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Torah Deniers Unwittingly Strengthen Torah Belief

I decided to do something different on the last day of this year’s Chumash shiur in June at Torah Academy of Bergen County. I discussed a faulty assertion that supposedly “undermined” the Torah’s authenticity, regarding the domestication of camels in the ancient Near East. Two militantly-secular archaeologists argued that the absence of evidence for domesticated camels in the Near East (before the 12th century BCE “proved” the inaccuracy of the book of Genesis), which describes the use of camels during the time of the patriarchs (approximately 17th century BCE).

Time Magazine (https://time.com/6662/the-mystery-of-the-bibles-phantom-camels/) and the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/11/science/camels-had-no-business-in-genesis.html) gleefully reported on this “finding.”

However, later archaeological discoveries demonstrate that camels were domesticated as early as the end of the third millennium BCE, but that widespread domestication did not occur until the 12th century BCE. These findings are documented in an article appearing in the Biblical Archaeology Review (https://www.baslibrary.org/biblical-archaeology-review/44/6/11). The challenge to the Torah and its refutation are presented in a compelling video archived at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2bTMNFJZcSw&ab_channel=InspiringPhilosophy.

Not only were the staunchly secular claims debunked, they even added new insights into the Tanach and Rivka’s interactions with Eliezer in Bereishit, perek 24, as we shall see.

 

The Claim

The Jerusalem Post on February 11, 2014, reported that archeologists Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef and Dr. Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel Aviv University, in the Tel Aviv journal, argued that camels became commonplace at the end of the 10th century BCE—several centuries after the patriarchs lived (2000-1500 BCE) and decades after the kingdom of David, according to the Bible.

The oldest-known domesticated camel bones were found in the Arava Valley—the ancient site of copper production—in a series of digs led by Drs. Sapir-Hen and Ben-Yosef. While camel bones were found in deeper sediments, archaeologists think they probably belonged to wild camels, who were present in the southern Levant since the Neolithic period. Researchers believe that the mass domestication of camels coincided with major changes in the copper industry, and opened Israel up to international trade and socioeconomic change.

 

The Response

Critics draw conclusions negating Tanach’s integrity based on the lack of archaeological evidence for certain events. A first response to such assertions is to note the highly precarious approach of drawing conclusions from the absence of proof. This is particularly true in archaeology, where little from the ancient world has been preserved and precious little of what has been preserved has been excavated.

Many situations validate the peril of drawing conclusions from the absence of archaeological evidence. The December 2010 issue of National Geographic magazine featured an article entitled “Kings of Controversy” by Richard Draper, noting that until the 1993 discovery of an ancient stele inscribed with “House of David,” there was no non-biblical evidence that David existed. Similarly, the Temple Mount Sifting Project has revealed evidence of a time period whose “historical credibility” archaeologists had questioned for years. With these findings, however, “the existence of the House of David came to be accepted as historical fact by the vast majority of scholars.”

Not only did the anti-Torah academicians ignore the lesson from the Tel Dan Stele discovery, but there is also strong evidence refuting the Tel Aviv University researchers’ claims. In March 2019, the Armstrong Institute of Biblical Archaeology noted:

“Actually, it is well-known that camels have been domesticated since circa 2500 BCE, if not earlier. These areas of domestication include southern Arabia—parts of Mesopotamia—and south and central Asia. Numerous discoveries have been made confirming this early domestication of camels, both of the single-humped Dromedary and twin-humped Bactrian species.”

Some specific examples: A circa 2500 BCE Sumerian plaque—from Eshnunna—shows an image of a camel with a rider. Another source from nearby Nippur dates to the 18th century BCE and describes milking a camel. This specific text is known to have derived from one dating to the millennium prior. Another 21st century BCE Nippur text bears possible reference to camel transport. What do these discoveries have in common? They are all specifically from southern Iraq, within the region of Mesopotamia. Further discoveries exist for other locations, but we list these because this area is precisely where Abraham was from.

There were several points “conveniently” left out when Ben-Yosef and Sapir-Hen’s research made headlines. Abraham was not native to the land of Canaan—he was a prominent individual in a land where camels had already long been domesticated. Abraham was from the Mesopotamian city of Ur, located in the southeastern part of what is now modern-day Iraq (Genesis 11:27-31). It would not have been unusual for him or his family to include camels among their herds. And it would not have been impossible for him to bring such a camel herd to Canaan—indeed, it would only have been logical, for such a long desert-edge journey.

Further, camels actually only play a very small role in the early patriarchal history. Whenever they are mentioned (among Abraham’s or Jacob’s herds), they are listed either last or near-to-last among their possessions (Genesis 12:16; 30:43; 32:7; 32:14-15). This emphasizes their lack of importance. Really, the only detailed early biblical reference to camels is found in Genesis 24.

This passage describes a long desert journey taken by Abraham’s servant in order to find a wife for Isaac. Ten camels were taken for the journey. The destination? The city of Nahor, in Mesopotamia—again, a land in which camels had already long been domesticated. And again, a logical choice of animal for a long-distance, desert-edge journey. What about camels in Egypt? Genesis 12:16 describes Abraham (then Abram) receiving camels from the Pharaoh, among other gifts. Again, researchers accept evidence of domesticated camels in Egypt, prior to Canaan.

But this early? A petroglyph (rock carving) has been discovered in Upper Egypt showing a camel being led by a man with a rope. This carving dates to circa 23rd century BCE. A kneeling Egyptian camel figurine—with a container-mold on its back—is dated to the predynastic period—circa 3000 BCE, or even earlier. Additional ancillary evidence includes camel bones and hair—a camel hair rope was found in Egypt dating to circa 2600 BCE. Certainly, the evidence shows that camels had long been domesticated in Egypt.

The militant secularists of the “minimalist school” of archaeology nonetheless continued to write that the reference to camels in Genesis is anachronistic. However, Kenneth Kitchen—a well-respected scholar of biblical archaeology and professor emeritus at Liverpool University—writes, “Camels are not anachronistic in the early second millennium (K.A. Kitchen, ‘On the Reliability of the Old Testament,’ Grand Rapids and Cambridge 2003, page 465)).”

 

Supporting Tanach

Hammering the nail in the coffin of the anti-Torah claims is the new findings fitting beautifully with the Tanach. Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Rav Bazak Amnon writes (“To This Very Day,” page 251): “The accumulation of this archaeological evidence demonstrates that the domestication of camels had, indeed, already commenced in these ancient times, but in a limited way; only later did the phenomena expand to include large numbers of camels. This finding sits well with the biblical account, in which camels did not play a central role, and their numbers were relatively small, until the time of the Judges. In the story of Avraham’s servant and Rivka, the Torah mentions ‘10 of his master’s camels’ (Bereishit 24:10); in the gifts that Yaakov offers Esav, we find ‘30 milk camels with their young’ (ibid. 32:16); and in the account of the sale of Yosef, we find a ‘caravan of Yishmaelim came from the Gilad, with their camels carrying gum balm and ladanum’ (ibid. 37:25).”

We may, therefore, conclude that camels were not common, and were used mainly to carry expensive merchandise. The camels that Avraham’s servant brought with him apparently represented a factor in the estimation of the avaricious Lavan (ibid., 30-31). In other narratives in the Torah, camels are absent: in the descent of Yosef’s brothers to Egypt, we find only donkeys (ibid. 42:26-27, and elsewhere); in the spoils seized from Midian, we find “61,000 asses” (Bamidbar 31:34), but no mention of any camels. In contrast, from the period of the Judges (Shofetim 6:5) onwards, we find a great many camels. In the war of the children of Gad and the children of Reuven against the Hagrim, we find: “And they captured their cattle, (and) of their camels 50,000,” (Divrei HaYamim I, 21). Iyov—at the end of his life—had 6,000 camels (Iyov 42:12).

 

Insights Into Bereishit, Perek 24

The scarcity of camels during the patriarchal period sheds much new light on Breishit 24, Eliezer visiting Haran to find a wife for Yitzchak Aveinu. First, it explains why Eliezer took 10 of Avraham Aveinu’s camels to Haran. One may wonder why Eliezer brought so many. We now understand that camels at that time were rare and expensive, the equivalent of a Lamborghini or Rolls Royce in contemporary terms. Eliezer could not bring Avraham Aveinu or Yitzchak Aveinu to Haran. How was he to prove his connection to Avraham Aveinu? The answer was to get 10 camels. It was the equivalent of bringing and arriving with a fleet of 10 Ferraris. As Rav Bazak noted, we also understand Lavan’s excited reaction to Eliezer’s arrival.

It also sheds light on Rivka’s extraordinary chesed. She, likely, was not familiar with watering camels due to their scarcity. She was, probably, unprepared for the enormous quantity of water necessary to satisfy them. Nonetheless, she persisted in giving them the water they needed. Thus, we understand why Rivka is deemed worthy of marrying Yitzchak. Rivka’s exceptional kindness matches that of Avraham Aveinu and Sarah Imeinu—as described in Bereishit, perek 18.

 

Biblical Models for the Secular Failure

The failed secular attempt to disprove Tanach’s authenticity brings to mind two Tanach themes. First is Haman being hung on the very pole he prepared to hang Mordechai (Esther, perek 7). Instead of disproving Tanach, their findings corroborate it.

Second is the concept of “temura.” Suppose one tries to exchange an animal designated for a Korban for another. In that case, both animals must be offered in the Beit Hamikdash (Vayikra 27:10). The Sefer HaChinuch (mitzvah 352) explains the hashkafic root of this Torah law is that when one tries to eliminate kedushah, he winds up increasing it. In our case, the wrong-minded scholars sought to undermine the Torah but—in the end—enriched it.

 

Conclusion: A Call for Agenda-Free And Intellectually Honest Studies

Archaeology is a tool that has enriched our understanding of many sections of Tanach. It is sad to see some Israeli scholars trying to weaponize it against Hashem. Such ugly efforts are doomed to failure—as exemplified by the camel episode. They should have no place in an intellectually honest and agenda-free learning environment.


Rabbi Haim Jachter serves as the rav of Congregation Shaarei Orah, a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County, and a Get administrator with the Beth Din of Elizabeth. His 16 books, including a brand-new one on Sefer Devarim, are available on Amazon and Judaica House.

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