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Petra: The Definitive Guide

Petra in Biblical History
By Dr. Brian Barlow

In biblical times, this region was known as Seir or Sela, Petra was its Greek name (or may have come from the Arabic word 'batara' which means 'to cut', as it was actually carved from rock). The first inhabitants of Petra who appear in the biblical account were the Kenites (or Cainites), of the tribe of Cain, the son of Adam – tillers of soil. These peoples are different from the sons of Abel (Habil), who were shepherds. The modern descendants of Abel, are now called Bedu or Bedouin, the people from which today's modern Jordanians are descended.

These Kenite people were described by Josephus in his Jewish Antiquities i.2.2 and in Genesis 4:21-22 as being smiths and musicians. The entire Petra region abounds in old copper mines and metal-workings. The other early “men of Seir” were the descendants of their founding-father Seir the Horite. Their tribal headquarters was the Sela (Gen. 14.6) or modern day Petra.

Petra is mentioned extensively in the Bible especially as it concerns the sons of Isaac, Esau and Jacob. The account is well-known of how Jacob tricked Esau out of his birthright then deceived his blind father into giving him the tribal blessing (Genesis 25-27). Angry after is betrayal by Jacob, Esau took his wives and children and went into a land far away from his brother. He moved to a new land in the hill country of Seir; Esau is Edom, (Genesis 36:6-8) and Petra is Seir.

The Edomites became well-known as enemies of the ancient Hebrews, along with the Amalekites, the Moabites (people inhabiting the area around present day Madaba and Mt. Nebo) and the Ammonites (people inhabiting the area of today's Amman, the modern capital of Jordan).

Moving forward to Moses and the time of the Exodus, it was just outside the city of Petra that Moses struck the rock (Num. 20:7-11) when the Israelites were perishing from thirst in the desert. The desolate region surrounding Petra, which can still be seen today as it was then, is a stark and harsh environment with little or no vegetation or water. When Moses sent a message to King Rekem of Petra, asking permission to pass through Edom on his way North, the king refused and Moses and the Israelites had to take the longer route around.

The Israelites had been forewarned not to fight the Edomites (Deuteronomy 2:4-5) because that was not the land God had given them. They did buy food and water from the Edomites and journeyed on after Aaron, Moses' brother, died and was buried on Mt. Aaron (today's Jebal Haroun, the highest mountain in Petra, atop which rests an Islamic shrine to Aaron).

The curses on Petra began during this same period. Moses, in his final counsel before his death, reminded the children of Israel of the high places of sacrifices at Petra. He warned them of this idolatry and pronounced a terrible curse on Petra and its inhabitants (Deuteronomy 32:15-39.)

The rivalry between the Edomites and the Israelites was long and cruel. For more biblical references please read:

1 Sam. 14:47-8; 1 Sam. 21:7; 1 Sam. 22:11-19; 2 Sam. 8:13-14; 1 Chron. 18:12; 2 Chron. 8:17; 2 Chron. 20; 2 Chron. 25:5-14; Lam. 4:18-22; Ps. 137; Is. 8:19-22; Is. 15-16; Jer. 48-49; Ezek. 25:3-7, 13-14; Ezek 35; Is. 34; Obad. 1-18.