Archaeology Confirms Book of Genesis on Israel’s Arch-nemesis, the Edomites

Study of ancient copper production sites in the deserts of Israel and Jordan indicates that the nomadic Edomites could and did form a powerful political entity more than 3,000 years ago, as the Bible suggests

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Archaeologists working on "Slaves' Hill," the main copper smelting site at Timna
Archaeologists working on "Slaves' Hill," the main copper smelting site at TimnaCredit: Ariel David
Ariel David
Ariel David
Ariel David
Ariel David

It’s not every day that science and archaeology find confirmation of the Bible. But this seems to be the case with new research claiming that the biblical kingdom of Edom was much older than scholars previously thought. In fact it arose even before the formation of ancient Israel – just like it says in the Book of Genesis.

This unexpected conclusion was reached by studying that precious source of evidence in modern archaeology: ancient garbage.

Specifically, a team of researchers analyzed slag, the waste left over from metal smelting, at ancient copper production sites in the Aravah Valley, a region that spans the southern deserts of Israel and Jordan and was once the heartland of the Edomite nation.

The team of American, Israeli and Jordanian archaeologists found that people at different sites in the Aravah were producing metal using the same standardized techniques, which improved and advanced in parallel, more than 3,000 years ago. This, the archaeologists say, is a sign that there was a strong, centralized entity that coordinated copper production over vast distances: in other words, a state.

And this in turn would mean that the Edomite kingdom was already formed by the mid-11th century B.C.E., some 300 years earlier than previously thought, the archaeologists conclude in a paper published Wednesday in the scientific journal PLOS One.

A view of the ancient copper mines in the Timna Valley, southern IsraelCredit: Ariel David

The hypothesis dovetails with the biblical claim that there were “kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned over the children of Israel” (Genesis 36:31).

If we go by the biblical chronology, the first kings of Israel – Saul, David and Solomon – would have reigned from the late 11th century to the mid 10th century B.C.E. So, whether it’s by coincidence or not, finding that Edom was already an organized state in the middle of the 11th century B.C.E. jives with the biblical text.

Most contemporary scholars agree that the Old Testament was put in writing, at least in its final version, centuries after most of the events it narrates. There is a roaring debate amongst researchers on how much historical truth can be found in the pages of the religious text, particularly when it comes to the formation of ancient Israel and the stories of David and Solomon.

The hypothesis presented by the new paper, titled “Ancient technology and punctuated change: Detecting the emergence of the Edomite Kingdom in the Southern Levant” – is likely destined to further fuel the dispute, rather than resolve it.

The Silicon Valley of the Iron Age

The researchers, led by archaeologists Thomas E. Levy, from the University of California San Diego and Erez Ben-Yosef from Tel Aviv University, conducted chemical and microscopic analyses on more than 150 samples of securely-dated pieces of slag excavated in Timna, on the Israeli side of the Aravah, and Faynan, located in Jordan just southeast of the Dead Sea.

These locations, separated by more than 100 kilometers of wasteland, were known as major copper mining and smelting hubs in antiquity, operating mainly from around 1300 B.C.E. to 800 B.C.E.

Remains of temple discovered at Timna, first used by the Egyptians in the Bronze Age and later by the Edomites in the Iron AgeCredit: Ariel David

It has already been ascertained that the Egyptians began the first major mining operations at Timna in the late Bronze Age. However, the Egyptians withdrew from the site, as well as the rest of Canaan, in the mid 12th century B.C.E. amid the Bronze Age Collapse, a period of instability that saw the destruction or diminishing of major empires in the region.

It was also known that, as the Iron Age dawned, the vacuum the Egyptians left was quickly filled by local nomadic tribes. These tribes increased the scale of copper production and perfected its methods, explains Ben-Yosef, who leads the excavations at Timna.

The operations in the Aravah were particularly lucrative since the locals became the major producers of copper for the eastern Mediterranean, a role that had been filled by Cyprus until the Bronze Age Collapse. Tens of thousands of tons of slag were left behind from copper smelting during the Iron Age and can still be seen blackening the landscape today at Timna and Faynan.

The big question is who was behind these massive mining operations, and when and how did the local nomadic tribes coalesce into a political entity that can be described as a unified state.

By analyzing samples from Timna and Faynan, scientists could elucidate the efficiency of smelting process by measuring parameters like the temperature of the furnaces; the addition of other minerals to improve the extraction of the metal; and the amount of copper left over in the slag (the less residue in the waste material, the better the quality of the product).

“This was the most complicated technology in the ancient world and the Aravah was the Silicon Valley of the period,” says Ben-Yosef. “So they had their own R&D team and over time we see a constant improvement in the quality of the process.”

Moreover, that incremental progress appears to proceed at the same pace in Faynan and Timna, the paper stresses.

“This was knowledge that was not easily shared at the time, it was kept secret by the elites,” Ben-Yosef explains. “So if the same techniques were used in distant sites it is very strong evidence that the production was organized from above using the knowledge and procedures determined by a single elite.”

This in turn suggests that within 100-150 years from the departure of the Egyptians, the nomadic tribes of the entire area united around the copper industry. They “built something that was powerful and centralized: the early nucleus of the Edomite kingdom,” the archaeologist concludes.

Edomite secret sauce

The biblical kingdoms of the Levant arose from mainly nomadic societies that were based on kinship networks that often extended over vast areas, explains Levy, the UC San Diego archaeologist who leads the excavations at Faynan.

“In the case of the Edomites, their kinship system provided the social and economic glue to grow and expand,” Levy tells Haaretz. “Their ‘secret sauce’ for success was a monopoly on sophisticated copper production.”

The Bible says the ancient Israelites had multiple dealings with the neighboring Edomites - who are said to descend from Esau, the brother of the patriarch Jacob. Most prominently, they are supposed to have been conquered by David (2 Samuel 8:14) and ruled by Solomon, who built a Red Sea port on the southern tip of Edomite territory, at Etzion Geber, near what is today the town of Eilat (1 Kings 9:26).

Archaeologists digging through thick layers of slag at a copper production site in Faynan, JordanCredit: Courtesy T.E. Levy, Levantine Archaeology Lab, UC San Diego

Beyond saying that in David’s time there probably was an Edomite kingdom available to be conquered, the newly published study does not confirm or deny this particular biblical episode. Previous excavations at Timna have shown that around the year 1000 B.C.E. (that is, when David and Solomon supposedly reigned) fortifications were built around the site and remains were found showing that the local workers were clothed with expensive textiles and enjoyed food imported from afar.

But whether this can be linked to an Israelite connection is anyone’s guess.

“We don’t have evidence one way or the other,” says Ben-Yosef. “It’s possible that David’s ‘conquest’ was just putting up a tent and demanding a tax on the copper industry – and then this was aggrandized in the Bible as a great conquest.”

The return of the pharaoh

There is however a different foreign sovereign whose influence on the early Edomite state is indeed supported by the new study. At the end of the 10th century B.C.E., copper smelting in the Aravah made a sudden technological leap that led to a high standardization and a level of quality for the metal, which would remain unrivaled until Roman times, says Ben-Yosef.

The archaeologists link this hike in productivity to another event mentioned in the Bible: the campaign in Canaan of the Egyptian pharaoh Sheshonq I.

The Bible calls this pharaoh Shishak and says that sometime around 925 B.C.E. he attacked Jerusalem and raided the treasures of the Temple (1 Kings 14:25-26). Sheshonq’s campaign is attested by Egyptian texts and archaeological finds, and scholars suspect that his involvement in the region went far beyond what the Bible describes as a pinpoint, predatory raid.

Sheshonq was the first pharaoh to reunite Egypt after the chaos that marked the end of the Bronze Age. Scholars now see him as having attempted to restore his empire’s supremacy over Canaan.

Although it is unclear whether he actually did attack Jerusalem, Sheshonq listed – on the walls of the temple of Amun in Karnak – numerous sites in Canaan that his forces conquered, ranging as far north as the Galilee. We also know that he pushed south into the Beer Sheva area and the Negev Desert, and researchers have linked his involvement to the flourishing of a series of small habitation sites in the area.

The archaeologists working in the Aravah believe Sheshonq’s forces reached the copper mines: a scarab bearing the pharaoh’s name was found in Faynan a few years ago.

Given all this, they suspect the return of the Egyptians redirected the copper trade eastward toward their homeland, providing the Edomite miners with new technologies to boost production while also helping to introduce the camel from the Arabian Peninsula, which facilitated the transportation of goods.

While this last hypothesis about Egyptian influence is well supported, not all scholars agree that the copper-making nomads of the 11th-10th century B.C.E. formed a polity that can be identified as the biblical Edom.

The work being done in the Aravah “is one of the most innovative and important in the archaeology of the southern Levant in recent years,” says Israel Finkelstein, one of Israel’s top biblical archaeologists. Indeed, Finkelstein agrees that Sheshonq’s campaign and Egypt’s attempt to control the copper trade brought prosperity to the miners and to the nearby Negev highlands.

But he is not convinced that sites like Timna and Faynan can be linked to a complex Edomite political entity formed by nomadic tribes that spanned the entire region. Some scholars believe the Edomites only coalesced into a state at the end of the 9th century B.C.E., when they began to build sedentary settlements, like the capital Botzrah, and it is only at that time that their kingdom begins to be mentioned in extra-biblical texts, for example by the Assyrian king Adad-Nirari III.

“Whether the finds in the Aravah attest to the emergence of Edom is a matter of definition: what are the archaeological manifestations of a kingdom? Can a tribal territorial formation without urban centers be described as a kingdom?” asks Finkelstein, who did not take part in the new study.

He also notes the biblical verses about Edom in Genesis and David’s conquest of that country were written centuries after that time and cannot be taken as historical fact.

“Without the biblical testimony there would be no assumption that the copper industry represents the kingdom of Edom,” Finkelstein tells Haaretz.

Tents vs. stones

Ben-Yosef and Levy counter that Egyptian texts from the 13th century B.C.E. identified nomadic tribes from southern Canaan as coming from “Edom.” The move toward permanent settlement around the year 800 B.C.E. is not a sign of a rather late establishment of this kingdom but simply a shift in the economy of an already existing state, which at that time abandoned mining for agriculture and trade, the archaeologists maintain.

Until the copper business remained profitable, it made sense for the Edomites to keep a largely nomadic lifestyle, because in many desert sites, such as Timna, it was only possible to mine during the winter, as there were no natural water sources nearby to support a sedentary population there. That is why we only see permanent settlements in Edom at the end of the 9th century B.C.E., when the local copper industry was abandoned, Ben-Yosef says.

This shift happened because by then Cyprus had retaken its role as the main producer of copper in the Mediterranean. Mining at places like Timna was also becoming increasingly difficult since the Edomites had used up all the vegetation in the area and wood to fuel the furnaces had to be brought in from distant locations.

But there is no reason to believe that the newly sedentary Edomites were not the same people who had successfully run complex mining operations for centuries or that they were incapable of creating a solid political entity until they started building stone palaces, Ben-Yosef says.

“The accepted paradigm in archaeology that nomads at the time could not create anything politically significant is incorrect,” he says. “What we see in the Aravah is not what we would expect from a society that is mainly nomadic and doesn’t have a stone palace: probably they had a tent palace, but they still created a strong, centralized political body.”

The idea of a new paradigm in looking at the formation of states in the Levant has broader implications for the study of the rise of ancient Israel, notes Ben-Yosef.

The early political entities that the Israelites formed in the hills of Judea and Samaria were also likely created by the uniting of nomadic tribes that only subsequently adopted a sedentary lifestyle – which may explain why it is so hard for archaeologists to uncover solid evidence from the first days of the Israelite kingdom, Ben-Yosef posits.

“The withdrawal of the Egyptians at the end of the Bronze Age gave the tribes in the Aravah the chance to unite and create political power,” he says. “A similar process probably happened [for the Israelites] in the central hill country; it’s just harder to see because they didn’t deal with the copper industry.”

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