Thursday, 20 February 2014

The return of the ancient camels

Old Testament scholar Michael Heiser also weighs in on the recent story of camel domestication in Israel. Understandably, he's a little tired of the monumental ignorance of those who think that this is a brand new story which somehow refutes the historicity of the Biblical narratives:
This actually isn’t new. The evidence for camel domestication in Canaan has long been a topic of discussion. The patriarchal narratives (e.g., Gen 24) suggest camels were domesticated in the early second millennium B.C., much earlier than this report. 
The article is written by OT scholar Joel Baden. Surprisingly, it doesn’t mention that there is good evidence for ancient camel domestication in the regions near to Canaan — including places from which Abraham came and the patriarchal families spent time. Is it beyond the pale to think the patriarchs could have brought a herd of camels with them, or traded for them? Why would that be unfathomable? Really?
(Sigh). Maybe I’m just grouchy today.
At any rate, here’s another excerpt from the IVP Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch about camels and historical criticism.
The paleozoologic, iconographic and textual evidence concerning the domestication of the camel in the ancient Near East is ambiguous, but it seems clear that the camel (including both the Bactrian two-humped camel [camelus bactrianus] and the one-humped dromedary [camelus dromedarius]) had been domesticated in lower Mesopotamia and southern Arabia by 2500 B.C. (Hesse, 217; Staubli, 184–85; Borowski, 112–18). R. Younker has recently discussed some petroglyphs depicting camels being led by human figures in the Wadi Nasib, Sinai. These petroglyphs were discovered in close proximity to a Proto-Sinaitic inscription found by Gerster in 1961, which he dates not later than 1500 B.C. Zarins (1825–26) notes that osteological remains from Shahr-I-Sokhta in eastern Iran in a context dated to 2700 B.C. clearly indicate a domesticated camel. In the Arabian Peninsula bones found at Umm-an-Nar and dated to the late third millennium B.C. would also support the view of an early domestication of the camel. Some bone remains have been found at Arad in an Early Bronze context (c. 2900 B.C.; cf. Wapnish), although it is not clear whether they indicate a domesticated animal. Looking from the angle of Jordan, J. Sauer has argued that the camel was definitely domesticated by the third millennium B.C. but that its widespread use only began to emerge during the final moments of the Late Bronze Age. It would thus appear that Abraham’s “camel connection” is not a good example for an anachronism but rather can be confidently explained in the context of either the early or late date connected to the patriarchal period, beginning around the end of the third millennium B.C. O. Borowski (113) has made the interesting observation that camels were instrumental in the establishment of desert nomadism with its change in lifestyle. The Genesis story of Abraham leaving the urban center of Ur and becoming a gēr (“stranger, traveler, man without an established residence,” Gen 15:13; 23:4) living in a tent does coincide with this function. (Emphasis in the original)
Given the that this confusion could have been countered simply picking up a standard reference such as the IVP Dictionary of the OT and actually reading it, Heiser's exasperation is entirely understandable.

As for me, I must confess that I am bemused by the fact that not a few critics of the historicity of the Genesis narratives seem incapable of grasping the fact that while there is no evidence for the domestication of camels in Canaan before the 1st millennium BCE, there is evidence supporting their domestication in Iran, southern Arabia and Mesopotamia around the middle of the 3rd millennium BCE, around 500 years before the time Abraham is said to have lived. 

And, at the risk of stating the obvious, the Genesis narratives state that Abraham came from Mesopotamia, while Jacob spent several years in the same region. Tellingly, the Isaac narrative gives no hint that Isaac ever went to Mesopotamia, and has no overt references to camels, which given that they were not domesticated in Canaan until centuries later is exactly what you would expect. It would appear that there just may be something to say in favour of the essential historicity of the patriarchal narratives after all.