Edomites: Archaeology Confirms the Bible (As Always)

Edomites: Archaeology Confirms the Bible (As Always) June 10, 2021

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and activist, who runs the blog, Daylight Atheism. He has written articles for AlterNet, Salon, the International Humanist and Ethical Union, Canadian FreethinkerFreethought TodayFree Inquiry, and Secular Future, the newsletter of the U.K.-based National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies.


In this article I will be responding to a portion of his post, “Let the Stones Speak: Part 2” (unknown date). He wrote:

The Israelites in Transjordan

The King of Edom

According to Numbers 20, while the Israelites were encamped at Kadesh-barnea, Moses sent messengers to the king of the nation of Edom asking for permission to pass through his country en route to the Promised Land. That petition was soundly rejected, however, and the “strong hand” of Edom denied the Israelites passage.

However, in a by now familiar theme, archaeology has failed to corroborate this account. Surveys of the ancient nation of Edom, on the plateau of Transjordan between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba, have revealed that the Middle and Late Bronze Ages were periods of little or no population (MacDonald 1992, p. 299). Except for some activity in the copper mines of the north-central Feinan region, there is virtually no evidence of human presence either sedentary or nomadic during this time. By contrast, both earlier and later periods are well attested archaeologically. . . .

Early Bronze sites are scant and appear to be concentrated around mining areas.

Following the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, Edomite population experienced a resurgence during the Iron I period. Small villages appear around mining and farming sites, and this theme continues into the Iron II, with larger, permanent agricultural settlements, slag piles from mining and smelting, and pottery sherds and charcoal datable by radiocarbon methods both dating to the 8th to 6th centuries (ibid., p. 297).

The situation with regard to Edom is best summed up by excavations at the city of Bozrah, apparently the capitol according to several biblical verses (Amos 1:11-12; Jeremiah 49:7-13). Bozrah, whose name means “fortress”, is identified with the modern village of Buseirah just off the line of a route called the King’s Highway (Numbers 20;17), almost due east of Kadesh-barnea.  . . .

Ancient Bozrah was a formidable stronghold, with strong walls surrounding a city and a central walled citadel. Unfortunately, it was not built before the end of the eighth century BCE, centuries later than the latest proposed date for the Israelite escape from Egypt, . . .

In short, at the time of the Exodus, Edom was not a settled nation, but an empty desert occupied by, at most, a few roving bands of pastoralists. The king of Edom could not have denied the Israelites passage, because there was no king, no nation. There was no “strong hand” that could have come out against them, nor were there “much people”, as Numbers 20:20 claims. (Note that a nomadic tribal people would not have fields, vineyards, and especially not borders, as Numbers 20:17 claims. Clearly, what is envisioned here is a settled country, with established boundaries and a sedentary population practicing agriculture, and this is precisely what did not exist in Edom during this period.)

The Jerusalem Post on 9-19-19 announced evidence that contradicts the above picture. Aaron Reich reported these exciting finds in his article, “Israeli researchers identify biblical kingdom of Edom”:

[R]esearch has uncovered the untold story of a thriving and wealthy society in the Arava Desert – in parts of Israel and Jordan – that existed during the 12th-11th centuries BCE.

“Using technological evolution as a proxy for social processes, we were able to identify and characterize the emergence of the biblical kingdom of Edom,” explained Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Ezra Ben-Yosef, who led the study with Prof. Tom Levy of the University of California, San Diego. “Our results prove it happened earlier than previously thought and in accordance with the biblical description.” . . .

Using a methodology called the punctuated equilibrium model, the research team analyzed findings from ancient copper mines in Jordan and Israel to create a timeline of the evolution of copper production from 1300-800 BCE. . . .

“Our new findings contradict the view of many archaeologists that the Arava was populated by a loose alliance of tribes, and they’re consistent with the biblical story that there was an Edomite kingdom here,” explained Ben-Yosef of TAU’s department of archaeology and ancient Near Eastern cultures. “A flourishing copper industry in the Arava can only be attributed to a centralized and hierarchical polity, and this might fit the biblical description of the Edomite kingdom.”

While archaeology had never doubted the existence of the Edomite kingdom, it was widely assumed to have emerged around the late eighth century BCE in the Edomite Plateau, located in Jordan near Petra and southeast of the Dead Sea.

“Before they built their capital in the plateau, the Edomites were a complex and organized kingdom, but they were still nomadic,” said Ben-Yosef. “They dwelled in tents. They didn’t have villages or cities, but they had cemeteries and smelting sites.”

The Edomites eventually did settle in cities on the plateau and built settlements along the trade routes, but these findings prove that they possessed a centralized system of organization long before they settled there.
Encyclopedia Britannica (“Moses”) estimates that the time of the biblical Exodus was 1290 BC (13th century BC). I accept the life and death dates of Moses to be c. 1370-c. 1250 BC, based on data presented in the same article, and the Bible.
Corroboration of the 13th century BC (i.e., the Late Bronze Age) comes from  Levy, T., Bettilyon, M., & Burton, M. (2016). The Iron Age copper industrial complex: A preliminary study of the role of ground stone tools at Khirbat en-Nahas, JordanJournal of Lithic Studies3(3), 313-335, 10-31-16. This article states. regarding excavations at Khirbet [or Khirbat] en-Nahas:
The ground stone assemblage from the 2006 excavations consisted of 454 artefacts . . . The artefacts derive from Layers 1-5, which were dated to the 13th-9th centuries BCE (Levy et al. 2014b). Artefacts were plotted in the field using digital surveying and Geographic Information System (GIS) software. As described above, many of the ground stone artefacts were found closely associated with evidence of smelting activities, such as slag mounds, tuyère pipes and furnaces.
A UCSan Diego web page collects 1366 digital photographs of the ongoing work at Khirbat en-Nahas in present-day Jordan (biblical Edom). It summarizes:
As a part of the Edom Lowlands Regional Archaeology Project the UCSD Levantine Archaeology Lab under the direction of Prof. Thomas Levy, has excavated three seasons at Khirbat en-Nahas (KEN). . . .
Recent field work at KEN and limited AMS radiocarbon dating have pushed back the dates for the Iron Age in Edom some 200 to 400 years earlier than previously thought (Levy et al 2004, 2005; Higham et al 2005). This has opened up new research questions that challenge models that explain the emergence of the Edomite state (i.e. core-civilization (Assyrian) dominance over Edom vs. local peer polity interaction with neighboring statelets such as Israel, Judah, Moab and others).
See also: “Some Thoughts on Khirbet En-Nahas, Edom, Biblical History and Anthropology: a Response to Israel Finkelstein” by
Thomas E Levy and Mohammad Najjar, in Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, vol. 33, no. 1, February 2006 [a PDF can be downloaded for free], and also the wonderfully interactive web page: “The Kingdom of Copper: Copper Production and Social Complexity in Iron Age Faynan, Jordan”, by Matthew D. Howland, Brady Liss, Mohammad Najjar, and Thomas E. Levy, March 1, 2021.
The scientific article, “The beginning of Iron Age copper production in the southern Levant: new evidence from Khirbat al-Jariya, Faynan,
Jordan”, by Erez Ben-Yosef, Thomas E. Levy, Thomas Higham, Mohammad Najjar, & Lisa Tauxe (Antiquities, vol. 84, 724-746, 3 March 2010) describes Late Bronze Age datings (and dates prior to the biblical Exodus and Joshua’s conquest) for several of the excavated copper sites. It summarizes:
These data relate to questions concerning the link between social and technological change and recent debates about the relationship between archaeology and history from a period when these data can first be linked to the biblical world. In the region of Faynan, these questions are specifically related to the emergence of the Iron Age polities of Edom and ancient Israel, since both had a potential interest in one of the most significant natural resources of the region. . . .
The two major copper ore deposits in the southern Levant, Timna (Rothenberg 1999a & b) and Faynan (Hauptmann 2007), are located along the margins of the Arabah Valley, separating Israel and Jordan. . . . At Timna, research showed that the flourishing Late Bronze Age copper production ceased in the mid twelfth century BC . . .
Timna is about 62 miles (roughly 100 kilometers) south of the Faynan area of current-day Jordan, near the modern Israeli city of Eilat: close to the biblical city was Elath, mentioned in Deuteronomy 2:8 in conjunction with Moses. It’s just to the north of the Gulf of Aqaba (Red Sea), and on the southern tip of Israel in the Negev. I briefly discussed this area in my previous article about Kadesh and the Negev desert. Now here are some of the estimated earlier dates of the excavated sites, based on carbon-14 dating (a “68.2% probability” and “calibrated using OxCal v.4.1”):
Faynan copper ore district
Wadi Khalid, Mine 42: 1500-1432 BC
Khirbat en-Nahas, Lab #OxA19041: 1373-1260 BC
Timna Valley and surroundings
Timna 30: 1689-1531 BC
Timna 2, Lab #BM2382: 1530-1430 BC
Timna 2, Lab #RTT5276 1441-1322 BC
Timna 2, Lab #Pta4121: 1430-1294 BC
Timna S18: 1411-1215 BC
Timna F2: 1386-1215 BC
Timna 2, Lab #GrH4493: 1370-1131 BC
The final “Discussion” section concludes:
Radiocarbon dates from three Faynan sites, including KEN [Khirbat en-Nahas], suggest small-scale copper production activities starting already in the Late Bronze Age (with dates as early as the fifteenth century BC, Table 1). . . . \
[D]uring the Iron Age I, Faynan was part of the lowlands of biblical ‘Edom’ and provided the natural resources that enabled the beginning of processes that led to a local complex society such as a kingdom (Avishur 2007) or chiefly confederacy (Levy 2009) described in the biblical accounts.
Encyclopedia Britannica (“History of Jordan”) states:
It was once believed that the area was unoccupied from 1900 to 1300 BCE, but a systematic archaeological survey has shown that the country had a settled population throughout the period. This was confirmed by the discovery of a small temple at Amman with Egyptian, Mycenaean, and Cypriot imported objects.
Thomas E. Levy and Mohammad Najjar, writing in Biblical Archaeology Review (July/August 2006: “Edom and Copper: The Emergence of Ancient Israel’s Rival”) provide an excellent concluding remark for this survey of ancient Edom and archaeology:
Can we say definitively that the kingdom of Edom had its origins in the lowlands of Edom and that control of copper was the chief catalyst for the rise of social complexity? Not yet. However, the excavations and radiocarbon dates from Khirbat en-Nahas have drawn the lowlands into the center of the debate.
We may look with new eyes at the reference to Edom in Genesis 36:31: “These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the Israelites.” This indicates that, for the Biblical author, Edom was a state with kings (or very-high-ranking chiefs) even before ancient Israel. Historical reality can often be found in the Bible’s snippets, in its minor clauses that are almost footnotes. This statement does not support a particular point of view. There is no advocacy behind it or many of the other statements concerning Edom, such as the revolt mentioned earlier. On the contrary: It gives Edom a “state” or complex society with a “king” even before the writer’s own country. There is therefore no reason to doubt the historicity of this almost off-hand Biblical remark. It most probably reflects a historical process—namely that a complex society or an archaic state of some kind evolved in Edom before there was one in ancient Israel. The Bible is telling us that Edom may have developed a complex society bordering on statehood as early as the Late Bronze Age (c. 1400–1200 B.C.E.).
Anthropologists, archaeologists and historians have struggled mightily to define and identify from archaeological remains what makes a state-level society. They are doggedly looking for the litmus test that will distinguish a state from a chiefdom. When the Bible mentions a king, we tend to assume we know how he ruled, how much territory he controlled and whether he could field an army. However, it isn’t so simple. In fact, the anthropological record teaches us that societies in which “chiefs” and “kings” functioned fall along a continuum of complexity that cannot be easily divided into neat categories. Thus, the dividing line between a complex chiefdom and a petty kingdom is unclear. And trying to make this distinction on the basis of a mute archaeological record is even harder.
With regard to the Edomites that the Bible says David fought and interacted with, as well as David’s role as king of ancient Israel, the question is not whether Edom or Israel was a state or a chiefdom, but whether, based on the archaeological evidence, these societies had the levels of social complexity needed to field armies, construct monumental buildings and carry out technologically intensive industrial activities. In these terms, whether a society is a super chieftain or a petty kingdom is relatively unimportant.
What seems clear is that, at least by the beginning of the Iron Age, Edom was a complex society with the ability to construct major buildings, defend itself with strong fortifications and create a technologically sophisticated organization to draw copper from ore and thereafter to manufacture objects with it. If it could do this, there is no reason to doubt that it could also field an army.
Edom was always a kind of tribal society, even at its most advanced period, when highland sites like Busayra and Umm el-Biyara were occupied in the eighth to sixth centuries B.C.E. But it was also a complex society quite early in the Iron Age, if not toward the end of the Late Bronze Age. Looking at a broader canvas, when the center of eastern-Mediterranean copper production in Cyprus collapsed, along with the rest of civilization* at the end of the Late Bronze Age (c. 1400–1200 B.C.E.), Edom’s copper production—which had flourished previously during the Early Bronze Age (c. 3600–2000 B.C.E.)—was resurrected. Control of lowland-Edom copper production at the beginning of the Iron Age provided a catalyst for the emergence of Edom as a “super chiefdom,” if not as a state supported by a complex copper-mining and processing apparatus.
In this context, the Biblical references to the Edomites, especially their conflicts with David and subsequent Judahite kings, garner a new plausibility.
Photo credit: Davidchocron (6-23-15): The treasury “Al Khazneh”, Petra, Jordan: in the land formerly called “Edom” [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license]
Summary: Adam Lee attacks the biblical statements regarding the Edomites: whether they had a king with whom Moses talked, & if there was any kind of organized nation at the time of the Exodus.
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