Dromedary Dilemma

Photo credit: John O'Neill, WikiCommons

Photo credit: John O’Neill, WikiCommons

This past week two friends have pointed me to news articles about camels. In the modern, western imagination camels are biblical animals, pushing their way onto the ark, carrying long-suffering patriarchs across the desert, and squeezing through the eyes of needles. These news stories indicate that camels were actually not introduced into the Levant until about the tenth century B.C.E., i.e., a few centuries too late for poor Father Abraham, whom, according to Genesis, was a noted camel owner. Of course, the reason that this is news is because Fundamentalist groups insist that every word of the Bible is literally true. If it says Abraham had camels, then, by gosh, camels he had—archaeological evidence or no. One story points out the problems for Zionists, for whom claims on the land derive from the mandate to Abraham (and, presumably, his camels). Biblical scholars have long been aware of the complex methods of scripture writing, and no camels are no problem. The bigger issue, I suspect, is that Abraham has been awol for some time as well.

Abraham, as the progenitor of the three major monotheistic religions, bears a tremendous weight on his weary shoulders. It is the weight of history. Or lack thereof. I may be a few years outdated here, but the earliest figure historically attested in the Bible is (or was) Omri, the king of Israel who spawned the notorious Ahab. Prior to that, historical records are pretty silent. Yes, I know the Tel Dan stele mentions “house of David,” but that is like mentioning Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory—it doesn’t make Mr. Wonka any more real (even though you can buy a Wonka bar at some candy stores). That means that, in the jumble of biblical history, everyone in Genesis falls into the questionable historical category. Even if Moses (himself historically dubious), wrote Genesis (and he didn’t), he wouldn’t have known Mr. Abraham personally. He had been long dead. If he’d ever been born. I’m getting worried about his camels.

Religions have often tied themselves to historical claims. Such claims are always tenuous and negotiable. For instance, I watched a movie about Abraham—Lincoln, it was called—where I learned quite a bit that I didn’t know about a very historical Abraham. At the same time, I knew the movie wasn’t history. When we rely on history to cite our superiority (often one of the functions of religion), we had better be willing to take the risks. The first biblical historical figure is a “bad guy” king of a secessionist kingdom, this time in the north. Even once we learn that the storied characters of the Bible may have never trod the earth, we don’t leave them as camel fodder. They are part of the tradition, whether they participated in history or not. I realize, however, for some it would be easier to swallow a camel than to strain out this particular gnat.

3 thoughts on “Dromedary Dilemma

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