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.
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
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 (
Other traditions present a more favorable view of Moabite-Israelite relations. The genealogy of David is traced to Ruth, that most worthy of Moabites (
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
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.