Edom—Obadiah 1

Edom has a central role in the Old Testament. Although Scripture emphasizes the nation’s kinship with Israel (Deut. 23:7), Edomites later became a symbol of evil (i.e., Ezek. 35:15). The loaded descriptions of Edom and scarce historical remains have tantalized scholars, but discoveries in the past few decades in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan have provided more information about this elusive “nation.”

The Edomite heartland (Heb. “red”) was in present-day Jordan, with Naḥal Zered (Wadi el-Ḥasa) as its northern boundary. Wadi al-Ghuweir used to be identified as the southern limit, but archaeologists have now recognized Edomite presence as far as Ras en-Naqb. Nature established the eastern and western borders: the desert to the east and the perilous rift of the ˓Arabah to the west separated them from Israel.

Although the patriarchal narratives emphasize the shared origins of Israelites and Edomites (see Gen. 25:19-36:43), they also reflect animosity between Esau (called Edom, Hor, and Seir) and Jacob. More allusions to conflicts between their descendants appear in Numbers 20:14-21 in which Edom refused to allow the Israelites to pass through their territory.

The earliest extra-biblical reference to Edom probably comes from the fifteenth century BC if ʾi-d-má. On a list by Thutmose’s III is an allusion to “Edom.” The satirical Papyrus Anastasi (6.54–56; ANET 259) from Merneptah’s time (c. 1224-1214 BC) clearly labels Edomites as “Shasu” (“plunderers or nomads”).

Edomites during the Late Bronze Age had “kings” whom we might better understand as “tribal” monarchs (see Gen. 36:31-39; cf. 1 Chron. 1:43-51). The material culture from Late Bronze levels includes Mycenaean and Cypriot wares, indicating their contact with the West. However, the Israelite tribes west of the ˓Arabah interrupted their trade with the Mediterranean.

The development of the Israelite monarchy by the eleventh century BC (1 Sam. 14:47) not only blocked their corridor to the sea; it also brought subjugation. David must have been interested in controlling the trade routes that came from the East across the Negev (see 2 Sam. 8:13, 14). But Joab’s massacre did not deter Edom from looking for Egyptian assistance (1 Kings 11:14–22). The Old Testament describes the efforts of the Edomites to achieve self-determination despite their Judahite rulers (i.e., 2 Kings 8:20-22).

During Iron Age II, the Neo-Assyrians gave them military assistance to free themselves from Judah and to cross the ˓Arabah to the sea. An ostracon records a dramatic plea for help as Edomites overran the Negev (Arad Ostraca #24). The Neo-Assyrians sought to restore their economic trade with the West as they rebuilt their empire (see ANET, 282). Assyrian inscriptions mention Edomite kings and confirm their trade and agricultural prosperity.

Edomite encroachment on Judahite territory could be at the center of the Hebrew prophets’ diatribe against Edom, as also their attitude during the destruction of Jerusalem by the Neo-Babylonians (see Obad. 1). At one time, many assumed that the Edomites had been annihilated when the Neo-Babylonians exiled the Judahites. However, archaeologists have found evidence of Edomite continuity after 586 BC.

The destruction of their city Sela˓ occurred during a campaign by Nabonidus against them on 553/552 BC. A relief connected with that incursion has been found at a site near Talifa, challenging the assumption that Sela˓ (2 Kings 14:7; 2 Chron. 25:11, 12) was Umm el-Biyara in Petra. The Neo-Babylonians allowed Qedarite tribes to take over Edomite territory, followed by the Nabateans, who migrated from the Arabian Peninsula.

The description of Malachi 1:2-5 fits the cultural shift at Edomite sites. Edomite migration to the Negev continued during the Persian period, and the region came to be known as Idumea during the Hellenistic period. Archaeologists have found tax receipts with theophoric names containing Qos (their main deity). Sanctuaries to Qos have been discovered, and some religious practices determined. Hasmonean rulers conquered Idumea and may have encouraged or even forced Judaism on Idumeans in the second century BC. However, they disappear archaeologically after the second century AD, leaving as a memory their most famous Idumean: Herod the Great.


Crowell, “Nabonidus, as Sela˓, and the Beginning of the End of Edom,” 75-88.

Edelman, You Shall Not Abhor an Edomite for He Is Your Brother: Edom and Seir in History and Tradition.

Hasel, “Domination and Resistance: Egyptian Military Activity in the Southern Levant, 1300–1185 BC” 217–239.

LaBianca and Younker, “The Kingdoms of Ammon, Moab and Edom: The Archaeology of Society in the Late Bronze/Iron Age Transjordan (ca. 1400-500 BCE),” 399-415.

Velázquez, An Archaeological Reading of Malachi.