Jewish Journal

The camel’s nose and the Torah’s tent

by Roger Price

May 23, 2013 | 3:10 pm

Credit: Wikipedia

     For those who hold that the Bible, and particularly the Torah, is the Word of God, without flaw and inerrant, the last few hundred years have been very frustrating. The development of the Documentary Hypothesis, the idea that the Torah was a compilation of works from several discrete sources, was and, despite scholarly challenge, remains a formidable obstacle to the claim of unitary and divine authorship. But the Documentary Hypothesis is, for all its power and value, just that, a hypothesis. Similarly, the notion that much of the Torah text is pretext, i.e., a series of allegories designed to enhance the image of one or more Kings of Judah, is another provocative and persuasive concept, but again, just that, a concept.

     Yet while some would dismiss such broad theories as too sweeping, and not definitive, small, stubborn little problems with the text cannot be so easily refuted and disregarded. One sign that the Torah is not the work of a single writer, much less a divine one, is the presence of anachronisms in the text.  

     An anachronism is a word or reference that is out of place temporally. It may be a person who is named, but was not yet born at the time in which his identification was set. Or, it may be a location or thing or event which is mentioned, but which did not exist or had not occurred when the story was placed. In such instances, the presence of the word both counters the claim of inerrancy and, conversely, helps to show when and where the passage in question may really have been drafted. For instance, if the Torah had said that Moses turned on electric lights the night before the exodus from Egypt so that he could review a map of his escape route, we would know that the text was flawed because electric lights were not invented until about thirty-one centuries after Moses supposedly lived. Moreover, the reference would help place the writing of the passage to some time in or after the nineteenth century of the Common Era.

     Consequently, in order to determine whether a text actually includes an anachronism, you need to know at least two things. The first is the time in which the story in the text is set. The other is the time when the person, place or thing mentioned first existed or occurred.

     Sometimes, the anachronism is obvious from the text itself. For instance, in Genesis 34:7, we read that Shechem committed an “outrage in Israel” by lying forcibly with Jacob’s daughter, Dinah. The narrative, however, has not yet identified any people known as Israel. There was no nation, nor any group, by that name around at the time to be outraged. (Contrast Deut. 22:21.) Similarly, in Exodus 19:22, 24 we read that the priests must stay pure. But the priesthood had not yet been established, and would not be until after the revelation of Sinai and the subsequent consecration of Aaron and his sons described in chapters 28 and 29 of Exodus.

     In each of the foregoing instances, the author or editor seems to have made reference to a circumstance that his audience would have understood, i.e., rape penalty, priesthood. But each reference was also internally inconsistent with the chronology of the story.

     Sometimes, discovering an anachronism requires knowledge outside of the text at issue. At Genesis 47:1-6, we read about Joseph introducing his father and brothers to an unnamed Pharaoh. The brothers request permission to stay in the Nile Delta area known as Goshen. Pharaoh grants their wish, and allows the family to settle in “the best part of the land,” in the “region of Goshen.” The story concludes with a note that Joseph settled his father and brothers “in the choicest part of the land of Egypt, in the region of Rameses.” (Gen. 47:11.) The problems here are two-fold. First, the reign of Rameses the Great did not begin until about 1279 BCE. It lasted until about 1213 BCE. Consequently, the area at issue was not named for Rameses until the 13th century BCE or subsequently, but at least two hundred years after the initial settlement of Jacob’s family according to Genesis. Moreover, the name Goshen may be related to an Arabic tribe whose domination of the area did not occur prior to the 6th or 5th centuries BCE. (See Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed (Free Press 2001), at 67.)       

     At Genesis 26:1, we read that at a time when famine forced him to move, Isaac traveled to the King of the Philistines. The story seems perfectly reasonable, until one realizes that the Philistines, as part of the Seas Peoples migration, did not arrive in Canaan until about 1200 BCE, centuries after Isaac died.         

     There’s more.

     At Genesis 11:28 we read that Haran, brother of Abram (as he was then named) died in his native land, called Ur of the Chaldeans. Ur, located in what is now Iraq, was an ancient city, once the capital of Sumer. But the Chaldean Empire existed only relatively briefly, from about 626 to 539 BCE. That is, there were no Chaldeans until the late 7th or 6th centuries BCE, perhaps a thousand years or more after the reported death.   

     In chapter 28 of Exodus the Torah text discusses in detail the vestments that are to be made for and worn by Aaron and his sons in their capacity as priests. After the robe, tunic, breastplate, sash and other items are described, verse 42 states: “You shall also make for them linen breeches to cover their nakedness; they shall extend from the hips to the thighs.” These trousers or undergarments were to be worn as the priests enter the Tent of Meeting or approach the altar. As Biblicist S. David Sperling, has demonstrated, however, trousers were invented by the Persians around the 6th century BCE. The sartorial direction at Ex. 28:42 could not, therefore, have been written prior to then, certainly not during any 14th-13th century BCE Exodus. (See Sperling, The Original Torah (NYU Press 1998), at 116.)

     In short, there are a variety of anachronisms in the text of the Torah which indicate, first, that the author of those passages lived after the time in which his story was set and, second, that he retrojected commonly understood circumstances back into an era that had no connection to them. Why he did that is another topic, but the fact that he did cannot really be disputed.

     Moreover, at least some passages of the Torah can be no older than the 6th century BCE. That is, not only were they not written at Mt. Sinai just after the Exodus, they were not written prior to the alleged entry from the wilderness into Canaan. Indeed, they were not written before the time of Joshua, Judges, or Kings David and Solomon.

     Of all the possible anachronisms in the Torah, perhaps none has caused as much controversy as the references in it to camels. The Torah contains just over two dozen such references and the entire Hebrew Bible contains no less than 53 references to camels, extending from mentions in the stories of the patriarchs to the travels of Ezra and Nehemiah to Jerusalem from Babylonia at the very start of the Persian Period, around 538 BCE.

     The first reference is at Genesis 12:16 where Abram and Sarai (as she was then known), were well received in Egypt, especially Sarai, and Abram is reported to have acquired sheep, oxen, asses, slaves and camels. Camels are also mentioned with respect to Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. (See, e.g., Gen. 24:61-64; 31:17, 34; 37:25.)

     These references, and others, all seem to make perfect sense within the story line -- except for the camels. The history of the camel, it turns out, is rather unusual, complex and not well detailed or understood. The ancestors of modern day camels, by which we really mean the dromedary or one-humped camel, originated in North America and then about two million years ago, at the end of the Pliocene Epoch traveled north and west to the Asian land mass, ultimately reaching Mesopotamia and even what is now the Saharan desert.  While there is sporadic evidence of the presence of camels in Syria and the Dead Sea area well over hundreds of thousands of years ago, former Missouri Southwest University Prof. Juris Zarins reports that wild camels “seem to have disappeared or to have been driven out of their natural habitat into the more inhospitable reaches of the Arabian peninsula” by about 3000 BCE, the beginning of the Bronze Age. (See Zarins, “Camel,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday 1992), at I, 824.)

     Based on the existence of jars and figurines that are said to be camels, various individuals have proposed a wide range of dates for the domestication of the camel, including prior to 2000 BCE. Ancient records of the Egyptian Nile Valley, however, while depicting a broad menagerie including all of the larger mammals, do not have a word for the camel. Moreover, there is a thousand year gap, between about 2180 and 1170 BCE in representations of camels in pottery. (See generally, A. S. Saber, The Camel in Ancient Egypt (United Arab Emirates University 1998).)

      Columbia University Prof. Richard Bulliet states that “(h)istorically, the earliest explicit indications of camel use in northeastern Africa date back to the sixth and seventh centuries B.C. and are related to Assyrian and Persian invasions of Egypt across the Sinai peninsula.”  (See Bulliet, The Camel and the Wheel (Columbia 1990), at 116; accord, Saber, above, at 209.) Archeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman effectively concur, noting both that Assyrian texts from the 7th century are the first to refer to camel trade caravans in Canaan and that archeological excavations have revealed a noticeable increase in camel bones discovered from that period. (See Finkelstein and Silberman, above, at 37.)

     So, while camels may have been domesticated, meaning may have been used as a source of milk and meat in the second millennia BCE in other locations such as Persia (present day Iran), there does not appear to be any serious evidence discovered to date that camels were domesticated in Egypt prior to 800 BCE. Thus, the stories of Rebekah riding a camel (Gen. 24:61-64), of camel caravans to Egypt (Gen. 37:25), of camels as part of Pharaoh’s livestock herds (Ex. 9:3) appear to be as Hamlet had it “out of joint.” (Shakespeare, Hamlet I, 5.)

     All this talk about camels and the Middle East naturally reminds us of the ancient teaching that you should not allow a camel to put its nose in your tent, lest you will soon have the entire camel in there with you. The lesson is a metaphorical warning that permitting a small act can lead to greater and quite undesirable consequences.

     From this, some might argue that anachronisms undermine the divine origin and, therefore, the importance of the text. But that argument goes too far. The presence of all of these anachronisms, those mentioned here and others, certainly support the conclusion that the Torah is the product of numerous human hands writing over a long period of time. That evidence, though, is corroborative. It compliments and supplements other approaches to the study of the text.

     And the argument misses a greater point. If the Torah were really written by a Divine Finger, we would surely have to question the character and integrity of the presumed Author. The result does not demonstrate any of the omnis attributed to God (e.g., omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence), for it is not a pretty product, or even a coherent one. Leaving aside the murder and mayhem, the text is chock full of factual errors and internal inconsistencies which an omniscient Deity or even just a good editor would have resolved. Moreover, instead of an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-compassionate deity, we frequently see an admittedly jealous God who induces His chosen people to enter into an illusory covenant conditioned on adherence to a multiplicity of rules and regulations that no human group could long endure, much less obey. It is a contract destined to be breached.

     If, however, the Torah is text by mere mortals, a work of human minds struggling to understand not so much their place in a grand heavenly scheme, but simply how to survive in their earthly present, then we have a work worthy of continuous study.  For here are stories of a people seeking to distinguish themselves from their neighbors, and, on their better days, choosing, rather than chosen, to live an ethical life, to love each other and treat the stranger with compassion, and to become a holy nation. Here are stories, sometimes written in frank and salty language, and sometimes with puns, sarcasm and humor, that are both rooted in reality and aspirational, and because of that duality so challenging and inspirational for us.

     Consequently, that the Torah is less divine decree and more human hand does not make it less worthy of reverence. To the contrary, if we understand these stories as written by those dared by their geography and history to survive on hard scrabble Earth and to try to figure out how to live day by day, week to week, season to season and year to year, then we have a source of endless worthwhile lessons about life, a fitting foundational text for Western Civilization and a work to treasure.

     This essay was previously published at www.judaismandscience.com.

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Roger Price was born and raised on the South Side Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park, long before Barack Obama decided to settle there. Originally schooled in a classic...

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