Midian (Exodus 4)

The Midianites were descendants of one of the six sons Keturah bore to Abraham some time after Sarah’s death (Genesis 25.1-2). Or first Biblical encounter with this people group occurs in Genesis 37:25-36, when Midianite merchants purchased Joseph from his brothers and led him off in cativity to Egypt. The text interchanges the terms Midianites and Ishmaelites, suggesting either a close connection between the two groups or the possibility that the Midianites comprised a smaller group within the larger Ishmaelite tribal structure (cf. the seemingly random substitution of these terms in a later passage, Judges 8:22-26).

When Moses fled for the first time from Egypt, he settled in Midian and married Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest named Reuel (Exodus 2:15-21). Later Reuel (also known as Jethro) advised Moses to organize the Israelites into groups of “thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens” (18:21) for the purpose of delegating administrative and judicial responsibilities, perhaps representative of the organizational structure of the Midianite culture. Many Kenites, probably from the Midianite clan to which Jethro belonged, joined the Israelites, integrating seamlessly into their society (Numbers 10:29-33, Judges 1:16, 4:11).

Not all of Israel’s encounters with Midian were cordial, however. When the Israelites attempted to cross through the Transjordan during their journey toward the promised land, the leaders of Moab and Midian dispatched a joint delegation to the prophet Balaam, requesting him to curse the traveling band (Numbers 22:1-7). Soon afterward Moabite and Midianite women enticed Israelite men to worship Baal of Peor and to engage in sexual immorality (Numbers 25:1-6). As punishment for this treachery, the Lord ordered Moses to declare war on the Midianites (Numbers 25:16-18, 31:1-18). All five of the Midianite kings named in Numbers 31:8 (cf. Joshua 13:21) appear as genuine, early Arabic names in extrabiblical literature of the time.

During the period of the judges the Midianites and Amalekites oppressed the Israelites by conducting raids into their territory during their harvests (Judges 6:3-6). The Midianites successfully used domesticated camels to move swiftly during such military incursions. Gideon’s miraculous defeat of Midian (Judges 7), which was long remembered in Israel, provided a solid basis for trust in the Lord’s future deliverance  of His people from other powerful enemies (cf. Psalms 83:9-12, Isaiah 9:4, Habakkuk 3:7).

The location of Median

Genesis 25:6 tells us that Abraham sent Keturah’s sons “to the land of the east“, although this text does not define the boundaries of Midian. Passages that associate the Midianites with the Moabites, hoever, suggest that both groups lived in the southern part of the Transjordan. The Midianite soldiers also fled in this direction after Gideon’s victory. Evidence from ancient scholars such as Ptolemy, Josephus and Eusebius, as well as information from classical and medieval Arabic georgaphers, indicates that the Midianite homeland was on the Gulf og Aqaba. This would place Midian in Northwestern Arabia, one proposed site of Mount Sinai.

Archaeology of Midian

Excavations east of the Gulf of Aqaba have uncovered large, walled towns and numerous villages dating to the Late Bronze and early Iron Ages. A district variety of bichrome (two-coloured) pottery, with motifs similar to those found on Mycenean ceramics, seem to have been manufactured locally during the thirteenth through twelfth century B.C. This distinctive type of pottery also has been unearthed at Timna, a mining site a few miles north of the gulf; a Midianite shrine was discovered on the same site. Whereas the painted motifs suggest a connection between the Midianites and the Greek world, the method of manufacturing compares with that used in Egypt. From this and other factors scholars have surmised that, rather than being an impoverished, disorganized, nomadic people, the Midianites seem to have developed a well-organized society, conducting trade with foreign nations and productivity engaging in copper mining, smelting and ceramic production.


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