Moab in the Old Testament
1. The Land:
Moab was the district East of the Dead Sea, extending from a point some distance North of it to its southern end. The eastern boundary was indefinite, being the border of the desert which is irregular. The length of the territory was about 50 miles and the average width about 30. It is a high tableland, averaging some 3,000 ft. above the level of the Mediterranean and 4,300 ft. above that of the Dead Sea.
The aspect of the land, as one looks at it from the western side of the Dead Sea, is that of a range of mountains with a very precipitous frontage, but the elevation of this ridge above the interior is very slight. Deep chasms lead down from the tableland to the Dead Sea shore, the principal one being the gorge of the river Arnon, which is about 1,700 ft. deep and 2 or more miles in width at the level of the tableland, but very narrow at the bottom and with exceedingly precipitous banks.
About 13 miles back from the mouth of the river the gorge divides, and farther back it subdivides, so that several valleys are formed of diminishing depth as they approach the desert border. These are referred to in Nu 21:14 as the "valleys of the Arnon." The "valley of Zered" (Nu 21:12), which was on the southern border, drops down to the southern end of the Dead Sea, and although not so long or deep as the Arnon, is of the same nature in its lower reaches, very difficult to cross, dividing into two branches, but at a point much nearer the sea. The stream is not so large as the Arnon, but is quite copious, even in summer.
These gorges have such precipitous sides that it would be very difficult for an army to cross them, except in their upper courses near the desert where they become shallow. The Israelites passed them in that region, probably along the present Hajj road and the line of the Mecca Railway. The tableland is fertile but lacks water. The fountains and streams in the valleys and on the slopes toward the Dead Sea are abundant, but the uplands are almost destitute of flowing water.
The inhabitants supply themselves by means of cisterns, many of which are ancient, but many of those used in ancient times are ruined. The population must have been far greater formerly than now. The rainfall is usually sufficient to mature the crops, although the rain falls in winter only. The fertility of the country in ancient times is indicated by the numerous towns and villages known to have existed there, mentioned in Scripture and on the Moabite Stone, the latter giving some not found elsewhere.
The principal of these were: Ar (Nu 21:15); Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Nebo (Nu 32:3); Beth-peor (Dt 3:29); Beth-diblaim, Bozrah, Kerioth (Jer 48:22-24); Kir (Isa 15:1); Medeba, Elealeh, Zoar (Isa 15:2,4,5); Kirheres (Isa 16:11); Sibmah (Josh 13:19); in all, some 45 place-names in Moab are known, most of the towns being in ruins. Kir of Moab is represented in the modern Kerak, the most important of all and the government center of the district. Madeba now represents the ancient Medeba, and has become noted for the discovery of a medieval map of Palestine, in mosaic, of considerable archaeological value.
Rabbath-moab and Heshbon (modern Rabba and Hesban) are miserable villages, and the country is subject to the raids of the Bedouin tribes of the neighboring desert, which discourages agriculture. But the land is still good pasture ground for cattle and sheep, as in ancient times (Nu 32:3,4).
2. The People:
The Moabites were of Semitic stock and of kin to the Hebrews, as is indicated by their descent from Lot, the nephew of Abraham (Gen 19:30-37), and by their language which is practically the same as the Hebrew. This is clear from the inscription on the Moabite Stone, a monument of Mesha, king of Moab, erected about 850 BC, and discovered among the ruins of Dibon in 1868.
It contains 34 lines of about 9 words each, written in the old Phoenician and Hebrew characters, corresponding to the Siloam inscription and those found in Phoenicia, showing that it is a dialect of the Semitic tongue prevailing in Palestine. The original inhabitants of Moab were the Emim (Dt 2:10), "a people great .... and tall, as the Anakim." When these were deposed by the Moabites we do not know.
The latter are not mentioned in the Tell el-Amarna Letters and do not appear on the Egyptian monuments before the 14th century BC, when they seem to be referred to under the name of Ruten, or Luten or Lotan, i.e. Lot (Paton, Syria and Pal); Muab appears in a list of names on a monument of Rameses III of the XXth Dynasty. The country lay outside the line of march of the Egyptian armies, and this accounts for the silence of its monuments in regard to them.
The chief deity of Moab was Chemosh (Heb: kemosh), frequently mentioned in the Old Testament and on the Moabite Stone, where King Mesha speaks of building a high place in his honor because he was saved by him from his enemies. He represents the oppression of Moab by Omri as the result of the anger of Chemosh, and Mesha made war against Israel by command of Chemosh.
He was the national god of Moab, as Molech was of Ammon, and it is pretty certain that he was propitiated by human sacrifices (2 Ki 3:27). But he was not the only god of Moab, as is clear from the account in Nu 25, where it is also clear that their idolatrous worship was corrupt. They had their Baalim like the nations around, as may be inferred from the place-names compounded with Baal, such as Bamoth-baal, Beth-baal-meon and Baal-peor.
We know scarcely anything of the history of the Moabites after the account of their origin in Gen 19 until the time of the exodus. It would seem, however, that they had suffered from the invasions of the Amorites, who, under their king Sihon, had subdued the northern part of Moab as far as the Arnon (Nu 21:21-31). This conquest was no doubt a result of the movement of the Amorites southward, when they were pressed by the great wave of Hittite invasion that overran Northern Syria at the end of the 15th and the early part of the 14th centuries BC.
The Amorites were forced to seek homes in Palestine, and it would seem that a portion of them crossed the Jordan and occupied Northern Moab, and here the Israelites found them as they approached the Promised Land. They did not at first disturb the Moabites in the South, but passed around on the eastern border (Dt 2:8,9) and came into conflict with the Amorites in the North (Nu 21:21-26), defeating them and occupying the territory (Nu 21:31-32).
But when Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab, saw what a powerful people was settling on his border, he made alliance with the Midianites against them and called in the aid of Balaam, but as he could not induce the latter to curse them he refrained from attacking the Israelites (Nu 22; 24). The latter, however, suffered disaster from the people of Moab through their intercourse with them (Nu 25).
Some time before the establishment of the kingdom in Israel the Midianites overran Moab, as would appear from the passage in Gen 36:35, but the conquest was not permanent, for Moab recovered its lost territory and became strong enough to encroach upon Israel across the Jordan. Eglon of Moab oppressed Israel with the aid of Ammon and Amalek (Jdg 3:13-14), but Eglon was assassinated by Ehud, and the Moabite yoke was cast off after 18 years. Saul smote Moab, but did not subdue it (1 Sam 14:47), for we find David putting his father and mother under the protection of the king of Moab when persecuted by Saul (1 Sam 22:3,4).
But this friendship between David and Moab did not continue. When David became king he made war upon Moab and completely subjugated it (2 Sam 8:2). On the division of the kingdom between Rehoboam and Jeroboam the latter probably obtained possession of Moab (1 Ki 12:20), but it revolted and Omri had to reconquer it (M S), and it was tributary to Ahab (2 Ki 1:1). It revolted again in the reign of Ahaziah (2 Ki 1:1; 3:5), and Moab and Ammon made war on Jehoshaphat and Mt. Seir and destroyed the latter, but they afterward fell out among themselves and destroyed each other (2 Ch 20).
Jehoshaphat and Jehoram together made an expedition into Moab and defeated the Moabites with great slaughter (2 Ki 3). But Mesha, king of Moab, was not subdued (2 Ki 3:27), and afterward completely freed his land from the dominion of Israel (M S). This was probably at the time when Israel and Judah were at war with Hazael of Damascus (2 Ki 8:28,29). Bands of Moabites ventured to raid the land of Israel when weakened by the conflict with Hazael (2 Ki 13:20), but Moab was probably subdued again by Jeroboam II (2 Ki 14:25), which may be the disaster to Moab recounted in Isa 15.
After Mesha we find a king of the name of Salamanu and another called Chemosh-nadab, the latter being subject to Sargon of Assyria. He revolted against Sennacherib, in alliance with other kings of Syria and Palestine and Egypt, but was subdued by him, and another king, Mutsuri, was subject to Esarhaddon. These items come to us from the Assyrian monuments.
When Babylon took the place of Assyria in the suzerainty, Moab joined other tribes in urging Judah to revolt but seems to have come to terms with Nebuchadnezzar before Jerusalem was taken, as we hear nothing of any expedition of that king against her. On the war described in Judith, in which Moab (1:12, etc.) plays a part.
At a later date Moab was overrun by the Nabathean Arabs who ruled in Petra and extended their authority on the east side of Jordan even as far as Damascus (Josephus, Ant, XIII, xv, 1,2).
The Moabites lost their identity as a nation and were afterward confounded with the Arabs, as we see in the statement of Josephus (XIII, xiii, 5), where he says that Alexander (Janneus) overcame the Arabians, such as the Moabites and the Gileadites. Alexander built the famous stronghold of Macherus in Moab, on a hill overlooking the Dead Sea, which afterward became the scene of the imprisonment and tragical death of John the Baptist (Josephus, BJ, VII, vi, 2; Ant, XVIII, v, 2; Mk 6:21-28).
It was afterward destroyed by the Romans. Kir became a fortress of the Crusaders under the name of Krak (Kerak), which held out against the Moslems until the time of Saladin, who captured it in 1188 AD.
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International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain.