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A study of ancient copper mines in the Levant has produced evidence that the Edomites existed prior to the early Israeli kingdoms as described in the Book of Genesis in the Bible.
According to Genesis 36:31, there were “kings who reigned in Edom before any Israelite king reigned,” a reference to the early Israeli kings of David, Solomon, and Saul.
We already know that the Edomites were an actual kingdom of people who occupied territory that is now split between modern-day Israel and Jordan over 3,000 years ago during the Bronze Age.
Evidence of their existence has been found in the form of artifacts and buildings, most notably the Al Khazneh Treasury located in Petra, which most people may recognize from the 1989 film “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” as the fictional location of the cup of Christ, also known as the Holy Grail.
The structure, however, was built in the 1st century AD. For this story, we must go back much further in time to when the Edomites were a nomadic people who settled in Timna, on the Israeli side of the Aravah Basin, and Faynan, located in Jordan just southeast of the Dead Sea.
In these locations, the Edomites took over copper mines that had been abandoned by the ancient Egyptians shortly after 1300 BCE due to the Bronze Age collapse that touched several empires of the day.
And it’s from the slag excavated from these copper mines by a team led by archaeologists Thomas E. Levy, from the University of California San Diego and Erez Ben-Yosef from Tel Aviv University that has provided evidence that the Edomites pre-dated the Israelites as written in the Bible.
According to Haaretz:
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).
The archaeologists not only found evidence that the Edomites pre-dated the Israelites, but they also found evidence contradicting the biblical description of them as a “simple” people. Because it turns out the Edomites were technologically advanced when it came to producing copper and were highly organized.
“This was the most complicated technology in the ancient world and the Aravah was the Silicon Valley of the period,” Ben-Yosef explained. “So they had their own R&D team and over time we see a constant improvement in the quality of the process.
This was knowledge that was not easily shared at the time, it was kept secret by the elites. 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.”
The Edomites may have begun as a nomadic tribe, but Ben-Yosef says that they “built something that was powerful and centralized: the early nucleus of the Edomite kingdom.”
Levy agrees with his colleague and stressed that the key to the Edomite success is in their family bonds and closeness.
“In the case of the Edomites, their kinship system provided the social and economic glue to grow and expand,” Levy said. “Their ‘secret sauce’ for success was a monopoly on sophisticated copper production.”
The Bible describes the Edomites as a nemesis of the Israelites, who wandered into the Levant a little later on. During his reign as king, David allegedly conquered the Edomites, but the team does not confirm or deny that the event occurred because of how the Bible was written.
“We don’t have evidence one way or the other,” Ben-Yosef said. “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.”
However, as with most discoveries, there are detractors. In this case, archaeologist Israel Finkelstein questioned the findings.
“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?” Finkelstein asked. “Can a tribal territorial formation without urban centers be described as a kingdom? Without the biblical testimony, there would be no assumption that the copper industry represents the kingdom of Edom.”
Again, as Ben-Yosef pointed out, the Bible tends to engage in aggrandizement, which means it could have presented the Edomites as a “kingdom” in an effort to make them look like more of a formidable enemy to the Israelites. The Bible also referred to them as “simple,” which is not the case.
“The accepted paradigm in archaeology that nomads at the time could not create anything politically significant is incorrect,” Ben-Yosef 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 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. 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.”
And the Edomites were definitely experts in copper mining, a skill that improved even more once the Egyptians sought to reclaim their former mining operations under Pharaoh Sheshong I.
According to the team’s study as published by PLOS ONE:
Pharaoh Sheshonq I, one of the few Egyptian pharaohs identified by name in the Hebrew Bible (there “Shishak”), was the founder of the 22nd Dynasty in Egypt. Following his ascension, he dedicated efforts to reunifying Egypt and incursions abroad.
His military campaigns included an invasion into Judah and Israel “5 years after the death of King Solomon” (1 Kings 14:25, 2 Chronicles 12:1–12) in response to hostile incidents on Egypt’s eastern border. This event is commonly dated to around 925 BCE, although difficulties with the biblical background for this date and insecurities regarding the exact years of Sheshonq I’s reign gave rise to slightly different (usually earlier) suggestions.
Based on the appearance of names from the Negev region in the description of this event in Egypt (topographical list at the Temple of Amun in Karnak) it has been suggested that one of the destinations of Shoshenq I’s campaign was the Wadi Arabah and its copper industry. This hypothesis was strengthened recently by the accidental discovery of a rare scarab bearing the throne name of Sheshonq I in Faynan.
So, this is a case of the Bible being accurate, but also being inaccurate. The Edomites did pre-date the Israelites in the Levant area as told in Genesis, but they were not the “simple” people they were made out to be. They were more complex and were skilled at mining copper, which they did for centuries with great success, resulting in them being envied by the ancient world, so much so, that the Israelites, the Egyptians and the Assyrians all conquered them at one point to receive the benefits of the copper mines.
In the end, it wasn’t an artifact or a tablet that provided evidence of the Edomites being there first, it was all in the slag waste from copper production.