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Edom (אֱדוֹם, Standard Hebrew Edom, Tiberian Hebrew ʾĔḏôm, Assyrian Udumi, Syriac ܐܕܘܡ), a Hebrew word meaning "red", is a name given to Esau in the Hebrew Bible, as well as to the nation that purportedly traced their ancestry to him.

Esau as Edom

The Book of Genesis mentions "red" a number of times when describing Esau, and has been alternate name in describing him:

  • "The first one [Esau] came out reddish (admoni in Hebrew) as hairy as a fur coat. They named him Esau." [1] (Genesis 25:25).
  • "Jacob was once simmering a stew, when Esau came home exhausted from the field. Esau said to Jacob, 'Give me a swallow of that reddish red (ha-adom, ha-adom [i.e. using the word ha-adom twice]) I am exhausted.' He was therefore given the name Edom ('Red' or 'Ruddy')." [2] (Genesis 25:29-30)

The Edomites

File:Arava north Map.jpg
map showing some of the major archeological sites of ancient Edom.

The Bible refers to Esau's descendents as "Edomim" or "Edomites". The Edomite people are known from history to have been a Semitic-speaking tribal group inhabiting the Negev Desert and the Aravah valley of what is now southern Israel and Jordan. According to Genesis, Esau's descendents were said to have settled in this land after displacing the Horites. The reddish sandstone of the region may be an alternative explanation for the nation's name to that found in Genesis. Their homeland was also called the land of Seir; Mount Seir appears to have been strongly identified with them and may have been a cultic site. The Edomites may have been connected with the Shasu and Shutu, nomadic raiders mentioned in Egyptian sources. Indeed, a letter from an Egyptian scribe at a border fortress in the Wadi Tumilat during the reign of Merneptah reports movement of nomadic "shasu-tribes of Edom" to watering holes in Egyptian territory. (Redford, Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times, Princeton Univ. Press, 1992. p.228, 318.)

In the Bible

Their original country, according to the Tanakh, stretched from the Sinai peninsula as far as Kadesh-barnea. Southward it reached as far as Eilat, which was the seaport of Edom (Deut. 1:2; 2:1-8). On the north of Edom was the territory of Moab (Judges 11:17-18; II Kings 3:8-9). The boundary between Moab and Edom was the Wadi Zered (Deut. 2:13-18). The ancient capital of Edom was Bozrah (Gen. 36:33; Isa. 34:6, 63:1, et al). In the time of Amaziah (838 B.C.), Selah (Petra) was its principal stronghold (II Kings 14:7); Eilat and Ezion-geber its seaports (I Kings 9:26).

Genesis 36 is dedicated to chronicling the history of Esau's family and of the kings of Edom:

These are the kings who ruled in the land of Edom before a king ruled the children of Israel. And Bela ben Beor ruled in Edom, and the name of his city was Dinhabah. And Bela died, and Jobab ben Zerah from Bozrah ruled in his place. And Jobab died, and Husham of the land of Temani ruled in his place. And Husham died, and Hadad ben Bedad, who struck Midian in the field of Moab, ruled in his place, and the name of his city was Avith. And Hadad died, and Samlah of Masrekah ruled in his place. And Samlah died, and Saul of Rehoboth on the river ruled in his place. And Saul died, and Baal-hanan ben Achbor ruled in his place. And Baal-hanan ben Achbor died, and Hadar ruled in his place, and the name of his city was Pau (Edom), and his wife's name was Mehetabel bat Matred bat Mezahab. And these are the names of the clans [the Hebrew word here is "alufim"; variously translated as "clans", "chiefs", "generals" or "dukes"] of Esau by their families, by their places, by their names: clan Timnah, clan Alvah, clan Jetheth, clan Aholibamah, clan Elah, clan Pinon, clan Kenaz, clan Teman, clan Mibzar, clan Magdiel, clan Iram. (Genesis 36:31-43)

If the account may be taken at face value, it appears that the kingship of Edom was, at least in early times, elective rather than hereditary. Deuteronomy mentions both a king and chieftains. When the King of Edom refused to allow the Israelites to pass through his land on their way to the land of Canaan the Israelites were expressly ordered not to wage war upon the Edomites, but to go around their country (Num. 20:14-21; Deut. 2:4-6); neither did the King of Edom attempt hostilities against the Israelites, though he prepared to resist aggression.

Map showing kingdom of Edom (in red) at its largest extent, c. 600 BCE. Areas in dark red show the approximate boundary of classical-age Idumaea.

Nothing further is recorded of the Edomites in the Bible until their defeat by King Saul of Israel in the late 1000's BCE; forty years later King David and his general Joab defeated the Edomites in the "valley of salt," (probably near the Dead Sea) (II Sam. 8:13-14; I Kings 9:15-16). An Edomite prince named Hadad escaped and fled to Egypt, and after David's death returned and endeavored to excite his countrymen to rebellion; failing in which he went to Syria (ib. 9:14-22; Josephus, "Ant." viii. 7, § 6). From that time Edom remained a vassal of Israel. David placed over the Edomites Israelite governors or prefects (II Sam. 8:14), and this form of government seems to have continued under Solomon. When Israel divided into two kingdoms Edom became a dependency of the Kingdom of Judah. In the time of Jehoshaphat (c. 914 B.C.) a king of Edom is mentioned (II Kings 3:9-26), who was probably an Israelite appointed by the King of Judah. It is stated further (II Chron. 20:10-23) that the inhabitants of Mount Seir invaded Judea in conjunction with Ammon and Moab, and that the invaders turned against one another and were all destroyed. Edom revolted against Jehoram, elected a king of its own, and afterward retained its independence (II Kings 8:20-22; II Chron. 21:8). Amaziah attacked and defeated the Edomites, seizing Selah, but the Israelites were never able to subdue Edom completely (II Kings 14:7; II Chron. 25:11-12).

In the time of Nebuchadnezzar the Edomites took an active part in the plunder of Jerusalem and in the slaughter of the Jews (Ps. 137:7; Obad. 11-14). It is on account of these cruelties that Edom was so violently denounced by the Prophets (Isa. 34:5-8; Jer. 49:7-22; Obad. passim).

According to the Torah (Deut. 23:8-9), the congregation could not receive descendants of a marriage between an Israelite and an Edomite until the fourth generation. This law was a subject of controversy between R. Simeon and other Talmudists, who maintained that female descendants were also excluded until the fourth generation, contrary to R. Simeon, who regarded the limitation as applicable in only to male descendants (Yev. 76b).


The Kingdom of Edom drew much of its livelihood from the caravan trade between Egypt, the Levant, Mesopotamia, and southern Arabia, along the Incense Route. Astride the King's Highway, the Edomites were one of several states in the region for whom trade was vital due to the scarcity of arable land. Edom's location on the southern highlands left it with only a small strip of land that received sufficient rain for farming.

Edom probably exported salt and balsam (used for perfume and temple incense in the ancient world) from the Dead Sea region.

Post-Biblical Times

Edom is mentioned in Assyrian cuneiform inscriptions in the form "Udumi" or "Udumu"; three of its kings are known from the same source: Ḳaus-malaka at the time of Tiglath-pileser III (c. 745 BCE), Malik-rammu at the time of Sennacherib (c. 705 BCE), and Ḳaus-gabri at the time of Esarhaddon (c. 680 BCE). According to the Egyptian inscriptions, the so-called "Aduma" at times extended their possessions down as far as the borders of Egypt (Müller, "Asien und Europa," p. 135). After the conquest of Judah by the Babylonians, the Edomites were allowed to settle in the region south of Hebron. They prospered in this new country, called by the Greeks and Romans "Idumaea" or "Idumea", for more than four centuries (Mark 3:8; Ptolemy, "Geography," v. 16). At the same time they were driven by the Nabatæans from their ancestral lands to the south and east.

During the revolt of the Maccabees against the Seleucid kingdom, a Seleucid general named Gorgias is referred to as "Governor of Idumaea"; whether he was a Greek or a Hellenized Edomite is unknown (II Maccabees 12:32). Judas Maccabeus conquered their territory for a time in around 163 BCE (Josephus, "Ant." xii. 8, §§ 1, 6). They were again subdued by John Hyrcanus (c. 125 BCE), by whom they were forced to observe Jewish rites and laws (ib. xiii. 9, § 1; xiv. 4, § 4). They were then incorporated with the Jewish nation.

The Hasmonean official Antipater the Idumaean was of Edomite origin. He was the progenitor of the Herodian dynasty that rugoled over Judea after its conquest by the Romans. Under Herod the Great Idumaea was ruled for him by a series of governors, among whom were his brother Joseph ben Antipater and his brother-in-law Costobarus.

Immediately before the siege of Jerusalem by Titus 20,000 Idumaeans, under the leadership of John, Simeon, Phinehas, and Jacob, appeared before Jerusalem to fight in behalf of the Zealots who were besieged in the Temple (Josephus, "B. J." iv. 4, § 5).

After the Jewish Wars the Idumaeans ceased to be a separate people, though the geographical name "Idumea" still existed at the time of St. Jerome.

Edomite religion

The nature of Edomite religion is largely unknown. As close relatives of other Levantine Semites, they may have worshipped such gods as El, Baal, Asherah, and possibly even YHWH. A national god named Kaus (possibly analagous with the Moabite god Chemosh) is known from personal names and from an altar inscription discovered near Mamre.

Identification with Rome

Later in Jewish history, it was the Roman Empire that came to be identified with Esau and "Edom" because of their frequent use of the color red in their banners and standards, and also due to their ruthless and often "bloody" reign in Judea. In medieval rabbinic writing, "Edom" is used to refer to the Byzantine Empire and Christendom in general (cf. the use of "Ishmael" to refer to the Islamic world).


For over a century, archeologists specializing in the Middle East maintained that there was no evidence of an organized state society in Edom earlier than the 800's or 700's BCE. Biblical minimalists touted this fact as one piece of evidence of the Bible's mythical nature and ultimate unreliability as a historical source. (Redford 305)

Recently, however, excavations such as the 2004-2004 UCSD dig at Khirbat an-Nahas in Jordan have shed new light on the history of Edom, unearthing artifacts and evidence of settled state society as early as the thirteenth through the tenth centuries BCE.[3] [4]

Fundamentalists have predictably seized on this new evidence to "prove" the total reliability of the Bible as history. More cautious appraisals by such secular scholars as William Dever, who believes that at least parts of the Bible are reliable as historical sources and that the minimalist wholesale rejection of the biblical text is reckless anti-scholarship, have pointed to these excavations to call for a more balanced approach to the Bible as a tool to be used in archeology.

See also


es:Edom fr:Édomite he:אדום (עם) fi:Edom sv:Edom