8 November 1980 - Ver. 1

11 May 2005 - Ver. 3


Arabs, Edomites and Jews - Getting on With Your Relatives

by David Steinberg


Home page http://www.houseofdavid.ca/



1. What the Torah Says

2. The Midrashic Tradition

3. Israelite-Jewish Relations with the Edomites

4. Israelite-Jewish Relations with the Arabs

5. Judaism and Islam – Influences and parallels

6. Theological Idiom – Toward the Future


1. What the Torah Says

In Genesis chapters 25-28 we read of the birth and development of 2 full brothers – Jacob and Esau.  Earlier, in Genesis chapters 16 and 21 we read of 2 half-brothers Isaac, Jacob’s father, and Ishmael both of whom were the sons of Abraham[1].

There are a number of similarities in the two stories and some differences.   The Torah tells us that each pair of brothers were sons of Patriarchs, in each case the younger became the bearer of Israelite-Jewish tradition, and in each case the mother of the favoured son was instrumental in the younger son displacing the elder.  There are, of course, some differences such as Jacob and Esau being twins while Isaac and Ishmael had different mothers who were of different status i.e. Hagar was the Egyptian handmaid of Sarah.  Sarah was from the same family as Abraham.  However, the similarities between the Isaac-Ishmael and Jacob-Esau stories are striking.


2. The Midrashic Tradition

The Jewish homiletic midrashic tradition does not have much good to say about either elder brother.  Ishmael is given less coverage and perhaps less harsh treatment: he is the dross compared to Isaac who is the gold; he practices idolatry; violates maidens; sheds blood; shoots arrows intending to kill Isaac; and, is cruel.  However, he becomes a genuine penitent in later life.  In post-biblical Jewish tradition, as in biblical tradition, Ishmael is the ancestor of the Arabs.  In Targum Onkolos yishma‘elim is translated ‘arava’e i.e. Arabs.

The Midrash is much harsher regarding Esau[2].  Concerning Gen. 25:22, where Jacob and Esau, as yet unborn, struggle in the womb, the Midrash states that whenever Rebecca passed a heathen place of worship Esau tried to be born.  Jacob did the same whenever she passed a synagogue or beth midrash. Esau’s ruddy hair was taken to indicate that he would be a murderer.  The statement that Jacob dwelt in tents was taken as an indication of his love for studying Torah while Esau being a man of the field was considered an allusion to his open immorality.  Finally, the day Abraham died, midrashic tradition states that Esau: cohabited with a betrothed maiden; murdered; denied God; denied the resurrection of the dead; and, spurned his birthright.

There are 2 clear reasons why Esau is treated so much more harshly in the midrash than is Ishmael.  Firstly, while the Jews’ relationships with the Ishmaelites were rather distant and usually not hostile, hostility was the norm between Judeans and Edomites from the time of the Exodus until the forced conversion of the Edomites, by then called Idumeans, to Judaism in 125 BCE.   Secondly, after the absorption of the Idumeans into the body of the Jewish people, Edom and Esau were used as handy code words for Rome.  The great midrashim were composed in Eretz Israel during the Roman occupation, more than 2 centuries after the conversion of the Idumeans.  During the Roman occupation, Jewish feelings towards Rome were generally hostile (see).  This, in fact, accounts for much of the midrashic denunciation of Esau.  As one example out of hundreds, a midrash states that the statement in Exodus 25:23, that the eldest shall serve the younger, implies that while the Jews may serve the Romans in this world, the opposite will be the case after the coming of the messiah.


3. Israelite-Jewish Relations with the Edomites

In chapter 36 verse 8, it is stated that Esau is the ancestor of Edom.  According to the Torah, during the Exodus, the Edomites, who occupied what is now western Jordan south of the Dead Sea and the Negev south of Arad and Beer Sheba, refused the Israelites passage through their territory in spite of Israelite promises of good behaviour. With the establishment of the Davidic Judean monarchy, whenever possible, the Judean kings held Edom, or when necessary reconquered it.  Holding Edom, or at least part of it, was necessary for:

·        Control over the lucrative trade routes from Mesopotamia, S and Egypt to Arabia;

·        Access to the Red Sea and the African maritime trade.

The desire to control Edom, for commercial reasons, led to frequent Judean aggression against Edom as well as to occasional savage repression.  Thus David’s commander in chief spent 6 months in Edom, after defeating the Edomite army, killing every male he could catch.  The Judean king Amazia had 10,000 Edomite prisoners of war thrown off a cliff.  In the late seventh century BCE both Edom and Judah became vassals of Babylonia.  When Judah rebelled, Edom and other vassals were called in to help suppress the uprising.  This is mentioned in the Arad Ostraca and recalled with great bitterness in Ps. 137–

Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, "Rase it, rase it! Down to its foundations!"

O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall he be who requites you with what you have done to us!

Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”

The subsequent mass exile of Judeans to Babylon left southern Judah depopulated just when large numbers of Arabs were infiltrating into Edom displacing the native Edomites who moved into what had been southern Judah.  Thus from the sixth century BCE on Hebron, the former capital of the tribe of Judah, Arad, Beer Sheba and the rest of Judah south of Beth Zur were Edomite or, as they are conventionally called from this time, Idumean.

The best treatment of Jewish relations with the Idumaeans and Arabs during the Second Temple Period is that of Kasher.

The Idumeans were hostile to the Maccabean Revolt.  In 112 BCE Hyrcanus, a Maccabean king, conquered Idumea and, in the words of Josephus -

 “Hyrcanus took also Dora and Marissa, cities of Idumea, and subdued all the Idumeans; and permitted them to stay in that country, if they would circumcise their genitals, and make use of the laws of the Jews; and they were so desirous of living in the country of their forefathers, that they submitted to the use of circumcision, and of the rest of the Jewish ways of living; at which time therefore this befell them, that they were hereafter no other than Jews.” Antiquities of the Jews - Book XIII chap. 9

Herod the Great, the Jewish king who rebuilt the temple, creating the splendid edifice described by Josephus and the Talmud, was a descendant of Idumean converts.  Perhaps, the suffering he caused the Jews, could be seen as poetic justice.  Idumean contingents were noted for their courage in defending Jerusalem and suffered the same fate as other Jews when the rebellion was crushed.  When the Roman armies of Hadrian, subsequent to crushing the Bar Kokhba Revolt (133-135 CE), drove the surviving Jews out of Judaea, he left in place the Jews of Idumea.  Thus the late second century Jewish population of Judaea was mostly Idumean by origin.


4. Israelite-Jewish Relations with the Arabs

From the earliest times, Israelite relations with the Arabs have been extensive but mainly limited to commerce and not generally acrimonious.  Typical is the first recorded interaction when Ishmaelites traders purchased Joseph from his brothers (Gen. 37:25-28).  These Ishmaelites were playing an unwitting part in God’s grand design to send the Israelites to Egypt.  Of course, from their point of view they were just making a quick buck slave trading.

Nehemiah, the 5th century BCE rebuilder of Jerusalem was opposed by Geshem the Arab[3] who probably controlled the southern Negev.  By the fourth century BCE, the Nabatean Arabs had established a strong state south and east of Judea in former Edomite territory.

Most of the boundaries of the Maccabean state were with the Iturean and Nabatean Arab kingdoms.  Points of Physical contiguity:

a)     The Nabatean Arab kingdom formed the southern and eastern borders of Perea (i.e. Jewish areas east of the Jordan formerly called Gilead)[4]. After the Judean conquest and conversion of Idumea the Nabatean kingdom also formed the southern boundary of Judea.   Both wars, and peaceful contact, between the Maccabees, and their successors, were frequent; and,

b)     The Iturean Arab kingdom, based on the Beqa’ Valley (south-east Lebanon) and Mt. Hermon, had taken over Upper Galilee.  Aristobulus conquered Upper Galilee (104-103 BCE)[5] and force converted the Itureans there. 

It is possible that Jewish trading colonies existed in Sheba (Yemen) and the Hejaz (western Saudi Arabia) as early as the time of king Solomon.  In the period before Muhammad a famous Jewish king ruled in Yemen before being conquered by the Christians. 


5. Judaism and Islam – Influences and parallels


6. Theological Idiom – Toward the Future

Judaism and Islam being very similar religious systems (see Goitein), face very similar intellectual and practical problems in confronting western culture.  Many of these problems are quite different from those faced by Christianity.  There may be much to gain by opening a dialogue between Jewish and Muslim religious thinkers.  Of course, any such dialogue requires that each group study the other’s religion and literature, as they did at the height of the Arab-Jewish symbiosis.


I’d like to end with a hope for the future –

“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!”

Psalm 133:1



Select Bibliography 


Blau, Joseph L., The story of Jewish philosophy, Random House [1966, c1962]

Dicou, B, Edom, Israel's Brother and Antagonist: The Role of Edom in Biblical Prophecy and Story

Ephal, J, The Ancient Arabs, Magnes Brill 1982

Frank, Daniel H. and Leaman, Oliver (eds.), History of Jewish philosophy, Routledge, 1997. 

Goitein, S D, Jews and Arabs: Their Contact Through the Ages, Schoken 1955, 1964

Goldstein, B. R, Maimonides, article Encyclopedia Judaica vol. 11 cols. 754-782, Keter 1972

Hyman, A, Philosophy, Jewish, article in Encyclopedia Judaica vol. 13 cols. 421-465, Keter 1972 see also article Platonism article in Encyclopedia Judaica vol. 13 cols. 628-630, Keter 1972

Kasher, Aryeh, Jews, Idumaeans and Ancient Arabs, J CB Mohr (Paul Siebeck) Tubingen 1988

Pagis, D., article Poetry – Medieval Hebrew Secular Poetry in Encyclopedia Judaica vol. 13 cols. 681-690, Keter 1972

Rosenbloom, Joseph R., Conversion to Judaism: from the Biblical period to the present, Cincinnati : Hebrew Union College Press, 1978 (chapter on the Idumeans and Itureans pp. 94-114

Viorst, Milton In the Shadow of the Prophet: The Struggle for the Soul of Islam, Anchor Doubleday 1998


[1] In Islamic tradition, Abraham was one of the 5 major prophets who preceded Muhammad.

[2] See Edom, Israel's Brother and Antagonist: The Role of Edom in Biblical Prophecy and Story by B. Dicou; You Shall Not Abhor an Edomite for He Is Your Brother: Edom and Seir in History and Tradition by Diana Vikander Edelman

[3] “GESHEM, GASHMU, an “Arab,” one of the chief opponents of Nehemiah, who, together with Sanballat and Tobiah, opposed the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem (c. 450 B.C.E.). When Geshem and his allies heard of Nehemiah's intention to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, they mocked and scorned him (Neh. 2:10–20). Later, when the wall was completed and all but the gateways fully repaired, they sought by various means to dispose of Nehemiah personally or to compromise his position within the country. These efforts also failed, and Nehemiah's opponents were forced to admit that the task was divinely supported (Neh. 6)….

“Some scholars claim that Geshem is to be identified with a “king” of the same name mentioned in a Lihyanite Arabian votive inscription on a silver bowl … belonging to the fifth century B.C.E. This inscription reads in translation: “What Quaynu son of Geshem, King of Kedar, brought (as offering) to (the goddess) Han'Illat.” On this basis, it has been suggested that Geshem King of Kedar is identical with Nehemiah's enemy, but the data for this identification are inconclusive.” From Encyclopedia Judaica Electronic Edition

[4] Aharoni, Y and Avi-Yonah, M, The Macmillan Bible Atlas, third edition revised by A F Rainey and Z Safrai, MacMillan 1993 map 217

[5] The Macmillan Bible Atlas map 213