Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
I preface this post with three key biblical truths: (1) God is and He has spoken; (2) The enemy has questioned God, both His character and His spoken word, from the beginning of the Fall; (3) We live by every Word that comes from the mouth of God.
As is quite common, discoveries and writings questioning and undermining the Bible, its authority, historicity and truthfulness regularly circulate. It is not surprising that they do. What is more surprising is when Christians so quickly believe what is written, or, if they do not believe what is claimed they are shaken because a new discovery is going to disprove the Bible. This is when it is important to know history.
The recent issue to be raised undermining the Bible’s authority and historical veracity is the dating of bones of camels. Here are the titles of four articles addressing this new claim, which reveal clearly the conclusion of the authors: "Finding Israel's First Camels: TAU archaeologists pinpoint the date when domesticated camels arrived in Israel"; Joel Baden, “Will camel discovery break the Bible's back?”; John Noble Wilford, “Camels Had No Business in Genesis”; and Elizabeth Dias, “The Mystery of the Bible’s Phantom Camels.”
Here is the brief summary of this recent discovery and disclosure (the quotes taken from a couple of the articles): "Last week, archaeologists Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel Aviv University released a new study, based on the radioactive-carbon techniques. Abraham and the patriarchs, however, lived at least six centuries before then." This led to the following conclusion: "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 all biblical writers: like the best authors, they simply wrote about what they knew."
The upshot: Based on the research, it proves, so some claim, that the account of Abraham is not true because camels were not around or at least not domesticated during the time Abraham lived. Thus, because this claim is absolutely true, it undermines the historicity and truthfulness of the Genesis account.
What do we say? How do we respond? There is much that could and probably should be said. Though this post is more responsive and reactive to claims made, there is a much more positive and constructive statement that needs to be made as well. What I have written, with more of a negative tone, is not all that needs to be said. Please know that and reflect on this with that in mind.
As we read these articles, it is important to remember that presuppositions, premises and methods affect what one expects to find and conclusions drawn. Furthermore, these issues have been known and addressed in the past. They are not actually new. (Please see the quotes below from the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch that interact with these precise claims.) Here are a number of responses.
First, this is not a new argument or new discovery. This discussion has been going on for some time. It is presented as if it is something new that will undermine the authority of the Bible. In one of the articles the author pontificates, and quite definitively concludes regarding the lack of historicity in the Bible, “Case closed.” There have been good, historical responses to these claims for years. Because it is treated as something new, you will only read the old claims rehashed without acknowledging, much less interacting with, these earlier responses.
Second, they base this definitive conclusion on “radiocarbon dating.” How reliable and definitive is dating based on radiocarbon? If you study this method of dating, it tells you something, but it is not conclusive or definitive. There are too many variables that make its use inconclusive. Most claims don’t even acknowledge this.
Third, they ground this conclusion on the fact that they could, definitively “identify a domesticated animal by signs in leg bones that it had carried heavy loads.” How certain are they of this historical reconstruction such that they can definitively claim how much weight these camels carried? Furthermore, how do they determine the effect this had on the density of the bone structure in the archeological finds?
Fourth, their claim that whether or not this is historical does nothing to the Bible is to undermine the Bible. If there is no historical concern but only in communicating a spiritual message, then who determines what spiritual message to communicate? And a book that claims to be historical and yet, is blatantly inaccurate historically, how can it be trusted to be claimed to be “very rich in meaning and interpretive power” and a guide for spiritual maturation?
Fifth, because thee contemporary might have greater access to documents and resources, does that mean that any statements made earlier are either inaccurate or wrong? Are all statements relative only waiting for the next generation to say something more definitive, only to fall prey to the same relativity. To claim that because the authors of the biblical account are old, and they are limited in understanding and knowledge, they project backwards onto earlier times a mirror of their own present times thus creating history based on the present is to portray them as uneducated and uninformed, as if they were ignorant of how history functioned and operated, at least how one recounts and records history. But now, in contrast to them, because we know better we can read their history and experience better and definitive. It evidences chronological snobbery. And this says nothing about divine salvation history that records His story that is guided by Him.
Sixth, is it accurate to claim that the biblical account is fallacious because the document was written after the fact? To claim that “Biblical History 101 teaches that the texts themselves were often written centuries after the events they depict.” But all history is written after the fact. Since this is the case, how many years count between the event and the recording of the account to ensure it remains historically accurate? The biblical account is the best attested document of all of the writings of antiquity.
Seventh, is the biblical text, a text that claims to be a word from and a word about God and his plan, does it intend or claim to tell us primarily about the human authors? Is that the reason we read and study the Bible? Or is there an Author over and above the authors that make this book authoritative, definitive, inspired and inerrant in matters of faith and practice, and also in matters of history and science (though it is not a science textbook)?
Eighth, is any evidence self-interpreting? Did the camel bones have dates inscribed on them? Did the radiocarbon tests come out with a date stamped on the results? Certainly not. How did they determine their supposed dates definitively? They were interpreted. All of these materials need to be interpreted. Inevitably, one of the principles followed is that the present-day interpreter knows better than the original biblical author, so concludes the biblical author was historically inaccurate because it does not fit the interpreter's presupposed belief about what could or could not happen. It is often, though not always, a bias against God and His Word.
Finally, why is the Bible, a book that claims to be historical and make historical claims, not considered? Why is it not included in the historical documents from the time studied to validate or invalidate claims? One does not have to treat it as inerrant (though I believe it is) in order to use it as a valid historical document. In fact, as noted below, one of the responses to this claim is that “the pentateuchal narratives themselves should also be treated as evidence of pre-twelfth century camel domestication and not simply dismissed as anachronistic.”
I rest in God and his Word!
For some further research, I include a few pertinent responses from T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker, ed., Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003).
“Historical Criticism”: “The camel was definitely domesticated by the third millennium B.C but that its widespread use only began to emerge during the final moments of the Late Bronze Age. It would thus appear that Abraham’s ‘camel connection’ is not a good example for an anachronism but rather can be confidently explained in the context of either the early or late date connected to the patriarchal period, beginning around the end of the third millennium B.C. . . . camels were instrumental in the establishment of desert nomadism with its change in lifestyle. The Genesis story of Abraham leaving the urban center of Ur and becoming a ger (“stranger, traveler, man without an established residence,” Gen 15:13; 23:4) living in a tent does coincide with this function.”
“Travel and Transportation”: “it is not out of line to conclude that camels were generally used in ways described by the Pentateuch before the times it is purported to describe. . . . Caution is the word of the day. As the evidence presently stands, any conclusions drawn regarding camel domestication must remain tentative at best. For scholars to say that the appearance of tame camels in the Pentateuch must be anachronistic is to go too far. Our knowledge is simply lacking, and it is an argument from silence.”
“Zoology”: “Evidence for the pre-twelfth century use of camels is scanty, but this is not entirely surprising. The camel is not a city animal; it is kept outside settlements and is primarily used in the desert. . . . Thus the pentateuchal narratives themselves should also be treated as evidence of pre-twelfth century camel domestication and not simply dismissed as anachronistic.”