Evidence of Elusive Edom

Researchers may have found signs of biblical Edom—the kingdom of the descendants of Esau—in the Arava desert

As the descendants of Jacob’s twin brother Esau, the people of Edom have been traditionally connected to their cousins in Israel. According to the account in Genesis (36:319-39), Edom had kings that ruled over them long before Saul sat on his throne. The presence of a monarchy is generally evidence of a society with a strongly centralized government with an established capital. However, an Edomite kingdom predating that of Israel has long eluded archaeologists.

There is no concrete extra-biblical evidence that a king ruled in Edom in the Late Bronze Age or the Iron I period, nor archaeological evidence for sedentary occupation before Iron II. Because of this, many have dated passages such as Genesis: 36 to the first half of the eighth century B.C.E. By that time, the Kingdom of Edom was a firmly established and hostile neighbor to Israel, located on the Edomite Plateau in Jordan—near Petra, southeast of the Dead Sea.

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Researchers at Tel Aviv University, led by Ezra Ben-Yosef of the Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Easter Cultures, and Tom Levy of the University of California, San Diego have now uncovered new evidence that may help solve the puzzle of an early Edomite kingdom. Published in PLOS ONE, the study found evidence in the Arava Desert of a “high-tech network” of copper production within the Edomite territory. In ancient times copper was a highly sought after material used to craft weapons and tools, and the production of copper was highly complex. This advanced network of production suggests the existence of a centralized governing power within the region to oversee the process.

Using a methodology called the punctuated equilibrium model, the researchers analyzed findings from ancient copper mines in Jordan (Faynan) and Israel (Timnah) to study the evolution of copper production from 1300-800 BCE. The investigation found a significant decrease in copper in the slag—the waste of copper extraction by smelting—at the site, suggesting that the process became much more efficient and streamlined in later periods.

The researchers suggest that the innovations in copper production were the result of the Egyptian invasion during the reign of Shoshenq I (the biblical Shishak) in the tenth century B.C.E. This may coincide with the introduction of the camel to the region.

“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. “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.”

The new evidence suggests that before the Edomites built their capital in the plateau they were a complex and organized kingdom of nomads still dwelling in tents. Even though they did not build villages or cities, they had cemeteries and a complex network of smelting sites that contributed extensively to the wealth of their nation. Perhaps in the future, evidence will be discovered that this nation of nomads was indeed ruled over by a king “before any king reigned over the Israelites.”


A version of this post first appeared in Bible History Daily in October, 2019

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Eleazar in the Bible

The Edomite Stronghold of Sela

Who Were the Ammonites, Moabites and Edomites in the Bible?

Old Sherds, New Science

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