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Exodus Sidebar: Replying to Armstrong about Camels

Exodus Sidebar: Replying to Armstrong about Camels May 24, 2021

I recently posted my latest piece on the historicity of the Exodus accounts in the Bible, this time concerning the historical problems of the mentions of camels in the Old Testament. Catholic blogger and apologist Dave Armstrong has attempted to refute my claims with a post of his own, to which a couple of commenters on his piece have stated their approval. As Jim Dailey hilariously claimed:

I guess JPs camel argument won’t hold water.

Excellent riposte with the atheist citing JP as some sort of “expert” based on JPs culling of snippets about camels obviously written by crackpots.

And no, atheists will never tire of double standards. Remember, atheism is the idea that there are no real “standards”, only man-made ideas about standards descended from single-cell organisms through the twin magical forces of time and random chaos.

Well done. Masterful analysis.

Except it very much isn’t, and I really wish that commenters like this and Dave Armstrong himself were a little more honest and a little more skeptical or robust with their sources.

Armstong’s piece is rifer with personal attacks and rhetorical flourishes that don’t really cut the mustard. One example amongst many (e.g. Geoff Benson takes a hit!) is:

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,

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. Fair enough if his piece actually did what he claimed it does, but it very much, woefully, does not.

So, what were my claims? Well, from a number of, you know, actual experts, they were that camels did not exist in the places and at the times that the Old Testament Exodus accounts (and others) that referenced camel usage purportedly took place. The claims are anachronistic, and thus we have evidence of the historical frailty of the Exodus (and Old Testament) claims. Together with the whole host of other issues that I also detail, we have good reason to doubt the Exodus account (and the wider context within which it sits).

These claims were from the Tel Aviv Institute of Archaeology’s Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef and Dr. Lidar Sapir-Hen, archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, and archaeologist Rebecca Bradley. They are not confined to these experts. Indeed, these claims and others I will bring in (Bradley excepted) are not enemies of the belief system (given that Bradley is, like me, a skeptic). On the other hand, as we shall see, the sources that Armstrong brings into play are overtly pro-Christian, pretty much about as much as one can be, so confirmation bias will be at play not only with Armstrong himself, but with the sources he is employing.

Armstrong, even though his acolyte seems to think the above are “crackpots” (without any reference to how this is so, or even working knowledge of what they are saying), then uses a non-archaelogist (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. 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. Of course, convention used to be Mosaic authorship, but there you go. What is important is the date of subject matter, the date that the claims are set.

And herein lies the problem.

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.

I will now look at a couple of pieces of ancillary evidence and claims outside of those I have already given. But remember that I don’t think my original sources and claims need any further support, because I believe they already have far better provenance than the supposed refutation that Armstrong provided. The previous article is enough. I won’t quote it or reiterate my original sources. Armstrong failed to refute them despite his invocation of Danth’s Law.

Anyway. let me bring other recent journals and experts into play. Archaeologist Renato Sala in “The Domestication of Camel in the Literary, Archaeological and Petroglyph Records” in the Journal of Arid Land Studies, states in summing up the totality of Bryant’s sort of evidence:

Evidences of an early domestication in Egypt around the same time are debatable because [they are] based on findings possibly endowed of ritual meaning…

He continues:

In general we can say that during the Late Bronze domesticated dromedaries were fairly ubiquitous across Arabia, but still relatively few in Near East and Egypt, and even rare in Middle East. Certainly, here camels were already known around 1950-1600 BC, as witnessed by a Sumerian text found at Nippur from the Old Babylonian period, alluding to camel’s milk (Archer, 1970: 17); but a consistent presence can be suspected only at the start of the I millennium BC, when large herds are attested from excavations of the Iron Age Tell Abraq on the Persian Gulf, in the context of an intensive irrigation system….

In the section “Camel use as draft, pack and riding animal”, Sala says:

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.

In Egypt sound archaeological evidence of its domestic use is the statuette of a dromedary carrying 2 water jars, dated before 1200 BC (Redford, 1992: 277).

Sisay et al, in studying regional agricultural history, observe:

The dromedary appears first to have been domesticated in the southern Arabian Peninsula between 3000 and 2500 BC and it is suggested that coastal peoples there switched from hunting camels to herding them for their milk. The camel subsequently spread to Somalia between 2500 and 1500 BC, and then northward and across to Egypt in the first millennium BC. This expansion may have been connected with the growth of the incense trade.

The recency of the evaluation is important, and this is why I pointed out the reliance of the Christian claims on older older sources. In “Southern 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.

Finally, let me bring into play a book edited by Marjan Mashkour and Mark Beech, Archaeozoology of the Near East 9 and a chapter by F.G. Fedele – “New data on domestic and wild camels (Camelus dromedarius and Camelus sp.) in Sabaean and Minaean Yemen”. In it, he refences Christian biblical maximalist (someone, usually by agenda, who does their archaeology under the ideology that it will prove biblical chronology and claims to be maximally true) 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 (ibid.). Importantly, as far as Armstrong’s sources are concerned (p. 305-06):

More dubious still is attributing domestic status to camels depicted in petroglyphs [what Armstrong did in his piece] (e.g. Khan 1993; Younker 1997). That the 10th century was especially significant, as suggested by the evidence, is strongly supported by texts and imagery from the wide and Near East. The domestic dromedary unambiguously appears in two famous reliefs of a camel and rider from Karkemish and Guzana (today Tell Halaf) in northern Syria, presently dated to the 900±30 BC interval (Genge 1979; Hawkins 1980; Winter 1983; see also Gerlach 2000). In addition to their chronology, a combination of ideology, economic-political context, and she distance from Arabia gives them special interest. Repetition makes the camel-and-rider a standard motif, suggesting that by the late 10th century this subject had acquired iconic value from both its novelty and visual impact….

From about 890 BC onwards the Arabian contributions are repeatedly confirmed by Assyrian texts… Here the dromedary enters ‘history’ as an animal to be ridden, an object of prestige increasingly involved in tributes and exchanges. Immediately afterwards – mid-ninth century – it emerges as a uniquely important beast of burden, not only critical for the Arabian mastery of desert transport but useful in war… As mentioned above, this is the very timeframe in which the osteological evidence indicates a beginning of the dromedary husbandry in south-east Arabia (Magee 2007; Uerpmann & Uerpmann 2002; 2008)

That last paragraph is incredibly pertinent to the debate.

Another source, Donald B Redford (eminent Canadian Egyptologist and archaeologist) states in Egypt, Canaan, and Israel In Ancient Times (p. 277):

On the other hand, the society of the town as described in Judges sounds like that of the monarchic period,mor even later. And anachronisms do indeed abound, robbing the book of the credence one might have placed in it. Iron is common for chariots and implements (cf. Jud. 1:19; 4:3 13; cf. 1 Sam. 13:19-21), although historically it did not replace bronze until well into the monarchy. Camels are ubiquitous—in fact, the plot of the Gideon story depends on them—(cf. Jud. 6:5; 7:12; 8:21, 26); yet camels do not appear in the Near as domesticated beasts of burden until the ninth-century B.C.93 The author knows of kings in Moab (Jud. 2:12-30; 11:25) and Ammon (Jud. 11:13, 28), although these monarchies did not take shape until well into the first millennium B.C. as noted previously.

Finally, in “The Camel in Ancient Egypt” A. S. Saber observes:

Domesticated camels probably entered Egypt during the early increased trade, but the first historical references to camels in Egypt is in the 7th and 6th centuries B.C. in connection with the Assyrian and Persian invasions of Egypt. Lefebure (1906) mentioned that camels appeared in the delta about 700 B.C. with Palestinians, and about 670 B.C. camels are said to have come into Egypt under Asarhaddan. Since it is known that the Assyrians did not normally use camels in their armies, allied Arab troops may have imported them.

Remember, my claims in this piece are ancillary to what I already claimed in my original piece, and those were claims that remain untouched by Armstrong’s own piece that just badly misses the mark.

Conclusion

I could go on. 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. Together with the larger cumulative case that I am building up, this all leads to the very obvious conclusion that the Exodus accounts found in the Bible – and only the Bible – never actually happened. Just like the account found in the Epic of Gilgamesh never really happened.

Let’s stop all this historical special pleading just because we were born and brought up in a localised culture that took these things at face value.

If Armstrong was born in India to a Hindu family and culture, he’d probably be arguing the same thing.

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