Petra is the name given to the (remains of) an ancient city of Edom. It was re-discovered in 1812 by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt after being lost for nearly six hundred years. On the pretext of making a sacrifice at the tomb of Aaron, (Jebel Haroun), Burckhardt persuaded a native guide to lead him through the Siq to Petra. The account of his journey, including reference to the hundreds of rock-cut tombs with ornate facades, published posthumously in 1822, encouraged other travellers to visit the city and write of their journeys. In 1929 systematic archaeological investigation was begun by George Horsfield under the Petra Exploration Fund Expedition. As might be expected, the published results of these investigations created the urge for many people to visit the site. It therefore became a Jordanian tourist attraction, with the fascination of its temples and mausoleums cut into the red sandstone cliffs. The name “Petra” does not occur in the Bible, but it is thought to be synonymous with Mount Seir, or Sela, translated in the Septuagint Version as Petra, hence the name has stuck ever since. Dean John William Burgon (1813 – 1888) the English clergyman and Professor of Divinity, visited the region in the early days after its discovery, and subsequently wrote a poem in 1848 entitled “Petra”, –
Match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
A rose-red city, ‘half as old as time.’
According to Deut.2:22 the Horites had inhabited Seir before they were driven out by the Edomites, and eventually these descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau established a kingdom in the region, with Petra as its capital and stronghold. (Gen.36:9) Some of the crags of Nubian red sandstone rise to 5000 feet above sea level, and therefore attract enough rainfall for some cultivation and animal husbandry. But perhaps the most important physical advantage of Seir in ancient times was its location, within theArabah, (the Rift Valley), positioned to control the trade routes from Arabia and the Red Sea. It was the only route possible from the south into Palestine, without making a very long detour.
At the time of the Exodus the Edomites appear to have been a powerful nation under a king, and on the Israelites requesting permission to pass through Mount Seir, by the King’s Highway, on their journey towards the plains of Moab, they were refused. The Edomites made a demonstration of force to resist the passage. (Numb.20:14-21) Hear the story as Moses related it – “Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom, ‘Thus says your brother Israel – – – we are here in Kadesh, a city on the edge of your territory. Now let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or vineyard, neither will we drink water from a well; we will go along the King’s Highway, we will not turn aside to the right hand or to the left, until we have passed through your territory.’ But Edom said to him, ‘You shall not pass through, lest I come out with a sword against you.’ And the people of Israel said to him, ‘We will go up by the Highway; and if we drink of your water, I and my cattle, then I will pay for it; only let me pass through on foot, nothing more.’ But he said, ‘You shall not pass through.’ And Edom came out against them with many men, and with a strong force. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his territory; so Israel turned away from him.” They were therefore forced to “compass the land of Edom.” (Numb.21:4) Afterwards, the Lord told Moses not to “contend with their brethren, the children of Esau,” for God had “given Mount Seir unto Esau for a possession” Even as late as the days of King David they were able to make war, and cause trouble. But this does not mean they were an intrinsically powerful nation, but rather that they possessed a geographical stronghold that was more or less invincible.
And now for a little more geographical detail. Petra, the famous capital city, was situated in a fertile well-watered basin of the Wadi Musa, (named after Moses) at an elevation of 2700 feet in the Jordanian highlands, about 50 miles south of the Dead Sea. The site is approximately one mile long and barely half a mile wide, bounded on east and west by parallel ridges of sandstone rising more than a thousand feet above the plateau.To the north and south the area is open, and although access to the city is possible over steep and difficult trails from these directions, entry is, and was, generally made through a colourful, narrow, twisting cleft in the eastern ridge known as “the Siq.” And so Petra was the capital of a trading empire, connecting the southern port of Ezion Geba with northern towns likeAmmon and Damascus, and was the point where the trade route from Gaza by way of Beersheba and the Ascent of Akrabim joined the north-south route. The Edomites dwelling in Petra were therefore favoured by the continual passage of caravans bringing goods from north and south, which made their life militarily secure, pleasurable, luxurious, and economically viable. The gateways into and out of their city were easily guarded by small contingents of soldiers. They were able to allow or refuse at will, those who approached their city fortress. Whereas other cities needed walls, ramparts, and many troops, the Edomites possessed the ultimate in terms of security. And in the process of time this engendered pride amongst its people.
In some ways they reminded one of the luxuries of Sodom, and the “middle-man” empire of Tyre. God overthrew Sodom and the other cities of the plain by the judgment of fire and brimstone, as an example of judgment on incurably wicked men. He overthrew the wickedness of Tyre prophetically, calling in the armies of Nebuchadnezzar. But this king was unable to subdue the island fortress, only the mainland town. It was left to Alexander the Great to build a mole across the waterway, and invest the island city. But what about the pride of Petra, the city of Edom? How was it overcome? The Lord has many ways and methods of dealing with the intransigence of men who refuse to behave in a humanitarian way. The ultimate fate of Petra is an interesting example of divine judgment. Let us see.
Time went by. Esau’s people remained as an invincible Edomite empire from the days of Genesis right through to the time of Judah’s captivity under Nebuchadnezzar. It was then that the wrath of God arose against Edom, and He called for His prophet Obadiah to pronounce judgment upon her. Why? Hear the Lord’s words – “Behold, I will make you small among the nations, you shall be utterly despised. The pride of your heart had deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rock, whose dwelling is high, who say in your heart, ‘Who will bring me down to the ground?’ Though you soar aloft like the eagle, though your nest is set among the stars, thence I will bring you down, says the Lord.” What triggered off this strong word? “For the violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off for ever. On the day that you stood aloof, on the day that strangers carried off his wealth, and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were like one of them. But you should not have gloated over the day of your brother, in the day of his misfortune; you should not have rejoiced over the people of Judah in the day of their ruin; you should not have boasted in the day of distress. You should not have entered the gate of my people in the day of his calamity; you should not have gloated over his disaster in the day of his calamity; you should not have looted his goods in the day of his calamity; you should not have stood at the parting of the ways to cut off his fugitives; you should not have delivered up his survivors in the day of distress.”
The Lord also gave Ezekiel strong words of denunciation of the Edomites as a result of their shameful behaviour towards their brother Israel. Hear the words of the Lord – (Ezek.35:10-15)“Because you said, ‘These two nations and these two countries shall be mine, and we will take possession of them,’ (although the Lord was there,) therefore, as I live, says the Lord God, I will deal with you according to the anger and envy which you showed because of your hatred against them; and I will make myself known among you, when I judge you. And you shall know that I, the Lord, have heard all the reviling which you uttered against the mountains of Israel, saying, ‘They are laid desolate, they are given to us to devour.’ And you magnified yourselves against me with your mouth, and multiplied your words against me, and I heard it. Thus says the Lord God: For the rejoicing of the whole earth I will make you desolate. 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.”
History records that shortly afterwards the prophecy came true. The Edomites were vanquished, and the land became desolate, thereafter to be taken by another nation, the Nabataeans. But how did it come about? Was it by military conquest? No. That would have been impossible for reasons shown already. A simple device was used, and one which required not a single arrow, spear, or weapon of war. For reasons which are not apparent, the nations that used to use the narrow route through Petra for their trading decided to take another course. Petra was left alone. She languished for lack of commodities. Her pride was brought low. Eventually internal strife and feud, coupled with famines, caused the intractable hordes to emerge from their mountain fastnesses, and never return. TheEdomite people scattered and mingled, so that today, no one is able to determine where they are. They are no longer a nation or a people. Dean Burgon has well expressed the desolation in other words of his poem, “Petra.”
How changed – how fallen! All her glory fled,
The Widow’d City mourns her many dead.
Like some fond heart which gaunt disease hath left
Of all it lived for – all it loved – bereft;
Mute in its anguish; struck with pangs too deep
For words to utter, or for tears to weep.
The Lord said, through Obadiah, “The day of the Lord is upon all nations. As you have done, it shall be done to you, your deeds shall return to your own head.” Paul echoed this to the Galatians, when he said, “God is not mocked: for whatever a man sows, that shall he also reap.”(Gal.6:7) This is a universal law, which cannot be changed. It may be called the boomerang effect. Righteous deeds return with righteous rewards; unrighteous deeds return to devastate those who seek ill of others. We have seen in this brief sketch how God used three methods against inhumanity, Fire for Sodom, Siege for Tyre, and Starvation for Petra. If the boomerang fails to return in this life, one needs to know that it is still in flight in the next.
So how will God deal with the men who are causing the present world to be filled with fear and foreboding? Will military might expose and arraign bin-Laden? It is highly unlikely. The man is cunning, intelligent, and under the demonic sway of a religion that breeds hatred of all save Moslems. He has carved out for himself underground shelters, and found others who can masquerade as “look-alikes”. He is rich and influential, a master of the minds of many thousands of Islamics. What chance is there of overcoming the Taleban movement? It was easier to conquer Hitler’s Germany, even though it cost thousands of lives. What can bring his ultimate fate, this son of Ishmael, half-brother of Isaac, out for the blood of Israel and the Jews? Will he destroy himself through pride and vain-glory? Or will some of his henchmen defect and betray him?
I sought the Lord, and He brought to mind a vision He gave us some 30 years ago, when we asked a similar question. I saw a mediaeval town, surrounded by high walls. Inside there were many dwellings, jostling with people. In the centre of the enclosure was a Keep, a tall tower with battlements on the top. And I saw the proud, haughty and wicked King of that town enter, with his bodyguard, via the drawbridge, which was raised, and the portcullis lowered. The king made his way to the Keep, and climbed the narrow winding stairway to the top, where he entered his own apartment. He closed the door behind him and bolted it. Outside two sentries were on duty. There was just one window in the room, consisting of an open space arrayed with vertical iron bars. The King disrobed, knowing that he was absolutely safe. No one could reach him, attack him, wound him, or kill him. He stretched, yawned, and laid himself down on a bed settled on a stone ledge, with his bare feet beneath the window. In his state of absolute security, he easily and quickly fell asleep. After a while a robin alighted on the window with a feather in its mouth, which dropped and slowly floated down to touch the King’s toes. It tickled him, and he awoke, sitting up quickly, whereupon his forehead came into smart contact with an overhanging buttress. The blow was so great that he fell backwards, dead.