Monday 21 March 2016

Gen 17:5 did Abraham exist? (Camels etc)

The consensus among Bible scholars is that Abraham was not real. They say that his story was made up a thousand years later. Of course, they said the same about the previous chapters of Genesis. They were spectacularly wrong, but would never admit it. So at this point the Bible has a much better record than the Bible scholars.

Let's look at the case against Abraham and see if it stacks up.

General reliability of the text

I argue in this blog that the closer we look at the Bible, the less supernatural it becomes. What we have is a historical record. Sure, historians make mistakes. But an ancient historian would have access to sources that we do not, so the default position should be to trust them unless something contradicts their claims. With that in mind...

Migration from Haran

The scholarly consensus is summed up by the "History in the Bible" podcast. There is simply zero evidence of a large scale migration from Mesopotamia to Canaan around 2000 BC. Case closed. Excape... the Bible does not describe a large scale migration. It describes the movement of one family.  As usual the scholars do not read the text. However, we do know that the names (Abraham, Jacob, etc) are correct for the period: they (or very similar names) appear in records from Mari, Chagar-bazar, etc. So far so good.


Similarly, the recent discovery about camels was seen as a slam dunk. "No camels in Israel before 900 BC" was the headline. But again, nobody bothers to read the text.

Genesis records how one family came from Mesopotamia, bringing their camels with them, Just one family  They arrived via the north, the fertile crescent, and at least once went back that way to visit those left behind. So they would tend to be in the north. Occasionally we see a list of the family's animals, and it includes their camels. But a crisis occurs in Genesis 32:15, and the camels are split into two groups (Jacob gives some to his brother Esau, to prevent Esau killing him, After that something happens, because the next time we see a list of the family's belongings there are no camels to be seen:
"And when money failed in the land of Egypt, and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came unto Joseph, and said, Give us bread: for why should we die in thy presence? for the money faileth. And Joseph said, Give your cattle; and I will give you for your cattle, if money fail. And they brought their cattle unto Joseph: and Joseph gave them bread in exchange for horses, and for the flocks, and for the cattle of the herds, and for the asses: and he fed them with bread for all their cattle for that year." (Genesis 47:15-17)
Camels are never again seen. This later absence of camels was confirmed by archeology to the south of Israel, in the Aravah Valley (the southern continuation of the valley that has the river Jordan and Dead Sea.) That region has extensive copper mining, and made no use of camels until 930 BC.

Why did the family's camels die out after Genesis 32? We now know that a much larger number is needed for animals to survive as a population:
"Minimum viable population [MVP] is usually estimated as the population size necessary to ensure between 90 and 95 percent probability of survival between 100 to 1,000 years into the future. .. An MVP of 500 to 1,000 has often been given as an average for terrestrial vertebrates when inbreeding or genetic variability is ignored. When inbreeding effects are included, estimates of MVP for many species are in the thousands." (Source)
So the Bible says that one family in the north had camels, but their camels did not survive. A thousand years later we see no evidence of camels in the south. So what exactly is the problem?

Sodom and Gomorrah

Although most of the story concerns just one family, there is an unusual reference to a city being destroyed by fire, and the people escaping before hand and not looking back. Archeology has confirmed this for the time and place described.

Rampant parallelism

The bulk of the case against Abraham is so silly that it barely deserves mention: the ability of the human brain to find parallels anywhere. There are far more documents from later centuries than from earlier ones, so scholars naturally study these. They then find numerous parallels and declare that correlation equals causation. But anybody who has read widely knows that parallels can be made anywhere. Indeed, one of my hobbies is finding parallels between the comic the Fantastic Four and the Bible. but I would never dream of claiming the Bible was based on the Fantastic Four. Clearly I lack the confidence needed to be professional Bible scholar.

Columbus and America

The final argument against Abraham is the silliest of all. When the story was re-told in around 600 BC, the writer used the names people were familiar with then. Obviously these were not the earlier names, but so what? In the same way we say that "Columbus discovered America in 1492" even though America would not be named until later (after Amerigo Vespucci). In fact, Columbus never set foot on the mainland, and thought he had found old world islands. No doubt future Bible scholars will use this as proof that the story of Columbus was made up later and is full of inconsistencies.


In summary, the story of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph is the story of just one family, so we should not expect much to show up in the archeological record. However, the parts that we would expect (names, events involving whole cities) do show up as expected. Given that the previous chapters seems made up until one day the original source material appeared, there is no reason to think Abraham and co. will be any different.

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