Today I want to talk about camels. I spoke to Rabbi Shulman about this, and he said he had only one thought on them:
What do you say when a camel falls on you?
(תהלים יג:ו) אשירה ליהוה כי גמל עלי׃
But there’s a big problem with camels:
Abraham was born according to סדר עולם, in 1948 from creation (or 1811 BCE), so our story is about 1736 BCE. But camels weren’t domesticated in the Middle East until 800 years later:
For the decidedly secular HaAretz and other media, that’s a feature, not a bug. The Torah isn’t true, anyway:
I have to admit, this bothered me. A lot. There are a few ways of reconciling this dilemma. Rabbi Shulman suggested that perhaps גמל doesn’t mean literally “camel” but any pack animal. That seems too radical to me. The other answer is that ”absence of evidence is not evidence of absence“. Just because no one has found camel bones from ancient Israel doesn’t automatically mean that nobody had them.
After some research, it turns out that my problem isn’t that great:
So camels had been domesticated long before Abraham, just not commonplace in Canaan. So it’s likely the inhabitants knew about camels, even if they didn’t use them. Somalia (and the Asian steppes, for the Bactrian camels, domesticated about the same time) isn’t that far away. It gives us a different perspective on what it means when Pharaoh gave Abraham camels: not as a pack animal but as an exotic gift.
That helps explain Eliezer’s actions when he goes to find a wife for Isaac:
Note that the camels are not laden with כל טוב אדוני; compare (בראשית מה:כג) ולאביו שלח כזאת עשרה חמרים נשאים מטוב מצרים. I would say they were brought as examples of Abraham’s wealth.
And that’s why Eliezer had to take care of the camels himself:
And I think that’s the way we have to look at archeological data. It’s very rare to get an archeological find that directly impacts our understanding of תנ״ך. The only thing I can think of is from the Artscroll Beit HaMikdash, discussing the size of an אמה. The Mishna says the gateways were 10 אמות wide, and Barclay’s Gate is 226 inches, so an אמה must be 22.6 inches. And that isn’t even תנ״ך; it’s much later.
The evidence from 3000 years ago is very limited. All we can do is make assumptions about the culture as a whole, and see how that affects our reading.
We think of Biblical hermeneutics with a four-fold model: פרדס. As I understand it, these “levels” of reading depend on what we bring into it. פשט is how we read the text locally, as if all we had was the one book in front of us. רמז is reading תנ״ך as a whole, bringing other books into our understanding of this one. דרש is reading text with an awareness of all of תורה שבעל פה, and סוד is reading it with an awareness of what we call קבלה.
The archeological record gives us a fifth way of understanding. But it is fraught with risk. Given how limited the record is, we have to make too many assumptions about how people lived their lives and end up making too many guesses. David Macaulay wrote a book, Motel of the Mysteries satirizing this. In 4022 an archeologist uncovers the ruins of what he decides is a royal burial complex, with individual chambers, each with a ceremonial platform and holy altar and other artifacts. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that the “tomb” is a cheap motel, the ubiquitous “altar” is a television set, the “sacred urn with water music” is a toilet. It’s a humbling reminder that we don’t know as much as we think we do.
Still, using ideas from “outside” to explain the Torah has a history going back to the Talmud:
Soncino suggests that these languages are Coptic and Phygrian. Why those two languages is beyond our discussion, but there’s an amusing story in Herodotus:
And Rashi himself used assumptions about local culture to explain the Torah:
ריוסטי״ר is old French revestir, modern French revêtir, ”don, gird“.
Archeology can help explain rare words in תנ״ך:
What does פים mean?
Why would the navi need to tell us that they sharpened tools with a file?
פים here is the price, emphasizing that the Israelites had to pay the Philistines to use their iron tools.
And there’s another interesting link to archeology in our parasha (from the underappreciated Hertz Chumash):
Who was this אמרפל? The king of שנער, which we have seen before:
And we know its first king:
So אמרפל is midrashically identified with נמרוד, the first king in Biblical history. And Hertz connects him to the phonetically similar Hammurabi, in the phonetically similar Sumer:
Whether we accept that Hammurabi was Amrapel, looking at the Code of Hammurabi as the dominant source of law in the ancient Middle East helps us understand some events in the Torah:
And even some otherwise strange halachot:
Rabbi Hertz puts it poetically:
I’m more cynical, but there are times that our knowledge (or, more realistically, our assumptions) about history and culture can shed light on our understanding of the Torah itself.