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Ancient Moabites of Jordan

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
East of the Jordan and Dead Sea --- Rabba (Rabbath-Moab)

Origin: The Moabites were likely pastoral nomads settling in the trans-Jordanian highlands. They may have been among the raiders referred to as Habiru in the Amarna letters. Whether they were among the nations referred to in the Ancient Egyptian language as Shutu or Shasu is a matter of some debate among scholars. The existence of Moab prior to the rise of the Israelite polity can be seen from the colossal statues erected at Luxor by Pharaoh Ramesses II. On the base of the second statue in front of the northern pylon of Rameses' temple [the word] Mu'ab is listed among a series of nations conquered by the pharaoh. The capital of Moab during this period was Kir-Hareshet (modern day Kerak) (5).

Moab: the seed of the father or according to others the desirable land; the eldest son of Lot of incestuous birth (1)

The biblical Moabite capital was Dibon. The Moabites first inhabited the rich highlands at the eastern side of the chasm of the Dead Sea extending as far north as the mountain of Gilead, from which country they expelled the Emim, the original inhabitants. But they themselves were afterward driven southward by warlike tribes of Amorites who had crossed the Jordan. These Amorites, described in the Bible as being ruled by King Sihon, confined the Moabites to the country south of the river Arnon, which formed their northern boundary
(2 and originally 3).

The territory occupied by Moab at the period of its greatest extent, before the invasion of the Amorites, divided itself naturally into three distinct and independent portions: The enclosed corner or canton south of the Arnon (referred to as "field of Moab"); the more open rolling country north of the Arnon opposite Jericho and up to the hills of Gilead (called the "land of Moab"); and the district below sea level in the tropical depths of the Jordan valley (ibid).

The area is unprotected from the east hence its history is a chain of raids by the Bedouins. The Moabites were close kin to the Hebrews and the language of the Moabite Stone is practically the same as biblical Hebrew. The relations of Moab with Judah and Israel are continually mentioned in the Bible. As a political entity Moab came to an end after the invasion (circa 733 BC) of Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria. Its people were later absorbed by the Nabataeans. The Moabite religion was much like that of Canaan. Archaeological exploration in Moab has shown that settlements first occurred in the 13th century BC. (4)

Excerpts and Definitions and Addendums:

(6) Studies on Iron Age Moab and Neighbouring Areas by Timothy Harrison
"The Land of Medeba and Early Iron Age Madaba" (2009)

Moabite State Formation: Since its discovery in 1868 the Mesha Inscription has furnished historians of Iron Age Moab with their single most important source for understanding Moabite state formation. Until relatively recently scholarly interest in this document had tended to focus on historical issues stemming from comparisons of the biblical account of the Israelite campaign against Moab in 2 Kings 3; or the literary and linguistic character of the inscription. Not surprisingly earlier understandings of the historical rise of the Moabite monarchy generally assume a parallel, though slightly earlier, trajectory to that of Israel as recounted in the biblical narratives with the Moabite state emerging at the end of the Late Bronze Age (1550-1200 BCE) just prior to the arrival of the Israelite tribes. The landmark surveys by Nelson Glueck in the 1930's (7) provided convenient archaeological support for this view, prompting him to further enshrine it in his grand synthesis of the settlement history of the Transjordan.

A more ahistorical(*) approach was adopted by Albrecht Alt (Emiter und Moabiter 1940) who proposed a gradual process of migration and settlement not unlike the 'peaceful infiltration' model he envisioned for Israel, with transhumant Moabite tribes settling amidst older sedentary communities comprised of the biblical Emim. A Moabite territorial state emerged out of this process in the Early Iron Age. Advocates of the 'peasant revolt' model which attributes the rise of Israel to the movement of disaffected Canaanite 'refugees' from the lowlands to the highlands in Cisjordan at the end of the Late Bronze Age have also credited the creation of the Moabite monarchy to this eastward migratory process.

Studies of Moabite culture and history largely continued to assume a Late Bronze or early Iron Age date for the emergence of the Moabite monarchy until the reactivation of archaeological surveys began to introduce new evidence and new perspectives. While some have continued to accept or argue for early state formation others have begun to question the premise that biblical allusions to a Moabite political identity necessitated the existence of a Moabite state in the early Iron Age.

The minimalist theory emphasizes the historical significance of Mesha's political claims within the context of an emerging nascent Moabite national identity and argues that external pressure, presumably from a more politically developed kingdom of Israel (the 'House of Omri'), provided the stimulus for the political transformation that accompanied the military actions and building programme initiated by Mesha.

Egyptian References: New Kingdom Egyptian sources provide the earliest textual references to ancient Moab. They consist primarily of brief enigmatic references to sites in the central highland region including possibly Dibon by Thutmose III and by Ramesses II in the context of campaigns he conducted against the nomadic Shasu in the Land of Moab. Interestingly Ramesses II claims not only to have defeated the Shasu but also to have plundered their tells (mound or settlement) indicating that some of the indigenous population was sedentary.

These New Kingdom references would appear to attest an active Egyptian interest in the central highlands of Jordan during the Late Bronze Age. However they do not require the existence of a collective Moabite national political identity at this early juncture. Nevertheless they do confirm that the term 'Moab' already held a recognized territorial association with the highland plateau east of the Dead Sea.

Biblical References: As with ancient Israel's other neighbours much of what we know about the early development of Iron Age Moab comes to us through the filter of the biblical narratives. We are told for example that the Moabites were the descendants of an incestuous union between Lot and one of his daughters (Genesis 19:37); that there land was originally inhabitated by a race of giants, the Emim of Deuteronomy 2:10; that they were generally considered close kin of the Israelites (the Book of Ruth the Moabitess and the great-grandmother of David); and the account of Sihon Amorite King of Heshbon and his defeat at the hands of the tribes of Israel [near Mādabā] (Numbers 21:10-35).

Control of the strategic tableland would remain contested for the duration of the early Iron Age. According to biblical tradition the Mādabā Plain (the biblical Mishor) was initially allotted to the tribe of Reuben but later became part of the territory of the [tribe] Gadites (Joshua 21:38-39); note also Mesha's claim [line 10] that the 'men of Gad' had always lived there. In the period of the Judges we are told that Moabite influence extended west across the Jordan Valley under the leadership of the warlord Eglon (Judges 3:12-14). Possession of the fertile tableland then reverted to Israelite control during the reign of David following his defeat of an Aramaean-Ammonite coalition in the vicinity of Mādabā. Following the breakup of the Davidic monarchy the Mādabā Plain apparently was annexed to the northern kingdom of Israel (Samaria) which continued to exact annual tribute from Moab until [King] Mesha's rise to power and his expulsion of the 'House of Omri' in the mid-ninth century BCE (2 Kings 3:4).

... [There existed an] adversarial nature in the relationships between the various polities that emerged as a result of the regional consolidation that marked the end of Iron Age I
(1200-950 BCE) [See Page 69 in 8].

The Mesha Inscription: The Mesha Inscription (circa 850 BC) presents an unparalleled indigenous Moabite or perhaps more accurately 'Dibonite' perspective on the political struggle for control of the central highland region. Mesha describes Moab's lengthy oppression by Omri 'King of Israel' and his unnamed son (presumably Ahab), followed by his successful liberation of the towns and lands of the northern plateau, as commanded by Kemosh. After repossessing the plateau Mesha proudly embarked on an ambitious building program, further consolidating the political gains he had achieved.

[In summary then] the Mesha Inscription represents a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to project a new political reality. By invoking an older collective image (the 'land of Moab') Mesha was attempting to shift the locus of political allegiance from the local to the 'national' level. The result was the forging of a territorial nation-state that subsumed (but did not necessarily suppress) existing regional polities within a nested political hierarchy with Mesha positioned as the paramount ruler (king) and Dibon, his ancestral home, as the political centre.

(*) lacking historical perspective or context ...

(1) The Illustrated Bible Dictionary by Matthew George Easton (1897)
Extended Annotated Edition (2012) Amazon Kindle

(2) Moab (Wikipedia)

(3) Smith's Bible Dictionary (1876) Google Books Page 352 and on Amazon Reproduction 2012

(4) The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia (2016)

(5) Moab New World Encyclopedia (2014)

(6) Studies on Iron Age Moab and Neighbouring Areas by Timothy Harrison
"The Land of Medeba and Early Iron Age Madaba" (2009)

(7) The Other Side of the Jordan by Nelson Glueck (1940 and 1970 Revision)

(8) Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books (2011)

Bedouin Map circa 1900

The History of the Ancient Near East Electronic Compendium