Moab Revisited

Where history, the Bible and archaeology meet

By Art Bull

Although the common ancestor of Moab and Israel was Terah (Genesis 11:27; 19:37) there was no love lost between the two nations. In the thirty-eighth year after they left Egypt, Israel reached the Zered river, which runs eastward from the south end of the Dead Sea. They were probably at least 25 miles upstream, on the edge of the wilderness. The Zered was the southern boundary of Moab's kingdom which extended along the southern half of the Dead Sea, on the east side. The northern boundary was the Arnon River.

We are informed in Genesis 14:5 that the coalition of kings who carried Lot and his family captive from Sodom, also struck the Emims in Shaveh Kiriathaim. Whether this resulted in a permanent weakening of the Emims we are not told. But Moses states that the Moabites later conquered the Emims and took their lands:

"...we turned and passed by the way of the wilderness of Moab. And the LORD said unto me, Distress not the Moabites, neither contend with them in battle: for I will not give thee of their land for a possession; because I have given Ar unto the children of Lot for a possession. The Emims dwelt therein in times past, a people great, and many, and tall, as the Anakims; Which also were accounted giants, as the Anakims; but the Moabites call them Emims." Deuteronomy 2:8-11

This land, taken by Moab, extended along the whole length of the Dead Sea on the east side. But by the time Israel had finished their years of wandering in the Sinai, and were marching towards Canaan, they found Moab in possession of only the southern half of this area:

"For Heshbon was the city of Sihon the king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab, and taken all his land out of his hand, even unto Arnon." Numbers 21:26

Moses sent an embassy to Sihon, requesting peaceful passage. This was refused, and the Amorites attacked Israel. This resulted in the complete overthrow of Sihon's kingdom. Israel took possession of all his lands from the Arnon to the Jabbok, about 1/3 the way up from the Dead Sea towards the Sea of Chinnereth (Sea of Galilee). In so doing, the possessions of the children of Lot (Moab and Ammon) were left intact:

"And Israel smote him with the edge of the sword, and possessed his land from Arnon unto Jabbok, even unto the children of Ammon: for the border of the children of Ammon was strong. Thus Israel dwelt in the land of the Amorites". Numbers 21:24 and 31.

We are told that the last stop of Israel in their march towards Canaan was "in the plains of Moab on this side Jordan by Jericho" (Numbers 22:1). Whereas the whole depressed tract along the Jordan and the Dead Sea was called the Arabah, this particular stretch of it, along the full length of the Dead Sea, was called the "plains" or araboth of Moab. The northern end, opposite Jericho, was still given the same name, although it had later been taken by the Amorites. (Jephthah, Judges 11, before throwing off Ammonite domination of Israel, showed that he was fully aware of this history, pointing out that Ammon's and Moab's territorial claims against Israel were false).

Numbers 22 goes on to show how Balak king of Moab took no notice of Israel's words of peace. Convinced that Israel intended to attack him, Balak and the Midianite chieftains allied with him, hired the prophet Balaam to curse Israel. God refusing to give any words of cursing, and Balak offering great wealth and high honours to Balaam, the prophet gave his own evil council. If Israel could be lured into accepting Moab's idolatry, they could be deflected from attacking Moab. The scheme was only too successful in corrupting Israel: Mesha's basalt Stele

"...and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab. And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods: and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods." Numbers 25:1,2.

Were it not for the zeal of Phinehas, grandson of Aaron, the whole nation of Israel might have been finished there and then. The same danger is very much alive in our day, and the latter-day Israel of God will do well to remember the lesson of Baal-Peor.

After Israel had settled in the promised land, they repeatedly turned to worship the idols of the remaining Canaanites. To bring His people back, God sent them various kinds of adversity, one of which was oppression by Eglon, king of Moab (Judges 3). When Israel turned back to God, he sent a man from the tribe of Benjamin, Ehud, who, having assassinated Eglon, led a victorious revolt against Moab.

Another incident involving Moab -- a far more cheering one -- is recounted in the book of Ruth. Elimelech and Naomi left their home in Bethlehem and emigrated to Moab. Both their sons married Moabite women but later died with their father. Naomi, deciding to return to Israel, was joined by one of her daughters-in-law, Ruth, with those memorable words, "Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God." Ruth later married Boaz and so entered the direct lineage of David and Jesus (Matthew 1:5).

In the time of Samuel, king Saul managed to fend off various neighbouring countries, including Moab (1 Samuel 14). After becoming king, David conquered Moab (2 Samuel 8). But as a result of Solomon's idolatry, God permitted Moab to revolt from domination by Jerusalem. Later, Omri put Moab under the control of Samaria:

"And Mesha king of Moab was a sheepmaster, and rendered unto the king of Israel an hundred thousand lambs, and an hundred thousand rams, with the wool. But it came to pass, when Ahab was dead, that the king of Moab rebelled against the king of Israel." 2 Kings 3:4,5.

Jehoram, Ahab's son, raising an army, negotiated a confederacy with the kings of Judah and Edom. With God's help through the prophet Elisha the reconquest of Moab was certain. But in a final act of desperation the king of Moab sacrificed his eldest son, the crown prince, own the city wall in full view of the besieging armies. This may have been too much for the idolatrous Edomites, who would have abandoned the invasion and so broken Jehoram's alliance. If so, this would explain how the attempted subjugation of Moab failed.

In 1868, when there was a growing interest among Bible readers in the Holy Land, a German missionary was told about a curious stone monument at Dibon, 40 miles south of Amman, and a couple of miles north of the Arnon river. As a result, and after much difficulty, a copy was made and translated. The 18th line mentions Yahweh, God of Israel. The writing shows that Mesha king of Moab set up the stone as a memorial, praising his idol for the liberation of Moab from Israelite domination. He mentions the reservoirs, cisterns, walls, gates, towers, and the king's palace he constructed with Israelite slaves. Part of it reads: "As for Omri king of Israel, he humbled Moab many days [years]". Also that Israel "occupied the land of Medeba, and had dwelt there, in his time [Omri's] and half the time of his son [Ahab]". Medeba was a Reubenite plain and city a short distance south of Heshbon. Mesha recorded the belief that the foreign domination was because of the anger of his god Chemosh with his people. The Moabite Stone (pictured) is now in the Louvre, Paris.

The writing on Mesha's basalt Stele confirms the facts of Israel's domination of Moab and Mesha's rebellion; also the names of the kings, Omri and Ahab. It substantiates the name of the God of Israel, and, with Numbers 21:29 and Jeremiah 48:46, calls Moab "the people of Chemosh". Some scholars tried to find at least some minor discrepancies between Mesha's writing and the Bible. But others have shown how the two accounts may be harmonized, it being pointed out that Mesha's additional information supplements the Bible account and does not therefore contradict it.

It seems that the very presence of Elisha kept the Moabites from attacking Israel. But after his death and burial, Moabite raids started up again (2 Kings 13:20). But before another hundred years passed, the Assyrians occupied Moab. Numerous Assyrian inscriptions have been discovered, containing the name of Moab. After the Assyrian empire collapsed Moab regained freedom for a short time, but was then taken by Nebuchadnezzar. From that time on Moab passed under the domination of succeeding empires until the nation disappeared.

G.A. Barton, Archaeology and the Bible, 7th edition, Philadelphia: American Sunday School Union, 1937, p.462.

S.L. Caiger, Bible and Spade, London: Oxford University Press, 1936, p.135-138.

George L. Robinson, The Bearing of Archaeology on the Old Testament, New York: American Tract Society, 1941, p.167.