Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Camels in the Bible
Judah Landa Ph.D., is a retired physicist who has authored a number of books on the interface of Torah and science such as Torah and Science, Ktav Publishing House, 1991.
Jewish Bible Quarterly April - June 2016Bible CriticismGenesisJudah Landa

Recently headlines and front page stories appeared in the worldwide media proclaiming that “camels had no business in Genesis” and that “there are too many camels in the Bible, out of time and out of place”, to quote two typical announcements.1 These were ostensibly based on a report that appeared in the scholarly journal Tel Aviv, in which two archaeologists at Tel Aviv University (TAU), from the Department of Archaeology and Near Eastern Cultures, reported their findings.2 The two used carbon dating results on camel bones extracted at the ancient copper smelting sites in the Aravah Valley in Israel and the nearby Wadi Faynan in Jordan. Based on a rigorous analysis of the data they concluded that camels did not appear in that region, and by extension also in adjacent areas of the Southern Levant, “earlier than the last third of the tenth century BCE (930-900) and most probably [the camels first appeared] during that time.” Since the early Israelite patriarchs lived in the first half of the second millennium BCE, many centuries before the time frame in the TAU report, biblical mentions of the camel in the patriarchal era must be anachronisms, that they are “telling evidence that the Bible was written or edited long after the events it narrates, and is not always reliable as verifiable history.”3
The fact is that archaeologists have maintained for decades that domesticated camels were not employed in the Levant until well toward the end of the second millennium BCE, no earlier than ca. 1200 BCE (the beginning of the Iron Age).4 Moving this date from 1200 BCE to 900 BCE does not much affect the perceived conflict with the biblical text, since Abraham is to be dated closer to the beginning of the second millennium BCE and the text has quite a bit to say about his camels.5 The anachronism label has thus been applied in this context for quite some time now.
However, the anachronism label is as misguided today as it was in the past. For, as this essay will demonstrate, it is based on multiple misunderstandings of both the biblical narratives and the process of domestication.
Domesticated camels are mentioned more than twenty times in the patriarchal narratives (in Genesis), sixteen of these mentions appear in the context of one event.6 This occurs when Abraham’s servant takes ten of his master’s camels (Gen. 24:10) to Aram, where he was sent by Abraham to arrange for a wife for his son Isaac. The purpose of his taking along what amounts to a caravan of camels was to impress the prospective bride and her family with the great wealth of the prospective groom and his family. The underlying message clearly was that the bride can be assured of a lifetime of security and plenty with the groom, and that her family will be amply rewarded for agreeing to the match. The text informs us in connection with these ten camels that the servant set out with all the wealth of his master in his hand (24:10). Then we overhear him telling Rebecca’s family, God has much blessed my master (Abraham) and he became great; He has given him sheep, cattle, silver and gold, servants and maids, camels and donkeys (24:35). The camels were there as a visual display of that great wealth, they represented a large component of the wealth of his master in his hand.
By what means did Abraham acquire this great wealth? The answer to this question is provided earlier in the text, when a famine in Canaan sends Abraham to Egypt. Abraham’s beautiful wife Sarah is taken by Pharaoh who, in return, bestows great gifts upon Abraham on account of her, giving him sheep, cattle, donkeys, servants, maids and camels (12:16).
Did Abraham possess camels prior to his encounter with the king of Egypt? This is highly unlikely. Some time earlier Abraham and his family left the city of Ur in Southern Mesopotamia,7 headed to the land of Canaan (11:31). But if Canaan is their destination why don’t they go that way? Instead of heading in a westerly direction, they take a much longer inverted-U-shaped route, going around the large Syro-Arabian desert, through Harran, which is hundreds of miles north of their destination. Clearly they did so to circumvent the harsh and difficult desert. But camels, unlike donkeys and horses, are very much adapted to just such conditions. They are fast, carry much heavier loads than donkeys, their thick footpads are well suited to walking on sand, they can go for many days without food and water, they have physical features for keeping the desert wind-driven sand out of their eyes and nostrils, and if they do need to eat they happily feast on thorns and twigs. Had Abraham possessed camels at this point, he surely would have gone straight across the desert, thereby significantly reducing both the distance and duration of the journey.
No doubt, the source of Abraham’s camels, together with the other listed items, is the gift from the king of Egypt. At the time of the servant’s encounter with Rebecca, Abraham’s herd may still have included some of these camels, as camels tend to have life spans in excess of forty-fifty years. Most likely, however, many of the camels at that event were offspring of the original camels he received.
But how did the Pharaoh of Egypt get his hands on camels, which did not even exist in the wild in his land?8 Most likely Pharaoh obtained these exotic animals either as a gift from an Arabian camel herder or he traded/bartered for these uniquely capable and useful creatures. I say ‘Arabian’ because by all accounts (to be discussed later) the earliest domestication of the Dromedary camel occurred on the Southern Arabian Peninsula, a point also made by the authors of the TAU report.
While we are discussing Abraham’s camels let us pause to note that the list of gifts he receives from Pharaoh does not include horses. Why is this so? If camels were inserted anachronistically into the text by later writers, as the critics insist, why would these later writers or editors, who certainly were as familiar with the horse as the camel and their later abundant presence in Egypt, not have also inserted horses, another very valuable and useful animal? One explanation would be that the text actually reflects reality, contrary to the assertions of the media articles cited earlier. We know that horses did not arrive in Egypt until the influx of the Hyksos people into that country, ca. 1800-1600 BCE.9 It is therefore quite possible that the earlier Pharaoh of Abraham’s time (ca. 2000 BCE) did not have horses to give away as gifts, but he did have camels.
After Isaac greets the returning servant and his future wife, Rebecca, who come back with at least some of Abraham’s camels (24:61), we encounter no camels in the text for Isaac, even after he becomes very wealthy (26:13-14). He has sheep and cattle and many servants, but no camels are mentioned. It is reasonable to understand that Isaac did not have any camels, and the text reflects this reality. His father may have given his few remaining camels to his other sons (see Gen 25:6), or they died, or he traded them away, or some combination of these occurred. Clearly camels are not prevalent at this time, certainly not as common or accessible as sheep and donkeys.
Nor do camels appear when Isaac’s son, Jacob, flees for his life to his uncle and future father-in-law, Laban (29:1). When Jacob encounters his future wife, Rachel, at the well along the way, she comes to provide water for her father’s sheep, with nary a camel in sight (29:6, 10). Jacob converses with the locals at the well; they speak of watering sheep, not camels. Only many years later, after Jacob gets to be very wealthy, in Harran, are we informed that he possesses many sheep, and servants, donkeys and camels (30:43). The text here explicitly applies the term ‘many’ to the sheep, not to the others listed. Jacob’s success is a result of his work with Laban’s sheep. No mention appears of Laban possessing camels (30:31-42).
When Jacob later meets his brother Esau and wants to appease him, Jacob’s gift consists of hundreds of goats, rams and ewes and only fifteen pairs of nursing camels with their colts, among other items (32:16). If he owns any spare adult male camels Jacob is evidently not willing to part with them, probably because this would strengthen Esau’s hand in any future battle against him.
A few years later, when his sons make the long trek from Canaan to Egypt three times, twice for the purpose of bringing back to Canaan as much food as possible, traveling across the harsh desert of the Sinai Peninsula, they journey on donkeys, not on camels (42:26, 27; 43:18, 24; 44:3, 13). This is so despite the fact that camels can carry far greater loads and travel quite a bit faster than donkeys, are much better adapted to traveling across sandy terrain, and do not need to be fed and watered as frequently. As it is they needed to load food and water for those donkeys on the donkeys, thereby displacing food for humans, and had to stop to feed them (probably multiple times) along the way (42:27).
Even Pharaoh does not now send camels to help bring his vizier’s father, Jacob, and his family and belongings to Egypt (45:17-19). Instead, he sends donkeys. The vizier himself, Joseph, also sends loaded donkeys, not camels, to his father in Canaan.
Why did the anachronistic later writers or editors of the Bible, according to the critics, not see fit to insert camels into the text here, where it would make much sense and the narrative actually ‘calls’ for it? The explanation is that the text accurately reflects the reality on the ground at the time. Domesticated camels are rare, far less common or accessible than donkeys at this time; even the king of Egypt and his powerful vizier have none to exploit.
Before becoming vizier of Egypt,10 Joseph is sold by his brothers into slavery to a caravan of Ishmaelites on camels (37:25-27). The caravan of camels was directed by men of stature, Midianites, merchants (anashim Midianim soharim, in the Hebrew text).11 The Ishmaelites were apparently hired by the owners of these camels, the wealthy Midianites of stature, and it is the Midianites who actually purchase Joseph.12 Once again we encounter camels in the possession of wealthy individuals, men of stature, not ordinary folk.
During the years of famine in Egypt, we are informed that the people brought their livestock to Joseph, horses, sheep, cattle and donkeys (47:17). When these were, in turn, exhausted the people deeded their parcels of land to Pharaoh (47:18-20). No camels appear here, in this context of ordinary Egyptians desperately seeking to barter anything they own for foodstuffs. Yet horses do appear in the list, for the first time in the book of Genesis, together with other species of mammals. This reflects reality quite well. The extensive migration into Egypt of Canaanites is now in full swing, a development that was later to lead to the Hyksos takeover of the northern part of the country (ca. 1700-1550 BCE).13 History and Archaeology inform us that these migrants brought their horses and chariots to Egypt, but not camels.14 It seems that the biblical writers were familiar with the conditions in Egypt at this time: no camels, but horses have arrived.
Contrast this absence of camels with Moses’ message to a later pharaoh, just prior to the fifth plague. Behold the hand of God will be upon your livestock, in the field, upon the horses, the donkeys, camels, cattle and sheep, a very severe epidemic (Ex. 9:3). This occurs centuries after the Joseph story and, lo and behold, camels appear in the mix of species present in Egypt. Since Moses is addressing Pharaoh directly, it is possible that even at this later date, the common Egyptians do not own camels.
So far we have examined all mentions of camels in the book of Genesis and the single mention in the book of Exodus, and some of the contexts where the camel is conspicuously absent in these books. Turning now to the rest of the Pentateuch, we note that the appearance of camels in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy on the list of prohibited (to eat) animals (Lev. 11:4, Deut. 14:7) does not, of course, indicate that the Israelites possessed any of these animals, just that they were aware of their existence. The same must, after all, be said of many of the land, sea and air creatures listed in this context. The only animals brought out of Egypt by the Israelites are sheep and cattle, as reported in the text (Ex. 12:32, 38). This too is indicative of the dearth, if not the absence, of domesticated camels in Egypt at this time, at least as far as ordinary people were concerned.
The long trek undertaken by Balaam and his party at the behest of Balak, the king of Moab, in order to curse the Israelites, all the way from Pithor in Aram (up north) to Moab (down south), a journey of hundreds of miles (Num. 22:5, Deut. 23:5), takes place on donkeys, not camels (Num. 22:21-22). In the following battle against the Midianites, the Israelites capture many donkeys and sheep and much cattle (Num. 31:28, 30, 32-40, 43-46), but no camels appear in the list. Both of these facts also speak to the dearth of camels in the Middle East at this time (post Exodus).
We have seen more than enough by now to conclude that the early mentions of domesticated camels in the Bible are all owned by powerful or wealthy individuals, and even these are isolated and limited events. We also encountered quite a few occurrences where the presence of the camel would have had a beneficial impact but is conspicuously absent from the narrative.
To better understand what all this represents and why this was so, we must examine the process whereby animals are tamed and domesticated, with particular attention to the camel.
Before a species can become ‘domesticated’, that is, a substantial number of its member organisms are ‘dependent on man and will stay close to him and be exploited by him of their own free will’,15 the species must first exist in the wild, in the ‘feral’ state. There can therefore be no disputing the notion that prior to the appearance of domesticated camels in the Levant, which the authors of the TAU study date to ca. 930-900 BCE, camels existed in the feral state, if not in the Levant itself, then in some other region accessible to it. Indeed, the authors concede the existence of artistic depictions of, and (extra-biblical) textual references to, camels and even reports of assemblages of camel remains going as far back as the Neolithic Age (prior to 2000 BCE). They hasten to point out, however, and correctly so, that “these assemblages are meager, most probably represent wild animals and at most represent the acquaintance of ancient people with wild camels”.16 At least feral camels, if not also domesticated ones, are attested in the region of the broader Middle East many centuries before the first millennium BCE. The camels were then relatively few in number and likely hunted for their meat, hides and hair, all of which are valuable and useful commodities.
The process of domestication is generally a slow and tedious undertaking, one that can take centuries or millennia to achieve, depending on the species.17 The usual procedure most likely consisted of capturing an orphaned or abandoned infant camel, and then raising it while seeking to learn, with much trial and error, how to establish a bond of trust and comfort with the growing creature. If the animal turned out to be aggressive or otherwise uncooperative, as surely happened countless times, the experiment failed. A new attempt, with another youngster, was then to be launched. With some luck and much trial and error, it is possible, over the course of many years, to establish a small herd of male and female tamed animals. Then the process of selectively breeding this herd of docile animals to produce more like them can begin.
The process of selective breeding is inherently a genetic one, whether the ancient human overseers understood this or not. Over the course of many generations the behavior, morphology, physiology, reproductive patterns and other traits of the captive herd evolve to become significantly different from their wild ancestors and cousins, to the perceived benefit of humans. Part of the process is to keep removing overly aggressive individuals from the herd (releasing or killing them). This has been the case with all domesticated species, to one extent or another, from horses to pigs to cattle to dogs and the many others, and camels are no exception. The process is, however, fraught with difficulties and uncertainties. Too restrictive an in-breeding regime usually results in high rates of contagious diseases and birth defects, increased vulnerability to environmental changes and other negative effects of low genetic diversity. These will have devastating effects on the population of the herd. Too lenient a breeding program, on the other hand, in which feral individuals are repeatedly introduced (for mating, called ‘hybridization’) into the herd, tends to work against the selection and domestication process and causes it to become more prolonged. This drawn out procedure must have taken particularly long with camels due to their long gestation periods (more than a year) that yield only one offspring per pregnancy and the camel’s high rate of infant mortality (even today).18
Domestication always leads, over time, to a vast increase in the population of the species. Humans protect their valuable domesticated animals against predation, environmental disasters, contagious diseases and starvation, all factors that take their toll of the feral population. In addition, humans encourage and facilitate breeding within the herd.
The net result is that there always is a rather long ‘transition period’, one that begins with a relatively small population of feral and domesticated animals and ends with a far greater population of primarily (if not exclusively) domesticated animals of the same species, albeit in modified form. The evidence in the case of the Dromedary is that the original feral population in the Middle East-Africa region was meager indeed, whereas today there are an estimated fourteen million of these camels in the same region. The duration of this transition period varies from species to species and is dependent upon, among other factors, the degree of docility within the original feral population.
A key question to resolve pertaining to the domestication of any species is whether there was one ‘focus of domestication’, that is, domestication occurred at one location at one time, such that all the domesticated animals of that species trace their ancestry to that event, or were there multiple ‘foci of domestication’ (either in time or place or both). In the case of the camel, the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) data suggests different domestication events for the one-humped Dromedary and the two-humped Bactrian. Combining the genetic data with the historical and archaeological evidence leads to one focus of domestication for the Dromedary in the Southern Arabia Peninsula sometime between 3000 and 2500 BCE, and another focus of domestication for the Bactrian in Eastern Central Asia at about 2000 BCE. The healthy genetic diversity of both types of camels cannot therefore be attributed to multiple foci of domestication. Instead it is indicative of ongoing hybridization of the growing domesticated populations, during the transition period, with their feral cousins. This would, of course, tend to extend the duration of the transition period.19
By way of comparison, the major focus of domestication for the horse has been identified to be the broad area of the Eurasian Steppes, at about 3500 BCE or somewhat earlier, although other foci of domestication cannot be ruled out. By 2000 BCE horses were pulling chariots in Eurasia, and by 1500 BCE domesticated horses were well ensconced in the Levant and Egypt. Donkeys were first domesticated in Northeast Africa sometime between 4000 and 3000 BCE, and were well established as such in the entire Middle East by the third millennium BCE.
We are now in a position to derive some general conclusions from a synthesis of the previous two sections. One, it is reasonable to expect an extended period of time, likely many centuries, during which the population of domesticated dromedary camels grew from a meager few individuals in particular locations to its becoming a common feature of everyday life in large swaths of the Middle East and Northern Africa. Two, during this transition period we expect domesticated dromedaries to be relatively rare and expensive; only the very powerful or wealthy would have had the wherewithal to possess these useful animals.
This time frame fits the Genesis narratives quite well. Both Abraham and Jacob live centuries after, and a thousand miles from, the focus of the Dromedary’s domestication in Southern Arabia. Abraham obtains his camels from none other than the king of Egypt, who himself obtained them, most likely, from Arabian traders who may have transported them from Southern Arabia across the narrow Red Sea into Africa, and from there northward into Egypt. The wealthy Jacob obtains his camels while in Harran; these may well have been Bactrians who were domesticated further east, centuries before Jacob’s time. The Midianite merchants hail from Northwest Arabia, as presumably do their Ishmaelite hired hands, so they were in a position, by dint of location, time and economic condition, to get their hands on some rare domesticated dromedary camels.
All of these are limited and isolated developments, not indicative of widespread domestication. There is therefore no reason to expect, on the basis of the Genesis narratives, camel remains in the Aravah from the second millennium BCE. Just because a few wealthy individuals are passing by the Levant with a few camels, one bringing them from the west (Abraham from Egypt) and the others from the northeast (Jacob and the Midianite merchants), that is, from outside the Levant,20 does not imply that we ought to be finding camel remains in the south, either in the Aravah Valley’s copper smelting area or in the broader Southern Levant region. And due to the relatively small number of camels involved we ought not to expect to find camel remains from this period even further north, in the settled areas.
On the other hand, let us note the absence of camels in the Genesis narratives in the many contexts where they would be expected to appear based on the narratives, as discussed earlier. Note also the absence of horses in all the Genesis narratives, except for the very end in Egypt (47:17). The textual data actually display the writers’ familiarity with conditions at the time. This is something we would definitely not expect from writers centuries later. The reasonable conclusion is that the narratives at issue were first recorded contemporaneously with the events they describe.
In the Book of Judges we encounter the Israelites when they are, at a point in time, subjected to attacks and raids by the Midianites. These Midianites are described as numerous as locusts with innumerable camels (Judg. 6:5, 7:12). Some of these camels arrive with collars and/or crescents hanging from their necks (8:21, 26). This event occurs sometime during the ‘intermediate’ period in Israel’s history, after the Exodus and conquest but before the reign of Israel’s first king, Saul. That reign began, by most accounts, at about 1040 BCE.21 But since the Midianites are presumed to have disappeared as an entity before the end of the twelfth century BCE,22 this event ought to be pushed even further upward in time, to some two centuries before the reported arrival of domesticated camels in the Aravah Valley (according to the TAU study). Yet the text speaks of “camels without count.” Is this not an anachronism?
Still, a list of Israel’s domesticated animals that were left without sustenance by the Midianite raids mentions sheep, oxen and donkeys, but not camels (6:4). The glaring omission of Israelite camels in contrast to the prominent mention of Midianite camels in the very next verse indicates the absence of camels in the Israelite area. This is in agreement with reality at this time and place, precisely as reported in the TAU study.
Furthermore, this event occurs many centuries after the Genesis narratives, much further along into the transition period we spoke of earlier, during which the population of domesticated camels increased steadily. And the Midianites came from their base of operations in Northwestern Arabia, much closer to the dromedary’s focus of domestication in Southern Arabia than is the Aravah Valley. So in terms of time and location we ought to expect the Midianites to have access to a larger population of domesticated dromedaries than was the case in the patriarchal era and at that time in the Aravah Valley area.
Finally, we are informed in the Book of I Chronicles (27:30) that King David possessed camels, apparently a herd large enough to appoint a special overseer for their care. King David reigned, by all accounts, up to ca. 970 BCE, a date very close to the 930-900 BCE time frame specified in the TAU study. And he was, after all, a king. And we have no clear understanding as to just how large this herd of his was. All in all, there is not much fodder here for bible critics to feast upon.
It should be emphasized, in case the point was obscured by all the minutiae, that this essay is not in disagreement with the key finding of the TAU report. Domesticated camels may very well not have been put to work in the copper smelting industry of the Aravah Valley prior to the 930-900 BCE time frame, as the TAU report concludes. And by extension, these camels were rare or absent from the Southern Levant region up to that time, as the report asserts.
The concern of this essay focused on the intrusion of the TAU study into the subject of the veracity of the biblical narratives, particularly those in Genesis. This was perpetrated, not by the authors of the study, but by the many frenzied media articles and news releases. These writers latched on to the TAU report in support of their anti-bible agendas. This essay demonstrated how ill informed those conclusions are.
  1. “Camels Had No Business in Genesis”, The New York Times, February 11, 2014, front page.
  2. L. Sapir-Hen and E. Ben-Yosef, “The Introduction of Domestic Camels to the Southern Levant: Evidence from the Aravah Valley”, Tel Aviv 40 (2013): pp. 277-285.
  3. The New York Times, ibid; “The Mystery of the Bible’s Phantom CamelsTime Magazine, February 11, 2014
  4. D. B. Redford, Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 277; W. F. Albright, The Archaeology of Palestine (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1951), p. 207.
  5. J. Landa, “The Exodus: Convergence of Science, History and Jewish Tradition”, Hakirah14 (2012), pp. 187-235.
  6. Genesis 24: 11, 14, 19, 20, 22, 30, 31, 32 (twice), 35, 44, 46 (twice), 61, 63, 64.
  7. Despite the attempts of some to move Ur northward, the dominant view is that biblical “Ur of the Chaldees” (if that is the correct translation of the Hebrew Ur Kasdim) is to be located in Southern Mesopotamia. See K. A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2003), p. 316, with references.
  8. This is certainly the case in the Nile district. There was not even a word for the camel in Ancient Egyptian. See A. S. Saber, “The Camel in Ancient Egypt”, Proceedings of the Third Annual Meeting for Animal Production Under Arid Conditions (United Emirates University, 1998), vol. 1, pp. 208-215.
  9. A. Hyland, The Horse in the Ancient World (Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2003); D. W. Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel and Language (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007); and others.
  10. Based on the text’s description of Joseph’s position and role in Egypt (Gen. 41:40-45) many Egyptologists conclude that this best fits the ancient title of ‘vizier’ in that land. This takes place during the twelfth dynasty.
  11. That the Hebrew anashim refers to ‘men of stature’ when used in this manner, that is, superfluously, is abundantly clear from the text in Numbers 13:3. See comment of Rashi, ad loc.
  12. For further textual elucidation of the intricacies of this event, see commentary of Nahmanides (Ramban), ad loc. It must be assumed that there was only one passing caravan in this event, one that carried both the Midianites (37:28) and the Ishmaelites (37:25), otherwise the later references to Ishmaelites (37:28, 39:1) become inexplicable. We also have Reuben’s (Jacob’s oldest son) description of that location as being in the wilderness (37:22), thereby encouraging the brothers to place Joseph in the pit where no one will find him. This is not in accord with two passing caravans in succession, something we would expect on a major thoroughfare, not in the wilderness.
  13. The Joseph narrative is to be dated to ca. 1800 BCE, during the twelfth dynasty. See J. Landa, Exodus, ibid.
  14. See note 9.
  15. This fine definition by J. Clutton-Brock, A Natural History of Domesticated Mammals(London: British Museum of Natural History, 1987), p. 12.
  16. Sapir-Hen and Ben-Yosef, ibid, p. 280.
  17. For much of what follows see excellent reviews in History of Domestication (Jones and Bartlett Publishers) with multiple references, and L. F. Groeneveld, et al, “Genetic Diversity in Farm Animals: A Review”, Animal Genetics 41 (suppl. 1): pp. 6-31.
  18. For what follows see F. B. Marshall, et al, “Evaluating the Roles of Directed Breeding and Gene Flow in Animal Domestication”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111, # 17.
  19. Otherwise the single domestication event for each type of camel would constitute a ‘population bottleneck’ whereby the animals descend from a small number of ancestors. This leads to very low genetic diversity.
  20. The Midianites in the biblical narrative come from Gilead, in the northeast, and are headed to Egypt, in the southwest (Gen. 37:25). Since the Midianites’ home territory was in Northwest Arabia, these merchants were apparently quite mobile.
  21. This date is somewhat uncertain, for the length of Saul’s reign is not presented (in a clear enough manner) in the text. The best that can be said based on the textual and historical data is that Saul’s reign began some number of years before ca. 1010 BCE, when David’s (Saul’s successor) reign began. Considering the many campaigns engaged in by Saul, it is reasonable to allot a significant number of years, say about thirty, to his reign.
  22. K. A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2003), p.

Two recent critical views of Biblical Criticism 1/2/19

David Stern studied in Yeshivat Har Etzion, took Bible courses at the Herzog Teachers College, and majored in Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University. He taught Bible in a number of different contexts, and is currently pursuing a career in medicine.


. . . all hypotheses are working proposals until confirmed in detail,        and . . . many must be discarded while others will require drastic overhauling in the face of new evidence. There is a grave temptation to hold on to a hypothesis that has served well in the past, and the more serious temptation to bend data to fit, or to dismiss what cannot be accommodated into the system. The commitment must always be to observable or discoverable data, and not to a hypothesis, which is        always expendable.1

 In the 19th century, scholars of the Bible posited the Documentary Hypothesis. According to this theory, the Torah subsumes a composite of literary works, or sources, instead of being the work of a single author. Proponents of this theory, the "sources critics," identify these sources by highlighting sections of the Torah that display different writing styles, ideological assumptions, word choice, particularly with regard to Divine names, and any number of other differences. Source critics attribute the sources to authors coming from different time periods and ideological backgrounds, and have named them "J" (for passages that use the Tetragrammaton),"E" (for passages that use Elohim), "P" (Priestly) and "D" (Deuteronomist). Until recently, this theory was considered the unshakable bedrock upon which any academic Bible study was to be proposed.

The mid-1980s and the early 1990s witnessed a resurgence of biblical scholars challenging, revising, and even rejecting the Documentary Hypothesis. First and foremost, scholars relinquished claims to a scientific methodology. In Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism, 2 Jeffery Tigay insists that "The degree of subjectivity which such hypothetical [source critical] procedures permit is notorious." In fact, he characterizes these procedures as "reading between the lines." Moreover, Edward Greenstein maintains that source critical analysis is analogous to the blind men and the elephant: "Each of five blind men approaches a different part of an elephant's anatomy. Perceiving only part of the elephant, each man draws a different conclusion as to the identity of what he encounters."3 According to the preceding remarks, not only are source critical methods subjective, but also account for only a fraction of the total evidence. Especially when analyzing a literary corpus "as bulky and complex as an elephant,"4 a system which fails to consider all the evidence, and wherein "scholars shape the data into the configurations of their own imagination"5 hardly warrants the label scientific.

While surveying many conflicting proposals for the nature of the hypothetical sources, Gerhard Larsson gives a more specific account of the methodological shortcomings. He says that
 . . . there is no sound objective method for recognizing the different sources, there is also no real consensus about the character and extent of sources like J and E, [and] no unity concerning limits between original sources and the insertions made by redactors.6

Rather, as Greenstein says, "each scholar defines and adapts the evidence according to his own point of view."7 Such an approach not only yields results which are, as Tigay highlights, "hypothetical (witness the term 'documentary hypothesis'),"8 but, as David Noel Freedman declares, allows and encourages, "the pages of our literature [to be] filled with endless arguments between scholars who simply reiterate their prejudices."9 

The lack of a sound and rigorous methodology leads scholars to produce varying and even contradictory theories, which ultimately undermine the enterprise as a whole. In addition to Wellhausen's four sources J, E, P, and D, some scholars speculate about sources labeled Lay (L), Nomadic (N), Kenite (K), Southern or Seir (S) and the "foundational source" Grundlage (G). Not only do scholars multiply the number of sources, some, applying the same methodology, fragment J, E, P, and D into further subdivisions, and view these documents as products of "schools" which "shaped and reshaped these documents by further additions."10 After summarizing the different opinions,11 Pauline Viviano says,
The more "sources" one finds, the more tenuous the evidence for the existence of continuous documents becomes, and the less likely that four unified documents ever existed. Even for those able to avoid skepticism and confusion in the face of the ever increasing number of sources, the only logical conclusion seems to be to  move away from [Wellhausen's] Documentary Hypothesis toward a position closer to the Fragmentary Hypothesis.12

 In addition to being a victim of its own ambition, the Documentary Hypothesis suffered many challenges, from the time of its inception through contemporary scholarship. Scholars have contested and even refuted the arguments from Divine names, doublets, contradictions, late words, late morphology, Aramaisms, and every other aspect of the Documentary Hypothesis.13 As a result, some scholars denounce source criticism en toto, 14 while others posit alternate hypotheses. However, one wonders if these hypotheses will not share the same fate as the ones they just disproved.

These problems have brought source criticism to a sad state. In Greenstein's words, "Many contemporary Biblicists are experiencing a crisis in faith . . . . The objective truths of the past we increasingly understand as the creations of our own vision."15 He continues, "all scholarship relies on theories and methods that come and go, and . . . modern critical approaches are no more or less than our own midrash."16 This "crisis," or "breakdown" to use Jon Levenson's characterization, has encouraged droves of scholars to study the Bible synchronically, a method which effectively renders source criticism irrelevant.

 Among other advantages, the synchronic method of biblical study encourages scholars to detect textual phenomena which, upon reflection, seem obvious, but have not been recognized until recently. Levenson explains these recent detections as follows:
Many scholars whose deans think they are studying the Hebrew Bible are, instead, concentrating on Syrio-Palestinian archeology, the historical grammar of Biblical Hebrew, Northwest Semitic epigraphy, or the like – all of which are essential, but no combination of which produces a Biblical scholar. The context often supplants the text and, far worse, blinds the interpreters to features of the text that their method has not predisposed them to see.17

This statement could not be truer when referring to source criticism, and to this end Larsson says, albeit in a harsher tone: "Source criticism obscures the analysis. Only when the text is considered as a whole do the special features and structures of the final version emerge."18

The rediscovery of the Bible's special features and structures has proven to be extremely rewarding in its own right, and, in addition, it has recurrently forced scholars to revise and even reject source critical theories. Larrson states this latter statement quite clearly: "Many scholars have found that when the different [patriarchal] cycles are studied in depth it is no longer possible to support the traditional documentary hypothesis."19 Even the Flood narrative, traditionally explained as two independent strands (J and P) woven together, has been unified by scholars who perceive a literary structure integrating the various sections of the story.20 In fact, a statistical analysis of linguistic features in Genesis lead by Yehuda Radday and Haim Shore demonstrates that
. . . with all due respect to the illustrious documentarians past and present, there is massive evidence that the pre-biblical triplicity of Genesis, which their line of thought postulates to have been worked over by a late and gifted editor into a trinity, is actually a unity.21

NOTES 1. D. Freedman, Divine Commitment and Human Obligation: Selected Writings of David Noel Freedman. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1997) p. 160. 2. J. Tigay, Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism. (Philidelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985) p. 2. He says this despite the fact that his book attempts to demonstrate that other features of source criticism are methodologically sound. 
3. E. Greenstein, "Formation of the Biblical Narrative Corpus," AJS Review 15,1 (1990) p. 164. 
4. Ibid. 
5. E. Greenstein, "Biblical Studies in a State," in The State of Jewish Studies (Detroit: Wayne State University, 1990) p. 30. 
6. G. Larsson, "Documentary Hypothesis and Chronological Structure of the Old Testament," Zeitschrift fur Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 97 (1985) p. 319. 
7. Greenstein, "Biblical Studies in a State," p. 31. 
8. Tigay, p. 2. 
9. Freedman, p. 153. 
10. P. Viviano, An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and their Application. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993) p. 43. 
11. Ibid. pp. 43-44. 
12. Ibid p. 44. 
13. See Viviano, especially note 29; L. Walker, A Tribute to Gleason Archer. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986); R. Whybray Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement 53. (England: Sheffield 1987) and many others.. See, for example, C. Brichto, The Names of God: Poetic Readings in Biblical Beginnings. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) p. ix. 
15. Greenstein, "Biblical Studies in a State," p. 36. 
16. Ibid p. 37. 
17. J. Levenson, The State of Jewish Studies (Detroit: Wayne State University, 1990) p. 51. 
18. Larsson, p. 322. 
19. Ibid. 
20. J. Emerton, "An Examination of Some Attempts to Defend the Unity of the Flood Narrative in Genesis." Vetus Testamentus 38 (1988) pp, 1-21. 
21. J. Wenham, "Genesis: An Authorship Study and Current Pentateuchal Criticism," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 42 (1988) p. 10.  

Excerpts from the introduction and conclusion of Inconsistency in the Torah : ancient literary convention and the limits of source criticism by Joshua A. Berman. Emphasis is mine throughout.          


On a Sunday morning in May 2013, nearly one hundred scholars from around the world awaited the beginning of the proceedings of a conference titled, “Convergence and Divergence in Pentateuchal Theory: Bridging the Academic Cultures of Israel, North America, and Europe”
The conference opened with a report of the group’s accomplishments over that time. Speaking on behalf of the conveners, Bernard M. Levinson explained that the discipline is in a state of fragmentary discourse, where scholars talk past  each other, and mean different things even when they use the same terms. As he put it, “scholars tend to operate from such different premises, employing such divergent methods, and reaching such inconsistent results, that meaningful progress has become impossible. The models continue to proliferate, but the communication seems only to diminish.”1

A colleague sitting next to me commented that he was not surprised to hear this description of gridlock and crisis. As he put it, this should have been the expected result of bringing together so many accomplished and senior members of the same field. If you are a scholar whose entire output has consisted of studies predicated on say, source criticism, it is probably quite difficult for you to imagine that perhaps sources, classically conceived, do not exist. The American novelist Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it” ; and we may apply Sinclair’s observation to the world of academic publishing and say, “It is difficult to get a scholar to understand something, when his entire scholarly oeuvre depends on his not understanding it.” Put differently, perhaps this deadlock stems from what Thomas Kuhn explains in his Structures of Scientific Revolutions: paradigms do not shift overnight. When scholars have worked with a given paradigm for a long time, he writes, the problems of the paradigm are never quickly acknowledged. The old paradigm will not be discarded until another paradigm is proposed that is demonstrably more compelling.3 We stand today in diachronic study of the Bible at a midpoint in this process. Problems have been identified with the reigning paradigms, yet no alternatives have been proposed that are demonstrably better. In this intellectual climate, it is to be expected that different scholars will stick to their different academic guns, so to speak. In this volume I offer no panacea to the questions and issues raised concerning the formation of the Torah. Instead, I offer a contribution to a recent and growing movement within historical-critical scholarship on the Torah.

The root of the problem heretofore, according to this movement, is that scholars have rooted their compositional theories for the growth of the biblical text entirely in their own intuition of what constitutes literary unity. For those of us working in this new movement, the time has come to root compositional theory in the so-called empirical findings of the writings of the ancient Near East. We must canvas and analyze documented examples of compositional growth and editing across a wide field of ancient Near Eastern texts, both within ancient Israel and outside it.4 How did these scribes go about editing and revising revered texts? What editorial trends do we see when we compare earlier versions of a text to later ones? For these scholars it is an axiom that the Hebrew Bible, and with it the Torah, is a product of an ancient Near Eastern milieu, which deeply influences not only its content, but also its poetics and process of composition. The turn by these scholars toward empirical models for compositional theory has met with resistance in some quarters, because essentially, these scholars claim that the only way to right the ship is by jettisoning many sacred cows of compositional theory, and effectively throwing them overboard. Whereas other scholars have examined the editorial practices of ancient scribes, I seek here to question our own notions of consistency and unity in a text, in light of what we discover from the writings of the ancient Near East. Scholars have long known that this corpus can surprise us with the seeming “inconsistencies” that it yields. 

A foundational staple of early Penateuchal criticism maintained that the disparity of divine names found in the Torah was itself proof positive of composite authorship, and a key to determining and delimiting its sources.5 This axiom had to be walked back, however, in light of evidence that the ancients were quite comfortable referring to the same deity by multiple names, even within a single passage. Witness what we find in Tablet IV of the Ugaritic Ba’al Cycle: “Baʽlu’s enemies grasp hold of (the trees of ) the forest, Haddu’s adversaries (grasp hold of ) the flanks of the mountain(s). Mighty Baʽlu speaks up:  Enemies of Haddu, why do you shake with fear?” (4, vi.36–vii.38). In like fashion, the alternation in address between singular and plural pronouns, sometimes referred to as Numeruswechsel, was thought to designate various sources or strata in the Hebrew Bible. However, the phenomenon is also found in the Sefire treaty, that is, in a literary setting where we cannot propose diachronic composition. In Stele III, the suzerain commands the vassal to hand over fugitives, warning him that if he fails to do so, “You (pl.) shall have been unfaithful to all the gods of the treaty” (III:4; cf. similarly, ll. 16 and 23). However, further on, the suzerain demands freedom of passage in the vassal’s territory, and warns him that if he fails to do so, “you (s.) shall be unfaithful to this treaty” (cf. similarly ll. 14, 20, and 27).

These examples serve as a warning flag for scholars looking to parse the text on the basis of their own notions of literary unity. The ancient text is a minefield of literary phenomena that are culturally dependent. The diachronic scholar who treads there based solely on his own modern notions of literary unity risks serious interpretive missteps. Passages such as that from the Baal cycle above, or from the Sefire treaty can be safely assumed to have been written by a single hand. The rhetoric we find in these comparative materials can offer a control. Of course, the presence of these phenomena elsewhere does not prove that the Torah must be read this way as well. Even if we assume that the passage from the Baal Cyle cited above was composed by one hand, this does not mandate that the presence of two (or even three) divine names in Genesis must all stem from the same authorial hand—but it should, at the very least, place a check on the confidence that a modern exegete can have when approaching the biblical text and encountering literary phenomena that seem inconsistent. Perhaps the most prudent lesson from such examples is that we must attain competency as readers before we engage the text—and this we can do only by canvassing the available cognate materials.
The evidence that I adduce in the first two parts of the book lead me to Part III, Renewing Pentateuchal Criticism, in which I critique current methodology and seek a new path forward. The Jerusalem conference to which I alluded to earlier was subtitled: “Bridging the Academic Cultures of Israel, North America, and Europe.” There is a fundamentally correct understanding in this framing of the current state of the field: scholars do not work in a vacuum. Rather, they ply their trade within specific academic cultures of first assumptions. In his introductory comments at the Jerusalem conference, Bernard Levinson noted that American and Israeli scholars contend that “the current proliferation of European hypotheses and multiple layers of redactional development is theory driven and selfgenerated without adequate consideration of comparative literary evidence.” However, the Jerusalem conference devoted no time to laying bare these cultural axioms. What is it, for example, about the academic culture of German-speaking lands that leads scholars there to rally around a certain set of methodological presumptions? An awareness of our cultural presuppositions and of the intellectual heritage to which we are heirs is essential if we are to be self-critical about our own work.

I seek to address these issues in chapter 11, “A Critical Intellectual History of the Historical-Critical Paradigm in Biblical Studies.” My goal is to understand the origins of the intellectual commitments that shape the discipline today, and its reluctant disposition toward empirical models of textual growth. I examine how theorists over three centuries have entertained the most fundamental questions: what is the goal of the historical-critical study of the Hebrew Bible? What is the probative value of evidence internal within the text itself, relative to evidence from external sources? What is the role of intuition in the scholar’s work? What is the role of methodological control? The axioms that governed nineteenth-century German scholarship were at a great remove from those that governed earlier historical-critical scholarship, in the thought of critics such as Spinoza. These axioms were based in intellectual currents that were particular to the nineteenth century, and especially so in Germany. From there, I  offer a brief summary of the claims of contemporary scholars who are looking toward empirical models to reconstruct the textual development of Hebrew scriptures. I conclude by demonstrating how this vein of scholarship undermines an array of nineteenth-century intellectual assumptions, but would have been quite at home in the earlier periods of the discipline’s history, and call for a return to Spinozan hermeneutics. 

I continue my critique of current historical-critical method in chapter  12, “The Abuses of Negation, Bisection, and Suppression in the Dating of Biblical Texts: The Rescue of Moses (Exodus 2:1–10).” Here I maintain that the scholarly aim to clearly delineate and definitively date layers in a text unwittingly leads to three malpractices of historical-critical method. Handling complex evidence in a reductive fashion, scholars routinely engage in what I call, respectively, the undue negation of evidence, the suppression of evidence, and the forced bisection of a text. Scholarship on the account of the rescue of Moses serves as an illustration. The division of the Genesis flood account is one of the most celebrated achievements of modern biblical criticism. In chapter  13, “Source Criticism and Its Biases: The Flood Narrative of Genesis 6–9,” I take a critical look at the source-critical paradigm and examine its hermeneutics. Here, too, we will see that historical-critical scholarship applies a series of double standards that all work in concert to support the source-critical aims and results. Moreover, it consistently suppresses evidence adduced from cognate materials (particularly from the Mesopotamian version of the flood story contained in Tablet XI of the Giglamesh Epic) that threatens its validity by simply ignoring it, or otherwise negating the validity of that evidence through unwarranted means. In the Conclusion, I offer a new path forward for historical-critical study of the Hebrew Bible, calling for three imperatives. First, I suggest an epistemological shift that soberly acknowledges the limits of what we may determine, both in terms of the dates of the texts we study, and of the prehistory of those texts.

 A New Path Forward The methodological impasse gripping the field, its extreme fragmentation and seemingly unbridgeable diversity, should give us pause and encourage us to explore some of the fundamental assumptions that have girded diachronic study for two centuries. To renew the field of pentateuchal criticism—and indeed, the historical-critical paradigm in biblical studies more broadly—I believe that historical-critical scholars will need to adopt three new priorities in their work. The first is an epistemological shift toward modesty in our goals and toward accepting contingency in our results. ……..As I demonstrated in chapter 11, historical criticism is caught in a vicious loop. The holy grail of historical criticism of the Hebrew Bible is the attainment of answers to four fundamental questions: who wrote this text? When was it written? What are the historical circumstances that occasioned its composition? What were the stages of the text’s development? Because these questions are fundamental to the discipline’s self-identity, scholars take it as axiomatic that they possess the capacity to provide reliable answers to these questions. The possibility that we may not have this capacity is not widely entertained, for if that really were the case, the very enterprise of understanding the biblical texts in historical context is threatened. This in turn leads to scholarship biased toward producing results that answer these questions. In chapter 12, I showed how scholarship on the question of the dating of the account of the rescue of Moses in Exodus 2:1–10 handles complex evidence in a reductive fashion so that the passage may be firmly dated. And in chapter 13 I highlighted the many ways in which source-critical scholars display a proclivity and predisposition to parse evidence in an unfounded way, but one that serves the goal of discovering within the Genesis flood narrative two original sources.

 We are committed to two methodological callings. As biblicists, we are called to examine the texts we work with in their historical and social settings. But no less, as scientific investigators, we are called to put forth arguments only to the degree that they are supported by the evidence. It must be starkly admitted that these two callings stand in fundamental tension, especially when we are dealing with the texts of the Pentateuch, where the events recorded have scant attestation outside of the Hebrew Bible. Out of a healthy commitment to examining texts within a specific historical setting we too often compromise on the second calling: to offer a specific historical setting for a text only when the evidence for it is strong and unambiguous. Responsible scholarship mandates a proper ordering of first questions. The classical questions that address historical context are vital ones. But the sine qua non of any critical quest must begin with the frank and sober question: what are the limits of what we may know? What will be the controls in place that check our conclusions? The warning of the eminent historian Arnaldo Momigliano is in order: “The most dangerous type of researcher in any historical field is the man who, because he is intelligent enough to ask a good question, believes that he is good enough to give a satisfactory answer.”

 This will require biblicists to think differently about their work. To animate just how difficult—and yet necessary—this is, I draw attention to a similar change of mindset now underway in a distant branch of the academy. No field of academic study today is in as much turmoil as the field of economics. The financial collapse of 2008 was predicted by only a handful of doomsday prophets, who were largely ignored. The Nobel laureate in economics, Paul Krugman, asks how it is that the entire guild of economists—himself included—got it so wrong.2 Krugman concludes: “As I see it the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, for truth. The central cause of the profession’s failure,” he goes on, “was the desire for an all-encompassing, intellectually elegant approach that also gave economists a chance to show off their mathematical prowess.” Krugman details how the neoclassical belief in markets had an allure because it allowed scholars to do macroeconomics with clarity, completeness, and beauty. The approach seemed to explain so many things. Krugman’s analysis of what happened to an entire guild of economists should give us pause for reflection as biblicists. Could it be that we, too, fall victim to the allure of mistaking beauty for truth? By positing the date of a text and the stages of its composition, we create an elegant narrative of the text’s history and of the evolution of religious ideas in ancient Israel. But could we, too, be mistaking beauty for truth—the truth that dating biblical texts and recovering their stages of growth is harder than we would like to admit? Or the truth that we actually have limited access to the minds and hearts of the scribes of ancient Israel, and cannot know the full range of motivations that drove them to compose the texts they did? Krugman writes, “if the economics profession is to redeem itself, it will have to reconcile itself to a less alluring vision,” and that, “what’s almost certain is that economists will have to learn to live with messiness.” That constituted an incredibly bitter pill for economists to swallow. Possessed with elegant models that claimed to predict economic performance in the future, economists became indispensible figures, necessary to the financial prosperity of those who would hire their services. To admit that the economic world is “messy” is, essentially, to concede defeat. If, at best, economists can describe only the past, then the field of economics loses its lofty status, and is reduced to merely a subsection of the history department.

 Perhaps we, too, “will have to learn to live with messiness” and avoid the pitfall of mistaking beauty for truth. Perhaps we, too, may have to settle for the realization that we cannot work back from a received text and reconstruct its compositional history with clarity. Finally, this epistemological shift will need to necessitate a rethinking of the habits of biblicists with regard to the relationship between the processes of dating a text and uncovering its meaning. There exists a pervasive but mistaken assumption that if an idea is particularly relevant to one historical era, it must have originated in that era. The covenant curses of Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 warn of exile; but this does not ensure that these texts were composed following the exile.
After all, the Bible claims that Israel’s origins are outside the land of Canaan, and that the land is a divine gift, denied to the Amorites because of their wickedness (Gen 15:16; Deut 9:5). Genesis tells us that Adam himself had been exiled from the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:23–24). The notion of exile is integral to the warp and woof of many Pentateuchal texts. Another example: the boundaries of the promised land in Gen 15:18–21 correspond to those of the empire of David and Solomon, as portrayed in 1 Kgs 4:21. For some, this suggests that the border list of Gen 15:18–21 originates from this period.11 But, in theory, writers from either earlier or later periods could also have yearned for stronger borders and greater hegemony than was available in their own day. Moreover, the impulse to date a text based on an idea it presents overlooks the fact that these texts were copied and handed down across many generations and many historical circumstances. These texts endured precisely because they were seen as transcending the original setting of their composition and offering insights into the human condition and the condition of the people Israel. The inheritors of these texts deemed them relevant long after the original historical and social conditions of their composition were forgotten. Phenomenologists of religion such as Moshe Idel and Mircea Eliade have taught us that we need to be open to the possibility that the intuitions of a religious text can be understood as timeless.