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Yes, Virginia, the Patriarchs really did ride on camels

It’s camel season again.

It’s the week of the Torah reading of Chaye Sarah, featuring the story of the betrothal of Rebecca and its multiple mentions of camels. It’s the week of the perennial question I get, as an Orthodox rabbi and academic Bible scholar:

Didn’t the New York Times once report there were no camels in Israel until long after the patriarchal period detailed in Genesis?

Since the release earlier this year of my book, Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth and the Thirteen Principles of Faith, this has been one of the questions most frequently posed me.

The NY Times piece was an exercise in journalistic sin.

Imagine if a technology reporter for the NY Times were to file an article about a modest improvement in TV screen resolution with the title: “Television Invented!” His editors would pillory him because televisions have been around for decades. They would accuse him of overdramatizing just to create clickbait. That is what should have happened here.

For decades, scholars have known that there is no archaeological evidence of camels in Israel until the 10th century BCE, the time of David and Solomon. And many have long surmised that references to camels in Genesis — detailing the lives of the patriarchs hundreds of years earlier — are anachronistic. In 2014, Tel Aviv University archaeologists moved the needle by the tiniest degree, claiming that camels arrived in Israel in ...