Edom | The Voice 12.22: May 29, 2022

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Esau’s loss of the birthright and blessing would significantly affect his descendants; they made space for themselves between the nomads and the settled areas of the Shephelah. The Edomites would make good on what they were given, and would endure in surprising ways.

Edom was the land inhabited by the Edomites, the descendants of Esau, son of Isaac (Genesis 36:8). According to the Genesis author, Esau departed from Canaan and took up residence around Mount Seir, approximately halfway between the southern end of the Dead Sea and the northernmost point of the Gulf of Aqaba in modern-day Jordan (Genesis 36:8). In Deuteronomy, it is revealed the Edomites dispossessed the Horites of this land (which would have been ca. 1900 BCE), and inhabited all of the territory between the southern end of the Dead Sea and the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba by the time the Israelites passed around them around 1450 BCE (Deuteronomy 2:8, 12). The Egyptians testify to the presence of the Edomites in this territory during the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1200-1000 BCE), and the Assyrians of the Iron Age also recognize Edom’s existence, even providing the names of some of the Edomite kings of the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. Thus, from around 1900-600 BCE, Edom, the land of the Edomites, was centered on Mount Seir and extended from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba to the south and east of the Shephelah of Judah.

While this land was likely more fertile then than it is now, it would still be marginal for agricultural purposes, providing very little in the way of food. The Edomites would be sustained by the two major benefits they obtained from their land: trade and copper. Both the Incense Route and the King’s Highway passed through Edomite territory; the port at Ezion-geber would have at least theoretically allowed for ships to arrive with trade with Africa, Arabia, and even India. The Edomites would have been able to obtain food traveling on these routes, received customs taxes, and would have been able to sell their three main exports: copper, salt, and balsam. Evidence has been found from the Early Iron Age period for significant copper mining at Khirbat en-Nahas which would have required significant administration, strongly suggesting greater political coordination than would be possible with a tribal coalition. The primary god of the Edomites was Qos, primarily known from some theophoric elements in Edomite names in Assyrian and Biblical texts (cf. Ezra 2:53, Nehemiah 7:55). Moses sang of YHWH revealing Himself to Israel at Seir in Deuteronomy 33:2, and Deborah sang of YHWH coming down from Seir for battle in Judges 5:4; thus very ancient traditions associate YHWH with Seir, and some suggest significant associations between YHWH and Qos to explain why we read and hear no discussion or condemnation of Qos in the Hebrew Bible beyond the generalities of 2 Chronicles 25:14-15.

Our understanding of Edomite history from the pages of Scripture is fragmentary. The Genesis author preserved a list of leaders of Edom who reigned before any king ruled over Israel (thus, from ca. 1900-1050 BCE; Genesis 36:19-43). The word used for these leaders is aluph in Hebrew, which is variously translated as “duke,” “king,” or “chief.” In its earliest days Edom might have featured a tribal confederation not unlike Israel would experience in the days of the Judges. Moses asked permission from the king of Edom to pass through his land on the King’s Highway; the king of Edom refused, thus suggesting Edom had coalesced and centralized by this time (Numbers 20:14-21). Edom did not seem sufficiently strong to oppress any part of the Israelite tribal confederation during the days of the Judges; Saul defeated them during his reign, and David subjugated the Edomites and reduced their king to vassalage, a condition which would remain until the days of Jehoram (ca. 1000-850 BCE; 1 Samuel 14:47, 2 Samuel 8:11-14, 2 Kings 8:20-22). Around 795 BCE Amaziah king of Judah would defeat the Edomites at Sela and renamed it Jokhteel (2 Kings 14:7, 2 Chronicles 25:11-13), but was not able to consolidate his victory into subjugation. Edomite liberation probably had more to do with Judahite weakness than Edomite strength; nevertheless, Edom would remain an independent nation until the days of the Neo-Babylonian Empire (604-539 BCE).

In the days of the Neo-Babylonian Empire the Edomites would commit hostile acts toward the Judahites, which led to significant prophetic denunciation and condemnation. Obadiah’s entire message was YHWH’s word against Edom for what they did; similar denunciations can be found in Psalm 137:7, Isaiah 34:5-8, Jeremiah 49:7-22, Ezekiel 35:1-15, and pre-eminently Malachi 1:2-5. The Biblical evidence would suggest if the Edomites were not actually allied with the Babylonians, they at least felt no compunction in taking advantage of what the Babylonians were doing: they participated in the destruction and devastation of Judah. Yet at the same time it seems the Babylonians oversaw or allowed the destruction and devastation of the historic land of Edom; no mention of the kingdom of Edom has been found in non-Biblical texts after 667 BCE. Perhaps the Edomites had agreed with the Judahites to rebel against the Babylonians, but when the army of Nebuchadnezzar II arrived, the Edomites betrayed the Judahites and did not come to their aid.

We may not know exactly what happened during the sixth century BCE, but during most of the Second Temple Period, “Edom” as such no longer existed. By the fourth century BCE what had been “Edom” was now firmly in the hands of the Nabataeans. The people formerly known as the Edomites moved west into Hebron and parts of what had been the Judean Shephelah, south and southwest of Jerusalem, and this land would be known as Idumaea, and its people Idumaeans. The Idumaeans would be conquered by the Jewish Hasmonean John Hyrcanus in 163 BCE, and he forcibly converted them all to Judaism (cf. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 13.8.1-6).

For the next 250 years, the Idumaeans would be looked upon with suspicion by Jewish people as “half-breeds”: they may practice Judaism, but they were the descendants of Esau, and the prophetic witness remained very hostile towards Esau. This condition was not improved by the most famous Idumaeans: Antipater, an official under the last Hasmonean kings and made chief minister of Judea by the Roman general Pompey, and his son Herod the Great of Matthew 2:1-18. Herod’s son Herod Antipas would be responsible for killing John the Baptist and assenting to Jesus’ execution (Luke 9:9, 23:7-12), his grandson Herod Agrippa I would execute James and imprison Peter (Acts 12:1-4), and Paul would make his defense and preach the Gospel of Jesus before his great-grandson Herod Agrippa II (Acts 26:1-32). It would not be inappropriate to read the hostility between Esau and Jacob into most of these narratives involving the behavior of the Herod dynasty toward Jesus and His people.

During the First Jewish War, Simon bar Giora devastated the land of the Idumaeans and slaughtered many of them (Josephus, Wars of the Jews 4.9.3-7); Idumaeans were also called in by the Zealots to help them maintain the Temple against the forces of Ananus, and they slaughtered many in Jerusalem, and held firm in the Temple until the Romans broke through (ibid., 4). The Idumaeans as a distinct people no longer existed after the conclusion of the First Jewish War in 70; some of their descendants may have remained as part of the Jewish Diaspora. Some later Jewish traditions would associate the Edomites with the Romans and Europeans, but there is no Biblical or historical basis for such claims.

The Book of Genesis may chronicle the story of individual people but always did so with a view toward the nations which would grow out of those people. Esau lost his standing but would survive on the margins; thus Edom was not a great player in the Levant, but survived on the margins for a considerable period of time. Judah could not forgive Edomite encroachment on their territory. It may have seemed that Judah won the day once they forcibly converted the Idumaeans to Judaism, but then they suffered under the rule of the Idumaean Herods. Yet in the end the fate of Esau was intertwined with Jacob; after the Romans devastated the land, the integrity of Idumaea was undone. They all suffered under the condemnation to which Jesus testified; thus all do well to find salvation in Him and His Kingdom alone!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Arabia | The Voice 12.05: January 30, 2022

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Few landscapes in the world prove as inhospitable as the desert lands to the south of Israel. Nevertheless, tribes of people have lived and even thrived in the land of Arabia throughout time.

“Arabia” generally refers to the Arabian Peninsula, the large strip of land extending south of Israel and Mesopotamia between the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. Throughout recorded history the majority of this territory has been desert, able only to sustain nomadic tribes of pastoralists which we often call the “Bedouin.” Only the areas in the southern Arabian Peninsula in modern day Yemen and Oman featured more rainfall and a more pleasant climate; Yemen was thus known to the Romans as Arabia Felix, and these regions were the main provider of frankincense used throughout the ancient world in religious rituals. In Solomon’s day Yemen was ruled by the Kingdom of Saba, from which the Queen of Sheba would come and visit him (cf. 1 Kings 10:1-10).

For our purposes we will focus upon the northwestern portion of the Arabian Peninsula: the lands directly south of Israel and Edom, which is in modern day northwestern Saudi Arabia, parts of southern Jordan, and the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. All of these lands receive very little precipitation; only on oases could anyone maintain permanent dwellings. Since the people were mostly nomadic, it is difficult to speak of the “land of Midian” or the “land of Amalek” like we would speak of Egypt or Israel or Assyria; their “lands” would be the areas in which they would roam to find places to feed their animals and survive.

People have dwelt in Arabia for a very long time. According to the Scriptures the tribes the Israelites encountered in Arabia descended from Abraham: Midian was Abraham’s son through Keturah; Ishmael would become known as the father of the Arabian tribes; Amalek was a grandson of Esau (Genesis 25:2, 12-18, 36:10). These Bedouin tribes in the Sinai and northwest Arabian Peninsulas feature prominently in pre-monarchic Israelite history.

The Amalekites proved a concern because of their proximity, dwelling in the Negev, the southern part of Judah which would not have maintained a firm boundary out in the desert (cf. Numbers 13:29). We know of them only through the Biblical witness; descended from Esau, yet deemed by Balaam as among the first of the nations (Numbers 24:20). The Amalekites attacked Israel while they were wandering in the Wilderness, yet Israel was able to defeat them through YHWH’s help (Exodus 17:8-16); because of this Moses will compel Israel to destroy Amalek (cf. Deuteronomy 25:17-19). YHWH charged Saul to complete this task, and he did kill many in Amalek (1 Samuel 15:1-9, 33), but not everyone. The Amalekites would continue to harass and attack the southern reaches of Judah and Philistia, including Ziklag when David was king over it; David attacked and killed that band of Amalekites (1 Samuel 30:1-31). We hear nothing more of Amalek after this, although it would seem Haman, enemy of Israel in the days of Xerxes of Persia, as an Agagite, might descend from Agag king of Amalek (1 Samuel 15:33, Esther 3:1, 10).

Midian and the Midianites are generally strongly associated with the areas to the east and southeast of the Gulf of Aqaba in modern day northwestern Saudi Arabia. It is not known whether we can speak of Midian as a tribe or a confederation of tribes. In Exodus 2:13-22 Moses fled from Egypt to Midian; Reuel (named Jethro in Exodus 18:1) was deemed a priest of Midian, and Moses married his daughter Zipporah. Since Moses is shepherding Reuel’s flock when he comes to Horeb/Sinai, it might well be that Sinai is not the traditionally accepted mountain in the Sinai Peninsula, but instead Jebel al-Lawz in northwestern Saudi Arabia; if that is the case, then Israel spent a lot of time in Midianite territory while wandering in the Wilderness. It would seem that Balak king of Moab was in a strong alliance with the Midianites, since he plotted with the Midianite elders against Israel and hired Balaam son of Beor to prophesy against them (Numbers 22:3-7). The idolatry of Baal of Peor was primarily about Israelites taking Moabite women, but Cozbi, killed by Phinehas, was a Midianite princess, and YHWH commanded them to destroy Midian for this offense (Numbers 25:1-18). Israel struck Midian violently and killed Balaam son of Beor who was among them in Numbers 31:1-24). Yet the Midianites endured. Zebah and Zalmunna, kings of Midian, oppressed Israel in the days of Gideon and maintained a mighty army; Gideon, his associates, and the Ephraimites struck the Midianites strongly and thoroughly defeated them (Judges 6:1-8:28). We do not hear of the Midianites in any significant capacity afterward.

The Kenites seem to be either a family within or a tribe among the Midianites. The Judges author identified the Kenites as the descendants of Reuel/Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, and spoke of them as living in the Negev of Judah (Judges 1:16). Heber the Kenite’s wife Jael would become famous for being the one to drive a tent peg through the head of Sisera, army commander of the Canaanites (Judges 4:11-22). Balaam prophesied that the Kenites would be consumed and taken away by the Assyrians (Numbers 24:22); nevertheless, Rechab the Kenite and the Rechabites also dwelled in tents in Judah throughout the monarchic period, receiving commendation from YHWH for their faithfulness to their father’s decrees in Jeremiah 35:1-19. Some Kenites, therefore, would assimilate into the population of Judah and likely remain thus to this day.

We can notice that the Scriptures speak less of these Arabian tribes once the Israelite monarchy is well established; from this we can conclude that they took advantage of political instability and caused distress and grief to the Levantine peoples until a strong centralized government held sway and kept them at bay. Whoever might remain among them would have continued to dwell as the Bedouin of the area.

A great power would arise in these parts of Arabia in the wake of the collapse of the Kingdom of Judah: the Nabataeans. The Nabataeans might descend from Nebaioth, son of Ishmael (Genesis 25:13); they seem to be an Arabic tribe which came out of an Aramaic cultural milieu. As the Edomites encroached upon Judahite territory during the days of the exile, it would seem the Nabataeans encroached on Edomite territory. With the local powers decimated, the Nabataeans took over the trade routes leading deeper into Arabia and its frankincense and myrrh. The Persians left them alone since they let Cambyses travel to Egypt in peace, but the Seleucid Macedonians constantly, and unsuccessfully, attempted to overcome the Nabataeans in order to secure those trading routes. The heyday of Nabataean power came in the first centuries BCE and CE: they conquered parts of Syria and ruled over Damascus and most of the Transjordan, as was prophesied by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 25:1-10). The “Arabia” to which Paul fled would have been this Nabataean Kingdom, perhaps even to Petra its capital (Galatians 1:17); the King Aretas of 2 Corinthians 11:32 is Aretas king of Nabataea, whose daughter had been married to Herod Antipas until the latter divorced her to marry his sister (cf. Matthew 14:3-5). In anger Aretas fought against Herod and destroyed his army. Over the next century the Nabataeans ceased their warlike spirit and took to the life of trading and agriculture, developing extremely complex engineering to allow them to maintain continual sources of water at Petra, a city which remains one of the great architectural masterpieces of antiquity. The Nabataeans would be conquered by the Roman emperor Trajan in 106, converting their land into the Roman province Arabia Petraea.

The desert lands to the south of Judah and Edom proved harsh and difficult but not entirely inhospitable. The Israelites met their God in those lands; YHWH might well have been served by some of those desert nomads. May we all seek to honor and glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry