The Civilization of the Edomites
Nelson Glueck
Hebrew Union College

The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 10, No. 4. (Dec., 1947), pp. 77-84.

Note: Glueck is a Bible trasher who takes the view that the Exodus happened after 1200 BC, when the Bible says it happened in 1450 BC: "Transjordan taken place before the 13th century B.C., the Israelites would have found neither Edomite nor Moabite kingdoms, well organized and well fortified, whose rulers could have given or withheld permission to go through their territories."

However, Glueck does clearly state that the territory of Edom was entirely transjordan.

(The Civilization of the Edomites, Nelson Glueck, 1947 AD)

At the beginning of the 13th century B. C. a new agricultural civilization appeared in Transjordan belonging to the Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites and Amorites. They belonged to the Semitic groups that took possession of Transjordan perhaps in the 14th or early 13th century B.C., and probably partly absorbed and partly drove out the Bedouins, who since about 1900 B.C. had been the masters of most of the land. Prior to the 20th century B.C., the arable lands of Transjordan had been occupied by sedentary inhabitants. During successive periods of more or less intensive development, going back at least as far as 4000 B.C. certainly, their agricultural civilizations had risen and fallen and superceded each other, leaving ancient sites and indestructible artifacts behind to testify to their former presence. Archaeological discoveries may have confirmed the account in Genesis 14:5-7 of how the Eastern kings led by Chedor-laomer conquered all of Transjordan, by subduing and destroying one after another all the fortified sites which lay in their path, from Ashtaroth and Ham at the northern end to el-Paran at the southern end of the territory which later op became known as Edom. This civilization, destroyed about 1900 B.C., never again recovered from the blow, as a long line of ancient sites testify, most of which were never again occupied, or at least riot until after the lapse of approximately 600 years.

In the interval, particularly in the areas later designated as Moab and Edom, sedentary civilization of the Middle Bronze and Late Bronze periods, extending between the 20th and 14th centuries B.C., did not flourish, as it did to a larger degree in northern Transjordan, in the Jordan Valley and particularly in Cis jordan. It is significant in this connection, that neither the Egyptian lists of towns nor the Tell el-Amarna tablets refer to Eastern Palestine in the period extending from the 20th to the 14th centuries B. C. Edom and Seir are first mentioned in the records of Mernepthah ( cir. 1235-1227 B.C.) and Ramses III ( cir. 1198-1167 B.C. ). It may further be mentioned in this connection, that there are no archaeological traces of Horites in either the hill country of Edom or in the Wadi Arabah or in southernmost Palestine, unless under Horites are to be stood purely nomadic groups, such as the Edomites must have found and conquered when they entered southern Transjordan ( Genesis 14:6; 36:21, 22; Deuteronomy 2:12).

The Semites who occupied Transjordan about the 14th century B.C. soon broke up into natural groups. This was conditioned partly by the fact that they represented originally separate tribes or tribal groups, however closely related in general they may have been to each other. Fully as important, however, for the partition of Eastern Palestine into the kingdoms of Edom, Moab, Ammon, and the two Amorite kingdoms of Gilead, were the natural land divisions of the entire country. It is bounded on the west by the Wadi Arabah, the Dead Sea and the Jordan River Valley, on the east and south by the desert, on the north by the wide and deep and precipitous Wadi Yarmuk, which separates it from Syria. These kingdoms were marked off in the main from each other, traveling from the south to the north, by the wide and deep natural boundaries of the Wadi Hesa ( the River Zered), the Wadi Mojib ( the River Arnon), the Wadi Zerqa (the River Jabboq ), and the Wadi Yarmuk.

The main period of the development of these kingdoms during the Iron Age extended between the 13th and 8th centuries B.C., after which a period of deterioration set in, culminating in complete destruction in the 6th century B.C. These were highly advanced, strongly organized, internally well integrated kingdoms. The land was clotted with well built stone villages and towns. The borders of these kingdoms, which can now be accurately fixed, were fortified by strong fortresses ( Fig. 5 ), built usually on eminences and commanding a view of each other. The agriculture of these kingdoms was intensive, their pottery well-made, their commerce sensibly ordered, their literature in all probability of no mean order, if one may draw inferences from the inscription of Mesha or the background of the Book of Job. The wealth of these kingdoms, even under Assyrian domination, may be judged from the tribute paid to Esarhaddon. Edom paid 12 manas of silver, in comparison with 10 manas of silver paid by Judah; Ammon paid 2 manas of gold; Moab paid 1 mana of gold. The development and wealth of the countries of Transjordan, which existed contemporaneously with those of Israel and Judah, were very real, how-ever scanty the literary remains and memory of their existence have chanced to be.

The archaeological survey of Edom revealed why it was that a foreign group could not enter the territory of Edom without permission. The permission refused, the applicants for entry must perforce turn aside as the Israelites were compelled to do ( Numbers 20:17; 21:22 ). Strong fortresses barred the way on all the frontiers of Edom and of Moab north of it. The high, comparatively fertile and well-watered Edomite plateau ends suddenly in the south, with sheer or precipitous walls and slopes marking the abrupt fall to the desert of the Wadi Hismeh, which stretches to the Red Sea and Arabia. Edomite armed escorts probably guarded caravans which travelled through the Wadi Hismeh ( Fig. 6) and the Wadi Yitm to the Wadi Arabah and to Ezion-geber: Elath on the north shore of the eastern arm of the Red Sea. The main line of defense, and for all practical purposes the southern border of the Iron Age kingdom of Edom, was marked by a line of fortresses along the southern edge of the plateau, dominating the Jebel Shera.

The eastern border of the Edomite kingdom was even more strongly protected than the southern, its defenses being marked by a long line of fortresses situated on the highest hills in the arid, uncultivated region between the Desert and the Sown. From one end of the country to the other, it would have been possible to transmit fire or smoke signals in a very short time. This line of fortresses continued northward and marked also the eastern boundary of Iron Age Moab.

Sig. 5 Qasr el-'Al, one of the important fortresses in the eastern system of defence in the ancient Kingdom of Moab. (From Annual of the ASOR, Vols. XVIII-XIX, Fig. 37).

The north boundary of Edom was marked by the Nahal Zered (Wadi Hesa), and the west by the Wadi Arabah, both of them clear, natural geographical limitations. These northern and western boundaries were no less strongly protected than the eastern and southern, although there were not actually as many fortresses and police-posts. In the first place, the danger of Bedouin invasion was not great from the west, and was non-existent from the north. In the second place, the deep canyon of the Wadi Hesa and the inhospitable rift of the Wadi Arabah were in them-selves formidable barriers to would-be invaders. Nevertheless, strong posts protected these fronts also. The possibility that Edomite power once extended into parts of southern Palestine is suggested by a number of Biblical verses which definitely locate Edom-Seir on the west side of the Arabah. These verses reflect the Idumaean settlement in southern Palestine, where many Edomites settled after being expelled from Edom proper by the Nabataeans, who in time took over their former territory. These Edomites became known as Idumaeans, when their name was grecized. From their midst stemmed Herod the Great. His son, Herod Antipas took as his first wife the daughter of the Nabataean king, Aretas IV, thus completing a circle of history. Many of the Edomites who remained in their original territory were absorbed in time by the Nabataeans, just as those who found a new home in southern Palestine became Judaized. It is this Idumaean settlement in southern Palestine that the author of Deuteronomy 23:8 probably had in mind when he said: "You shall not abominate [consider as outside the pale of the community] an Edomite, because he is your brother," meaning those ldumaeans who had been Judaized and had become Yahweh worshippers.

Within its main boundaries, Edom in the Iron Age was a thriving, prosperous, civilized kingdom, filled with cities and towns and villages, with its economy based on intensive agriculture, trade, and, to a certain extent, industry. The passage in Amos 1:12 referring to Bozrah and Teiman as being evidently in the northern and southern parts of Edom, respectively, suggests the relative positions of Buseirah in the north, which is to be identified with Bozrah, and Tawilan near Petra in the south, which is to be identified with the Teiman of that verse. The Edomites were devoted to the gods and goddesses of fertility. Townspeople and peasants had in their houses crude pottery figurines, representing the deities whose good will they sought. Thus, near Buseirah ( Bozrah) was found a 9th-8th century B.C. pottery figurine of a fertility goddess, wearing a lamp as a crown, and holding in her hands what seems to be a sacred loaf of bread —or is it a tambourine (Fig. 7, left )?

The Edomite and other Transjordanian pottery of the 13th-6th centuries B.C. in itself bespeaks a highly developed civilization. Much of the ware is similar to contemporary ware in Palestine. However, there are differences, sufficiently large, to compel an individual classification. The distinctiveness of some of the Iron Age pottery of Edom and Moab may perhaps be ascribed to influences emanating from Syria via the trade-route that followed the "King's Highway" ( Numbers 20:17; 21:22), which has been marked by the same line throughout all the historical periods of Transjordan. The orientation of Edom, Moab, Ammon, and Gilead, for cultural as well as topographical and geographical reasons, may be said to be directed more to the north and south than to the west, that is, mainly to Syria and Arabia rather than to Palestine.

It may be emphasized with regard to the Iron Age pottery of Edom and Moab, that its beginnings go back not later than the first part of the 18th century B.C. Thus do archaeological facts bear out the validity of details, or of the background, of Biblical accounts. The precedence of the beginnings of Edomite and Moabite pottery, for instance, over those of Israelite pottery, has a direct relationship to the account in Genesis 31:31-39, which lists 8 Edomite "kings", who reigned in the land of Edom before the Israelites had a king.

It becomes impossible, therefore, in the light of all this new archaeological evidence, particularly when studied in connection with the deposits of historical memory contained in the Bible, to escape the conclusion that the particular Exodus of the Israelites through southern Transjordan could not have taken place before the 13th century B.C. It will be recalled that the Israelites begged the Edomites and Moabites in vain for permission to travel through these kingdoms on their way to the Promised Land. The Israelites were compelled to go around these kingdoms, and finally force their way westward to the Jordan via the north side of the Nahal Arnon (Wadi Mojib ), which at that time was the southern part of the territory of Sihon, king of the Amorites. Had the Exodus through southern Transjordan taken place before the 13th century B.C., the Israelites would have found neither Edomite nor Moabite kingdoms, well organized and well fortified, whose rulers could have given or withheld permission to go through their territories.

Fig, G. Overlooking the Wadi Hismeh from the southern edge of the Edomite plateau. (From Annual of the ASOR, Vols. XVIII-XIX, Fig. 12).

The relationship between Israel and Edom throughout much of their history was a stormy one, characterized by unremitting enmity and almost continuous warfare. The main cause of the discord between them was the struggle for the control of the strategically important trade-route down the Wadi Arabah, and the possession of the rich copper- and iron-mines which abounded in it.

Long before the advent of the Israelites, the presence of the mineral deposits in the Wadi Arabah was known and the mines exploited in all probability by the Qenites and the Edomites, to whom they were related through the Qenizzites ( Genesis 15:19; 36:10, 11, 42 ). It was the Qenites, who were native to this region and whose very name indicates that they were smiths, and the related Qenizzites, many of whom were also smiths by profession, who probably first imparted to the Israelites and Edomites information about the ore deposits in the Wadi Arabah; and who introduced the Israelites and the Edomites to the arts of mining and metal-lurgy. The Bible tells us ( Genesis 4:22) that Tubal-Cain ( a Qenite) was the first forger of copper and iron instruments. That the Qenites were at home in Edom is indicated by Balaam's punning proverb with regard to them in Numbers 24:21: "Everlasting is thy habitation and set in the Rock [ Sela] is thy nest [Qen] ". The pun on Qen and Qenite is obvious, and Sela is to be identified with Umm el-Biyarah in Petra.

There was also an ancient trade-route that led from Sela or Petra to the Wadi Arabah, then south to Ezion-geber:Elath ( or Aila as the Naba-taean-Roman-Byzantine site which took its place farther to the east, nearer modern Aqabah, became known later on), and westward via Qurnub to Gaza and Ascalon. This trade-route from Sela or Petra to Gaza and Asca-lon assumed particular importance during the Nabataean period. How-ever, it was undoubtedly of large importance also during the times of the Edomite kingdom and the United and Divided Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. This was probably the route used for slave-traffic between Gaza and Edom, mentioned, for instance, in Amos 2:6.

The wealth of the Edomites and the rapid rise of the Nabataeans who succeeded them may be partially explained by their control of the minerals and the trade-route of the Wadi Arabah. The prosperous periods in the history of the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah and then of the kingdom of Judah have a direct relationship to the periods during which they controlled the Arabah and a port on the Red Sea.

It is probable that David carried on the exploitation of the mines in the Wadi Arabah after he had subjugated and enslaved the Edomites (II Samuel 8:13-15; I Kings 11:15-16). The pottery which was used during this and all the remaining parts of the Iron Age, continued to be Edomite, just as Nabataean pottery continued to be used after the Romans had occupied the Nabataean sites in it. The exploitation of the mines in the Wadi Arabah was undoubtedly intensified during the reign of Solomon. Indeed, it may be said that he was the first one who placed the mining industry in the Wadi Arabah upon a really important industrial scale. Solomon, to be sure, had to contend with the guerilla warfare waged against him by Hadad, prince of Edom, who had returned to Edom from Egypt, whither he had fled from David when the latter conquered Edom (I Kings 11:17-19, 25). When we next hear of Edom, it was ruled by Jehoshaphat through a deputy governor (I Kings 22:47). One may assume, therefore, that Judah had retained control over Edom from the time of Solomon on. It was probably towards the end of the reign of Jehoshaphat that the Edomites made a raid on Engedi ( II Chronicles 20:1 if.). During the reign of his son, Joram, Edom revolted and set up a king in place of the former Judean deputy (II Kings 8:20-22). At this time the nation probably regained control of the Wadi Arabah and seized the port-city and industrial center of Ezion-geber: Elath, identified with Tell el-Kheleifeh on the north shore of the Gulf of Aqabah, the eastern arm of the Red Sea.

Fig 7. Figurines found near Buseirah (Bozrah) in Edom. (From Annual of the ASOR, Vols. XVIII-XIX, Fig. 19).

For about a century, Judah was unable to push forward again into Edom, which during this period evidently worked the mines in the Wadi Arabah. Edom, however, was not long to enjoy its independence. Amaziah of Judah waged successful war against it, capturing Sela, whose name he changed to Joktheel (2 Kings 14:7; 2 Chronicles 25:11-12). His capable son Uzziah completed the conquest of Edom begun by his father, it being recorded that he recovered Elath from Edom (II Chronicles 26:1.2; II Kings 14:22). Edom then remained subject to Judah till the time of Ahaz, when it regained possession of Elath (II Kings 16:6). After that Judah was never again strong enough to dispute Edom's control over the Wadi Arabah, though Edom itself became progressively less able to hold and exploit it. Elath continued to be occupied by the Edomites till the downfall of their kingdom in the 6th century B.C.

It is to this final period of Edomite independence, before succumbing, like Judah, to Babylonian conquest, that we assign the Edomite stamped jars found in Period IV of the excavations of Tell el-Kheleifeh (Ezion-geber:Elath). These jars were stamped with a royal seal in ancient Edomite-Hebrew characters reading: "Belonging to Qosanal, the Servant of the King" (see BA 1.3, pp. 15-16). Qosanal is a typical Edomite name, the first part of which, Qos, is the name of a well-known Edomite and then Nabataean deity. It seems likely that this Qosanal, who was probably an Edomite, was the officer commanding the district of Elath, and was the representative ( servant) of the Edomite king of the time ( cf. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 79, p. 13; Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution, 1941, p. 474 ).

Why it was that an inspired handful of religious geniuses in Israel and Judah developed the idea of one great God, and that the people of the Book has maintained itself to this very day, while Edom and the Edomites, and the other contemporary kingdoms and peoples of transjordan have long since disappeared into the limbo of the past, is explained by the rational as an accident of history, and by the religious as the result of the handiwork of God.

Bibliography: Glueck, Nelson: The Other Side of the Jordan, 1940. "The Excavations of Solomon's Seaport: Ezion-geber," in Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution, 1941. Annuals of the American Schools of Oriental Research, XIV , XV, XVIII-XIX.

By Steve Rudd: Contact the author for comments, input or corrections.

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