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Difficult Sayings

Abraham, Camels and Egypt, or, Where did Abram get his Camel from?
Genesis 12:16

"Therefore he treated Abram well for her sake; and gave him sheep and oxen and donkeys and male and female servants and female donkeys and camels." (Genesis 12:16

"One of the earliest literary references to camels in Egypt - in fact, I believe it to be the first literary reference - is in the descriptions of Alexander the Great's visit to the oasis of Siwa, in early 331 BC. Alexander travelled down the Nile from Memphis to Lake Mareotis, where he chose the site for the city that became Alexandria. Then he continued along the coast to Paraitonion (modern Mersa Matrouh) before striking southwards into the desert towards Siwa, using camels as his pack animals."F2

"Further to your last answer (Q&A, July 17), I am unsure what Mr Pailing means by Alexander the Great's being the first literary reference to camels in Egypt, but by Alexander's time the Old Testament was already an antiquity.

In Genesis both Abram (xii, 16) and the Ishmaelites (xxxvii, 25) apparently took their own camels to that country. Additionally, in Exodus, in the description of the fifth plague, Moses is told to promise Pharaoh upon thy cattle which is in the field, upon the horses, upon the asses, upon the camels, upon the oxen, and upon the sheep: there shall be a very grievous murrain."F3

So, whilst in my original LBC essay I looked at a range of issues such as authentic ancient adoption practices, marriage customs, semi-nomadism, and private armies, I will concentrate here on the sole issue of where did Abraham (or Abram as he then was) get his camel? Given the semi-legitimate questions of sceptics and enquirers it could also be asked "where did Pharaoh get his from?".

It appears natural to think of Abraham, a semi-nomad, as owning and riding camels, but many commentators think it an anachronism, possibly pointing to a later date for the authorship of Genesis. Abraham could not be described as a complete nomad, for he had a not-so-small tribal retinue comprising at least 318 servants and soldiers, apart from women and children, indicating a small clan of around 1000 members. Many regard real camel nomads in any number as not appearing in the Bible till Gideon's day (Judges 6:5; 7:12). Abraham was called from being a city dweller at Ur from where he left and ranged widely even down as far as Egypt - though prompted by famine. Otherwise the patriarchs do not seem to have travelled long distances with their flocks. When they do travel, they seem to be able to do so with ease, unhindered by either large permanent dwellings or the presence of any violent or occupying opposition. This fits in well with the situation presented to us in the Mari texts, the Execration texts and the Beni-Hasan picture, showing only a sparsely populated land without barriers to free travel across the whole Fertile Crescent.

In Genesis 12:10 Abram travels down to Egypt which is not a totally unprecedented action in that time, especially since Egypt was a great grain producing nation before 1800 B.C. and an obvious place of refuge during a famine. In the Beni-Hasan Egyptian tomb painting (c.1897-78 B.C.) is shown the arrival of 37 Asiatics in Egypt. According to Hamilton there are other examples of travel between Canaan and Egypt in both directions.F4

In Genesis 12:3,12,18 we further hear of Abraham and Lot moving their tents and repitching them elsewhere, just as the semi-nomadic herdsmen of the period. Being herdsmen, also, we would expect to see mention of their herds, and we do. Abraham relied upon wells for his herds for he was "very rich in livestock" (Genesis 13:2), hence the regular mention of them throughout Genesis. In Genesis 13:5,7-9 there is actually a dispute between Lot's herdsmen and Abraham's because of the sheer size of both of their flocks. These herds are also mentioned in Genesis 12:16 and 13:2, having been substantially added to in Egypt. Jagersma believes that, "This picture also largely corresponds with what is known to us about the lifestyle of herdsmen in Mari about the 18th century B.C.."F5

The Old Testament tells us in Genesis 12:16 that Abram had camels in Egypt. The verse in the AV and original Hebrew only imply that Abraham "had" camels, not that he was necessarily "given" them (NAS, NIV etc). However, the context and Jewish traditionF6 record that Abraham received gifts from Pharaoh including livestock for the sake of Sarah. So the implication is that Pharaoh had them and gave them to Abraham. So if it is regarded as historically unlikely we must defend the presence of camels in Egypt so early in its history, or regard the biblical account as edited by a later hand.

Genesis 14 contains many rare words including a hapax legomenon (word occurring only once in Scripture) in verse 14 that has now been shown to be an Egyptian word. The word used for 'retainer', chânîyk (Strong's #2593), is employed in the contemporary 19th century B.C. Egyptian Execration texts of the armed retainers of Palestinian chieftains. This endorses both Abraham's and Moses' familiarity with Egypt and makes a later editor unlikely, unless he had first hand knowledge of Egypt.

Later in Genesis (24:10-11; 30:43; 31:3) camels are again mentioned in relation to Abraham's family life. When Abraham's servant Eliezer was sent to find a wife for Isaac, the pack animals he made use of were camels (Genesis 24:10ff.). But they were more than mere baggage carriers as mentioned in verse 32 and suggested by some commentators for on the return trip Rebekah and her maid actually rode on the camels (vv.61,64).

In the biblical story of Joseph (Genesis 37:25) we are told of the Ishmaelites who used camels to carry gum, spices, balsam and myrrh, down to Egypt.

The Bible also mentions camels in the account of the Queen of Sheba, the Hagarites, nomadic descendants of Hagar, and in the book of Job, who had 3000 camels before his troubles and 6000 afterwards. (Job 1:3; 42:12). Job is regarded by many as, historically, a near contemporary of Abraham.

A lot of argument has been focused on Genesis 12:16, against its mention of camels, not ordinarily accepted as domesticated until much later in the second millennium B.C.. But HamiltonF7 cites an Alalakh text (18th century B.C.) with ration lists including that of "one (measure of) fodder - camel", the very fact of feeding it seems to imply its domestication or use as a pack animal. Camel bones were also excavated at Mari in an early house possibly dating back to c.2400 B.C.. An 18th century B.C. Byblos relief depicts a kneeling camel further suggesting its domestication and use as a beast of burden. The above references seem to imply that the mention of camels in Genesis is not just anachronistic.

Whilst it is entirely appropriate that the list of possessions gained in Egypt excludes horses, as they were not in use in Egypt before 1800 B.C., the mention of camels is at first surprising. A later writer inserting camels would have had no qualms about also inserting horses but didn't, implying some kind of authenticity.

Scholars hold different views about the time when domesticated camels first appeared on the scene. In the opinion of Richard Bulliet the taming of camels was practised even before 2500 B.C..F8 According to F.E. Zeuner it started somewhere between 2900 and 1900 B.C..F9

One of the oldest traces of camel domestication was found at Umm an-Nahr, off the coast of modern Oman. 200 bones and teeth of camels were excavated together with objects dating back to about 2700 B.C..F10 Whilst some of this is disputed, for example, "[the] camels at Umm an-Nahr ... were NOT of dromedaries but were of Bactrian (2 humped) camels. Akkadian records also show that the Bactrian camels were domesticated significantly before dromedaries, which were for a long time considered wild and untameable, and were hunted as a source of meat.",F11 it is, nonetheless, a tacit admission in itself that some camels were domesticated by the 3rd millennium B.C..

One of the earliest known representations of the camel dates back to the Stone Age, consisting of two carvings at Kilwa, Jabal Tubayq, on the eastern border of Jordan. In one of the depictions a single humped Arabian camel appears clearly in the background behind an ibex.F12

It is interesting to note that the camel is hardly ever mentioned in any Assyrian texts, even though they contain tens of thousands of letters and economic narratives dating from the 2nd millennium B.C..F13

There is a picture of a camel, with a rider on its back, found in the ruins of Tall Halaf in Iraq, which dates back to between 3000 and 2900 B.C..F14

In Byblos, in Lebanon, small Egyptian figurines of camels have been found that date back to around 2500 B.C..F15

From 1900 B.C. onwards the early Nabataeans ran camel caravans between Arabia, Syria, Edom, Mesopotamia and Egypt.F16 Whilst many historians are reluctant to date the Nabataeans due to a lack of extant writing and their secretiveness, nonetheless Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, identified the Nabataeans with Ishmael's eldest son (Genesis 25:13).

In 1912, near Aswan, in Egypt, a rock painting was discovered which showed a man pulling along a camel on a rope, plus seven hieroglyphic characters. On account of the writing Möller dated the inscription to the period of the sixth dynasty (2320-2150 B.C.), and Schweinfurth concurred. However, Croft disagrees regarding the figures as graffiti from the 19th dynasty (1300 B.C.). Even so, this is still well before the supposedly late influx of camels to Egypt in the time of either Alexander the Great, the Romans, or the later Muslim Arabs.

In Ancient Egypt the God Set or Seth was represented by various creatures known, unknown or composite. The animal had long, squared ears and a long, down-turned skull and snout, and in some illustrations a canine-like body. He may have been a mixture of animal ideas from aardvark, canine, okapi, giraffe or even a camel. Seth was amongst other things a God over the desert and even over foreigners and their lands resulting in him having lordship over Asia and trade routes. Thus there is the possibility that the camel was known from the earliest times.

Further support for early camels in Egypt is cited by Mohamed El-Nadi, founder of the Egyptian web site el-shella.com, his source appears to be BGA (the Dutch foundation and journal for Bible, History and Archaeology, again.F17

"A tomb that was dated to the first dynasty (about 3000 B.C.) and opened in 1905 contained a lime-stone vase that had the shape of a lying dromedary camel. The vase depicts a dromedary that carries a burden. H.S. Smith of London University pointed out that pictures of camels existed in Egypt already in the pre-dynastic period (before 3000 B.C.).

An earthenware head of a camel from times previous to the first dynasty was found in Maadi near Cairo in 1930. A rock carving of similar age depicting a dromedary and other animals was found in Wadi Natash el-Raiyan, in the eastern desert, also around 1930.

In a gypsum quarry, under half a meter of gypsum powder, a string made of camel's hair was found. Pottery from the same layer was dated to the third or early fourth dynasty (about 2640-2500 B.C.). The string had presumably been used by a miner to keep his clothing together. This too is just a piece of evidence that camels were known in Egypt even in those days. At the beginning of the 20th century a statuette of a dromedary carrying two water jars was found in a tomb at Rifeh. The tomb reigned in the 13th century B.C., and was not used again in later times. The water jars were of the type used during that century. A glaze picture of a dromedary with water jars found in Benha dating as early as 1300 B.C.."F18

The camel may have also been domesticated by Africans, according to Clyde Winters. He says that, "As early as the Old Kingdom camel hair cord was used by the Egyptians. Moreover camel figurines are found in Gerzean artifacts in an archaic Egyptian context. This along with rock drawings of camels and horses in ancient Nubia, suggests an archaic domestication of these animals by the Paleo-Africans. In ancient times the horse and ass were used to pull chariots. But as the Sahara began to dry up, due to a lack of abundant water the horse was abandoned as a means of transportation in the Sahara."F19

It seems that the camel may have been domesticated in North Africa and then made its way into Arabia during antiquity. Some, supporting the biblical story, have speculated that it may have been Abraham that brought camels from Egypt to Arabia.

So the latest date for domesticated camels in Egypt, despite a lack of hieroglyphic evidence, would appear to be just after the Exodus. This is based upon archaeological and artistic evidence aside from written records. Similar evidences take the date of camel domestication amongst the Bactrian camel, at least, outside Egypt back to at least the millennium before Abraham. Somewhere in between Pharaoh gave Abraham gifts including camels.

There is nothing to rule out the possibility that Pharaoh gave Abraham a Bactrian two-humped camel rather than the later single-humped Arabian dromedary anyway. The text of Genesis 12 uses gâmâl (Strong's #1581) for camel but Scripture elsewhere (Jeremiah 2:23) uses a separate word bikhrâh (Strong's #1072) or bekher (Strong's #1070) to distinguish the faster riding camel, the dromedary. In Isaiah 60:6 the two words appear to be used almost interchangeably in poetic parallelism. The lack of distinction between camel breeds seems to have extended too far in the AV with it confusing horses and camels with each other - compare various translations of 1 Kings 4:28 or Esther 8:10 which use 3 further indeterminable words for swift steeds.

In conclusion, there is no reason to doubt the Abraham and Pharaoh story as there is sufficient evidence for the domestication of at least one camel breed prior to Abraham and the other at least before the time of the Exodus. Trade via the Nabataeans, Ishmaelites and others, carried on between Egypt and the Middle East in the 2nd millennium B.C. and there is every possibility that Pharaoh may have acquired camels from them and their rarity n Egypt at the time does not rule out the gift it only makes it a more valuable one reflecting on Sarah's beauty and Abraham's honour.


FOOTNOTES:
F1: The Times, Questions Asked, 11 July 2003
F2: Marcus Pailing, The Times, Questions Answered, 17 July 2003
F3: Marcel Berenblut, The Times, Questions Answered, 29 July 2003
F4: Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, NICOT, p.380
F5: Jagersma, A History of Israel in the Old Testament period, p.22
F6: Pirke Eliezer, c. 26, according to Gill
F7: Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, NICOT, p.384
F8: R. Bulliet, The Camel and the Wheel, Cambridge Mass., 1975, p.56
F9: F.E. Zeuner, A History of Domesticated Animals, London, 1963, p.344
F10: P. Wapnish, 'Camel Caravans and Camel Pastoralists at Tell Jemmeh', Journal of the Ancient Near East Society 13, 1981, p105 cited at http://www.bga.nl/en/articles/camel.html
F11: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/biblical-studies/message/1568
F12: Hitti, History of Syria, p.52
F13: Harold A. McClure, The Arabian Peninsula and Prehistoric Populations, Miami, 1971, p.49, and Gauthier-Pilters, Hilda and Dagg, The Camel, pp.115-116
F14: M.F. von Oppenheim, Der Tell Halaf, Leipzig, 1931, p.140
F15: The Camel - Ancient Ship Of The Desert And the Nabataeans, http://nabataea.net/camel.html
F16: http://nabataea.net/trader.html
F17: http://www.bga.nl/en/articles/camel.html
F18: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ancient_egypt/message/1132
F19: Clyde Winters, Evidence for the Black African Origin of the Egyptians, http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Academy/8919/theory2.htm

   
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