The Kings Who Reigned in the Land of Edom: A Kabbalistic Metaphor of the Primeval Worlds (Study Sheet)

The anomolous list of the Kings of Edom in chapter 36 of Genesis has attracted exegetical attention for centuries. In the Hebrew Bible, Edom is associated with Esau, the first born son of Isaac and Rebecca, who preceded his twin brother Jacob in birth. In the midrash, Edom is also associated with the Roman Empire. In medieval kabbalistic texts, Edom is often used as a metaphor for Christianity

(לא) וְאֵ֙לֶּה֙ הַמְּלָכִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר מָלְכ֖וּ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ אֱד֑וֹם לִפְנֵ֥י מְלָךְ־מֶ֖לֶךְ לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (לב) וַיִּמְלֹ֣ךְ בֶּאֱד֔וֹם בֶּ֖לַע בֶּן־בְּע֑וֹר וְשֵׁ֥ם עִיר֖וֹ דִּנְהָֽבָה׃ (לג) וַיָּ֖מָת בָּ֑לַע וַיִּמְלֹ֣ךְ תַּחְתָּ֔יו יוֹבָ֥ב בֶּן־זֶ֖רַח מִבָּצְרָֽה׃ (לד) וַיָּ֖מָת יוֹבָ֑ב וַיִּמְלֹ֣ךְ תַּחְתָּ֔יו חֻשָׁ֖ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ הַתֵּימָנִֽי׃ (לה) וַיָּ֖מָת חֻשָׁ֑ם וַיִּמְלֹ֨ךְ תַּחְתָּ֜יו הֲדַ֣ד בֶּן־בְּדַ֗ד הַמַּכֶּ֤ה אֶת־מִדְיָן֙ בִּשְׂדֵ֣ה מוֹאָ֔ב וְשֵׁ֥ם עִיר֖וֹ עֲוִֽית׃ (לו) וַיָּ֖מָת הֲדָ֑ד וַיִּמְלֹ֣ךְ תַּחְתָּ֔יו שַׂמְלָ֖ה מִמַּשְׂרֵקָֽה׃ (לז) וַיָּ֖מָת שַׂמְלָ֑ה וַיִּמְלֹ֣ךְ תַּחְתָּ֔יו שָׁא֖וּל מֵרְחֹב֥וֹת הַנָּהָֽר׃ (לח) וַיָּ֖מָת שָׁא֑וּל וַיִּמְלֹ֣ךְ תַּחְתָּ֔יו בַּ֥עַל חָנָ֖ן בֶּן־עַכְבּֽוֹר׃ (לט) וַיָּמָת֮ בַּ֣עַל חָנָ֣ן בֶּן־עַכְבּוֹר֒ וַיִּמְלֹ֤ךְ תַּחְתָּיו֙ הֲדַ֔ר וְשֵׁ֥ם עִיר֖וֹ פָּ֑עוּ וְשֵׁ֨ם אִשְׁתּ֤וֹ מְהֵֽיטַבְאֵל֙ בַּת־מַטְרֵ֔ד בַּ֖ת מֵ֥י זָהָֽב׃ (מ) וְ֠אֵלֶּה שְׁמ֞וֹת אַלּוּפֵ֤י עֵשָׂו֙ לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֔ם לִמְקֹמֹתָ֖ם בִּשְׁמֹתָ֑ם אַלּ֥וּף תִּמְנָ֛ע אַלּ֥וּף עַֽלְוָ֖ה אַלּ֥וּף יְתֵֽת׃ (מא) אַלּ֧וּף אָהֳלִיבָמָ֛ה אַלּ֥וּף אֵלָ֖ה אַלּ֥וּף פִּינֹֽן׃ (מב) אַלּ֥וּף קְנַ֛ז אַלּ֥וּף תֵּימָ֖ן אַלּ֥וּף מִבְצָֽר׃ (מג) אַלּ֥וּף מַגְדִּיאֵ֖ל אַלּ֣וּף עִירָ֑ם אֵ֣לֶּה ׀ אַלּוּפֵ֣י אֱד֗וֹם לְמֹֽשְׁבֹתָם֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ אֲחֻזָּתָ֔ם ה֥וּא עֵשָׂ֖ו אֲבִ֥י אֱדֽוֹם׃ (פ)

(31) These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned over the Israelites. (32) Bela son of Beor reigned in Edom, and the name of his city was Dinhabah. (33) When Bela died, Jobab son of Zerah, from Bozrah, succeeded him as king. (34) When Jobab died, Husham of the land of the Temanites succeeded him as king. (35) When Husham died, Hadad son of Bedad, who defeated the Midianites in the country of Moab, succeeded him as king; the name of his city was Avith. (36) When Hadad died, Samlah of Masrekah succeeded him as king. (37) When Samlah died, Saul of Rehoboth-on-the-river succeeded him as king. (38) When Saul died, Baal-hanan son of Achbor succeeded him as king. (39) And when Baal-hanan son of Achbor died, Hadar succeeded him as king; the name of his city was Pau, and his wife’s name was Mehetabel daughter of Matred daughter of Me-zahab. (40) These are the names of the clans of Esau, each with its families and locality, name by name: the clans Timna, Alvah, Jetheth, (41) Oholibamah, Elah, Pinon, (42) Kenaz, Teman, Mibzar, (43) Magdiel, and Iram. Those are the clans of Edom—that is, of Esau, father of the Edomites—by their settlements in the land which they hold.

Commentary on Genesis 36

JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, Nahum Sarna, at 408.

This list is not genealogical like the others, but it simply details eight kings who ruled in Edom prior to the establishment of the Israelite monarchy. The register is characterized by a lack of uniformity and by an assortment of anomalies: The length of the monarch’s reign is never given; in four cases the father’s name is recorded, in four not; a place-name is attached to seven kings, but in three instances the formula is “the name of his city was X,” and in four there is simply the particle “from”; no place-name is repeated; with two kings some additional information of a personal nature is brought; remarkably, no king is succeeded by his son, yet the invariable formula “When X died, Y succeeded him as king” suggests unbroken continuity. The royal record inserted here is unique in the Hebrew Bible.

The Steinsaltz Humash, (2nd Ed.) Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz at 198

The significance of this list of Edomite kings is unclear. There is no evident reason why this chronology is mentioned in the Torah, as it does not appear to be relevant in any way to the history of the Jewish people. In the mystical works of the Kabbala, this is interpreted as an important list of mysterious, fundamental symbols, which allude to heavenly forces that existed before the world as we know it came into being. Furthermore, the rise of a monarchy in Edom before there was an Israelite king reflects the depth of the relationship between the twin brothers, Esau and Jacob. In many aspects, Esau is the shadow of Jacob.

Esau and Edom Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible

In the Hebrew Bible, Edom has a rich series of associations, from sibling rivalry, to warring opponent, treacherous kindred and perhaps, finally, to reconciled brothers. Edom is associated with Esau, who forfeited his birthright (Gen 25:32), with the kingdom that refused to let the Israelites pass through their territory on the Exodus from Egypt (Numbers 20:14-21), with the color red (Gen. 25:25), with the uncircumcised (Jer. 9:25) and with those who rejoiced at the destruction of Judah (Eze. 35:15). The Kabbalists, always close readers of the Hebrew Bible, used all these associations in their discussion of the "Kings of Edom."

(כב) וַיִּתְרֹֽצֲצ֤וּ הַבָּנִים֙ בְּקִרְבָּ֔הּ וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ לִדְרֹ֥שׁ אֶת־יְהוָֽה׃ (כג) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה לָ֗הּ שְׁנֵ֤י גיים [גוֹיִם֙] בְּבִטְנֵ֔ךְ וּשְׁנֵ֣י לְאֻמִּ֔ים מִמֵּעַ֖יִךְ יִפָּרֵ֑דוּ וּלְאֹם֙ מִלְאֹ֣ם יֶֽאֱמָ֔ץ וְרַ֖ב יַעֲבֹ֥ד צָעִֽיר׃ (כד) וַיִּמְלְא֥וּ יָמֶ֖יהָ לָלֶ֑דֶת וְהִנֵּ֥ה תוֹמִ֖ם בְּבִטְנָֽהּ׃ (כה) וַיֵּצֵ֤א הָרִאשׁוֹן֙ אַדְמוֹנִ֔י כֻּלּ֖וֹ כְּאַדֶּ֣רֶת שֵׂעָ֑ר וַיִּקְרְא֥וּ שְׁמ֖וֹ עֵשָֽׂו׃ (כו) וְאַֽחֲרֵי־כֵ֞ן יָצָ֣א אָחִ֗יו וְיָד֤וֹ אֹחֶ֙זֶת֙ בַּעֲקֵ֣ב עֵשָׂ֔ו וַיִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ יַעֲקֹ֑ב וְיִצְחָ֛ק בֶּן־שִׁשִּׁ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה בְּלֶ֥דֶת אֹתָֽם׃ (כז) וַֽיִּגְדְּלוּ֙ הַנְּעָרִ֔ים וַיְהִ֣י עֵשָׂ֗ו אִ֛ישׁ יֹדֵ֥עַ צַ֖יִד אִ֣ישׁ שָׂדֶ֑ה וְיַעֲקֹב֙ אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם יֹשֵׁ֖ב אֹהָלִֽים׃
(22) But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” She went to inquire of the LORD, (23) and the LORD answered her, “Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.” (24) When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. (25) The first one emerged red, like a hairy mantle all over; so they named him Esau. (26) Then his brother emerged, holding on to the heel of Esau; so they named him Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when they were born. (27) When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp.
(ל) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר עֵשָׂ֜ו אֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֗ב הַלְעִיטֵ֤נִי נָא֙ מִן־הָאָדֹ֤ם הָאָדֹם֙ הַזֶּ֔ה כִּ֥י עָיֵ֖ף אָנֹ֑כִי עַל־כֵּ֥ן קָרָֽא־שְׁמ֖וֹ אֱדֽוֹם׃ (לא) וַיֹּ֖אמֶר יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִכְרָ֥ה כַיּ֛וֹם אֶת־בְּכֹֽרָתְךָ֖ לִֽי׃ (לב) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר עֵשָׂ֔ו הִנֵּ֛ה אָנֹכִ֥י הוֹלֵ֖ךְ לָמ֑וּת וְלָמָּה־זֶּ֥ה לִ֖י בְּכֹרָֽה׃ (לג) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יַעֲקֹ֗ב הִשָּׁ֤בְעָה לִּי֙ כַּיּ֔וֹם וַיִּשָּׁבַ֖ע ל֑וֹ וַיִּמְכֹּ֥ר אֶת־בְּכֹרָת֖וֹ לְיַעֲקֹֽב׃ (לד) וְיַעֲקֹ֞ב נָתַ֣ן לְעֵשָׂ֗ו לֶ֚חֶם וּנְזִ֣יד עֲדָשִׁ֔ים וַיֹּ֣אכַל וַיֵּ֔שְׁתְּ וַיָּ֖קָם וַיֵּלַ֑ךְ וַיִּ֥בֶז עֵשָׂ֖ו אֶת־הַבְּכֹרָֽה׃ (ס)
(30) And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished”—which is why he was named Edom. (31) Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” (32) And Esau said, “I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?” (33) But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. (34) Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright.
(א) וְאֵ֛לֶּה תֹּלְד֥וֹת עֵשָׂ֖ו ה֥וּא אֱדֽוֹם׃ (ב) עֵשָׂ֛ו לָקַ֥ח אֶת־נָשָׁ֖יו מִבְּנ֣וֹת כְּנָ֑עַן אֶת־עָדָ֗ה בַּת־אֵילוֹן֙ הַֽחִתִּ֔י וְאֶת־אָהֳלִֽיבָמָה֙ בַּת־עֲנָ֔ה בַּת־צִבְע֖וֹן הַֽחִוִּֽי׃ (ג) וְאֶת־בָּשְׂמַ֥ת בַּת־יִשְׁמָעֵ֖אל אֲח֥וֹת נְבָיֽוֹת׃ (ד) וַתֵּ֧לֶד עָדָ֛ה לְעֵשָׂ֖ו אֶת־אֱלִיפָ֑ז וּבָ֣שְׂמַ֔ת יָלְדָ֖ה אֶת־רְעוּאֵֽל׃ (ה) וְאָהֳלִֽיבָמָה֙ יָֽלְדָ֔ה אֶת־יעיש [יְע֥וּשׁ] וְאֶת־יַעְלָ֖ם וְאֶת־קֹ֑רַח אֵ֚לֶּה בְּנֵ֣י עֵשָׂ֔ו אֲשֶׁ֥ר יֻלְּדוּ־ל֖וֹ בְּאֶ֥רֶץ כְּנָֽעַן׃ (ו) וַיִּקַּ֣ח עֵשָׂ֡ו אֶת־נָ֠שָׁיו וְאֶת־בָּנָ֣יו וְאֶת־בְּנֹתָיו֮ וְאֶת־כָּל־נַפְשׁ֣וֹת בֵּיתוֹ֒ וְאֶת־מִקְנֵ֣הוּ וְאֶת־כָּל־בְּהֶמְתּ֗וֹ וְאֵת֙ כָּל־קִנְיָנ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר רָכַ֖שׁ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ אֶל־אֶ֔רֶץ מִפְּנֵ֖י יַעֲקֹ֥ב אָחִֽיו׃ (ז) כִּֽי־הָיָ֧ה רְכוּשָׁ֛ם רָ֖ב מִשֶּׁ֣בֶת יַחְדָּ֑ו וְלֹ֨א יָֽכְלָ֜ה אֶ֤רֶץ מְגֽוּרֵיהֶם֙ לָשֵׂ֣את אֹתָ֔ם מִפְּנֵ֖י מִקְנֵיהֶֽם׃ (ח) וַיֵּ֤שֶׁב עֵשָׂו֙ בְּהַ֣ר שֵׂעִ֔יר עֵשָׂ֖ו ה֥וּא אֱדֽוֹם׃ (ט) וְאֵ֛לֶּה תֹּלְד֥וֹת עֵשָׂ֖ו אֲבִ֣י אֱד֑וֹם בְּהַ֖ר שֵׂעִֽיר׃
(1) This is the line of Esau—that is, Edom. (2) Esau took his wives from among the Canaanite women—Adah daughter of Elon the Hittite, and Oholibamah daughter of Anah daughter of Zibeon the Hivite (3) and also Basemath daughter of Ishmael and sister of Nebaioth. (4) Adah bore to Esau Eliphaz; Basemath bore Reuel; (5) and Oholibamah bore Jeush, Jalam, and Korah. Those were the sons of Esau, who were born to him in the land of Canaan. (6) Esau took his wives, his sons and daughters, and all the members of his household, his cattle and all his livestock, and all the property that he had acquired in the land of Canaan, and went to another land because of his brother Jacob. (7) For their possessions were too many for them to dwell together, and the land where they sojourned could not support them because of their livestock. (8) So Esau settled in the hill country of Seir—Esau being Edom. (9) This, then, is the line of Esau, the ancestor of the Edomites, in the hill country of Seir.
(ח) לֹֽא־תְתַעֵ֣ב אֲדֹמִ֔י כִּ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ ה֑וּא (ס) לֹא־תְתַעֵ֣ב מִצְרִ֔י כִּי־גֵ֖ר הָיִ֥יתָ בְאַרְצֽוֹ׃
(8) You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your kinsman. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land.
(כ) בְּיָמָיו֙ פָּשַׁ֣ע אֱד֔וֹם מִתַּ֖חַת יַד־יְהוּדָ֑ה וַיַּמְלִ֥כוּ עֲלֵיהֶ֖ם מֶֽלֶךְ׃ (כא) וַיַּעֲבֹ֤ר יוֹרָם֙ צָעִ֔ירָה וְכָל־הָרֶ֖כֶב עִמּ֑וֹ וַֽיְהִי־ה֞וּא קָ֣ם לַ֗יְלָה וַיַּכֶּ֨ה אֶת־אֱד֜וֹם הַסֹּבֵ֤יב אֵלָיו֙ וְאֵת֙ שָׂרֵ֣י הָרֶ֔כֶב וַיָּ֥נָס הָעָ֖ם לְאֹהָלָֽיו׃ (כב) וַיִּפְשַׁ֣ע אֱד֗וֹם מִתַּ֙חַת֙ יַד־יְהוּדָ֔ה עַ֖ד הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה אָ֛ז תִּפְשַׁ֥ע לִבְנָ֖ה בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִֽיא׃
(20) During his reign, the Edomites rebelled against Judah’s rule and set up a king of their own. (21) Joram crossed over to Zair with all his chariotry. He arose by night and attacked the Edomites, who were surrounding him and the chariot commanders; but his troops fled to their homes. (22) Thus Edom fell away from Judah, as is still the case. Libnah likewise fell away at that time.
(ז) זְכֹ֤ר יְהוָ֨ה ׀ לִבְנֵ֬י אֱד֗וֹם אֵת֮ י֤וֹם יְֽרוּשָׁ֫לִָ֥ם הָ֭אֹ֣מְרִים עָ֤רוּ ׀ עָ֑רוּ עַ֝֗ד הַיְס֥וֹד בָּֽהּ׃

(7) Remember, Adonai, how the children of Edom, on the day Jerusalem fell, cried, “Strip her, strip her to her very foundations!”

The Historians' Edom

The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel the Origin of its Sacred Texts, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman at 119: Archaeological surveys carried out in Jordan have revealed that the settlement history of the territories of Ammon, Moab, and Edom was broadly similar to those of early Israel. We could take our archaeological description of a typical Iron Age I Israelite village in the highlands west of the Jordan and use it as a description of an early Moabite village with almost no change. These people lived in the same kind of villages, in similar houses, used similar pottery, and lead an almost identical way of life. Yet from the Bible and other historical sources, we know that the people who lived in the villages of the Iron Age I east of the Jordan did not become Israelites; instead, they later formed the kingdoms of Ammon, Moab, and Edom.

Rome, Christianity and Edom

Epistle of Barnabas 13:1 But let us see if this people is the heir, or the former, and if the covenant belongs to us or to them. 2 Hear now what the Scripture says concerning the people. Isaac prayed for Rebecca his wife, because she was barren; and she conceived. Furthermore also, Rebecca went forth to inquire of the Lord; and the Lord said to her, "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples in your belly; and the one people shall surpass the other, and the elder shall serve the younger." 3 You ought to understand who was Isaac, who Rebecca, and concerning what persons He declared that this people should be greater than that. (Brn. 13:1-3)

Tertullian Against the Jews 1 Jeffrey D. Dunn, Tertullian (The Early Church Fathers; New York: Routledge, 2004), 69-70.[T]hat from Rebekah’s womb two peoples and two clans were about to come forth. They are, of course, the Jews—that is, Israel—and that Gentiles—that is, us…. For indeed, God designed two peoples and two clans to come forth from the womb of one woman, not to separate grace on the basis of the name but on the order of the birth, such that the one who would come forth from the womb first would be subjected to the younger—that is, the later….And so, although the people or clan of the Jews is anterior in time and older, graced with the first honour in relation to the law, ours is understood accurately as younger in the ages of time. This is so, as in the final lap of our age we have grasped the notion of divine compassion. Without doubt, according to the decree of the divine utterance, the first, the elder people, namely the Jewish, inevitably will serve the younger. The younger people, namely the Christian, will rise above the elder…In fact, our people—that is the later—having forsaken the idols to which previously we used to be devoted, were converted to the same God from whom Israel departed… For thus the younger people—that is, the later—rose above the older people while it was obtaining the grace of divine honour from which Israel has been divorced.

Esau as Symbol in Early Medieval Thought Gerson D. Cohen, in Jewish Medieval and Reniassance Studies Alexander Altmann (ed.)

Ever since the destruction of the Temple, the Jews were obsessed with the blatant contrast between their election in Heaven and their subjection on earth. Since the rationale for collective survival precluded the possibility that God had rejected His people, the present state was inevitably construed as temporary. Indeed, Rome, the "wicked kingdom," would yet pay dearly, irrevocably, for its hybris and cruelty, for having afflicted Israel far beyond what God had decreed. Given such assumptions, sad reality generated comforting fantasy, and the despair of history was overcome by apocalyptic. Apocalyptic fantasy and literature is but one form of that genre of midrash characterized by Professor Wolfson as historical and eschatological predictive interpretations of Scripture. The historical interpretation attempts "to find in scriptural texts predictions of future events already known .. . to have taken place"; the eschatological interpretation attempts "to find in Scripture non-literal meanings referring to the events which are to take place in the end of days, such as the advent of the Messiah." By such midrashic equation, Rome was identified with the Biblical Edom, and every name connected in Scripture with Esau was applied to the city of Romulus and the empire of the Caesars....

Once this identification had been made and accepted, all the classical associations, Biblical as well as Rabbinic, connected with the name of Esau and his descendants could come into play in connection with Rome . The dominant feeling in all of Hebrew literature is summed up in Rabb i Simeon ben Yohai's comment: "It is an axiom: Esau hates Jacob." It was the same sentiment which provoked plays on words by later homilists on the name Edom as "bloodthirsty" and on the word "senator" as an abbreviation for three Hebrew words meaning hostile, vindictive, vengeful....

Thus it came about that more often than not Rome was referred to in medieval Hebrew literature not directly but by symbolic names and terms which had been drawn from the Bible and which carried with them a whole train of historic associations and emotional overtones. "Esau," "Edom," and "Seir"—these are but the most common of a whole series of classical appellatives universally and unequivocally employed for imperial as well as medieval Rome, and in consequence for all of medieval Christendom.

In the Zohar, the list of the Kings of Edom in the Book of Genesis becomes a metaphor for an initial stage of divine activity in which stern judgment without compassion, and masculine without feminine, was insufficient to sustain creation. In this metaphor, only the last and final king, who alone is named along with a wife, represents a sustainable harmony between different aspects of the interior world of divinity.

ת"ח ואלה המלכים אשר מלכו בארץ אדום, בסטרא דדרגא דיליה דאיהו דרגא דעשו,כד"א עשו הוא אדום, וכלהו קא אתו מסטרא דרוח מסאבא. לפני מלך מלך לבני ישראל, בגין דאינון דרגין דקיימין בי תרעי לתתא קדמאי, ובגין כך אמר יעקב יעבר נא אדני לפני עבדו, בגין דדרגין דיליה קדמאין אינון לאעלא. ובגין כך לפני מלך מלך לבני ישראל, דעד כען לא מטא זמנא דמלכו שמיא לשלטאה ולאתאחדא בבני ישראל, ובגין כך אמר יעבר נא אדני לפני עבדו. וכד שלימו אלין דרגין בקדמיתא, לבתר אתער מלכו שמיא לשלטאה על תתאי. וכד שרא, שרא בזעירא דכל שבטין דאיהו בנימן, כד"א (תהלים ס"ח: 28) שם בנימין צעיר רודם וגו', וביה שארי לאתערא מלכותא, לבתר אתא מלכותא באתריה ואתקיים בהדיה דלא תעדי לעלמין.

The Zohar, translation and commentary by Daniel Matt, 1:177b at 72-3.

Come and see: These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom--on the side of his rung, rung of Esau, as is said: Esau, that is, Edom (Genesis 36:1) all issuing from the side of impure spirit.

Before any king reigned over the Children of Israel, for they are rungs standing at the gatehouse below, first of all. So Jacob said Let my lord pass on ahead of his servant (ibid. 33:14), since his rungs enter first. So, before any king reigned over the children of Israel, for the time had not yet come for the Kingdom of Heaven to reign, embracing the Children of Israel. Therefore he said, Let my lord pass on ahead of his servant. Once these rungs terminated, Kingdom of Heaven aroused to reign over those below. Beginning, it began with the youngest of all the tribes, Benjamin, as is said: There is young Benjamin, ruling them....(Psalms 68:28). Through him kingdom began to arouse, later arriving at its site, firmly established, never to depart.

אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוּדָה בַּר סִימוֹן, יְהִי עֶרֶב אֵין כְּתִיב כָּאן, אֶלָּא וַיְהִי עֶרֶב, מִכָּאן שֶׁהָיָה סֵדֶר זְמַנִּים קֹדֶם לָכֵן. אָמַר רַבִּי אַבָּהוּ מְלַמֵּד שֶׁהָיָה בּוֹרֵא עוֹלָמוֹת וּמַחֲרִיבָן, עַד שֶׁבָּרָא אֶת אֵלּוּ, אָמַר דֵּין הַנְיָן לִי, יַתְהוֹן לָא הַנְיָן לִי. אָמַר רַבִּי פִּנְחָס טַעְמֵיהּ דְּרַבִּי אַבָּהוּ (בראשית א, לא): וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד, דֵּין הַנְיָין לִי יַתְהוֹן לָא הַנְיָין לִי.

Rabbi Judah bar Simon said: it does not say, ‘It was evening,’ but ‘And it was evening.’ Hence we derive that there was an order of time prior to this. Rabbi Abbahu said: This teaches us that God created worlds and destroyed them, saying, ‘This one pleases me; those did not please me.’ Rabbi Pinhas said, Rabbi Abbahu derives this from the verse, ‘And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good,’ as if to say, ‘This one pleases me, those others did not please me.’

In the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Kings of Edom passage from chapter 36 of Genesis becomes a cornerstone of the concept of the "Breaking of the Vessels" which preceded the creation of the world we inhabit and explains the existence of evil in a divinely created universe.

אבל דע כי כאשר אור הכתר נכנס תחלה בכלי שלו היו שאר האורות בטלים בו בערכו שהוא גדול מכולם יחד ולכן היה יכולת בכלי שלו לסובלו ולסבול ט' אורות האחרים ולא נשבר וכן כאשר יצאה אור החכמה ונכנס בכלי שלו היו הח' אורות כלולים בו וכן בצאת אור הבינה כלולה מז' אורות ונכנסים בכלי שלה היו הכלים יכולים לסבול ולא נשברו כי כולם הם בטלים בערך או"א דמיון הבנים שבתחלה עומדים כלולים במוח אביהם בסוד טיפת מוח וכן בהיות בנים בסוד עיבור במעי אמן יכולין להיות שם והיא יכולה לסובלם ולכן היה בחי' התיקון בג"ר ולא נשברו כלל וכאשר היו הז"ת כלולין במעי אמם היו שם בבחי' מ"ן המעוררין זווג עליון אמנם בצאת משם הז"ת שהם הז' מלכים שמלכו בארץ אדום ורצו ליכנס בכלים שלהם ולא יכלו הכלים לסבול ונשברו ומתו כמ"ש בע"ה ולכן נבאר תחלה סדר ז' מלכים אלו כי הנה הם מהדעת ולמטה דעת א' חסד ב' גבורה ג' ת"ת ד' נ"ה הם תרי פלגי גופא והם ה' יסוד ו' מל' ז' כי הנ"ה נחשבים כ"א חצי הגוף ובין שניהם הם אחד לבד ודע כי כל אלו הם ענין המלכים הנזכר בפרשת וישלח ואלה המלכים אשר מלכו בארץ אדום

However, know that when the light of Keter first entered its vessel, the lights that remained were diminished as a result, because it was greater than all of them combined. Therefore, it was possible for its vessel to tolerate it and to tolerate the nine other lights and not shatter. Then, when the light of Chochmah entered its vessel, the 8 lights, all of them, were included in it. When the light of Binah emerged, including within her the seven lights and they entered her vessel, it was possible for it to endure and not shatter. For, all of them were nullified by Abba and Imma. The children first stood, all of them, in the brain of their father, in the mystery of a drop of brain. When the children, in the secret of conception in the belly of the mother, it was possible for them to be there and she was able to endure them. Therefore, the existence of the restoration was the first three and they did not shatter at all. When the lower seven were included in the belly of their mother, they in the existence of the feminine waters that stimulate the upper pairing. When the lower seven emerged from there, the seven who are the "kings that ruled in the land of Edom," they wanted to enter their vessels but it was not possible for the vessels to endure and they shatter and they died as will be shown with God's help. Therefore, it will be explained first the order of these seven kings. For they were arranged from Daat downwards. Daat was first, Chesed was second, Gevurah was third, Tiferet was fourth, Netzach and Hod, they were two halves of the body, and they were fifth, Yesod was sixth and Malkhut was seventh. For Netzach and Hod are thought to be half of the body and between them, they make one whole. Know that all these concern the kings mentioned in Parashat Yishlach "these are the kings that reigned in the land of Edom (Gen. 36:31)."

Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Gershom Scholem, at 266.

This idea of the "breaking of the vessels" was developed by Luria in a highly original manner from a suggestion made in the Zohar. In a midrash to which I have referred already in the first Lecture (set forth above), mention is made of the destruction of worlds before the creation of the now existing cosmos. The Zohar's interpretation of this Aggadah is that it refers to the creation of worlds in which only the forces of Gevurah, the Sefirah of stern judgment were active, and which were therefore destroyed by this excess of sternness. This event in turn is placed in relation to the list of the Kings of Edom in chapter 36 of Genesis, of whom nothing is said but that they built a town and died. "And these are the Kings that reigned in the land of Edom,"--Edom signifying the realm of stern judgment untempered by compassion. But the world is maintain through harmony of grace and strict judgment, of the masculine and the feminine, a harmony that the Zohar calls the "balance." The death of the "primordial kings," of which more is said in the Idra Rabba and the Idra Zutta in the Zohar, now re-appears in Luria's system as the "breaking of the vessels."

Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship, Lawrence Fine at 135-6

The image of the seven kings of Edom in the above passage plays an exceedingly important role in Lurianic teachings. The image derives from Genesis 36:31, "These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king ruled over the Israelites." In the Idra Rabba of the Zohar, the seven kings signify the forces of strict Judgment with which the divine originally sought to initiate the process of emanation. Seeing as how they consisted of Judgment, however, "they could not survive, so that after a time He concealed them. This is [the meaning] of the verse 'And these are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom." 'In the land of Edom'--in the place where all the Judgments exist" that is, God had to abandon His attempt to create the world using the forces of Din alone and turned instead to combining the attributes of Hesed (Compassion), Din (Judgment), and Rahamim (Mercy). The Zohar further connects this theme to a well-known midrashic motif according to which the Holy One, blessed be He, "created worlds and destroyed them, before He created these."

Drawing precisely upon such older mythic themes from rabbinic and Zoharic literature, Luria identified the Breaking of the Vessels with these images of stern judgment and wicked kings, that is, flawed worlds that had been created and destroyed. Here, then, we have a principal explanation for this catastrophic cosmic rupture. The effect of the Breaking of the Vessels and the death of the kings of Edom was to conceal or separate the forces of Judgment from some of the pure elements of divinity, for the vessels (though not the sefirotic light within them) were formed out the roots of Judgment in the first place. As mentioned, their rupture resulted in the reascent of most of the pure light that the vessels had contained.