Dissecting a camel tale – apologetics meets the media

In Bible, In the News by Steve WilkinsonLeave a Comment

While browsing the news the other day, I ran across this article on CNN’s ‘Belief Blog,’ “Will camel discovery break the Bible’s back?” by Joel Baden, an associate professor of Old Testament at Yale Divinity School. I soon discovered it was one among many even more umm, ‘provocative,’ articles gaining popularity around the Internet. The conclusion of many of the articles was that this was yet ANOTHER devastating piece of evidence proving the Bible’s accounts are simply made up tales.

Joel Baden takes a slightly different tact. While indulging in some jabs at those who might take the Bible (especially Genesis) as historical, he notes “The camels in Genesis may be ‘wrong,’ but they are not a ‘mistake.’ We all imagine the past to the best of our knowledge, the biblical authors included.” Imagine the past? And he doesn’t seem bothered by this in the slightest. I suppose he’s one of the ‘I know He [Jesus] lives, He lives within in my heart’ types. (1)If that isn’t obvious from this article, read a couple of the other articles he links to near the beginning. For example, this gem: “The Bible gets its authority from us, who treat it as such, … Continue reading Or, is he simply studying the Old Testament because it, “…remain[s] so central to who we are as a culture, even today…”? Or, was the article just click-bait?

And soon, the Internet atheists and skeptics piled on in the comment section, as usual. For example, Dyslexic doG commented:

OK Christians. Let me see you proclaim one more time that there has never been anything proved wrong in the bible.
Then we atheists can give you a laundry list of contradictions and historical inaccuracies and pure fantasy and downright foolishness.
And then you can proclaim one more time that there has never been anything proved wrong in the bible.

While some responses were much more crude, with others being less taunting, this one seemed to represent the general sentiment among the skeptics.

Before I decided it best to cancel my Website hosting and sell the domain name, I decided to do something which apparently none of these folks did: a Google search! Or, what some old-fashioned folks might include in what is called research.

Apologetics tip #1: Don’t panic. Do some research.

I’m no expert on camels or Israeli archeology, and I’m guessing most of you aren’t either. However, if we spend a little time, most of us can work through such claims and do a little fact checking and context discovery by simply opening our browsers.

Apologetics tip #2: Saturate yourself with apologetics information.

In my case, I remembered hearing an apologist, many years ago, mention something about Old Testament skeptics and the domestication of camels. I couldn’t remember the details, but at least it got me started in the right direction. While I was searching for that, I ran across a bunch of articles that had already been written in response to the subject.

Apologetics tip # 3: Use your common sense.

But, even before that, my common sense kicked in when I thought about the situation. A common dictum one quickly learns in apologetics is: absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. For example, skeptics often claim that the Exodus didn’t take place because we haven’t found the archeological evidence for a large group of people wandering through the desert. Maybe we just haven’t found the evidence yet. Should we even expect to? What do evolutionists say when someone mentions the fact that we haven’t found ‘the missing link’ yet? Sure, if you’ve done an exhaustive investigation of something, and find nothing, that is a form of evidence which weighs on the situation, but it is hardly decisive.

Apologetics tip #4: Check the references.

Second, I actually followed the cited link in the article, and do you know what I discovered? While the author spoke of an actual scientific journal article he was referring to, the link actually referred to another news article (and the link in that article, to another news article), not the original scientific journal article. It’s unclear that any of these folks read the original, with the possible exception of the one at the end, which still didn’t link to the journal article.

So, this article which seems to be the research for the rest of the articles (interestingly, even most of the rebuttals I found linked back to this rather than the journal article) was a promotional piece by the ‘American Friends of Tel Aviv University.’ Aside from being a bit overly ‘flowery’ about the research, it took on the anti-Biblical tone the other articles seemed to pick up and amplify.

The original journal article doesn’t resemble all these other news articles, at least not in objective and tone. It only mentions ‘the Patriarchal narrative’ in the opening paragraph as one of two topics which contribute to and take interest in such research. The rest is simply an examination of the data, attempting to narrow the date of “the first significant appearance of [domesticated] camels in the Aravah Valley.”

That statement is important, as the Biblical record isn’t speaking of “a significant appearance,” but some camels owned or utilized by particular Biblical figures. And, anyone who knows a bit about archeology knows that typically it does take a significant presence, or particular circumstances, before such a record is left for us to discover. In this case, the sites were copper smelting operations they think might be related to Pharaoh Shoshenq I’s campaigns.

Also, it is fairly well known that domesticated camels did exist in Egypt and other places (Iran, Babylon, etc.) long before this (possibly as early as 3000 BC, but certainly 2nd millennium BC), and the Bible mentions Abraham traveling to Egypt. (2)cf. “The Domestication of the Camel in the Ancient Near East You see, before this evidence that domesticated camels existed in Egypt, the focus of the skeptics was on Genesis 12:16 where it says Abraham had them in Egypt. In other words, this debate is a rehash, just pushed forward a step by archeology. The skeptics lost on Egypt, now they are digging in their heels concerning Israel. But, if Abraham had them in Egypt, is it a huge leap to think that he took them out of Egypt with him, and that archeology hasn’t (and likely never will, nor should be expected to) find evidence for such few numbers of them? (cf. “Abraham’s Camels” by Joseph P. Free)

Apologetics tip #5: Follow some of the research branches.

Procedural note: When I found the first PDF resource in the paragraph above through a Google search, I traced that back to the article it was linked from and found the following article which contained the second great resource. “The Camel Claim is Sensational and Unwarranted” by Shawn Nelson. Other apologists might find some great stuff that you don’t. Don’t miss out on mining that gold! (But do remember to give credit!)

Apologetics tip #6: Don’t trust journalists reporting on a discipline.

So, as it turns out, the actual archeologists making the claims might well be dead on IN WHAT THEY ACTUALLY CLAIM! There may well not be evidence of large numbers of domesticated camels in Israel to support mining operations and trade before 1000 BC. However, that has little bearing on the Biblical accounts in Genesis which include camels. In other words, the data just doesn’t support the conclusions all these articles popping up all over the media are claiming (which is often the case when one compares modern journalism to the original research).

If they had bothered to read the original article and/or left their axe (to grind) home, they might not have made such a silly error. And, as you can see, it didn’t take an expert on camels or Israilli archeology to figure that out… just a bit of work. Unfortunately, many journalists carry around such an axe today, just looking for opportunities to put their spin on the data. And, to be fair, I often see Christians do the same. Watch out for this, from either side!

Don’t believe me? Does anyone else find it a bit odd that a tent-making (ie: far less than full-time) Christian apologist (with the help of a few other similar bloggers), can do a better research job than journalists from Time Magazine, The New York Times, CNN, National Geographic, NPR (National Public Radio), PRI (Public Radio International), The Smithsonian, to name just a few? Methinks there is more than just sloppy journalism afoot.

More similar resources:

BREAKING: Camels Disprove God’s Existence; Bible Is False by Kyle Beshears
The Latest Challenge to the Bible’s Accuracy: Abraham’s Anachronistic Camels? by Gordon Govier

Image credit: today I stared a camel in the face by Adam Foster