Kadesh and Petra

A couple of weeks ago, I became the happy owner of a Tübinger Bibelatlas (thanks Eisenbrauns!). It’s a beautiful atlas, though still not close to the absolutely magnificent Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World. While flipping through and reading what text there is, the relatively extended essay “Comment on the Sinai Map” by Götz Schmitt caught my eye. The Sinai Map is one of the four maps not originally appearing in the Tübinger Atlas des Vorderen Orients (or TAVO), which is the source for all the other maps, but which were produced especially for inclusion in the Tübinger Bibelatlas, and so the extended description of the map was considered necessary. There is a very interesting passage in Schmitt’s essay (“Comment on the Sinai Map,” col. 1 [there are no page numbers]):

There are two central issues for the geographical interpretation of the texts: Kadesh and Paran. The approximate location of Kadesh is taken from the list of borders in Num 34:3-5/Josh 15:3f. and Ez 47:18. According to this, Kadesh was on the southern border of Judah between the Dead Sea and the “Brook of Egypt” (Wādī Ġazza or Wādī l-ʿArīš). The name appears in ʿAin Qudēs; however, there is more in favor of the oasis and ruins at ʿAin al-Qudērāt ca. 10 km farther north. In the older sources, Kadesh is not of great significance (it is mentioned only in Num 13:26 and 20:1). It acquires this for the first time in Deuteronomy. Presumable reflected in this is an increased significance of Kadesh at that time. This corresponds to the archaeological discovery at Tall al-Qudērāt, a fortress that had existed in various times since the 10th century and was without equal in the region during itls last phase at the close of the monarchy.

Later, in the Roman period, we find Kadesh identified with Rekem, i.e., Petra, and correspondingly, Mount Hor with Ğabal Hārūn near Petra. E. A. Knauf has shown that we have to reckon with this secondary positioning of Kadesh even in Biblical texts (Biblische Notizen 61, 1992, 22-26). The negotiations that Moses held from his location in Kadesh for permission to pass through Edom (Num 21:14-21) have no meaning at all unless Kadesh Petra is meant. At best, passage through a small corner northwest of Edom would come into question, when viewed from the actual, Judean Kadesh. In any case, we now must deal with the question of what is meant by “Kadesh.” The list of borders in Num 34, through which we learn the true location of Kadesh, belongs to an addition of the Priestly Source. That the authors of the original text were also familiar with the content of this document is quite probable in view of the mention of the Wilderness of Zin. Thus, Kadesh in the Priestly Source is still the Kadesh south of Judah. The Mount Hor of the Priestly Source is probably there, as well, one station away from Kadesh. Just as Moses died near the border of the Promised Land, so too did Aaron.

So, there are several things going on here, but the most intriguing, indeed compelling, item is the equation of Kadesh with Petra. Knauf’s article, short as it is, packs alot of information into it in this regard. We’ll get to that in a moment.

First, I feel the need to note some of my own objections to some of the above, as I’ve dealt with several of these subjects in the past. The Shihor of Egypt, the border between Egypt and Israel, was at the easternmost branch of the Nile, not at a further distance from Egypt. Further, I tack otherwise in regards to the Documentary Hypothesis (that is, that it’s malarkey, and further, it is malarchy), describing an alternative perspective on the issue in two separate posts here and here, which I’ll expand upon in the future. My discussion will proceed in keeping with those perspectives. One may follow along or not as one wishes.

Knauf begins by noting the confusion resulting from trying to equate the location of Kadesh as described in Numbers 20, 21, and 33 with that of the “historical” (scare-quotes his) Kadesh in the Negev. As he says, “It is frequently disregarded that the biblical Kadesh is not necessarily, or not always, identical with the ‘historical’ Kadesh” (“Supplementa Ismaelitica 14: Mount Hor and Kadesh Barnea” Biblische Notizen 61 [1992]: 22). Indeed, it could just as easily be stated that the “assured results” of various scholars regarding the location of the Biblical Kadesh are anything but. This would explain the difficulties raised in trying to force various texts to fit into various scholarly paradigms rather than being led by the texts to attempt at gaining the understanding of the authors on where this place was.

The source of all the narrative locational information is, in Knauf’s estimation, the itinerary in Numbers 33. At the important point of Numbers 33.35-45, describing the intinerary leading up to the death of Aaron, Knauf says that this itinerary “only makes sense if all the places, including Kadesh, were located between the gulf of Aqabah and Moab” (ibid. 22). That is, in the very middle of this itinerary situated in a line from along the western coast of the Gulf of Aqabah (Numbers 33.35-36) all the way north into the Arabah to Moab (41-45), Kadesh, if really in the Negev, would require an extensive detour, unlikely and unmentioned. The list of various identifiable stops are not given for a side-trip into the Negev. Knauf places Kadesh at al-Jī, in the valley just east of the Siq (22-23). There would thus be one stage of travel, through the Siq and down Wadi Musa to Jabal Harun, followed by a second stage to reach the Arabah, descending from Jabal Harun. The clincher is in the geography. With Kadesh in the Negev, regardless of the location of Zalmonah, the itinerary would differ from the order in Num 33.41-43: having left Kadesh (at either ʿAin Qudēs or ʿAin al-Qudērāt) and Mount Hor, they would make their way through Oboth (ʿAin el-Wēbeh) to Punon (Fēnān), rather than in the Biblical order of Kadesh to Mount Hor to Zalmonah to Punon to Oboth (Knauf, 22-23).

Anson Rainey and R. Steven Notley in The Sacred Bridge (Carta, 2006) make a hash of this entire sequence through not only placing Kadesh at ʿAin al-Qudērāt, but by making a couple of questionable leaps in associating both Zalmonah and Oboth with particular (late) ruins (see the map on p. 123). Their explanation is interesting (p. 121):

The key to understanding the geography here is the recognition that Israel’s encounter with Edom took place on the western side of the Arabah. This might be a seventh/sixth century BCE outlook since it is now well documented that Edom did move westward in that period (Lindsay 1999). But it could also represent a time in the early Iron Age; the Edomites may have been another element in the Shasu who had roamed the Sinai expanses during the time of the XIXth Dynasty (cf. discussion of Papyrus Anastasi VI, supra). Once the western location of these Edomites is understood, the subsequent itinerary, going around them, makes sense. It also obviates the late Jewish (Targums) and Christian (Eus. Onom. 112:8-12) misconception that Kadesh-barnea was located at or near Petra.

Notice that “might be,” “could,” and “may have been” lead to “makes sense” and “obviates” precisely the kind of historical geographic tradition that these guys otherwise thrive on. Apparently it’s not obscure enough, or people have believed it for too long, for them to leave it alone. Let us note, also, that a Western Edom is never explicitly described in the Bible. Not a single reference to Edom in the Old Testament requires such a reading, and the overwhelming majority forbid it through context. That evidence should be taken more seriously. One really cannot take the “might be,” “could,” and “may have been” above seriously at all. Such is wishful thinking, not argumentation, and certainly not fact. (I confess here to a serious disappointment with The Sacred Bridge; I don’t find it a worthy successor of the Carta Bible Atlas and/or its predecessor the MacMillan Bible Atlas, colorful as it is, precisely for this perpetual attitude dogmatic assertiveness, which is only a mask for contrarian speculation.)

So, the case seems to be that when the books of especially the Pentateuch were written, the location of Kadesh was understood to be in the vicinity of Petra/Rekem, whether at al-Jī (which valley would make a fine camping site for a few thousand people) or elsewhere nearby. These traditions do not appear to have been misunderstood, judging by the sensible order found in the itineraries. They appear to have been entirely reliably transmitted, both in writing and within the living memory of the communities in the region. Though the precise identifications of many sites have subsequently been lost, what we do have points in a particular direction in this case. That contrary modern hypotheses based on multiple layers of erroneous suppositions fail to support such identification is not surprising: throwing stones in houses of cards built on sand seldom results in helpful solutions.

It will be interesting to investigate further the implications of this identification of Kadesh with the area of Petra, particularly in its effect on understanding it in the descriptions of the southern border of the Promised Land. In light of all the above, I’d say the southern border description in Numbers 34 requires to be understood as a line beginning at the southern shore of the dead sea, going straight south, then bulging eastward a bit to include the area of Zin in which Kadesh is found, and then the line turns west, excluding central and southern Sinai, to come up against the Shihor, the Pelusiac branch of the Nile and the border of Egypt, which ran to the Mediterranean. That will be something to look into some more.


  1. Interesting that your post is talking about Jabal Harun so soon after I first discovered it for myself! Now, I’ll likely see references to it all the time!

    So, I can’t follow all of this, but am I reading you right in thinking you believe Kadesh (or ‘Kaddis’ as I think it reads in my trans. from the LXX Psalter) to be in the area of Petra? Sorry, I’ve never paid much attention to Biblical geography!

    1. Yes, Aaron, Kadesh (Kadesh-Barnea, Meribah, etc) seems to have been just outside the rather famous narrow rock gorge they call the Siq, in an area called al-Ji, “the valley,” if not within the actual area we consider Petra now.

      I had actually thought I’d left a comment about it for you over there, but must have forgotten, unfortunately. It’s a very interesting connection, and one that is sensible. It’s hard to understand why anyone would suggest it otherwise: a major shrine to a pagan deity being the burial place of Aaron? Needless to say, one shouldn’t expect much if any trace of a few thousand pastoralists wandering around the area well over a thousand years before Petra became famous as the Nabatean capital.

      I also wanted to mention the beautiful book Petra and the Lost Kingdom of the Nabataeans by Jane Taylor (Harvard, 2002). She’s a very good photographer, and the book is absolutely packed with beautiful full-color photos of Petra and other Nabatean sites. Highly recommended. The hardcover (which I think was the last book I bought from the Graduate Theological Union Bookstore in Berkeley just before it closed) is out of print, but the paperback will be in stock again in March, it says.

  2. By the way, I scanned the page you linked to on the exaggerated numbers in the OT. It’s too bad, because the 185,000 Assyrians in 2 Kgs 19:35 sounds especially impressive in the context of the Vita Antonii, when St Anthony says, ‘Did he not rather wield his power in silence when he laid low one hundred and eighty five thousand of the enemy, more swiftly than it can be related, at the Lord’s command?’ (VA 28)

    1. Yes, it’s disappointing, I think, because someone felt it necessary to inflate the numbers at some point, but this takes us a step away from the truth, though fortunately the truth appears to be recoverable in the case of these numbers.

      But we know this is an inflated, if impressive, number, because the Assyrian army wasn’t ever that big! No one had armies that big until the Persian period. The point is not the numbers killed, but the miracle of God in killing them at the right moment. Again, as in all the very many other miracles recorded in the Old Testament, the miracle itself is not an unnatural event, but the timing is perfect, with the benefit to the people of God.

  3. I have just completed a four year study of the Exodus and have been able to prove, from the scriptures two important and definative matters:

    1. the crossing point of the Red Sea MUST be the Gulf of Aqaba. Straits of Tiran (This forces a Mt. Sinai in Saudi Arabia, maybe at Lawz.)

    2. Kadesh is transjordan (at or just north of Petra)

    Now I started with scripture alone, then moved on to archeology and history as secondary witnesses.

    here is the link to the page that proves these two from the Bible:


    Steve Rudd

  4. Amongst several fatal objections of Petra as Kadesh Barnea is that it is on the King’s Highway in the Land of Edom..both of which the Israelites were forbidden to trod.

    Another objection is the fact Kadesh Barnea was on the border of the “Land of the
    Amorites”…which Petra is certainly not. If we follow the bible and not the conjectures
    of men then the border of the Amorites west of the Jordan was north of Sidon, near
    Aphek (Joshua 13:4)..precisely where the Egyptian Amarna Letters, and other ancient
    texts place it. The notion of a “Land of the Amorites” in the south of Canaan is pure
    Yes, there were 5 Amorite Kings…but look a bit closer. One was king of Jerusalem,
    a Jebusite city, another of Hebron in the land of the Hittites. The Amorites were simply the ruling class of Canaan. Besides, if all the Amorite kings were buried in a
    cave..where did the northern Amorite Kings from the “Hill Country” who fought with King Jabin (Joshua 11:1) Come from?
    Historians place the Amorites, also known as the Amurru in the northern Levant.
    Eusebius calls Mt Hermon the “Mount of the Amorites”
    He also says the Amalekites lived to the west of Petra, south to Elath.
    This agrees with the fact the Kenites lived with the Amalekites south of Arad.
    Finally the bible itself tells you the destination of the Israelites from Sinai:
    Joshua 24: 8 “‘I brought you to the land of the Amorites who lived east of the Jordan.”
    A “Land of the Amorites” in southern Canaan is perhaps one of the biggest, and most
    easily disproved myths of all time.
    So, fact #1. Petra was in Edom. #2 It was no where near the “Land of the Amorites”
    So Petra as Kadesh Barnea is wishful thinking

  5. It is necessary to recall that pre-exilic Edom was restricted to east of the Arabah, and that their territorial gains in the Negev and other southern territories of the Judahite kingdom took place after the fall of that kingdom. Edom then eventually became solely equated with that western portion, the eastern portion coming to be territory of the Nabateans.

    Further, the usage of “Amorites” is extremely flexible in every place where it is mentioned in the OT, which flexibility indicates a very broad meaning. From a Mesopotamian perspective, yes, northern Syria is referred to as Amurru because it was west of them, and that’s what the word means, “the west.” But in the OT, “Amorites” appears to refer to any and all of the congerie of rulers throughout Cis- and Transjordan, whether bearing Hurrian or “Amorite” (Semitic) names.

    In any case, there is a long and respectable association of Petra with Kadesh Barnea. The geographic gymnastics required to set it in the central Negev are, frankly, worthy only of ridicule.

  6. I lean towards there being two separate Kadesh. Barnia ealry in the wandeirng and Meribah at the end which they reach in Number 21. The later I think is Petra while Barnea could be the current mainstream site of Kadesh since one could enter Judea from there without needing to go through Edom.

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