. Had the inaccuracies occurred with a less prominent animals that held a less valuable position in the economics and culture of society, the subject would likely be a smaller issue. But camels, serving such a vital, if undervalued, role in many of the bible’s stories, leave a big hole in the stories, should they prove to be falsified.

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