Places

Midian by Juan Manuel Tebes

The name Midian instantly brings to mind images of barren desert landscapes, camel caravans crossing vast arid wastelands, and, above all, the land of Moses’s exile where he received for the first time Yahweh’s revelation.

What does the Bible say about Midian?

Midian is the name of a region mentioned in the Hebrew Bible that is located in the northwestern Hejaz, nowadays Saudi Arabia. Though memories of the Midianites figure prominently in the Hebrew Bible and later in the Quran, we know very little about the history of the Midianites from these sources, and they did not seem to leave much material culture behind. It is clear that the biblical writers saw the Midianites as somehow related to the Israelites, for Midian is mentioned as one of the sons of Abraham through his wife Keturah (Gen 25:1-2). However, things get more complicated. In the story of Joseph’s sale by his brothers, the biblical narrative refers alternatively to Midianites and another group of Arabian merchants, the Ishmaelites, as the ones who brought Joseph to Egypt (Gen 37:25-36). The biblical writers probably confused these two peoples when the Midianites were a thing of the past.

Did the worship of Yahweh originate in Midian?

Yet it is not until we reach the account of the exodus and the wilderness wanderings that we see Midianites playing important roles. It was to Midian that Moses fled after slaying an Egyptian and where he married Zipporah the daughter of Jethro—also known as Reuel (Exod 2:11-22). Some speculate that worship of Yahweh originated in Midian, based on the fact that Jethro is called “the priest of Midian” and that the “mountain of God,” the place where Yahweh first appeared to Moses, is located in or close to Midian (Exod 3:1). These passages are thematically similar to other biblical texts that refer to Yahweh as coming from areas south of Palestine—not quite Midian but locations close to it, such as Edom, Seir, Sinai, and Teman. Is there any historical reality behind these allusions? Egyptian sources mentioning the name Yahweh as a place or tribal name of a people situated south of Canaan at the end of the second millennium BCE lend some credibility to these biblical references. The theory of the southern origins of Yahwism is thus known as the “Midianite hypothesis.”    

Memories of Midian, however, were not altogether positive. The Bible recollects Moses’s slaying of the Midianite women (Num 31:17) and Israel’s oppression by Midian during the time of the Judges (Judg 6:1-6). These biblical narratives were composed or put in writing probably after the Babylonian exile and therefore may not depict historical facts. Rather, they tell us what later biblical writers thought about the complex history of the relationship between Israelites and Midianites.

To complicate things further, some scholars associate Midian with archaeological sites and objects—such as “Midianite” pottery—found in southern Israel/Jordan and northern Saudi Arabia that date to the second millennium BCE, the date traditionally attributed to the exodus. They connect particularly a small shrine discovered at Timna Valley in Israel to Midianite religious practices or refer to the site of Qurayyah in Saudi Arabia as the “capital” of Midian. But the relationship between ancient peoples and material remains is a complex issue, and since so far there are no local inscriptions linking the archaeological evidence with biblical Midian, it is better the keep the issue of the Midianite culture open.

Whether historically true or not, ancient memories of Midian were significant enough to shape Israel’s own perception of the past. 

Juan Manuel Tebes, "Midian", n.p. [cited 16 Oct 2019]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/places/related-articles/midian

Contributors

tebes-juan-manuel

Juan Manuel Tebes
researcher, National Research Council of Argentina

Juan Manuel Tebes is a Near Eastern historian with areas of specialization in the history and archaeology of the southern Levant and northwestern Arabia. He is researcher at the National Research Council of Argentina and teaches at the Catholic University of Argentina. Publications include Nomads at the Crossroads (Archaeopress) and Unearthing the Wilderness (Peeters).

Indirect references to another idea or document.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

The period between 586 and 539 B.C.E., when the leaders and elite of Judea were exiled to Babylon. The exile ended when Cyrus of Persia defeated Babylon and allowed the Judeans to return home.

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Short written texts, generally inscribed on stone or clay and frequently recording an event or dedicating an object.

Short written texts, generally inscribed on stone or clay and frequently recording an event or dedicating an object.

Descendants of Ishmael, Abraham's first son; often identified with many or all ethnic Arabs.

The mountain on which God (Yahweh) is said to dwell or reveal himself, often synonymous with Mount Sinai.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

Another name often used for the area of Israel and Judah, derived from the Latin term for the Roman province of Palaestina; ultimately, the name derives from the name of the Philistine people.

region east of the Arabah

Related to tribes, especially the so-called ten tribes of Israel.

Gen 25:1-2

Abraham Marries Keturah
1Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah.2She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah.

Gen 37:25-36

25Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way ... View more

Exod 2:11-22

Moses Flees to Midian
11One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his ... View more

Exod 3:1

Moses at the Burning Bush
1Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Ho ... View more

Num 31:17

17Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him.

Judg 6:1-6

The Midianite Oppression
1The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of Midian seven years.2The hand of Mid ... View more

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