Israelite defensive fortresses inadequate

Like many peoples mentioned in the Bible but otherwise almost unknown, the Edomites are coming to life through the wonders of archaeology. Ironically, however, some of the most dramatic finds are being excavated in Israel rather than in the Edomite homeland east of the Arava, the valley that extends from the southern end of the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Eilat.

The origins of the Edomites, like those of the early Israelites, remain obscure archaeologically. They seem to have emerged as a people about the same time as the Israelites, in the period archaeologists call Iron Age I (1200–1000 B.C.E.).

Unlike the Israelites, however, the Edomites have left us no literature comparable to the Bible. Therefore we know them largely from their material culture as dug up by archaeologists. The land of Edom lay in present-day southern Jordan, bounded on the north by the Wadi Hasa (Biblical Nah\al Zered) at the southern end of the Dead Sea, and extending south to the Gulf of Eilat (also called the Gulf of Aqaba). Most of this terrain is an upland plateau rising to about 4,000 feet above sea level. The northern part of the plateau is volcanic and cut by dry gullies and valleys; the southern part is made up of sandstone hills. Most of the Edomite sites lie in the northern part, which has more rainfall, many springs and soil suitable for agriculture.

In the Bible, Edom is closely linked to the region called Seir, where Esau, the putative father of the Edomites, dwelt (Genesis 36-8–9; Deuteronomy 2-4–5, 22, 29).

The earliest extra-Biblical reference to Edom appears in a late-13th-century B.C.E. Egyptian papyrus, which reports that some Bedouin tribes from Edom stopped at one of Pharaoh Merneptah’s forts.1

The earliest identification of Edomite pottery was made by the American rabbi and archaeologist Nelson Glueck, during his excavation of Tell el-Kheleifeh between 1938 and 1940. Tell-el Kheleifeh, in modern Jordan, lies a few miles north of the Gulf of Eilat, in what was southern Edom. Its location makes it a terribly important site, for it controlled the gateway to the southern seas—to Africa, the Arabian peninsula and beyond.

The major structure at Tell el-Kheleifeh is a large fortress that Glueck initially dated to the time of King Solomon (c. 965–928 B.C.E.) and identified as a copper smelting center (he dubbed the site “the Pittsburgh of Palestine”). He subsequently modified this view, recognizing the site as a major fortress designed to guard the trade routes connecting the Land of Israel, Sinai and the Arabian peninsula; he also thought the site served as a khan, or rest stop, for caravan drivers and merchants. Recent studies (chiefly by Gary Pratico) demonstrate that the fortress was not built until the eighth century B.C.E. and was occupied until sometime in the fifth century B.C.E.a
A central building inside the fortress, thought to be for storage, may well have been a tower. This building has two sets of walls, both of which are unusually thick; the outer walls, lined with earthen ramparts, are 4 feet wide, and the inner walls are over 3 feet wide. All this suggests that the building was a watchtower in the center of the fortress.2

Judah and Edom were at loggerheads for many years over control of the strategic coastal area north of the Gulf of Eilat, and Tell el-Kheleifeh appears to have been the most important Edomite site in the region.

In Glueck’s Stratum IV, dating to the seventh century B.C.E., he discovered pottery that differed from anything then known from the Land of Israel. Fortunately, Stratum IV also contained ostraca (potsherds with inscriptions on them), with some of the letters differing from contemporaneous Hebrew script.

The same script on the ostraca had also been impressed by a seal onto several jar handles. The seal may have been owned by the governor of the fortress.

It reads “[Belonging] to Qos ’Anely servant of the king.”

Qos is the principal Edomite deity. (It was common in the ancient Near East to include a divine element, called a theophoric element, in private names- Thus we have Ishmael, which includes the divine name El; Ishayahu [English Isaiah], which includes the divine element -yahu, a form of Yahweh; and Eshbaal, which includes the divine name Baal.) The inclusion of the name of the Edomite divinity Qos in the seal impression from Tell el-Kheleifeh identifies the script and the distinctive pottery forms associated with the seal as Edomite.

Since Glueck’s excavations, identical pottery has been found at a number of other sites in Jordan that can now clearly be identified as Edomite.

The premier investigator of Edomite sites in Edom was the British archaeologist Crystal Bennett. Between 1960 and 1980, she excavated three important Edomite settlements, including the Edomite capital, Buseirah—Bozrah in the Bible (see Isaiah 63-1; Jeremiah 49-13, 22). Buseirah was not settled until the late ninth or early eighth century B.C.E., and it reached the peak of its development and prosperity only in the seventh century B.C.E.—at the same time as Tell el-Kheleifeh.

The two other Edomite sites that Bennett excavated (Tawilan and Umm el-Biyara) were most likely established only in the seventh century B.C.E. Thus we are beginning to get an idea of the development of Edomite society. A recent excavation of another Edomite site (Ghareh) by Stephen Hart also revealed a settlement that attained the peak of its development in the seventh century B.C.E.

At all of these sites, the excavators found examples of the now typical Edomite pottery that Glueck uncovered at Tell el-Kheleifeh.

At Umm el-Biyara, Bennett found a seal impression on a jar reading “Qosgeber king of Edom.” The name of this Edomite king also appears in Assyrian documents of the mid-seventh century B.C.E.
For the earlier history of Edom, we must turn to the results of archaeological surveys. While these surveys have not yet covered the entire area of Edom, they have made a major contribution to our understanding of the settlement of the region and its chronology. The earliest Edomite settlement of the area appears in Iron Age I (1200–1000 B.C.E.), about the time that Israel was emerging on the other side of the Dead Sea. Most of this early Edomite occupation occurred in the northern part of the country, on a rather small scale. The surveys also confirm that settlement of the country reached its peak during the seventh century B.C.E., when Edom was ruled by Assyria and thus enjoyed (or was subject to) the Assyrian polity known as the Pax Assyriaca.

As might be expected, the pottery from Edomite sites during the period of Assyrian hegemony reflects Assyrian influence, but it also reflects the material culture of Judah, the neighboring kingdom across its border. At the same time, the unique pottery forms and figurative and decorative art found in Edom indicate that the nation had developed its own independent material culture. The Edomite script also differs in some respects from the normative contemporaneous Hebrew script.

Surprisingly, the archaeological evidence from the Judahite Negev (the eastern Negev) has enormously enriched our understanding of Edomite culture, especially of its religious forms and figurative art.

Edomite pottery has been found at numerous sites in modern Israel’s Negev—at Tel Aroer,b Tel ‘Ira, Tel Malh\ata, H|orvat Qitmitc and most recently at ‘En Hatzeva.d The pottery from each of these sites dates from the seventh to the early sixth centuries B.C.E.

From Aroer, excavated by Avraham Biran and Rudolf Cohen, we have an Edomite seal reading “[Belonging] to Qosa.” The personal name on the seal contains the theophoric element Qos, the Edomite deity. An Edomite ostracon from the same site also contains a personal name with the theophoric element Qos.

At H|orvat Qitmit we found—in addition to more than 800 figurines, anthropomorphic stands, reliefs and other items—three incomplete inscriptions bearing the theophoric element Qos.
One interesting seal from Qitmit contains the Edomite name Shubnaqos (SãWBNQWS), which means “Pray, turn O Qos.” This name has an exact parallel in the Hebrew onomasticon- A royal steward of King Hezekiah (727–698 B.C.E.) is named Shebnayahu (SãBN’YHW)—with the theophoric yahu instead of Qos.e

The Bible amply documents the intense enmity between the Edomites and the Israelites. According to Numbers 20, the Edomites would not allow the Israelites to pass through their territory on the way from Egyptian bondage to the Promised Land. Both King Saul and King David fought against the Edomites (1 Samuel 14; 1 Kings 11).

During the seventh and early sixth centuries B.C.E., at the end of the First Temple period, the kingdom of Judah was threatened by the Assyrians and then conquered by the Babylonians, who destroyed Solomon’s Temple in 586 B.C.E. The Edomites took advantage of this opportunity to expand into a severely weakened Judah. The story of Edomite expansion into the Negev is not told only in Biblical texts;f it is also being revealed by mounting archaeological evidence.

The stunning finds from ‘En Hatzeva have recently been described for BAR readers by excavators Rudolf Cohen and Yigal Yisrael. But the significance of this site may be further enhanced by looking at the map at the beginning of this article. ‘En Hatzeva is the southernmost and easternmost Edomite site in the area of Judah penetrated by the Edomites. The shrine at ‘En Hatzeva and its extraordinary cultic objects may mark the path of the Edomite expansion into Judah. In any event, ‘En Hatzeva clearly indicates an Edomite presence in the region connecting Edom and Judah.
We even have archaeological evidence of the conflict between the Edomites and the Israelites at this time.

From Israelite Arad, we have a Hebrew ostracon (Ostracon no. 24) from the late seventh or early sixth century B.C.E. that refers to a possible Edomite attack on Judahite settlements; this is a letter, presumably from authorities in Jerusalem, to the commander at the Arad fortress- “I have sent to warn you today. Get the men to Elisha [an Israelite commander, probably at Ramat-Negev], lest Edom should come there.”g

A kind of counterpart ostracon, from the Edomite side, was found at H|orvat ‘Uza, where an Israelite fortress was probably taken over by Edomites toward the end of the monarchy. It relates to the distribution of grain. Written in Edomite script, it was apparently intended by an Edomite for an Edomite functionary either at the fort of ‘Uza or elsewhere- “Are you well? I bless you by Qos. And now give the food [grain] that Ahi’ma/o … ”

If our theory is right about an Edomite presence in the Negev, then the main Edomite center in Judah was probably the site of Tel Malh\ata, about 3 miles northwest of Qitmit. Approximately 25 percent of the pottery found there in excavations in 1969 and 1971 by Moshe Kochavi has been identified as Edomite. From 1990 through 1995, excavations at Tel Malh\ata were renewed under the direction of the author and Bruce Cresson of Baylor University. We confirmed the centrality of the site for the Edomite occupation of the eastern Negev in Judah. Among our finds were distinctive vessels paralleled only by objects from sites in Edom. For example, a deep bowl with short astragal feet—in the form of animal ankle bones—has a parallel only at the capital of Edom, Bozrah (Buseirah). Over half of the cooking pots we excavated are of Edomite forms.

Perhaps the most dramatic find from our new excavations is a figurine of a flute player with a double-stemmed flute (see cover). It bears so amazing a resemblance—in overall form, artistic detail and technique—to a three-horned goddess from Qitmit as to make it virtually certain that the two figurines were produced in the same workshop, most probably at Tel Malh\ata. A connection may reasonably be presumed between the shrine at Qitmit and the Edomite population at nearby Tel Malh\ata.

Other suggestive finds include a lovely seal with an ostrich engraved on it; it contains the non-Hebrew name H|H|. The two H|’s have only a single crossbar.

This is the way it is written in most of the inscriptions from Edom. In Hebrew, this same letter has two crossbars.

I believe that the Edomite military threat to Judah reflected in the ostracon from Arad was finally realized by Edomite expansion into the eastern Negev. The vast Edomite material from Tel Malh\ata, along with the Edomite shrine at nearby Qitmit, indicates Edomite domination of the region at the end of the First Temple period.

The Edomite expansion became increasingly intense during the Second Temple period until, finally, in the fourth century B.C.E., when the area came under Greek rule, it was referred to as Idumea, the Greek form of Edom. Idumea officially extended from north of Hebron to Beer-Sheva. This included much of the area of Judah that the Edomites took over in the late seventh century B.C.E.
This history of the eastern Negev also helps to explain the series of new Israelite forts (H|orvat ‘Uza, H|orvat Radum, H|orvat ‘Anim, H|orvat Tov and Arad [only Arad goes back to an earlier period]) and new strata of occupation in this area’s main settlements (Tel ‘Ira, Tel Aroer, Tel Malh\ata, Tel Mas\os) at about this time.

Although archaeologists have long known that a line of fortified Israelite outposts was erected in the eastern Negev in the seventh century B.C.E., the reason for the protective barrier remained a mystery. Now, however, archaeology supplies the answer- These defences and settlements were probably built to protect against possible Edomite invasions. Indeed, this view has significant Biblical support- The Bible not only reports a deep and lasting enmity between these two peoples, dating back to the period of the kingdom of Judah and earlier,h but specifically describes mutual raiding, destruction and conquest.i

Here is an instance in which the Bible and archaeology splendidly illuminate one another. We now have scientific evidence of the historical kingdom of Edom, with its own well-defined material culture, language and cult practices. We know that Edom expanded beyond the Arava into the eastern Negev, at a time when Judah was weakened by attacks from Assyria and then Babylon. In short, the Biblical accounts of the relations between these unneighborly neighbors are in large part confirmed by archaeological evidence.

a. See Gary D. Pratico, “Where Is Ezion-Geber? A Reappraisal of the Site Archaeologist Nelson Glueck Identified as King Solomon,’s Red Sea Port,” BAR 12-05.

b. See Avraham Biran, “And David Sent Spoils … to the Elders in Aroer,” BAR 09-02.

c. See Itzhaq Beit-Arieh, “New Light on the Edomites,” BAR 14-02; and Moshe Kochavi, “Rescue in the Biblical Negev,” BAR 06-01.

d. See Rudolph Cohen and Yigal Yisrael, “Smashing the Idols—Piecing Together an Edomite Shrine in Judah,” BAR 22-04.

e. The Biblical text gives the name as Shebna; inscriptions discovered in what was likely his tomb in Silwan indicate that the full name was Shebnayahu (see “The Tombs of Silwan,” BAR 20-03).

f. See 2 Chronicles 28-16–17- “At that time did King Ahaz send unto the kings of Assyria to help him. For again the Edomites had come and smitten Judah, and carried away captives.”

g. See Anson F. Rainey, “The Saga of Eliashib,” BAR 13-02.

h. See Isaiah 34, 63-1–6; Jeremiah 49-7–22; Ezekiel 25-12–14, 35-1–15; Joel 3-19; Amos 1-11–12.

i. See 1 Kings 22-48; 2 Kings 8-20–22, 14-7, 22, 16-6.

1. Papyrus Anastasi, 6-54–56, in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd edition, ed. James B. Pritchard (Princeton, NJ- Princeton Univ., 1969), p. 259. A possible 15th-century B.C.E. reference may be found in a list of Thutmose III. See The Anchor Bible Dictionary, under “Edom” (Garden City, NY- Doubleday, 1992).

2. A similar tower inside a fortress was found at H|orvat Radum in the eastern Negev.