Much Ado About Camels… in the Bible

Somehow in all my reading of Genesis, I missed one of the great controversies of the bible: camels. Dromedaries appear in several Genesis stories, but most notably in the story of Isaac and Rebekah. In this story, Rebekah waters Abraham’s camels and fulfills a prophecy to be Isaac’s wife. I never thought twice about camels in biblical times, but science disagrees. Robert Alter summarizes the controversy best:

Archeological and extrabiblical literary evidence indicates that camels were not adopted as beasts of burden until several centuries after the Patriarchal period, and so their introduction to this story would have to be anachronistic.

Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses

Rather than point at camels as an indication that the bible is “wrong”, I argue that the rarity of camels fits the biblical narrative. The authors may even connect Abraham to the rise of camels in all of Canaan. Read on for more.

When did Abraham live? When were camels domesticated?

A Camel (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

First things first: I’m not an expert on the use of dromedaries in Canaanite society during this or any period.

Dating the Abrahamic period is challenging. If Abraham is a historic figure, he probably lived just after 2000 BCE. Some Jews place Abraham’s birth in 1813 BCE. Christian sources, such as Bishop James Ussher (who famously determined the world began in 4004 BCE), agree with this date to within a hundred years or so. Dating camel domestication is no less challenging. I reviewed more than a dozen books, but Wikipedia summarizes my findings well enough:

Dromedaries were first domesticated in central or southern Arabia some thousands of years ago. Experts are divided regarding the date: some believe it was around 4000 BC, others as recently as 1400 BC. There are currently almost 13 million domesticated dromedaries, mostly in the area from Western India via Pakistan through Iran to northern Africa. […] Around the second millennium BC, the dromedary was introduced to Egypt and North Africa.

Source: Wikipedia, “Dromedary

In short, we don’t know when camels were domesticated. Camels may have been known prior to Abraham, but not widely domesticated until later. This view largely agrees with Genesis: in the text, camels are not common beasts of burden. In fact, Abraham and his family may have owned the only camels in Canaan!

Camels in Genesis

The first camels in our story come from Abraham’s sojourn into Egypt. When Pharaoh took Sarai to be his wife, he paid her “brother” a king’s ransom for her, including camels:

And it came to pass, when Abram had come into Egypt, that the Egyptians beheld the woman [Sarai], that she was very fair. The princes also of Pharaoh saw her, and commended her before Pharaoh; and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And he treated Abram well for her sake; and he had sheep and oxen and heasses, and menservants and maidservants, and sheasses and camels.

Genesis 12:14-16

When Abraham and Sarah fled Egypt, they kept their camels and other wealth. Years later, when Abraham sought a bride for Isaac, he sent two symbols of his prestige: his loyal servant and camels. Pharaoh paid for a bride with camels, why not Abraham?

And the servant took ten camels from the camels of his master and departed, for all the goods of his master were in his hand. And he arose and went to Mesopotamia, unto the city of Nahor.

Genesis 24:10

Abraham’s servant used the camels as part of his test to identify Isaac’s bride-to-be:

And he made his camels to kneel down outside the city by a well of water at the time of the evening, even the time that women go out to draw water. And he said, “O Lord God of my master Abraham, I pray Thee, send me good speed this day, and show kindness unto my master Abraham. Behold, I stand here by the well of water, and the daughters of the men of the city come out to draw water. And let it come to pass, that the damsel to whom I shall say, ‘Let down thy pitcher, I pray thee, that I may drink,’ and she shall say, ‘Drink, and I will give thy camels drink also’ — let the same be she whom Thou hast appointed for Thy servant Isaac; and thereby shall I know that Thou hast shown kindness unto my master.”

Genesis 24:11-14

The servant asked God to send a sign: a woman so good that she not only offers the servant a drink, but his camels also! God heard his plea and the scene played out exactly as proscribed:

And it came to pass, before he had done speaking, that behold, Rebekah came out, who was born to Bethuel son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, with her pitcher upon her shoulder. And the damsel was very fair to look upon, a virgin, neither had any man known her; and she went down to the well and filled her pitcher and came up. And the servant ran to meet her and said, “Let me, I pray thee, drink a little water from thy pitcher.” And she said, “Drink, my lord”; and she hastened and let down her pitcher upon her hand, and gave him drink. And when she had done giving him drink, she said, “I will draw water for thy camels also, until they have done drinking.” And she hastened and emptied her pitcher into the trough, and ran again unto the well to draw water, and drew for all his camels.

Genesis 24:15-20

Abraham’s servant confronts Rebekah’s family with this sign and achieves Rebekah’s betrothal to Isaac. Rather than leave the camels with Nahor, Rebekah takes the camels with her:

And Rebekah arose, and her damsels, and they rode upon the camels and followed the man; and the servant took Rebekah and went his way.

Genesis 24:61

When they arrive in Canaan, Isaac accepts his bride and they live happily ever after, at least until Isaac goes blind and she conspires to deprive her first-born son of his birthright. The story is Jacob’s camels isn’t as clear-cut as with Abraham and Isaac, but it also starts with a search for a bride:

And Isaac called Jacob and blessed him, and charged him and said unto him, “Thou shalt not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan. Arise, go to Padanaram to the house of Bethuel thy mother’s father, and take thee a wife from thence of the daughters of Laban thy mother’s brother.

Genesis 28:1-2

This passage does not say that Jacob took camels, but he has them two chapters later when it is time to return to Canaan with his new family. As Laban is never said to have camels of his own, this is not a difficult leap to make.

And the man [Jacob] increased exceedingly and had large flocks, and maidservants and menservants, and camels and asses.

Genesis 30:43

Camels appear again in the story of Joseph, but inverted: instead of a bride-price, it is Joseph that is being sold into bondage. Also, these camels belong to Ishmaelites, not Israelites:

And it came to pass, when Joseph had come unto his brethren, that they stripped Joseph of his coat, his coat of many colors that was on him; and they took him and cast him into a pit. And the pit was empty; there was no water in it. And they sat down to eat bread; and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and behold, a company of Ishmaelites came from Gilead with their camels, bearing spices and balm and myrrh, going to carry them down to Egypt.

Genesis 37:23-25

Where did these camels come from? My answer is Abraham. It’s never said explicitly, but Abraham’s property is divided before and after his death:

And Abraham gave all that he had unto Isaac. But unto the sons of the concubines whom Abraham had, Abraham gave gifts; and while he yet lived he sent them away from Isaac his son, eastward unto the east country. […] Then Abraham gave up the ghost and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people. And his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, which is before Mamre, the field which Abraham purchased from the sons of Heth.

Genesis 25:5-6,8-10

Abraham provided gifts to the “sons of the concubines” that Abraham had? Which concubines? Hagar is the only one we know; Keturah and Sarah were “wives”. Even if Abraham did not provide Ishmael with camels, Isaac could have given them when Abraham was buried. In this way, all of the camels of Genesis could have come from the original bride-purchase in Genesis 10.

Evolving Camels

Did the author of Genesis not only know that camels were rare, but also wanted to tell the story of the rise of camels in desert society? There are some clues to this interpretation:

  1. The first use of camels, by Pharaoh, may have been only as a luxury good.
  2. Rebekah, a generation later, is the first person to ride a camel in the Bible.
  3. Jacob refined the raising of camels to a science while sojourning with Laban.
  4. The Ishmaelites at the time of Joseph, had mastered the use of camels for trade.

Generation after generation, camels became more prominent in Canaan and the sons of Abraham were at the center of it.

This interpretation has holes: Genesis never once says that camels are rare, they are lumped in with the donkeys in Pharaoh’s list so may already have been beasts of burden, and it can be argued that their role in wooing Rebekah was primarily to carry the housewares. (Could it be that she could only ride them on the way back because their goods were left off with her parents?)

Is Genesis a historically accurate account of pre-historical dromedary use? Probably not. But it is fun to think about!

Up next: More on Isaac and Rebekah

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