When God . . . was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles . . . I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. (Gal. 1:15–17) – Apostle Paul
Massive rock formations in southern Jordan still echo tragedy from the Old Testament era. In the eighth century BC, people of Judah captured ten thousand Edomites from this region, “took them to the top of Sela, and threw them down . . . so that all of them were dashed to pieces” (2 Chron. 5:12). Sela is Hebrew for “rock,” likely this place later called Petra (also meaning “rock” in Greek) southeast of the Dead Sea.
Visitors to ruins of Petra today enter through the half-mile-long Siq—perhaps the very canyon into which Edomites were hurled. At places two hundred and fifty feet deep, the canyon served as a secure entrance to the thriving trade city of Petra in the New Testament era.
It is possible that Paul the apostle walked through this tunnel-like corridor shortly after his conversion. Paul had to flee Damascus, and headed south to “Arabia” (Gal. 1:17). The most logical place he would have gone is Petra, capital of the Nabataeans who controlled spice trade caravan routes stretching to India.
At that time King Aretas of Petra governed territory as far as Damascus, two hundred miles to the north. When Paul returned to Damascus from Arabia, “the governor under King Aretas guarded the city . . . in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands” (2 Cor. 11:32-33).
Why might King Aretas of Petra have wanted Paul arrested? Did Paul evangelize in Petra, a city full of pagan religion, so upsetting Aretas that the Nabataean king ordered him arrested in Damascus?
If Paul brought the good news of Jesus to Petra, he was in the heart of Edom, a region that often was hostile to Jews. Esau, who wanted to kill his twin brother Jacob, lived in Edom. Edomites denied Israelites permission to pass through this territory when they were on their way from Egypt to Canaan (Num. 20:14–21).
When Babylon destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC, Edomites gloated, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!” (Ps. 137:7) Herod the Great, hated by many when he ruled Judea in the first century BC, came from an Idumaean father and Nabataean mother. Idumeans were descendants of the Edomites, and Nabataeans were Arabic people who conquered them.
Contrary to impressions given by Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, spectacular buildings carved into stone at Petra really are just facades for what likely were Nabataean tombs. If Paul indeed walked by these monumental structures soon after his conversion, he was on a mission to find reconciliation with people long hated and feared by his Jewish ancestors.
© 2015 J. Nelson Kraybill ****************************************************
I invite you to enter your email address in the designated box at the edge of this webpage (if you have not already subscribed), and click Follow. You’ll get a notice every three weeks when I put up a new blog post.
Want to see Jordan, Israel, Palestine? Join me for a Peace-Pilgrim bible study tour this fall! See Holy Land (Jordan, Israel & Palestine) with Pastor Nelson Kraybill – November 5-16, 2015. For a similar tour in 2016, see https://tourmagination.com/tours/by-date/2016-tours/498-jordan-palestine-israel-a-journey-of-hope