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Will camel discovery break the Bible's back?
Camels, shown here in the Liwa desert outside Abu Dhabi, are the subject of a surprising new discovery.
February 11th, 2014
01:56 PM ET

Will camel discovery break the Bible's back?

Opinion by Joel Baden, special to CNN

(CNN) - It’s been a rough 2014 for the book of Genesis.

First a Noah’s Ark discovery raised a flood of questions, then there was the much-hyped debate over life’s origins between Bill Nye the Science Guy and creationist Ken Ham.

And now this: a scientific report establishing that camels, the basic mode of transportation for the biblical patriarchs, weren’t domesticated in Israel until hundreds of years after Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are said to have wandered the earth.

Using radiocarbon dating of camel bones that showed signs of having carried heavy loads, Israeli archaeologists have dated the earliest domesticated camels to the end of the 10th century BCE.

But according to the traditional biblical chronology, the patriarchs were schlepping around Canaan on camels over a millennium earlier, all the way back in 2100 BCE

Taken on its own, this may seem a rather minor problem.

After all, this is Genesis, in which some people live to be 900 years old (hello, Methuselah), all of humanity emerges from Babylon, and the Dead Sea is created from the backward glance of Lot’s wife. (Not to mention the six-day creation story and the stuffing of all land animals on a single boat.)

How important could camels really be?

For those who believe the Bible to be fundamentally true, this is hardly going to change any minds. For those who believe it to be entirely false, this is surely not the most damning piece of evidence.

What the camels in Genesis reveal, in fact, has nothing to do with the “truth” of the biblical story at all.

Instead, the presence of these camels in the story highlights, in a very clear way, the essential humanity of the biblical writers: like the best authors, they simply wrote about what they knew.

The patriarchs are depicted as nomadic, never settling for long in one place, but moving constantly from location to location throughout Israel (and beyond).

An ancient Israelite, wanting to tell the story of the wandering of his ethnic and national ancestors, would have naturally looked to the nomadic peoples around him as models. And indeed, throughout the Bible camels are commonly associated with those tribes who lived in the desert: Midianites, Ishmaelites, Amalekites, Kedemites.

The biblical authors simply transplanted the nomadic standards of their time into the distant past.

There is nothing deceptive about this. They weren’t trying to trick anyone. They imagined, quite reasonably, that the past was, fundamentally, like their present.

They had no real alternative. In ancient Israel, in the period when the Bible was written (which ranges, conservatively, from the 10th to the third century BCE), no one had any way of knowing that camels had not always been domesticated pack animals. After all, we didn’t know that for sure until this past week.

Without any evidence to the contrary, it is perfectly natural to assume that things have always been the way that they are now. Today we have more information about the past than any other moment in history. In ancient Israel, they had virtually none.

And yet we still fall victim to this basic, very human, historical fallacy.

It has been suggested that this anachronism in the biblical text is akin to importing semitrailers into the medieval period. But this is a level of ridiculousness too far.

I would suggest that it is more similar to describing a medieval Italian as enjoying pasta with tomato sauce. How many people, even today, know that tomatoes only came to Italy from South America in the 16th century?

The camels in Genesis may be “wrong,” but they are not a “mistake.” We all imagine the past to the best of our knowledge, the biblical authors included.

The lasting lesson of the camel controversy, such as it is, is a simple one: no writing, not even the Bible, is timeless or without context. Views of the past are contingent on both what we know and how we know it.

The Bible is a historical record, but it tells us just as much, if not more, about the people who wrote it as it does about the people they wrote about.

Since the stories of the Bible remain so central to who we are as a culture, even today (and even for those who dismiss it), it seems entirely fitting that we should be equally interested in the ancient people who composed them.

Despite their lack of historical knowledge — and, equally, because of it — they, more than the characters in the Bible, are our true cultural ancestors.

Joel S. Baden is the author of "The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero" and an associate professor of Old Testament at Yale Divinity School. The views expressed in this column belong to Baden.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Bible • Creationism • Evolution • Judaism • Middle East • Opinion

soundoff (3,276 Responses)
  1. kyzaadrao

    Because the earliest domesticated camels were found at a certain date, that means they couldn't have been domesticated before that date?

    Alrighty, then.

    February 11, 2014 at 7:23 pm |
    • JakeSeaVik

      Yeah...so I guess you're suggesting they domesticated them, then let them go wild (or die), then domesticated them again many years later? Just like most religious concepts, it's possible if you don't apply rational thought.

      February 11, 2014 at 7:30 pm |
    • mmortal03

      The findings are probably more like what another commenter said earlier:

      Camels found before 1000BCE show no load carrying.

      Camels found after 1000BCE often show load carrying.

      February 11, 2014 at 8:53 pm |
      • truthisbest

        The point is that the archaeologists are making a ridiculously inclusive claim about ancient camels based solely on samples they took from a single site in the Aravah Valley.

        February 12, 2014 at 12:01 pm |
  2. Doris

    The camel discovery may break the Bible's back,
    but that won't keep the average fool from stepping past a crack.

    February 11, 2014 at 7:08 pm |
  3. njraised

    Regardless of what your beliefs are I don't see how these findings prove or disprove anything. They've found proof camels at end of the 10th century BCE carried heavy loads. So what? Maybe they weren't domesticated before that, maybe they were but those bones have not been found YET. Up until they made these discoveries anyone could have reasonably argued that camels were not domesticated until many centuries after the 10th century BCE.

    To be clear, I am not discrediting the findings nor radiocarbon dating. Just don't think this a very "important" or definitive finding.

    February 11, 2014 at 6:55 pm |
    • StevePage

      Absolutely right.

      February 11, 2014 at 7:26 pm |
    • JohnRJohnson

      Agree. This is a non-story.

      February 11, 2014 at 7:31 pm |
    • JakeSeaVik

      You're right, there is already plenty of evidence suggesting that the bible is fiction. But believers keep on believing. So it's important every time we learn more in that maybe that incremental piece of knowledge will convince a few more that religion is idiotic.

      February 11, 2014 at 7:33 pm |
  4. stephanurus

    God got it wrong if He wrote or inspired the Bible. If He didn't write or inspire the Bible, the writers, whoever they were, got it wrong.

    February 11, 2014 at 6:55 pm |
    • mikado4501

      People have been trying since the books of the Bible were first written to find errors or contradictions in them. In all that time, the Bible – God's word – has never been definitively shown to contain a mistake. It still hasn't.

      This "discovery" proves absolutely nothing.

      February 11, 2014 at 7:56 pm |
      • igaftr

        mikado
        The bible has been proven to have MANY mistakes...or is it possible to tell if your wife is unfaithful by having her drink magic weater and dust? Noah's myth has been disproven by many branches of science.

        February 12, 2014 at 8:23 am |
      • s4ty41987

        how do you know for sure that bible is god's words ? just curious

        February 12, 2014 at 2:28 pm |
  5. cavepainter

    "the Dead Sea is created from the backward glance of Lot’s wife"

    What? That's not what the bible said. Genesis 19:26 "But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt."

    Now I realize that for atheists that probably won't be any more believable, but if you're going to say "the bible said..." while mocking it for being unbelievable then you should at least make sure it actually says what you're claiming. The same goes for any other subject, religious or not.

    February 11, 2014 at 6:35 pm |
  6. p05esto

    What a joke. Everyone knows carbon dating is a joke and not reliable at ALL. Let alone that assumes that ALL camels carried all this weight... maybe only some did, maybe some were wild, maybe some just were used as food. Like a million possibilities. Maybe the camel bones they found were not even that old. I mean really, science is so foolish I no longer believe a word those wackos come up with. Show me proof or stop talking out of your butt.... these so-called scientists need to grow up.

    February 11, 2014 at 6:30 pm |
    • amrican1621

      "everybody knows?"

      No, not everybody.

      Radio-Carbon is a pretty good science

      February 11, 2014 at 6:46 pm |
    • mikeinohio

      Yep, "science is so foolish I no longer believe a word those wackos come up with".

      You get a flu shot?
      How about a tetanus shot?
      Take antibiotics when you're sick?
      Drive a car?
      Turn your air conditioner on when it's hot?
      Turn your furnace on when it's cold?
      Buy your food without worrying about dying from food poisoning?

      My guess is your answer to all these is "YES".
      And the reason is because of science. If not for science, you would probably have never been born. And if you were, chances would be pretty high that you would die as an infant. And if you survived infancy, you would likely die a horrendous death in early adulthood.

      Yep, science sure is full of all kinds of wackos.
      The truth be told, you owe your life to science.

      February 11, 2014 at 7:05 pm |
    • s4ty41987

      if you feel that science is foolish, log the f out and go back to stone age you illiterate f

      February 12, 2014 at 2:30 pm |
  7. skb8721

    "First a Noah’s Ark discovery raised a flood of questions" Hahaha, a "flood" of questions! A flood - Noah's Ark - get it?

    February 11, 2014 at 6:27 pm |
  8. ccfarris

    No camels in ancient biblical times? Well, at least that's two fewer animals that Noah had to get into his arc, if Genesis 6:17 is correct, or seven fewer if camels were "clean bests" and Genesis 7:2 is correct. You'd think that with all his supernatural powers, Yahweh or Elohiym, or whatever his name, could have gotten his story right.

    February 11, 2014 at 6:21 pm |
    • amrican1621

      The article did NOT claim there were no camels in ancient times.

      The article claimed there was no evidence of domestication and load-bearing prior to 1000BCE.

      February 11, 2014 at 6:42 pm |
  9. nmatney353

    I love how ignorant atheists are always trying to dissuade people in believing in something. Sounds insecure in your own beliefs to me. God will forgive you in time.

    February 11, 2014 at 6:16 pm |
    • seedenbetter

      Keep smoking the crack pipe.

      February 11, 2014 at 6:19 pm |
    • Ian's Rushtache

      I love how iarrogant christians are always trying to persuade people in believing in something that is not real. Sounds insecure in your own beliefs to me. Zeus will smite you in time.

      February 11, 2014 at 6:23 pm |
    • Akira

      Calling people names is the new proselytizing?

      February 11, 2014 at 6:46 pm |
  10. olsonic

    LOL! I think the blatant endorsement of Slavery broke the bibles back as far as ethics is concerned, but it certainly endorses a anthropocentric world view with a completely incorrect cosmology

    February 11, 2014 at 6:16 pm |
    • p05esto

      Men are supposed to be happy with their lot in life, weather a free man or a slave. Slavery in those times was much different and many people were very happy to have a master, a provider, employment.... the worst off slaves in those times were not bad at all. So yes, being a slave was a fine thing back then. We are told that we must ALL becomes slaves of god, to do his every will and command while on bended knee. Only the meek and humble will inherit the kingdom of god.

      February 11, 2014 at 6:33 pm |
      • Lucifer's Evil Twin

        Superstitious nonsense... and the meek and humble are the first to be eaten...

        February 11, 2014 at 7:32 pm |
      • mikeinohio

        "the worst off slaves in those times were not bad at all. So yes, being a slave was a fine thing back then. "

        You are either making a ham-handed effort at snark, or you are a complete idiot.

        February 11, 2014 at 7:57 pm |
      • doobzz

        "So yes, being a slave was a fine thing back then."

        Yes, and god was even nice enough to tell their owners how hard they were allowed to beat them. As long as they didn't die within a day or two, you were a-okay with god.

        February 11, 2014 at 8:01 pm |
      • dotyrs

        "So yes, being a slave was a fine thing back then."

        If that's the case, then why did the Israelites get their collective panties in a bunch when they were enslaved by the Egyptians?

        February 12, 2014 at 12:55 am |
  11. mikeinohio

    "The camels in Genesis may be “wrong,” but they are not a “mistake.” We all imagine the past to the best of our knowledge, the biblical authors included."

    Well, once again this brings to the forefront the major argument relating to Christianity and the Bible. Either the Bible is the inspired and inerrant word of the Christian god; or it is simply another ancient text, whose ultimate traceability is unknown, and which shares a lot of the same narratives and stories of countless other religions throughout history. This punches yet another hole into the infallibility argument of those who claim the Bible to be divinely inspired and literally true from Genesis through Revelation. And if it is not true, which other portions are also authored by someone "imagining the past to the best of their knowledge"?

    As usual, time and human curiosity are not the friends of Christianity and its theology.

    February 11, 2014 at 6:06 pm |
    • babooph

      Brings to mind the recent banning of a book,once printed in the US & still in print overseas,as a "forgery".[It is a foolish book]The Bible ,with its forgery's seems to be ok though..

      February 11, 2014 at 6:32 pm |
      • mikeinohio

        There is little doubt that the Bible is rife with edits and insertions done by lowly scribes over the early centuries. The existence of anything resembling original manuscripts is specious, at best. It has been cobbed together over the first 2-3 centuries.

        February 11, 2014 at 7:12 pm |
  12. lakmasa

    Tomatoes didn't get to Europe from South America. Tomatoes were Aztec and were introduced by the Spanish who brought them from Mexico. Mexico is in North America.

    February 11, 2014 at 6:06 pm |
    • amrican1621

      Tomato as a SPECIES are from the Andes (South America). Tomato as a FOOD comes from Mexico.

      February 11, 2014 at 6:38 pm |
      • lakmasa

        Exactly. So for the purposes of this example, Italians eat pasta with Tomato sauce (FOOD), thanks to the Aztecs from Mexico.

        February 12, 2014 at 10:23 am |
  13. madman37

    So because they found camel bones from the 10th century BC that carried heavy loads, they're concluding that camels before then didn't carry heavy loads? That makes as much logical sense as saying that since it snowed yesterday, it never snowed before then.

    February 11, 2014 at 6:02 pm |
    • p05esto

      The bible says that man's wisdom is foolishness to God. These scientists look more and more stupid every time I read an article about one of them trying to make a name for themselves and get into the history books.

      February 11, 2014 at 6:35 pm |
    • amrican1621

      Camels found before 1000BCE show no load carrying.

      Camels found after 1000BCE often show load carrying.

      Many examples to work from.

      Evidence is string and growing.

      February 11, 2014 at 6:40 pm |
      • njraised

        The evidence is growing, except each just about most scientific discoveries the result is usually proves someone or something was around earlier then previously "proven".

        Prior to these findings the evidence proved load bearing camels were not around until sometime after the end of the 10th century BCE. Now, they've found was not accurate.

        I don't think this finding is as spectacular as it is written to appear

        February 11, 2014 at 7:09 pm |
      • MikeR

        Suppose a camel was 1000 years old (recall Methuselah was over 900) and died in 1000 BCE. That camel would have been around in 2000 BCE, but carbon-date to 1000 BCE. Mystery solved.

        February 11, 2014 at 7:13 pm |
  14. magicpanties

    God had them write about camels because he knew this would happen so it is yet another way to test our faith,
    kinda like those durn dinosaur fossils.

    Yeah, that's the ticket.

    February 11, 2014 at 5:47 pm |
    • s4ty41987

      i've read some really stupid comments so far but dam you beat em all in one line lmao

      February 12, 2014 at 2:33 pm |
  15. Apple Bush

    When you look at different religions, they usually contain "magic." For example:
    • The Mormon religion contains the magical golden plates, the magical angel, the magical seer stones, the magical ascension of the plates into heaven, etc.

    • The Muslim faith contains the magical angel, the magical flying horse, the magical voices, the magical prophet, etc.

    • The Christian faith contains the magical insemination, the magical star, the magical dreams, the magical miracles, the magical resurrection, the magical ascension and so on.

    The presence of "magic" is a clear marker for "imaginary." For example, how do we know that Santa is imaginary?

    Because (among other things) he has eight magical flying reindeer. How do we know that Jack and the Beanstalk is a fairy tale? Because (among other things) the story contains magical seeds. In the same way, how do we know that God is make believe? Because God is surrounded by magic.

    According to believers, God is an all-powerful being who has the divine, magical power to do anything. How do we know that this belief is a fairy tale? One way to know is to try to invoke God's magical power. For example, the Bible tells us in many places that God answers prayers. However, whenever we try to pray, we notice that nothing happens. That tells us that God is completely imaginary. The magical powers ascribed to him are a fairy tale.

    Another way to know is to read the stories of magical events in the Bible. There is the magical flood, yet we know with certainty that the flood never happened. There are the magical miracles of Jesus, but (predictably) none of these miracles left behind any tangible evidence. There is the magical resurrection, yet there is zero evidence that it ever occurred and no reason to believe it.

    God is identical to Leprechauns, mermaids and Santa. God is a magical fairy tale creature. The magic surrounding God tells us that God is imaginary.

    February 11, 2014 at 5:45 pm |
    • cavepainter

      This is an issue of definition. You're defining everything you don't have an explanation for as "magic" and therefor something that cannot be. I don't know how how magnets work (the article I found is delving into quantum mechanics to explain them) but that doesn't mean they're "magic" or that they don't work.

      February 11, 2014 at 6:55 pm |
      • Apple Bush

        I have proof of magnets so your argument does not hold water. You did describe what Christians and other religions do though. If you can't explain it, god did it.

        That means that every time we explain something (magnets for example) a piece of God is eliminated. The law of a diminishing god.

        February 11, 2014 at 7:25 pm |
    • MikeR

      You claim everything is "magical", and then discount it as being "magical". Good one.

      February 11, 2014 at 7:14 pm |
      • Apple Bush

        I don't follow, sorry.

        February 11, 2014 at 7:25 pm |
  16. ewfjcopwaef

    This won't make any difference. The people who believe in "God" never let facts or logic get in their way before.

    February 11, 2014 at 5:43 pm |
    • rougegeologist

      100% agree no difference will be made. The mere fact the words "carbon dating" were within 500 feet of this article will be enough for fundamentalists to disregard it.

      February 11, 2014 at 5:46 pm |
  17. rougegeologist

    For a group that constantly accuses athiests they cannont prove God does not exist, Christians sure love to do the same with facets of science. Evolution is not real, the big bang is not real, radiometric dating is not real...

    February 11, 2014 at 5:41 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      The swear by the impossible and avoid the logical. That is their religion.

      February 11, 2014 at 5:56 pm |
  18. bostontola

    There is no evidence for the Christian God and much of the religion's assertions. There are many contradictions in it's bibles and many factual errors. But those are not the main reasons I'm not a Christian.

    I'm not a Christian because the religion and it's God is unethical and immoral. Now I know it wasn't intended to be either. It was created for exactly the opposite purpose, and at the time of it's creation, it was state of the art ethics and morality. But much time has passed and humans have developed more sophisticated societies and better ethics and morals. We no longer allow slavery, subjugation of women and "sinners". Most of all, we are more just. We assume innocence until found guilty and the punishment is proportional to the crime. In Christianity, there is eternal punishment for "crimes" committed in a finite life.

    The underlying supposition is a God that created us knowing we were sinners and disbelievers (He is omniscient and omnipotent), and then punishing us eternally for creating us that way. God poisoned us, then wants to sell us the cure. That is unethical and immoral in my sensibilities.

    February 11, 2014 at 5:33 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      That is not the main reason I am not a Christian personally, but good post. Agree.

      February 11, 2014 at 5:55 pm |
  19. The Running Twit

    Let's say there is a major cataclysm and future people (10 000 years from now) find a Harry Potter's movie prop like the Nimbus 2000 broomstick.

    Will they say that we were doing magic? will they search for a possible power system to lift it? will they worship it? would they find out it is not flying!!!!

    February 11, 2014 at 4:59 pm |
    • The Running Twit

      "found with a well conserved photograph of Harry flying"

      February 11, 2014 at 5:02 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      I wonder which of the Potter books would get selected for the "official" bible of Potter...

      February 11, 2014 at 5:19 pm |
      • Akira

        They would just combine the seven volumes into one ginormous one, like the Bible did.
        Would Harry be Jesus, then?

        February 11, 2014 at 6:54 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          Not sure but man there are a lot of miracles in this new Potter Bible. That should keep our descendants busy for thousands of years to come.

          February 11, 2014 at 7:31 pm |
  20. Apple Bush

    @@ddeevviinn

    ➡ Something exists = real
    ➡ Something does not exist = not real
    ➡ Magic does not exist = not real

    February 11, 2014 at 4:46 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      💡
      If something exists, it is natural!

      February 11, 2014 at 4:48 pm |
      • Trent

        Here is a simple thing you can try:

        Go to http://www.bibledice.com and click on random scripture and click on get scripture and see what scripture you get.

        February 11, 2014 at 5:12 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          Trent, why would I do that? I don't understand.

          February 11, 2014 at 5:20 pm |
        • Trent

          You may get a supernatural revelation.

          February 11, 2014 at 5:23 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          I'm on it.

          February 11, 2014 at 5:23 pm |
        • Trent

          Apple Bush, Did you try?

          February 11, 2014 at 5:44 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          Yes, I got:

          Proverbs 20:1
          1.Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise.

          Which is good since I don't drink! I am wise!

          February 11, 2014 at 5:48 pm |
        • Trent

          Thanks for trying, looks like a great verse!
          Also a great verse for those mentioned in the "Praise the lord and pass the beer, Change is brewing among American Christians" entry.

          February 11, 2014 at 6:02 pm |
    • ddeevviinn

      And yet, still no ample evidence. But that's okay, because while I may concur with your equation " Something does not exist = not real" I also realize you have absolutely NO evidence that what I call something does not exist.

      February 11, 2014 at 4:56 pm |
      • Apple Bush

        Naturally there is no ample evidence. How could there be ANY evidence for that which does not exist?

        February 11, 2014 at 5:18 pm |
        • ddeevviinn

          Thank You. My point exactly. There can be no evidence, which is why your speculation that my "something does not exist" is simply an OPINION.

          February 11, 2014 at 5:30 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          Wrong. Until you can prove any of your claims, it is fact. The burden of proof is on you, not me.

          February 11, 2014 at 5:34 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          I am waiting ddeevviinn, please show proof of something that is "supernatural".

          February 11, 2014 at 5:40 pm |
        • ddeevviinn

          Sorry for the delay. First time we've seen the sun here in a week and I just got back from a bike ride.

          Here's the thing: I have NEVER ONCE stated that I can PROVE the supernatural or more specifically, the existence of God. I have posted on this site numerous times that while I have what I understand to be significant EVIDENCE for the existence of God, I can not prove it. But again, to beat a dead horse, my lack of proof for the existence of God and your inability to disprove His existence, is irrelevant to His existence or non-existence.

          I have and will never shy away from the fact that for me faith enters into the equation. For you it doesn't, and that is the root of our disparity.

          February 11, 2014 at 6:47 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.