Moab by Bruce Routledge

Moab was a land, a people, and a kingdom located east of the Dead Sea in what is now the kingdom of Jordan. Moab as a land is first mentioned in the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II (circa 1270 B.C.E.). The kingdom of Moab emerged in the ninth century B.C.E. and disappeared a few decades after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II in 586 B.C.E.

How similar were Israel and Moab?

In the Hebrew Bible, the relationship between Israel and Moab is an enigma. On one hand, Moab is the enemy. Moabite history begins with an ethnic joke that goes back to Lot’s incestuous relations with his daughters, implying that the similarity in Hebrew between Mo’abi (“Moabite”) and me’abi (“from my father”) was no coincidence (Gen 19:37). Moabite women lead the men of Israel into sin during the exodus (Num 25:1-2) and Solomon into sin as king (1Kgs 11:1, 1Kgs 11:7). The offspring of such unions are barred from entering the assembly of Yahweh even after ten generations, according to Deut 23:3. The Moabite king Balak hires Balaam to curse the Israelites but is foiled by a talking donkey (Num 22-24), and a later Moabite monarch, Eglon, oppresses Israel until he is assassinated by the clever Ehud from the tribe of Benjamin (Judg 3:12-30). The victorious King David is said to have systematically executed two out of every three Moabite captives (2Sam 8:2). Elisha prophesies water in the desert and victory over Moab, but when the king of Moab sacrifices his first-born son a great wrath is unleashed against the armies of Israel and Judah (2Kgs 3:27). The prophets Amos (Amos 2:1-2), Isaiah (Isa 15-16, Isa 25:10-12), Jeremiah (Jer 48), and Ezekiel (Ezek 25:8-11) all prophesy the destruction of Moab.

Other traditions present a more favorable view of Moabite-Israelite relations. The genealogy of David is traced to Ruth, that most worthy of Moabites (Ruth 4:17-18; and see Matt 1:5-6). Prior to murdering Moabite captives, David sent his father and mother to take refuge with the king of Moab while on the run from Saul (1Sam 22:3-4). Israel and Moab share a great-grandfather in Terah, the father of Abraham (Gen 11:27), and Deut 2:9-12 gives Moab a similar history to Israel, displacing an indigenous race of giants in order to claim territory given to them by Yahweh.

One of the most important inscriptions related to Israel derives from the Moabites: It is the Mesha Stela, a stela discovered at the site of Dhiban (in Jordan) in 1868. This inscription commemorates events in the reign of Mesha king of Moab, including his overthrow of Israelite rule (see the parallel account in 2Kgs 3). The language of this inscription is very close to biblical Hebrew; in fact, Israelites and Moabites probably could have conversed without a translator. The Mesha Stela also reveals a theological view of history similar to parts of the Hebrew Bible. History unfolds as good or bad events on the basis of the chief god’s anger or pleasure. Moab was oppressed by Israel because the main Moabite god, Kemosh, was angry with his land, whereas Mesha’s success was the result of Kemosh’s favor. Furthermore, the Mesha Stela attests the biblical institution of the “ban” (herem), which Mesha invokes in slaughtering all 7,000 citizens of a town aligned with Israel (compare Num 21:2; Deut 20:16-17; Josh 6:17; 1Sam 15:8).

Why does Moab matter?

From this overview, we can see that Israel and Moab shared kinship, history, language, institutions, and theology, and that this closeness often led to competition and strife between the two peoples. Being “just like us” made the Moabites dangerous to Israelite identity. Assimilation was always a threat.

The historical closeness of these two peoples also complicates our attempts to define what is “Israelite.” In the Mesha Stela, Atharot in Moab is said to be home to the tribe of Gad and to have been rebuilt by the king of Israel. Archaeologists have excavated a temple at Atharot (modern Ataruz) that contained ritual objects, including several ceramic bulls and bull-heads. Bulls are a common way to represent male gods in the ancient Near East. Yet it is difficult to determine whether this is a Moabite temple or an Israelite one, built by groups whose view of Yahweh most biblical authors would have opposed. The same problems plague the identification of Gad. In the Bible this is the name of one of Israel’s twelve tribes. But in the Mesha Stela, it is the name of a region to which both Israel’s and Moab’s kings laid claim.

Bruce Routledge, "Moab", n.p. [cited 25 Sep 2022]. Online:


Bruce Routledge

Bruce Routledge
Senior Lecturer, University of Liverpool

Bruce Routledge is a senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Liverpool with research interests in the Bronze and Iron Ages of the Levant, and particular expertise in the Iron Age of Jordan. He currently co-directs the Dhiban Excavation and Development Project, a community oriented research project at Tall Dhiban in central Jordan. Publications include Moab in the Iron Age: Hegemony, Polity, Archaeology and “The antiquity of the nation? Critical reflections from the Ancient Near East” in Nations and Nationalism, and Archaeology and State Theory: Subjects and Objects of Power (2013).

The study of Moab is so fascinating because its history reveals the complex identity politics in Israel’s outlying territories, which gave rise to a diverse array of biblical texts.

Did you know…?

  • Moab was a flourishing kingdom east of the Dead Sea that competed politically and militarily with Israel.
  • Both David and Jesus are descendants of a Moabite (Ruth).
  • Moabites and Israelites could probably understand each other’s languages.
  • The Mesha Stela presents a Moabite version of 2Kgs 3.

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

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.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

The national god of the Moabite people.

A stone inscribed in the Moabite language, commissioned by the Moabit king Mesha to celebrate his accomplishments, including a successful revolt against the kingdom of Israel (see 2 Kings 3).

A sovereign head of state, usually a king or queen.

The act of relating a prophecy, or inspired message.

An upright stone slab usually inscribed or carved for commemorative purposes.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Gen 19:37

37The firstborn bore a son, and named him Moab; he is the ancestor of the Moabites to this day.

Num 25:1-2

Worship of Baal of Peor
1While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab.2These invited the people to the ... View more

1Kgs 11:1

Solomon's Errors
1King Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women,

1Kgs 11:7

7Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem.

Deut 23:3

3No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly ... View more

Num 22-24

Balak Summons Balaam to Curse Israel
1The Israelites set out, and camped in the plains of Moab across the Jordan from Jericho.2Now Balak son of Zippor saw all t ... View more

Judg 3:12-30

12The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord strengthened King Eglon of Moab against Israel, because they had done what ... View more

2Sam 8:2

2He also defeated the Moabites and, making them lie down on the ground, measured them off with a cord; he measured two lengths of cord for those who were to be ... View more

2Kgs 3:27

27Then he took his firstborn son who was to succeed him, and offered him as a burnt offering on the wall. And great wrath came upon Israel, so they withdrew fro ... View more

Amos 2:1-2

1Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of Moab,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because he burned to lime
the bones of the king of Edom.2 ... View more

Isa 15-16

An Oracle concerning Moab
1An oracle concerning Moab.

Because Ar is laid waste in a night,
Moab is undone;
because Kir is laid waste in a night,
Moab is undone ... View more

Isa 25:10-12

10For the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain.

The Moabites shall be trodden down in their place
as straw is trodden down in a dung-pit.11Though they s ... View more

Jer 48

Judgment on Moab
1Concerning Moab.

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel:
Alas for Nebo, it is laid waste!
Kiriathaim is put to shame, it is taken;
th ... View more

Ezek 25:8-11

Proclamation against Moab
8Thus says the Lord GOD: Because Moab said, The house of Judah is like all the other nations,9therefore I will lay open the flank of M ... View more

Ruth 4:17-18

17The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David ... View more

Matt 1:5-6

5and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse,6and Jesse the father of King David.
And David was th ... View more

1Sam 22:3-4

3David went from there to Mizpeh of Moab. He said to the king of Moab, “Please let my father and mother come to you, until I know what God will do for me.”4He l ... View more

Gen 11:27

Descendants of Terah
27Now these are the descendants of Terah. Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot.

Deut 2:9-12

9the Lord said to me: “Do not harass Moab or engage them in battle, for I will not give you any of its land as a possession, since I have given Ar as a possessi ... View more

2Kgs 3

Jehoram Reigns over Israel
1In the eighteenth year of King Jehoshaphat of Judah, Jehoram son of Ahab became king over Israel in Samaria; he reigned twelve years ... View more

Num 21:2

2Then Israel made a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will indeed give this people into our hands, then we will utterly destroy their towns.”

Deut 20:16-17

16But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive.17You shall ... View more

Josh 6:17

17The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall live becaus ... View more

1Sam 15:8

8He took King Agag of the Amalekites alive, but utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword.

A region notable for its early ancient civilizations, geographically encompassing the modern Middle East, Egypt, and modern Turkey.

Dug up, often from an archaeological site.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

Writing, speech, or thought about the nature and behavior of God.

2Kgs 3

Jehoram Reigns over Israel
1In the eighteenth year of King Jehoshaphat of Judah, Jehoram son of Ahab became king over Israel in Samaria; he reigned twelve years ... View more

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