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When Were Camels Domesticated in Egypt & Israel?

When Were Camels Domesticated in Egypt & Israel? May 25, 2021

This is a continuation of a discussion with anti-theist atheist blogger Jonathan MS Pearce. Here are my two previous replies:

Abraham, Moses, Camels, & Archaeological Evidence [5-22-21]

OT Camels & Biblically Illiterate Archaeologists [5-24-21]

Jonathan has replied to the first article thus far, but not the second (which is a significant elaboration or expansion of the first, including a point-by-point examination of all the OT texts that mention camels and at least one “bombshell” resulting from that). His reply is entitled: Exodus Sidebar: Replying to Armstrong about Camels (5-24-21), and his words will be in blue.

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First, I’d like to express my heartfelt appreciation and deep gratefulness to Jonathan Pearce, for the opportunity to defend the Bible again, over against his and others’ outrageous accusations. As I have noted more than once, the question of all these details concerning camels in the Bible had never crossed my mind in my entire 44-year history as a committed Christian (40 of those as an apologist).

But now I am now on my third reply, and have happily discovered a wealth of wonderful and delightful confirmations that the Bible is historically accurate and in accord with archaeology (minus its most radical proponents), as always. Were it not for Jonathan’s absolute intransigence, closed-mindedness to the Bible or Christians and Christianity ever being right about anything, and his utterly inflexible stubbornness in defending lost causes, I would never have learned all of these fabulous things that I have in the last several days. His severe bias merely motivates me all the more to expose his egregious errors.

Consequently, my overall case concerning all this camel business is exponentially stronger now than it was after my first reply. That would never have happened, had Jonathan given up on this hopeless and misguided argument of his. Instead he chose to dig in and special plead all the more. And this is the blessing of apologetics: one’s faith gets strengthened all the time by seeing how the Bible is right again and again, and how its critics continually make fools of themselves, and flounder with weak, indefensible positions: “dying” meaninglessly on “hills” that are worthless. St. Paul writes: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools” (Rom 1:22, RSV). So much energy wasted . . .

Let’s examine, as we begin (on a lighter note), parts of Pearce’s article that descend to sheer silliness and folly. He complains about me: 

I think he might need to grow up a bit here and just be a little more careful with his own analysis before splurging these and other variously derogatory claims about me on his pieces.

Three paragraphs later, he starts in on the ad hominem and savages one of my sources:

Armstrong. . .  uses a non-archaeologist (Dewayne Bryant) as his main source – an extremely biased agenda-driven source – who himself relies in part on some outdated sources (Gordon, Free and Wiseman) from the 1940s and 1950s. [one typo corrected]

I already provided Dr. Bryant’s credentials in my first reply (twice, actually). Pearce makes out that this was all (or most) that I could offer, but I cited two others (and will offer several more in this reply). One was George Athas, who specializes in ancient Israel and is the author of The Tel Dan Inscription: A Reappraisal and a New Interpretation [Sheffield Academic Press, 2003]). He corroborated with two other people on Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia: A Reader’s Edition, a work of massive biblical scholarship. The other was Rabbi Joshua Berman, who is so out of the mainstream of scholarship that he has two books published by Oxford University Press.

Additionally, I had a list of nine lengthy articles on related topics at the end (one added later than the original publication). Yeah sure, they have a Christian bias, just as such lists in atheist papers have a strong atheist / skeptical bias. What else is new? We all have biases. It’s a wash and a non-starter. It doesn’t follow that an entire piece (on either side) is worthless and has nothing to offer. Better to admit them than to pretend they don’t exist, and then proceed to the argument. The name of the game is analysis of the strength of the actual evidence.

Armstrong spends the initial large part of his piece contesting what Bradley understood as “conventional Bible chronology”. This is a bit of an irrelevancy and speaks of smoke and mirrors from Armstrong. 

Thanks for the entertainment! This is what one does when one has no good response. The argument is utterly ignored and instead, is negatively characterized and dismissed, sans any rational reply at all. It’s a disgrace. Let me refresh readers’ memories, or show those who didn’t read my first reply, what went on here, and why I thought it was relevant to reply to.

Pearce had mentioned a comrade and fellow atheist and archaeologist, Rebecca Bradley, who stated about the book of Job, that it’s time period (with mention of domesticated camels) was “the impossibly early date of 2100 BCE according to conventional Bible chronology.” I proceeded to easily show that even a standard Catholic Encyclopedia from 1910 (“Job”) stated: “It is now universally and correctly held that the book is not earlier than the reign of Solomon [approximately 960-920 BC].”

Then I quoted a well-known Protestant scholar, Gleason L. Archer, who confirmed that virtually no Christian scholars would place either the book or the events chronicled in it, in 2100 BC. Yet Bradley thinks such a date is “conventional Bible chronology” [my italics and bolding]. This is altogether relevant to the question her competence as any sort of expert on the Bible and what Christian scholars think about it. This bias is a huge problem affecting research having to do with biblical issues. Thus, I referred to “Biblically Illiterate Archaeologists” in the title of my second reply. She’s obviously one of ’em. Scholars may be brilliant in their field, but often, as soon as they venture out into other territory, they reveal themselves woefully ignorant.

But the book of Job has, of course, no relevance to when camels were domesticated in Israel, because no one believes that Job’s city of Uz was in Israel. One article devoted to the question of where Uz was located, concluded: 

The first clues have to do with the raiders who destroy or steal Job’s herds and livestock. The first raiding party are “Sabeans” (Job 1:15). The Sabeans came from Saba, also known in the Bible as “Sheba” (see Post 14). Saba was located in southern Arabia, in what is now known as Yemen. 

All the clues point to the land of Uz being to the south and east of the promised land of Israel. During the lifetime of Job,  Uz seems to have initially occupied the north-western part of Arabia, probably near the shores of the gulf of Aqaba. Over the years, the expression, “land of Uz” was applied to a broader area of land to the south and east of Israel including Edom, Moab and Ammon.

As we shall see below, Pearce (and archaeology) agree that the domestication of [one-humped] camels began in southern Arabia in 3000-2500 BC. Job is described in the Bible as living in an area where he was raided by the Sabeans, who were from Yemen: precisely where this domestication first took place. Archaeologist Kenneth Kitchen dates their kingdom from 1200 BC. Job is described as having 3000 (1:3) and 6000 (42:12) camels. The Sabeans and Job’s camels are perfectly in accord with archaeology, since most Christian scholars think he lived in the 10th century BC or later. His having all those camels at that time and place is no problem whatsoever and poses no supposed ” difficulty” for biblical accuracy and historical trustworthiness.

The British Museum (not known as a flaming fundamentalist Christian outfit) produced the web page, “The kingdoms of ancient South Arabia”: which verifies the date of the Sabeans:

Saba is first recorded in monumental inscriptions that date from the eighth century BC, although recent evidence suggests that the kingdom may have had its beginnings as early as the tenth century BC, a date which is often given for the reign of King Solomon.

We should be talking about the archaeological evidence. Pearce does some of that, but it should have been all he did. But his case is greatly weakened by the fact that he is unaware even of the basic positions in the debate that I have taken.

I won’t quote Armstrong’s sources much because I don’t think they are worth much and simply amount to either “there is evidence that Egyptian people knew that camels existed at this point”, or “they existed in other contemporaneous geographies”. Yes, but this is not the point. The point is whether they were domesticated in Egypt (not elsewhere), and not whether Egyptians knew the animals existed. And, to this core claim, Armstrong’s supposedly refutational sources fall well short. Go and read his piece from the link above for full understanding of his position.

This is pretty much the sum total of his “interaction” with all the many evidences I brought to bear. I can’t wait to see Jonathan’s response to my second reply (not to mention this one). Pearce resorts to the old and tired tactic of simply repeating what he already argued (that I am already quite well aware of), as if this gives his pitifully weak argument more force. This is the logical fallacy ad nauseam or ad infinitum or “argument by repetition”. In doing so, he would have definitely failed any junior high debating class. 

He cites Archaeologist Renato Sala inThe Domestication of Camel in the Literary, Archaeological and Petroglyph Recordsin the Journal of Arid Land Studies, stating:

The Bible quotes its use in Near East as riding and pack animal from the start of the II millennium. Actually such date is not yet supported by archaeological findings that radiocarbon date its early presence in Israel between XII and IX BC.

Yes, of course. Duh! This is my stated position in both papers, In fact, I am even more “liberal” in my interpretation than this guy. I accept the late 10th century or beginning of the 9th BC as the date of the first widespread domestication of the camel in Israel, but he is arguing that it was as early as the 12th c. BC. So that is some argument Pearce produces, where the scholar he cites is more “conservative” (earlier domestication) than I am myself! I cited Rabbi Joshua Berman in my first reply (in agreement, as most supporting citations function): “It is true that camels were not domesticated in Israel until the time of Solomon.”

Solomon (like his father David) lived in the 10th century BC. But Dr. Sala advocates a 12th century date for domesticated camels in Israel. So again, my source, an Orthodox rabbi was (as in my own view) more “liberal” than Pearce’s. Pearce continues with his juggernaut argument that (far from refuting me) agrees with what I have already stated several times:

The recency of the evaluation is important, and this is why I pointed out the reliance of the Christian claims on older older sources. InSouthern Levant: Evidence from the Aravah Valley, Sapir-Hen and Ben-Yosef state (in the context of the Levant area):

It was recently suggested that the introduction of the camel to the southern Levant occurred in the early Iron Age (late 2nd-early 1st millennia BCE). Our study of faunal remains from Iron Age sites at Timna, together with previous studies of Late Bronze and Iron Age sites at Timna and Wadi Faynan, enable us to pinpoint this event more precisely. The new evidence indicates that the first significant appearance of camels in the Aravah Valley was not earlier than the last third of the 10th century BCE. This date accords with data from the Negev and the settled lands further to the north when the low chronology is applied to the early Iron IIA.

The Aravah or Arabah Valley is “two stretches of depressed ground extending north and south of the Dead Sea. The biblical Arabah, except in one instance, refers to the northern Arabah, i.e., the Jordan Valley from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea (which is also known as the “Sea of the Arabah”).” (“The Arabah”: Jewish Virtual Library)

This is exactly what I argued (in agreement)  in my second reply, writing:

[T]here is nothing in the Bible to suggest that this domestication [of camels in Israel] took place before the 9th or possibly late 10th century BC. . . . 1 Samuel 27:9 states that David took some camels as spoils, but doesn’t say how many. They may have been very few, for all we know; hence would not likely show up in archaeological digs. . . . The big influx of camels into Israel according to the Bible is described in 1 Chronicles 5:21: where the Israelites “carried off fifty thousand . . . camels” from the Hagrites. . . . This was “in the days of Jerobo’am king of Israel” ([1 Chronicles] 5:17).  Jeroboam was the first king of the northern kingdom of Israel (as opposed to Judah). He reigned for 22 years, sometime in the last third of the 10th century BC. In other words, this was right before the first archaeological evidence of widespread camel use in Israel, in the 9th century BC.

We just saw in the previous citation describing these archaeologists’ opinion that the first camel bones in Israel date from “the last third of the 10th century BCE or later” and now, lo and behold, this despised Bible states precisely the same thing (once we add in — from history — when Jeroboam reigned as king): it was in the last third of the 10th century. That’s when the fifty thousand camels were taken as plunder, and presumably serious domestication and breeding started to occur.

This is clearly a vindication of the Bible and an embarrassment for those making or parroting these spurious anti-biblical claims.

Once again, Pearce’s favorite archaeologists agree with the Bible and my position. The Hagrites: from whom the Israelites got 50,000 camels, lived east of Gilead across the river Jordan from Israel in present-day Jordan; in other words, close to where Sapir-Hen and Ben-Yosef say was the area with “the first significant appearance of camels”. Thus the Bible has the time exactly correct (the same thirty years that the two archaeologists mention) and the general location as well. What more can one ask for? We even have the story of how widespread camel domestication in Israel commenced. Pearce then cites another source who confirms my stated position yet again (by this point, Pearce is literally strengthening my own argument for me: thanks!):

[H]e refences Christian biblical maximalist . . . Kenneth Kitchen as seeing camels in desert travel use in the Levant as “apparent by 1200 BC” (p. 305, referencing Kitchen 1997). Which is to say that Kitchen, who Armstrong’s source quotes, himself favours my position. This chapter shows that camel bones are only found after about 1000 BCE in the area, thus indicating more common domesticated usage from then on . . . 

Exactly: after 1000 BC in Israel (during the reigns of David, Solomon, and Jeroboam): this is my stated position. How many times must I reiterate it before Pearce will get it? Kitchen (like the famous William Albright) opts for 1200 BC, so he (and Pearce) take a more “conservative” view than I do myself. Pearce then quibbles with some of the data I produced about camel domestication in various areas (without ever citing my actual arguments). He ignores mine, so I will return the favor. I never bow to double standards.

Now that the date of domesticated camels in Israel is out of the way (no disagreement there), one main thing in this debate is left to determine: when such use of camels was present in Egypt: since this is where Abraham first acquired camels, according to the biblical account. He “flourished early 2nd millennium BCE” according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Therefore, we have to show that this use of camels was present in Egypt before around 2000 BC, when the Bible states that Pharaoh of Egypt gave Abraham camels (Gen 12:16), or else the Bible is guilty of anachronism (one of the skeptics’ favorite words), as Pearce’s skeptical claim would have it. In the article, “The Date of Camel Domestication in the Ancient Near East” T. [Titus] M. Kennedy states:

[E]vidence for camel domestication may be found even into the 3rd millennium BC. A second set of relevant camel petroglyphs in Egypt come from a rock carving near Aswan and Gezireh in Upper Egypt. This carving depicts a man leading a dromedary camel with a rope, along with 7 hieratic characters to the left of the man.

The entire carving was dated to the 6th Dynasty of Egypt, ca. 2345-2181 BC, based on the inscription, the style, and the patina. 27 This places the use of domesticated camels in Egypt at least as early as ca. 2200 BC. Other objects from Egypt include a limestone container, missing the lid, in the shape of a lying dromedary carrying a burden from a First Dynasty [c. 3218–3035 BC] tomb at Abusir el-Meleq, 28

Footnote 27: Ripinsky [Michael], 1985, [“The Camel in Dynastic Egypt”],  Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 71, 138.

Footnote 28: Ripinsky, ibid., 71, 136.

If this is true, it easily explains the Pharaoh giving Abraham camels, as the two pieces of evidence predate that event by some 200-350 years and 1100-1200 years. Judah Landa adds:

But how did the Pharaoh of Egypt get his hands on camels, which did not even exist in the wild in his land? Most likely Pharaoh obtained these exotic animals either as a gift from an Arabian camel herder or he traded/bartered for these uniquely capable and useful creatures. I say ‘Arabian’ because by all accounts (to be discussed later) the earliest domestication of the Dromedary camel occurred on the Southern Arabian Peninsula, a point also made by the authors of the TAU report. . . .

Combining the genetic data with the historical and archaeological evidence leads to one focus of domestication for the Dromedary in the Southern Arabia Peninsula sometime between 3000 and 2500 BCE, and another focus of domestication for the Bactrian in Eastern Central Asia at about 2000 BCE. (“Camels in the Bible”, Jewish Bible Quarterly)

Pearce agrees with the date of 3000-2500 BC in southern Arabia, through one of the sources he cites. The article, “Ancient Egyptian Trade” (Ancient Egypt Wiki, 2-5-14) verifies trade with southern Arabia to roughly the time of Abraham:

The oldest known expedition to the Land of Punt was organized by Sahure [c. 2465-c. 2325 BC], which apparently yielded a quantity of myrrh, along with malachite and electrum. Around 1950 BCE, in the reign of Mentuhotep III, an officer named Hennu made one or more voyages to Punt.

Some scholars locate Punt in southern Arabia, but there is much dispute about it (see a 154-page thesis about this matter). Punt could have also served as a “middle man” trade-wise, between Egypt and Arabia.

“Trade History of the Silk Road, Spice & Incense Routes” notes ancient trade between Egypt and southern Arabia:

The demands for scents and incense by the empires of antiquity, such as Egypt, Rome and Babylon, made Arabia one of the oldest trade centers of the world.

Myrrh, a reddish-brown resinous material collected from the dried sap of certain trees, was a product traded along the Incense Route. The original myrrh species is Commiphora myrrha, which is native to Yemen [southwest Arabian peninsula], Somalia, and the eastern parts of Ethiopia. . . . Myrrh originated from the Arabian Peninsula, where the gum resins were first collected. Its trade route reached Jerusalem and Egypt from modern Oman (then known as the Dhofar region) [southeast Arabian peninsula] and Yemen, following the Red Sea coast of Arabia. . . . The Ancient Egyptians imported large amounts as far back as 3000 BCE. Myrrh was to embalm the dead, as an antiseptic, and burned it for religious sacrifice (archeologists shiny black or dark brown deposit that analysis believe is chemically closest to myrrh).

So if we know this trade occurred, then it is quite possible (it certainly can’t be ruled out) for domesticated camels (the first ones thought to be in this area) to have reached Egypt already by the time of Abraham (around 2000 BC).

Pearce’s own source archaeologist Renato Sala also provides evidence of domesticated camels in Egypt well before the time of Abraham’s visit and his receiving a gift of camels from the Pharaoh:

More significant are other findings pointing to the presence, around 3000 BC, of domesticated dromedaries in the coastal regions of SE-Arabia and in Egypt, probably for milking purpose (Bulliet, 1975: 49) . . . 

Some petroglyph representations of men leading dromedaries, exceptionally dated by juxtaposed inscriptions, testify the presence of domesticated camels in the region just [a] few centuries later: near Aswan (Upper Egypt) such scene is accompanied with 7 hieratic characters dated to the VI dynasty (2345-2181 BC) . . . [my bolding and italics]

Pearce — exhibiting his usual profound lack of even semi-scholarly objectivity — cited parts of this article that were more agreeable to his views (can’t be too selective!), and ignored / didn’t cite the portions (such as the two directly above) that fit quite nicely with mine, and the biblical view: in fact, rather dramatically confirm my position. And, by a delicious and comical irony, he blasts one of my sources because he is a Christian, and chides him for relying in part on some outdated sources (Gordon, Free and Wiseman) from the 1940s and 1950s.” 

I guess he didn’t notice that his own source Renato Sala also cited Christian archaeologist Joseph P. Free (1911-1974) — and the same exact work my person cited, from 1944 –, and also includes among his footnoted sources G. Gerstner’s 1961 book, Sinai (just two years removed from the 1950s). Real scholars — or at least researchers who attempt to be objective and not merely agenda-driven — will use a good source no matter how old it is, and without prejudice against a person’s religious affiliation.

Another of his sources (Sisay et al) — free from Pearce’s chronological snobbery –, also cites older materials: Bhargva et all (1965), Leese (1927), Marex (1954), Singh (1963 and 1966), Yasin and Waheed (1957), and Zeuner (1963). Maybe Pearce can now remove this stupid piece of empty polemics from his ever-growing roster, and just stick to the arguments at hand. One can only hope (beyond hope) . . . 

The broad point is this: archeology, and more pertinently modern archaeology, does not support the biblically maximalist view or support the historical accuracy of the Old Testament accounts. Conversely, however, archaeology and archaeolozoology strongly support the thesis that the Bible contains historical inaccuracies (in this case concerning the use of camels in biblical accounts) whereby the authors are anachronistically retrofitting details into the stories that were simply impossible. This then casts doubts on the wider claims of veracity for said accounts.

Sheer nonsense, as I have shown over and over. Nothing that Pearce has presented regarding camels has cast any serious doubt at all on biblical accuracy, and I have, in response, produced biblical indications of extraordinary accuracy: remarkably in line with archaeological time frames and locations. Fair-minded readers with an open mind, will readily see this. But the skeptics and atheists mostly will not, and will go on believing what they did before, in the face of much contradictory evidence against the anti-Bible position that Pearce lays out.

As the old saying goes: “a man convinced against his will retains his original belief still.”

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Photo credit: Wael El Sisi (10-17-13) [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]

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Summary: When were camels domesticated in Egypt & Israel? I provide many evidences that the Bible is harmonious with archaeology regarding domestication of camels in the ancient near east.

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