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Abraham, Moses, Camels, & Archaeological Evidence

Abraham, Moses, Camels, & Archaeological Evidence May 22, 2021

Atheist Jonathan MS Pearce has fun in his latest attack on the historical accuracy of the Bible: “Debunking the Exodus III: Camels” (5-22-21). In it he presents the findings of various archaeologists. He opines:

I have in other posts mentioned a Tel Aviv University Press Release reporting research that has built on work hinted at in Israel Finkelstein’s The Bible Unearthed which claimed that camels were not domesticated in the Ancient Near East [until] long after they are claimed to be existent and members of a goodly number of biblical stories. In other words, these anachronisms strongly suggest that the claims of the Bible were made up. . . . 

Mentions of camels are problematic because camels were simply not used at the time [19th c. BC in Egypt, by Joseph] as domesticated animal transportation. . . . 

[end of article] The narratives and the facts claimed about them (i.e., their dating) are thus found to be riddled with problematic holes. This is the joy of skepticism – doubting even the most innocuous things and analysing claims to see if they stand or fall.

He cites several people who conclude that camels were not domesticated in the ancient near east until the 9th century BC. The folks he cites take shots at camels in Egypt during the time of Moses and the Exodus (generally dated by non-radical scholars at 13th-12th c. BC).

It looks like he ignored a ton of evidence to the contrary. I guess that’s the “joy” he refers to: ignoring and making out that a bunch of sources don’t even exist. That doesn’t sound like true “joy” to me; it sounds like either 1) stupefied ignorance or 2) deliberate intellectual dishonesty. In charity to Jonathan, I will assume that the first scenario is true in his case. He doesn’t strike me as a deliberate liar. But woeful ignorance about biblical matters and biblical scholarship among atheists (especially the many who were former fundamentalists and who think that small sub-community is the sum and height of Christian scholarship) is both endemic and relentlessly pathetic and uninformed / misinformed.

As but one example of this rank ignorance, Pearce mentions Rebecca Bradley, who wrote the chapter, “The Credibility of the Exodus”, in John Loftus’ Christianity in the Light of Science. She wrote:

Equally damning is the mention of Job’s herd of six thousand camels (Job 42:12) at the impossibly early date of 2100 BCE according to conventional Bible chronology.

“Conventional Bible chronology”?? Way back in 1910, the Catholic Encyclopedia (“Job”), stated:

The author of the book is unknown, neither can the period in which it was written be exactly determined. . . . It is now universally and correctly held that the book is not earlier than the reign of Solomon [approximately 960-920 BC].

Protestant evangelical (“conservative”) scholar Gleason L. Archer, in his book, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago: Moody Press, 1964, gave his opinion:

Inasmuch as Job contains no references to historical events and reflects a non-Hebraic cultural background concerning which we possess little or no information, it is not easy to assign a probable date for the lifetime and career of Job. . . .

A distinction must be drawn between the historical period when Job actually lived and the time when this record of his ordeal was composed. . . . In general there are five main views maintained by biblical scholars today: (1) in the patriarchal age; (2) in the reign of Solomon; (3) in the reign of Manasseh; [r. c. 687-c. 643] (4) in the generation of Jeremiah; [c. 650-c. 570 BC] (5) during or after the Exile. [after 586 BC] . . .

In our present century there are rather few scholars even among leading conservatives who would venture to insist upon a pre-Mosaic date. . . . (pp. 440-442)

Despite all of this, Bradley somehow (inexplicably) thinks that 2100 BC for the time of Job is “conventional Bible chronology.” She couldn’t possibly adopt such a date if she actually looked at what Christian scholars held in actuality. The only way we can understand such a ludicrous claim is to be aware that atheists habitually assume that fundamentalist Christian thinking is somehow representative of Christianity as a whole (as I have been pointing out for at least twenty years now).

As it is, what she thinks is “conventional” in Christianity about the dating of Job is held by vanishingly few scholars, even among the most conservative and traditional (it’s an extreme, fringe position even among fundamentalists). The dates held by the vast majority of Christian scholars are within or not chronologically distant at all from even the claims of Pearce in his paper: 10th century BC (Solomon) or earlier (thus making Job’s possession of camels a complete non-issue).

As an archaeologist, Bradley should know far better than to make such a ludicrous claim. But misrepresenting Christian scholarship is the order of the day among anti-theist atheists. When your constant goal is to make Christians and Christianity look stupid and anti-intellectual / anti-scientific (and to foster wrongheaded prejudice against them), this is what you do.

Dr. Dewayne Bryant, in his article, “Abraham’s Camels” (Apologetics Press, 2014), blows all these claims out of the water. Here are his academic credentials:

M.A. in Bible from Reformed Theological Seminary (2000) and a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies with an emphasis in Old Testament from Amridge University (2017). He has additional coursework in Biblical and Near Eastern Archaeology and Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (2004-2006). He has participated in archaeological excavations at Tell El-Borg in Egypt and holds professional memberships in the American Schools of Oriental Research, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Archaeological Institute of America, and the International Society of Christian Apologetics.

I cite a large portion of his case from the article (with my bracketed geographical interjections):

Evidence shows that camels were known as early as the 4th millennium B.C., and domesticated before the beginning of the second. Biblical scholar Joseph Free surveyed the available evidence and concluded that the camel was well known in Egypt from earliest times, as early as the Fourth Dynasty [c. 2613-2494 BC] (Free, 1944). Michael Ripinsky notes that excavations carried out over a century ago established the presence of camels in Egypt dating back at least to the First Dynasty (3100-2850 B.C.) with additional evidence indicating they were known in Pre-Dynastic times (prior to 3100 B.C.) (1985, 71:136-137). Although the domestication of the camel may have come much later, it nevertheless preceded the age of the patriarchs.

Ancient texts mention the camel in passing, but do so in ways that indicate they had been domesticated early in Mesopotamian history. A lexical text found at Nippur [ancient Sumeria; present-day Iraq] known as HAR.ra-bullum, alludes to camel milk (Archer, 1970, 127[505]:17). To risk stating the obvious, one does not simply milk a wild animal. Another text from the ancient city of Ugarit [present-day Syria] mentions the camel “in a list of domesticated animals during the Old Babylonian period (1950-1600)”, suggesting that it, too, was domesticated (Davis, 1986, p. 145). A fodder-list from Alalakh [present-day Turkey] (18th century B.C.) includes the line 1 SA.GAL ANSE.GAM.MAL (269:59), translated as “one (measure of) fodder—camel” (Wiseman, 1959, 13:29; translation in Hamilton 1990, p. 384). Animals in the wild do not need feeding; they forage for themselves.

A cylinder seal from Syria (c. 1800 B.C.) depicts two short figures riding a camel. Gordon and Rendsburg state, “The mention of camels here [in Genesis 24] and elsewhere in the patriarchal narratives often is considered anachronistic. However, the correctness of the Bible is supported by the representation of camel riding on seal cylinders of precisely this period from northern Mesopotamia (1997, p. 121). While the riders on the seal seem to be deities, it nevertheless demonstrates the concept of camel riding (for illustration and discussion, see Gordon, 1939, 6[1]:21; Collon, 2000, Fig. 8).

Numerous discoveries of figurines depicting domesticated camels have been found from a wide range of locations in the ancient world. From the territory of Bactria-Margiana near present-day northern Afghanistan (late 3rd to early 2nd millennium) comes a copper alloy figurine of a camel equipped with a harness, now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Terracotta models of camel-drawn carts (dating as early as c. 2200 B.C.) have been discovered at the city of Altyn-Depe in present-day Turkmenistan (Kirtcho, 2009, 37[1]:25-33). A bronze figurine of a kneeling camel found in Byblos [ancient Phoenicia; present-day Lebanon] (19th-18th century B.C) is incomplete, with the hump (and its load) missing. However, the figurine has a slot in its back where the hump could be attached separately. Early in the 20th century, excavations conducted by the British School of Archaeology at Rifeh, Egypt explored a tomb and discovered a pottery figurine of a camel bearing a load of two water jars. Based on the pottery in the tomb, William Flinders Petrie dated it to the Nineteenth Dynasty (c. 1292-1187 B.C.) (Ripinsky, 1985, 71:139-140).

A rock inscription in hieratic (a type of Egyptian script) found near Aswan has an accompanying petroglyph of a man leading a dromedary camel. It is thought to date to the Sixth Dynasty (c. 2345-c. 2181 B.C.; Ripinsky, p. 139). If interpreted correctly, this petroglyph gives evidence of the domestication of the camel in Egypt roughly 2300-2200 B.C., centuries before the patriarchs ever visited. Additional petroglyphs in the Wadi Nasib, Sinai include a depiction of a man leading a dromedary. One author tentatively dates these petroglyphs to 1500 B.C. based on the presence of nearby inscriptions whose dates are known (Younker, 1997).

Finally, a curious piece of evidence comes from the ancient city of Mari [present-day Syria]. A camel burial (c. 2400-2200 B.C.) was discovered within a house. Ancient people often buried their animals, and this could hardly be explained away as a wild camel wandering into a home and subsequently buried by the occupants. . . .

The Bible records the existence of domesticated camels in the patriarchal narratives, but their footprint is actually quite small. They are listed among the very last items in the total wealth of both Abraham (Genesis 12:16) and Jacob (30:43; 32:7,15). They are mentioned as being used for travel by the patriarchs (Genesis 24:10-64; 31:17,34) and by the Midianites (Genesis 37:25). The Egyptians used them for transport as well (Exodus 9:3). Despite their use for transportation, however, the donkey appears as the favored mode of transportation for the patriarchs. In the ancient Near East as a whole, the same might be said during the early second millennium B.C.—the camel was known and domesticated, but not widely used until later.

Free makes an important observation that applies today just as much as it did a half century ago: “Many who have rejected this reference to Abraham’s camels seem to have assumed something which the text does not state. It should be carefully noted that the biblical reference does not necessarily indicate that the camel was common in Egypt at the time, nor does it evidence that the Egyptians had made any great progress in the breeding and domestication of the camel. It merely says that Abraham had camels” (Free, 3:191). Kitchen sums up the matter: “[T]he camel was for long a marginal beast in most of the historic ancient Near East (including Egypt), but it was not wholly unknown or anachronistic before or during 2000-1100” (2003, 339, italics in orig., emp. added).

Those claiming the absence of domesticated camels during the patriarchal age must deny a wealth of evidence to the contrary. Indeed, the evidence is both early and spread over a large geographical area. It includes figurines, models, petroglyphs, burials, seals, and texts. While some of this evidence is relatively recent, some of it has been known for over a century. Critics often claim that believers refuse to consider any evidence that has a bearing on the validity of their faith. It would appear that in the case of Abraham’s camels, the opposite is true.

REFERENCES

Archer, Gleason (1970). “Old Testament History and Recent Archaeology from Abraham to Moses,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 127[505]:3-25.

Collon, Dominque (2000), “L’animal dans les échanges et les relations diplomatiques,” Les animaux et les hommes dans le monde syro-mésopotamien aux époques historiques, Topoi Supplement 2, Lyon.

Davis, John J. (1986), “The Camel in Biblical Narratives,” in A Tribute to Gleason Archer: Essays on the Old Testament (Chicago, IL: Moody Press), pp. 141-150.

Free, Joseph P. (1944), “Abraham’s Camels.” Journals of Near Eastern Studies, 3[3]:187-193.

Gordon, Cyrus H. (1939), “Western Asiatic Seals in the Walters Art Gallery,” Iraq, 6[1:3-34.

Gordon, Cyrus H. and Gary A. Rendsburg (1997), The Bible and the Ancient Near East (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.), fourth edition.

Hamilton, Victor P. (1990), The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).

Kirtcho, L. B. (2009), “The Earliest Wheeled Transport in Southwestern Central Asia: New Finds from Alteyn-Depe,” Archaeology Ethnology and Anthropology of Eurasia, 37[1]:25-33.

Kitchen, Kenneth A. (2003), On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).

Ripinsky, Michael (1985), “The Camel in Dynastic Egypt,” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 71:134-141.

Wiseman, Donald J. (1959), “Ration Lists from Alalakh VII,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies, 13:19-33.

Younker, Randall W. (1997), “Late Bronze Age Camel Petroglyphs in the Wadi Nasib, Sinai,” Near East Archaeological Society Bulletin, 42:47-54.

The Website ABC Religion & Ethics offers the article, “Did the camel break the Bible’s back? Nice try, but no” (2-27-14), by George Athas (a Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity, who teaches Hebrew and Old Testament at Moore Theological College. He specialises in ancient Israel and is the author of The Tel Dan Inscription: A Reappraisal and a New Interpretation [Sheffield Academic Press, 2003]):

[W]e have carvings from Egypt of humans leading one-humped dromedaries from circa 2200 BC, and perhaps earlier. How did these camels get there from their native Arabia? These ships of the desert didn’t sail across the Red Sea. And Moses wouldn’t be born for centuries yet, so they can’t have opportunistically crossed at the parting of the Red Sea either! They must have swung through or close by Israel instead.

What’s more, we have texts from ancient Syria dated to circa 1900 BC mentioning people using camel’s milk. This is roughly the time Abraham would have ridden a camel through that area on his way to Israel. We have similar texts dated to the same period from Mesopotamia, where Abraham was born. . . .

I fear it’s not the ancient authors demonstrating their flaws on this one, but the modern ones. . . . The evidence is clear: camels were domesticated throughout the Ancient Near East well before 930 BC. . . .

Perhaps the Bible is more than a collection of moral parables. Perhaps it’s an account of God’s tortured relationship with humanity, marvellously retold by those at the historic heart of the relationship. Or is it easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for us moderns to admit we might learn something – even something divine – from our ancient forebears?

In any case, swallowing this headline about camels is little more than straining over a gnat.

Jews have weighed in on this debate as well. Orthodox rabbi and Bible scholar Joshua Berman wrote in The Times of Israel an article, “Yes, Virginia, the Patriarchs really did ride on camels” (11-12-20):

[subtitle] The New York Times was wrong: Archaeological data about the camel actually affirms the accuracy and antiquity of the Genesis accounts. . . .

The NY Times piece was an exercise in journalistic sin. . . .

[T]he NY Times article was not only sensationalist but incorrect. Camels in Genesis are right where they belong. It is true that camels were not domesticated in Israel until the time of Solomon. But read Genesis carefully and you see that all its camels come from outside of Israel, from Syria, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, where there is ample evidence of domestication of the camel during the period of the patriarchs. . . .

But what about the camels that carried Joseph off to Egypt (Gen 37:25)? Here, too, Scripture tells us that the camels arrived from outside of Canaan. And just as the spices they bore surely came from the east, so, too, we may surmise, did the camels. And while Jacob rode camels on his trek back from Mesopotamia (Gen 31:17; cf. 30:43), nowhere in Genesis does anyone ride a camel originating in Canaan. In the Joseph story, the brothers descend to Egypt exclusively on donkeys (Gen 42:26–27; 43:24; 44:3.13); that’s what people rode in Canaan. And thus when Joseph sends them to fetch Jacob, he provides them with donkeys and she-asses (Gen 45:23); those were the animals they knew how to handle. . . .

Camels in Genesis appear right where they should be in the patriarchal period — and, on that score, that’s all the news that’s fit to print.

See also:

“Did Camels Exist in Biblical Times? (5 reasons why domesticated camels likely existed)” (Megan Sauter, Biblical Archaeology Society / Bible History Daily, 11-12-18)

“Were There No Camels During the Time of Biblical Patriarchs?” (Mikel Del Rosario, Apologetics Guy, 12-1-17)

“Yes, Abraham Had Camels” (Alice C. Linsley, Just Genesis, 2-9-17)

“Camels: Proof That the Bible Is False?” (Christopher Eames, Watch Jerusalem, 3-29-19)

“Patriarchal Wealth and Early Domestication of the Camel” (Associates for Biblical Research / Bible and Spade, Summer 2000)

“Research: Did the Patriarchs Have Camels? Adulterating the Bible” (Ministry: International Journal for Pastors, May 1953)

“Abraham, Camels and Egypt, or, Where did Abram get his Camel from?: Genesis 12:16” (KJ Went, Difficult Sayings, 2021)

“Was the Bible wrong about Abraham having camels that early?” (Glenn Miller, Christian Thinktank, 4-18-98)

“The Date of Camel Domestication in the Ancient Near East” (T. M. Kennedy, Associates for Biblical Research, 2-17-14)

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I got into this pathetic exchange with one of the regular commenters on Pearce’s blog (and actually one of the few nice guys and non-insulters), Geoff Benson. He wrote:

I suppose I should look at the actual text of the comment you posted but I’m fairly sure that it’s perfectly reasonable to consider Dr Dewayne Bryant. I Googled him and there was absolutely no prompting to his name. He may be a nice guy but he has no claim to anything remotely in the way of credentials. I did trace his presence to, as I expected, an evangelical church of which he is pastor. I have little doubt that his ‘doctorate’ will be in theology, possibly even one he purchased. It’s certainly not a discipline connected with that about which he writes.

If I were a flat earther I actually could come up with arguments that appear compelling to anyone who is not familiar with the subject. It would rapidly become clear, however, that the better evidence was being presented by those opposing the assertion, and that would have to include the credentials of the people who were providing that evidence. Similarly it’s reasonable to assume that the better evidence on the subject of camels in the context of the OP comes from those who are qualified. In short, quoting Bryant makes me even more certain that the OP is correct, as you would otherwise have found a better authority.

And then twelve minutes later:

Exactly as I thought. No academic background.

I replied:

Yeah, always a good policy to read what you are responding to. And so you draw me in to comment again with this inanity:

[Dr. Bryant credentials; green portions added presently] . . . graduate of Lipscomb University, where he received a B.A. in History (1998) and a M.A. in Bible (2003). He also holds a M.A. in Bible from Reformed Theological Seminary (2000) and a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies with an emphasis in Old Testament from Amridge University (2017). He has additional coursework in Biblical and Near Eastern Archaeology and Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (2004-2006). He has participated in archaeological excavations at Tell El-Borg in Egypt and holds professional memberships in the American Schools of Oriental Research, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Archaeological Institute of America, and the International Society of Christian Apologetics.

Funny: one can look up Jonathan MS Pearce for his credentials, but one learns very little. He doesn’t seem to have a doctorate degree. I think (after he got angry with me for asking) he told me he had one article published in a peer-reviewed journal or one about to be published. Yet you sop up everything he says about biblical archaeology (obviously not his field). Jonathan is an expert about every subject he writes about! Relevant degrees be damned! Do you atheists ever tire of exercising ridiculous double standards?

And of course there are tons of credentials in the many people cited. But no matter. The atheist can never be wrong, about anything, ever. The Christian is always wrong, and usually an intellectual troglodyte to boot.

Kenneth Kitchen in particular is probably the greatest living biblical archaeologist.

A second person I cited is George Athas. He teaches Hebrew and Old Testament at Moore Theological College, specialises in ancient Israel and is the author of The Tel Dan Inscription: A Reappraisal and a New Interpretation [Sheffield Academic Press, 2003]). He worked with two other people on Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia: A Reader’s Edition, a work of massive biblical scholarship. He’s authored several other books about the Bible, too.

I also cited Orthodox rabbi and Bible scholar Joshua Berman: A.B. at Princeton University in 1987 and PhD at Bar-Ilan University in 2002. He has two books published by Oxford University Press.

Does that meet your exalted criterion (JMS Pearce being the exemplar of universal / renaissance man scholarly excellence and dependability)?

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See my follow-up refutation: OT Camels & Biblically Illiterate Archaeologists [5-24-21]

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Photo credit: OpenClipart-Vectors (4-1-16) [PixabayPixabay License]

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Summary: Atheists argue that it is historical anachronism & inaccurate to refer to Abraham & Moses & camels; that the domestication of camels in the ancient near east dated from much later. Wrong!: as I show.


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