(ee' duhm) The area southeast and southwest of the Dead Sea, on opposite sides of the Arabah, was known as Edom in biblical times and was the home of the Edomites. The name “Edom” derives from a Semitic root which means “red” or “ruddy” and characterizes the red sandstone terrain of much of the area in question. Moreover, the Edomite area was largely “wilderness”—semi-desert, not very conducive to agriculture—and many of the inhabitants were semi-nomads. Thus the boundaries of Edom would have been rather ill-defined. Yet not all of Edom was wilderness; the vicinity of present-day Tafileh and Buseireh, east of the Arabah, is fairly well watered, cultivable land, and would have boasted numerous villages during Old Testament times. This would have been the center of Edomite population. Buseireh is situated on the ruins of ancient Bozrah, the capital of Edom. Note that the modern name, “Buseireh,” preserves memory of the ancient one, “Bozrah.”
Most of the biblical passages pertaining to Edom refer to this Edomite center east of the Arabah.
Isaiah 63:1, for example, speaks of one that “cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah, glorious in his apparel, travelling in the greatness of his strength.” (See also
Amos 1:11-12). Yet there are other passages which presuppose that the territory west of the Arabah, south of the Judean hill country and separating Judah from the Gulf of Aqaba, was also part of Edom. See especially the description of Judah's boundary in
Numbers 34:3-4 and
Joshua 15:1-3, where Judah's south side is described as extending “even to the border of Edom the wilderness of Zin.” Certain of the tribal groups which ranged this wilderness area south of Judah are listed in the Edomite genealogy of
Genesis 36:1. In New Testament times, even the southern end of the Judean hill country (south of approximately Hebron) was known officially as Idumea (Edom).
The “land of Seir” seems to be synonymous with Edom in some passages (Genesis 32:3;
Judges 5:4). Egyptian texts from about 1300 to 1100 B.C. know of Shasu (apparently semi-nomadic tribes) from Seir and Edom. “Teman” also is used in apposition to Edom in at least one biblical passage (Amos 1:12), but normally refers to a specific district of Edom and possibly to a town by that name. One of Job's visitors was Eliphaz the Temanite (Job 2:11; compare
The Israelites regarded the Edomites as close relatives, even more closely related to them than the Ammonites or Moabites. Specifically, they identified the Ammonites and Moabites as descendants of Lot, Abraham's nephew, but the Edomites as descendants of Esau, Jacob's brother (Genesis 19:30-36;
Genesis 36:1). Thus Edom occasionally is referred to as a “brother” to Israel (Amos 1:11-12). Edomites seem not to have been barred from worship in the Jerusalem Temple with the same strictness as the Ammonites and Moabites (Deuteronomy 23:3-8). Yet, as is often the case with personal relations, the closest relative can be a bitter enemy. According to the biblical writers, enmity between Israel and Edom began already with Jacob and Esau (when the former stole the latter's birthright) and was exacerbated at the time of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt (when the Edomites refused the Israelites passage through their land). Be that as it may, much of the conflict also had to do with the fact that Edom was a constant threat to Judah's frontier, and moreover blocked Judean access to the Gulf of Aqaba.
Both Saul and David conducted warfare with the Edomites—probably frontier wars fought in the “wilderness” area southwest of the Dead Sea (1 Samuel 14:47-48;
2 Samuel 8:13-14). David achieved a decisive victory in the valley of salt, probably just southwest of Beersheba where the ancient name still is preserved in modern Arabic wadi el-Milk. Apparently this secured Davidic control of the Edomite area west of the Arabah as well as access to the Gulf of Aqaba. Thus we read that Solomon built a fleet of ships at Ezion-geber and sent them to distant places for exotic goods. Later Hadad of the royal Edomite line returned from Egypt and became an active adversary to Solomon. This would have involved Edomite attacks on Solomon's caravans which passed through traditionally Edomite territory from Ezion-geber to Jerusalem (1 Kings 11:14-22).
Apparently Judah gained the upper hand against Edom again during the reign of Jehoshaphat. Once again we read of a Judean attempt (unsuccessful this time) to undertake a shipping venture from Ezion-geber (1 Kings 22:47-50). Edom regained independence from Judah under Joram, who succeeded Jehoshaphat to the throne (2 Kings 8:20-22). A later Judean king, Amaziah, is reported to have defeated the Edomites again in the valley of salt and then to have pursued ten thousand survivors to “the top of the rock” from which they were thrown down and dashed to pieces (2 Chronicles 25:11-12). Possibly the Hebrew term sela translated “rock” in this passage should be understood as a proper name, “Sela.” If so, then it seems reasonable to locate the incident with the craggy terrain just northwest of the Edomite capital Bosrah, where still today an Arab village bears a corresponding name (as-Sil`). An alternate candidate for biblical Sela favored by some scholars, Umm el-Biyara at Petra, seems too far south from either the valley of salt or the center of Edomite population.
Conflict between Judah and Edom and efforts on the part of Judean kings to exploit the commercial possibilities of the Gulf of Aqaba continued (2 Kings 14:22;
2 Kings 16:6;
2 Chronicles 26:1-2;
2 Chronicles 28:17) until eventually the Edomites, like the other peoples and petty kingdoms of Syria-Palestine, fell under the shadow of the major eastern empires—the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, finally the Persians and the Greeks. Some scholars hold that the Edomites aided the Babylonians in their attacks on Jerusalem in 597 and 586 B.C. and then took advantage of the Judeans in their helpless situation. This would explain, for example, the bitter verbal attacks on Edom in passages such as
Jeremiah 49:7-22 and the Book of Obadiah. Yet there is no clear evidence to support this view.
By New Testament times a people of Arabic origin known as the Nabateans had established a commercial empire with its center in the formerly Edomite territory east of the Arabah. Their chief city was Petra, and the whole region southeast of the Dead Sea had come to be known as Nabatea. Only the formerly Edomite territory west of the Arabah was still known as Idumea (Edom). Herod the Great was of Idumean ancestry. See Transjordan; Esau; Bozrah; Nabateans; Petra; Sela.