From the Book of Genesis:

So Jacob arose, and set his children and his wives on camels; . . . .

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Genesis 31:17 (NRSV) – February 18, 2014.)

CamelThere’s been a dust-up in the press recently. A lot of ink (mostly secular press ink) spilled on the question of camels in the Bible. This is because some scientific, archeological evidence has been turned up suggesting that camels have been only relatively recently domesticated in the regions of the eastern Mediterranean, nowhere near as far back as the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs in the Books of Moses would put them. It is, says the scientific evidence, impossible that Jacob should have “set his children and his wives on camels” because there were no domesticated camels at the time, how ever far back we think that may have been.

“OK,” says I. “So what?”

“So what?” screams back the press, “So the whole of the Scriptures must fall on this clearly erroneous detail.”

One story in the secular press reported (I could almost hear the writer chortling with glee), “Some scholars took these anachronisms as proof that the Bible was written centuries after the events that they talk about.” (Yes, the sentence was published exactly that way, bad grammar and all, in a daily newspaper of a major American city. Sad, isn’t it?)

Well, duh, I thought. Of course the Bible was written centuries after the events reported. It is the end product of centuries of oral transmission finally written down and then edited and redacted several times before arriving at the form we now know. Is this really news to anyone? Most, if not all, of the Pentateuch is mythic in character, not intended to be understood either as history (a modern idea which it is ridiculous to expect of the Scriptures) or as science (another modern concept which it is laughably silly to expect of the holy texts of any ancient religion).

There’s a recent tumblr post from someone whom I presume to be a seminarian reading, “Hebrew Bible professor blowing my mind with this: ‘Do you know how we know the Genesis 2-3 story was intended to be read as a myth, not as fact? IT HAS A TALKING SNAKE IN IT!'” The secular journalists all agog over the camel issue should read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest that little tid-bit.

They might also want to consider a little study of language, a look at the etymology of words, particularly the word camel. Where does this word come from? Well, in a nutshell, the English comes from the Latin which comes from the Greek which borrowed a word from ancient Hebrew and Arabic; in the former, the word is gamal and in the latter it is jamal. This ancient Semitic word is a verb which means “to repay” or “to bear;” upon it was based a verbal noun having the general meaning of “beast of burden.” While it is true that modern Hebrew and Arabic use the word gamal to refer to a camel, this does not necessarily imply that in ancient Hebrew that specific animal was denoted. It could refer to any beast of burden.

Now, of course, I have an earworm that will stay with me through the day. Over and over in my mind’s ear Mick Jagger is singing:

I’ll never be your beast of burden;
My back is broad, but it’s a-hurting.
All I want is for you to make love to me.

I’ll never be your beast of burden;
I’ve walked for miles, my feet are hurting.
All I want is for you to make love to me.

Am I hard enough?
Am I rough enough?
Am I rich enough?
I’m not too blind to see.

Anyway, when someone gleefully reports, “There were no domestic camels in ancient Canaan,” I again reply, “So what?” I think we can be reasonably sure there were beasts of burden and that is what the Hebrew Bible describes.

The truth of Scripture does not depend on details like camels. It does not depend on historic factuality, although that makes for interesting critical study. It doesn’t depend on scientific accuracy, which it has never claimed. Those concepts really have no pertinent application to myth, legend, poetry, proverbial wisdom, and the other genres of literature which make up the Bible. But those who want to “debunk” the Bible are, I think, just too blind to see!


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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.