In Genesis, Rebecca travels by camel to meet her groom-to-be, Isaac. Jacob fled his father-in-law Laban by camel, and there are numerous other references to the humped animals in the Bible.
But archeologists are now suggesting that camels did not come in to use in the Israelite setting until after the time of King Solomon, which is set far later in the biblical narrative than the accounts of Rebecca and Isaac.
In fact, according to Tel Aviv University archeologist Erez Ben-Yosef, when the Queen of Sheba was supposed to have come to Solomon “with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones”, camels still were not in use in the Land of Israel. In his view, if the Queen of Sheba did arrive with camels, it could have been an early glimpse of the animals for Israelites.
“The evidence cannot be ignored,” said Dr Ben-Yosef, arguing that the findings show that some details of the biblical narrative are “from the days of the writer, not from historical reality”. He performed a survey of sites where camel bones were found, mostly in the Arava valley in southern Israel, with more accurate dating technology than used in the past.
Previously, the earliest camel bones were thought to be from the 12th or 11th century BCE. This still rose questions about the existence of camels in the episodes depicted in many biblical episodes, but not as many. Dr Ben-Yosef’s survey, however, led him to conclude that camels were not introduced until the end of the 10th century BCE.
Dr Ben-Yosef’s research will not convince everybody — it is based on the camel bones that have been discovered to date; older ones may yet be discovered. He is confident that this will not happen, saying that if camels had been introduced earlier, older bones would “definitely” have been found by now.
He did not think that challenging details of the biblical narrative had any impact on faith. “I don’t think that religious faith has anything to do with facts on the ground,” he said.