From the Desk of Bryant Wood
As we celebrate the birth of our Savior each year we ponder the biblical account of this wonderous event in human history. One of our endearing Christmas traditions is that when the wise men visited the infant Jesus, they came on camels. No manger scene would be complete without them! But we really don’t know how the wise men travelled, since the Bible doesn’t tell us. Camels have been a hot topic in biblical archaeology, however, because critics claim that they weren’t domesticated until the time of Solomon, and the mention of them in Genesis is anachronistic, that is, out of place chronologically. Thus, the argument goes, Genesis must have been written after the time of Solomon.
A study of camel bones from the copper-mining site of Timna in Israel has added fuel to the fire. The authors, Lidar Sapir-Hen and Erez Ben-Yosef of Tel Aviv University, concluded the use of domesticated camels at Timna, “was not earlier than the last third of the 10th century BCE” (Tel Aviv 40 : 277). As an aside, Lidar Sapir-Hen analyzed some of the animal bones from Kh. el-Maqatir and will be making a contribution to our final report. New York Times reporter John Noble Wilford picked up on this and penned the article “Camels Had No Business in Genesis” in the February 10, 2014, issue. As another aside, John Noble Wilford wrote the article on my Jericho research, “Believers Score in Battle Over the Battle of Jericho,” some 14 years earlier in the February 22, 1990, edition of the New York Times!
Although these articles on camels appeared over eight years ago, they are suddenly quite timely, as Orthodox Jewish rabbi and university professor Joshua Berman recently responded to them. It seems that the rabbi’s motivation to finally put pen to paper on this subject was the publication of his book Ani Maamin (I believe): Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth and the Thirteen Principles of Faith earlier in 2020. He said that since the release of his book, one of the questions he is most frequently asked is, “Didn’t the New York Times once report there were no camels in Israel until long after the patriarchal period detailed in Genesis?” As a result, he wrote the article, “Yes, Virginia, the Patriarchs really did ride on camels,” published in the Times of Israel on November 20, 2020. In the article, the good rabbi astutely observed, “Camels in Genesis are right where they belong. It is true that camels were not domesticated in Israel until the time of Solomon. But read Genesis carefully and you see that all its camels come from outside of Israel, from Syria, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, where there is ample evidence of domestication of the camel during the period of the patriarchs” (see Mark W. Chavalas, “Did Abraham Ride a Camel?” Biblical Archaeology Review 44 : 52, 64–65). Once again, the critics are proved wrong.
Archaeology can be used in many ways—as an apologetic, as a means of better understanding the Bible, and to provide background and context for the Bible.