Did Abraham Really Own Camels?

CAMELS were among the domestic animals that Abraham received from Pharaoh, says the Bible. (Gen. 12:16) When Abraham’s servant went on a long journey to Mesopotamia, he “took ten camels from the camels of his master.” So the Bible clearly states that Abraham owned camels about the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E.​—Gen. 24:10.

Some do not accept this. The New International Version Archaeological Study Bible reports: “Scholars have debated the historicity of these references to camels because most believe that  these animals were not widely domesticated until approximately 1200 B.C., long after the time of Abraham.” Any earlier Biblical reference to camels would therefore be considered an anachronism, or a chronological misplacing.

Other scholars, however, argue that although the domestication of camels became a factor of importance about the end of the second millennium, this does not mean that camels were not used earlier. The book Civilizations of the Ancient Near East states: “Recent research has suggested that the domestication of the camel took place in southeastern Arabia some time in the third millennium [B.C.E.]. Originally, it was probably bred for its milk, hair, leather, and meat, but it cannot have been long before its usefulness as a beast of burden became apparent.” This dating to before Abraham’s time seems to be supported by bone fragments and other archaeological remains.

Written evidence also exists. The same reference work says: “In Mesopotamia, cuneiform lists mention the creature [the camel] and several seals depict it, indicating that the animal may have reached Mesopotamia by the beginning of the second millennium,” that is, by Abraham’s time.

Some scholars believe that South Arabian merchants involved in the incense trade used camels to transport their goods northward through the desert, heading to such areas as Egypt and Syria and thereby introducing camels to these areas. This trade was probably common as early as 2000 B.C.E. Interestingly, Genesis 37:25-28 mentions Ishmaelite merchants who used camels to transport incense to Egypt about a hundred years after the time of Abraham.

Perhaps camels were not widely used in the ancient Near East at the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E., but evidence seems to confirm that they were not completely unknown. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia therefore concludes: “It is no longer necessary to regard the mention of camels in the patriarchal narratives as anachronisms, since there is ample archeological evidence for the domestication of the camel before the time of the patriarchs.”