The Edomites were the descendants of Esau, the firstborn son of Isaac and the  twin brother of Jacob. In the womb, Esau and Jacob struggled together, and God  told their mother, Rebekah, that they would become two nations, with the older  one serving the younger (Genesis  25:23). As an adult, Esau rashly sold his inheritance to Jacob for a bowl of  red soup (Genesis  25:30-34), and he hated his brother afterward. Esau became the father of the  Edomites and Jacob became the father of the Israelites, and the two nations  continued to struggle through most of their history. In the Bible, “Seir” (Joshua 24:4), “Bozrah” (Isaiah 63:1) and “Sela” (2 Kings 14:7) are  references to Edom’s land and capital. Sela is better known today as  Petra.

The name “Edom” comes from a Semitic word meaning “red,” and the  land south of the Dead Sea was given that name because of the red sandstone so  prominent in the topography. Esau, because of the soup for which he traded his  birthright, became known as Edom, and later moved his family into the hill  country of the same name. Genesis 36 recounts the early history of the Edomites,  stating that they had kings reigning over them long before Israel had a king (Genesis 36:31). The  religion of the Edomites was similar to that of other pagan societies who  worshiped fertility gods. Esau’s descendants eventually dominated the southern  lands and made their living by agriculture and trade. One of the ancient trade  routes, the King’s Highway (Numbers  20:17) passed through Edom, and when the Israelites requested permission to  use the route on their exodus from Egypt, they were rejected by force.

Because they were close relatives, the Israelites were forbidden to hate the  Edomites (Deuteronomy  23:7). However, the Edomites regularly attacked Israel, and many wars were  fought as a result. King Saul fought against the Edomites, and King David  subjugated them, establishing military garrisons in Edom. With control over  Edomite territory, Israel had access to the port of Ezion-Geber on the Red Sea,  from which King Solomon sent out many expeditions. After the reign of Solomon,  the Edomites revolted and had some freedom until they were subdued by the  Syrians under Tiglath-pileser.

During the Maccabean wars, the Edomites  were subjugated by the Jews and forced to convert to Judaism. Through it all,  the Edomites maintained much of their old hatred for the Jews. When Greek became  the common language, the Edomites were called Idumaeans.  With the rise of the  Roman Empire, an Idumaean whose father had converted to Judaism was named king  of Judea. That Idumaean is known in history as King Herod the Great, the tyrant  who ordered a massacre in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the Christ child (Matthew  2:16-18).

After Herod’s death, the Idumaean people slowly  disappeared from history. God had foretold the destruction of the Edomites in  Ezekiel 35, saying, “As you rejoiced over the inheritance of the house of  Israel, because it was desolate, so I will deal with you; you shall be desolate,  Mount Seir, and all Edom, all of it. Then they will know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 35:15). Despite  Edom’s constant efforts to rule over the Jews, God’s prophecy to Rebekah was  fulfilled: the older child served the younger, and Israel proved stronger than  Edom.