Ancient Jordan’s Forgotten Kingdoms
Several odd-sounding nations ending with –ite crop up again and again
in Scripture. To most of us, they are just names on a page, but to the ancient
Jews, they were sometimes fearsome neighbors to be dreaded or subdued. Among
these were the Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites. Who were they? Where did they
come from? What happened to them?
Since so few artifacts survive from these peoples who lived 2,000–3,000 years
ago, many archaeologists have tended to dismiss them as either figments of the
Jews’ imagination or glorified nomads. But their presence looms large in Scripture.
God’s condemnations against them are often fierce. Malachi, for instance, prophesied
of Edom: “But Esau I have hated, and laid waste his mountains and his heritage
for the jackals of the wilderness” (Malachi 1:3).
Who is right about their existence? The Judge of all the earth or the skeptical
All you have to do is visit modern Jordan1 to find out. Tramp through the famous
sandstone wastes of Petra, pictured above and made famous by the blockbuster
film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. As you hear the echo of your
footsteps rebound in Petra’s empty rooms and tombs cut out of the cliffsides,
the silence reminds you whose word is true. This region once belonged to early
peoples who are no more.
Ancient Jordan in Bible Times
Petra is the most well-known archaeological site in Jordan, but the country
is filled with other places of great biblical significance. Most Christians
have no idea that several major events of both the Old and New Testaments took
place here.2 Jordan is so
tied to the Bible’s history that its very name comes from the biblical river.
Jordan’s border today, as the eagle flies, is only twenty miles from Jerusalem.
Starting with Genesis 14:2, we learn of Abraham’s neighbors in the “cities
of the plain,” which were almost certainly in Jordan. In Numbers we read of
the last miles of the wilderness-wandering Israelites before they miraculously
crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land. That final trek occurred in
Jordan, where Moses died at Mt. Nebo.
Archaeology has shown that these three people groups have been portrayed accurately
in the Bible.
In the New Testament, John the Baptist most likely baptized Christ on the eastern
side of the Jordan River. The historian Josephus says that John was beheaded
at Machaerus, Herod’s fortress in Jordan near the Dead Sea. Christ and perhaps
also the Apostle Paul traveled through this region on their way from Jerusalem
The focus of this article, however, is the three ancient peoples who lived
in Jordan during Old Testament times. Interestingly, all three are mentioned
in one verse—1 Samuel 14:47. From north to south lived the Ammonites, the Moabites,
and the Edomites.
Their history is fairly obscure, apart from the Bible. Thus many archaeologists
who hold a low view of the Bible’s history have taken the minimalist view. They
tend to doubt anything the Bible states about the Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites
unless they find independent confirmation.
Yet the Bible can rightly be called a history book, for it presents the history
of God’s interaction with His people—as well as His redemptive message proclaimed
to all people—from Genesis to Revelation. By using the science of archaeology,
we can see that these three people groups, located in what is known today as
Jordan, have been portrayed accurately in the Bible.
Discoveries over the past 150 years have forced archaeologists to acknowledge
that the Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites existed. But they are still skeptical
about the details recorded in the Old Testament. Yet each new discovery, if
carefully interpreted, verifies the truth of God’s Word at every turn.
Three Forgotten Peoples in Ancient Jordan
In the far north of Jordan lived the Ammonites. Mentioned in several places
in the Bible, the Ammonites were descendants of Lot, the nephew of Abraham (Genesis
19:38). The spelling of Jordan’s modern capital, Amman, hints at the historicity
of the Ammonites. It sits on the site of ancient Rabbath-Ammon, the only Ammonite
city mentioned in Scripture (and presumably their capital; see Deuteronomy 3:11).
As one of the neighboring city-states near Israel, the Ammonites often fought
the Israelites (Judges 11:33; 2 Samuel 12:29–31; 2 Chronicles 27:5). It was
at Rabbath-Amman that Uriah the Hittite died on David’s orders to cover up his
adultery (2 Samuel 11). An Ammonite inscription dating to the ninth century
BC (right after Israel’s kings David and Solomon) appears to portray the dedication
of an Ammonite king.
Extra-biblical evidence from archaeology and ancient texts clearly shows that
there was a group called the Ammonites well before the time of Christ. Archaeological
digs at the Citadel in Amman—the location of the ancient mound of the city Rabbath-Amman—uncovered
the remains of an Ammonite palace, including defensive walls.
The Moabites, located in the middle of Jordan, were also the descendants of
Lot (Genesis 19:37). They lived on the east side of the Dead Sea, across from
Israel. The Moabites are mentioned in Genesis 19:37 and Deuteronomy 2:9. It
was Balak, a Moabite king, who in Numbers 22–24 called on Balaam to curse Israel.
Also, the book of Ruth records the account of the Moabitess, Ruth, who appears
in Christ’s lineage (Matthew 1:5).
Outside of the Bible, can we know there really was a group of ancient people
called the Moabites? In 1868, the Moabite Stone was discovered, dating back
to the kings of the Old Testament. A monument created by Moabite King Mesha
(who rebelled against Judah in 2 Kings 3:4–27), also mentions “Omri, king of
Israel” by name. Many other Old Testament place names, as well as Chemosh, the
name of the Moabite god, appear on this stone (Numbers 21:29).
A damaged portion of its inscriptions appears to refer to “The House of David,”
though the first “D” is missing. If this reading is correct, it would help deal
another blow to the minimalists who say King David never existed.
To the south of the Ammonites and Moabites lived the Edomites, the descendants
of Esau, Jacob’s twin (Genesis 36).
While there is no longer any serious controversy as to whether the Edomites
of the Bible existed, most minimalists have rejected the claim in 1 Chronicles 1:43 that kings “reigned in the land of Edom before a king reigned over the
children of Israel.” But recent discoveries at Khirbat en-Nahas in Jordan have
Digs at Khirbat en-Nahas have uncovered a large copper-smelting operation,
dating to the tenth century BC.3
This timeframe is supported
by the discovery of pottery remnants, radiocarbon dating of olive pits, and
Egyptian artifacts. Egypt had a trading relationship with Solomon when he ruled the region, and Egypt ruled there shortly after Solomon’s death in the tenth century BC.
With thousands of tons of slag (the by-product of smelting ore) having been
found, it is clear this was part of a large-scale copper-mining operation.5 Simple tribal societies could not have accomplished
something of this magnitude. Edom certainly represented a nation (or part of
another well-established kingdom). Such compelling evidence runs counter to
The word Edom means “red” in Hebrew. Originally said of Esau (Genesis 25:30), it can also be connected with the famous red sandstone of the region.
We don’t know exactly what happened to the Edomites, just that the prophet Malachi
predicted their downfall. And we can still see the stone edifices of the Nabataeans
who eventually replaced them, including their deserted, but still-magnificent,
capital at Petra.
A visit to Jordan will enrich any Christian’s understanding of the Bible and
its history. Using the Bible as a roadmap, starting with Genesis, believers
will see that many significant biblical events took place in Jordan. Visiting
Jordan helps bring to life the Old Testament history that we already know to
SourceThis article originally appeared on answersingenesis.org