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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Midianites, Moses, and Monotheism

Nearly a century ago the historian Eduard Meyer traced the origin of Yahwism to the Midianites and to one of their subgroups, the Kenites. Recent archaeological discoveries in northern Arabia and elsewhere have revived and revised the “Midianite/Kenite” hypothesis, most elegantly expressed in the writings of the biblical scholar Frank M. Cross. A biography of Moses, the founder of Yahwism, cannot be written from the biblical legends that surround him. But several details in his saga, especially concerning the Midianites, seem to be early and authentic.

According to the epic source called J (Yahwist), Moses, after killing an Egyptian, fled from an unnamed pharaoh (perhaps Seti I) to the land of Midian. The heartland of Midian lay in the desert of rose-red mountains and plateaus above the great Rift Valley, east of the Gulf of Aqaba in northwestern Arabia. Medieval Arab geographers still referred to this region as the land of Midian; today it is known as the Hijaz. There Moses married the daughter of the Midianite priest Jethro (called Reuel or Hobab in other sources). During this initial episode in Midian, Moses experienced the theophany of Yahweh in the thornbush, which was blazing but was not consumed (Exod. 3.1–4.17 ).

After the Exodus from Egypt (probably during the reign of Rameses II), Moses returned with his followers to the same “mountain of God ['elohim]” in Midian, where he experienced a second theophany. In this episode Moses received the Ten Commandments and sealed the covenant between God ('elohim) and his people. Moses' father-in-law, the priest of Midian, counseled him about implementing an effective judicial system among the Israelites, apparently based on one already in use among the Midianites (Exod. 18.13–27 ).

Jethro expressed his commitment to God ('elohim) through burnt offerings and sacrifices, and his solidarity with Moses and his followers through a shared meal “in the presence of God ['elohim]” (Exod. 18.12 ). Later Moses' father-in-law helped guide this group through the wilderness as far as Canaan, but he declined to enter the Promised Land, averring that he must return to his own land and to his kindred (Num. 10.29–32 ).

The traditions of benign relations between the Midianites and the Moses group reflect the period prior to 1100 BCE, that is, before the era of Gideon and Abimelech, when the camel-riding and -raiding Midianites had become the archenemies of the Israelites (Judg. 6 ). The Midianites, like the Kenites, the Amalekites, and the Ishmaelites, disappear from biblical history by the tenth century BCE. It strains credulity to think that traditions about Moses, the great lawgiver and hero who married the daughter of the priest of Midian, were created during or after these hostilities.

Early Hebrew poetry suggests that the “mountain of God,” known as Horeb (in the E and D sources) and as Sinai (in the J and P sources), was located in the Arabian, not the Sinai, Peninsula. When Yahweh leads the Israelites into battle against the Canaanites in the twelfth-century Song of Deborah, the poet declares:

When you, Yahweh, went forth from Seir, When you marched forth from the plateaus of Edom, Earth shook, Heaven poured, Clouds poured water; Mountains quaked; Before Yahweh, Lord of Sinai, Before Yahweh, God of Israel.

(Judg. 5.4–5 ; my translation)

Likewise in the archaic “Blessing of Moses”:

Yahweh came from Sinai, He beamed forth from Seir upon us, He shone forth from Mount Paran.

(Deut. 33.2 ; my translation)

And the same locale is given for Yahweh's mountain home in Habakkuk 3 :

God came from Teman, The Holy One from Mount Paran. … He stood and he shook earth, He looked and made nations tremble. Everlasting mountains were shattered, Ancient hills collapsed, Ancient pathways were destroyed. … The tents of Cushan shook, Tent curtains of the land of Midian.

(Hab. 3.3–7 ; my translation)

The tribesmen of Cushan were already encamped on the southeast border of Palestine in the early second millennium BCE, according to Middle Kingdom texts from Egypt. Later they were absorbed into the confederation of Midianites.

The epic traditions concerning Moses and the Midianites occur in story time between the Exodus from Egypt and the conquest of Canaan. The setting for these encounters on or near the “mountain of God” is connected with Edom, Seir, Paran, Teman, Cushan, and Midian. There, in the Arabian, not the Sinai, Peninsula, Yahweh is first revealed to Moses, and it is from there that the deity marches forth to lead the nascent Israelites into battle, according to the earliest Hebrew poetry.

In historical time the benign relations between Midianites and Israelites should be set before 1100 BCE, a period that also coincides with the floruit of “Midianite ware” (see below) and the presence of pastoralists in the region. The Egyptians of the New Kingdom included those tent-dwellers under the general rubric Shasu. Among their territories southeast of Canaan mentioned in the lists of Amenhotep III, one is designated the “land of the Shasu: S‘rr,” probably to be identified with Seir; another is known as the “land of the Shasu: Yhw3,” or Yahweh.

Until the enmity between Israelites and Midianites, exemplified in the wars of Gideon, dominated their relations, the two groups were considered kin, offspring of the patriarch Abraham: Israelites through Isaac, son of the primary wife, Sarah, and Midianites through Midian, son of the secondary wife or concubine, Keturah, whose name means “incense.” From Moses on, Midianites were also linked to Israelites by marriage to the founder of Yahwism.

All of this changed dramatically during the period of the judges. The about-face in attitude and policy toward the once-friendly Midianites is nowhere more vividly portrayed than in the polemic against the worship of Baal of Peor in Moab. In the J summary of the event (Num. 25.1–5 ), the Israelites are depicted as fornicators, whoring after the “daughters of Moab” and their deity Baal of Peor. Apparently a plague interrupted the festivities, and to ward it off the leaders of the Israelites “who yoked [themselves] to Baal of Peor” were executed. In the P account (Num. 25.6–18 ), Phinehas, who represents the later priestly household of Aaron, calls into question the genealogical charter of the priestly household of Moses and challenges the legitimacy of this dynasty of priests. When Phinehas finds a notable scion of the Israelites copulating with a notable daughter of the Midianites within the sacred precincts of the tent-shrine or tabernacle, the Aaronide priest skewers them both with a single thrust of his lance.

In the lineage of Abraham in Genesis, Keturah's “sons” represent tribes and peoples trafficking in goods from Arabia (Gen. 25.1–4 ). Midianites and Ishmaelites settle in the land of Havilah ( 25.18 ), through which one of four rivers of Eden flows, a land rich in gold, bdellium, and carnelian (Gen. 2.11–12 ). Another river of paradise flows around the land of Cush ( 2.13 ), or Cushan, whose descendants include not only Havilah but also Seba/Saba/Sheba (Gen. 10.7; 1 Chron. 1.9 ).

When the queen of Sheba (modern Yemen, in south Arabia) visited King Solomon, she brought camel caravans loaded with aromatics, gold, and gemstones (1 Kings 10.2 ). Her “gifts” to the Israelite potentate of the tenth century BCE differ little from the tribute exacted from Sheba by the Assyrian emperor Esarhaddon three centuries later. Yautha, king of a confederation of North Arabian tribes known as the Kedarites, delivered to the Assyrian monarch 10 minas of gold, 1,000 choice gems, 50 camels, and 1,000 leather bags of aromatics of all kinds.

In the sixth century BCE the great Phoenician seaport of Tyre was exporting the wealth of Arabia to other parts of the Mediterranean: the Kedarites brought young bull-camels, rams, and he-goats; the Dedanites, from an oasis north of Yathrib (Medina), traded in saddle cloths for riding; and Sheba exported gold, incense, and all kinds of gemstones (Ezek. 27.20–22 ).

Even later the book of Isaiah (60.6–7) anticipated that Arabia's riches would be brought to a restored Jerusalem:

A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young bull-camels of Midian and Ephah [a son of Midian in Gen. 25.4 ]; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense. … All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you.

Thus whether the great caravaneers of Arabia were known as Midianites (Gen. 37.28, 36; Judg. 5.10 ), or later as Arabs and Kedarites, or later still as Nabateans, the merchandise and produce they exported to the rest of the ancient Near East and to the Mediterranean remained basically the same.

Linkage between remote desert oases in Arabia required the camel. It was the only pack animal that could survive the long distances between watering holes in the desert oases, the vital links between the resources of southern Arabia and the wider world. W. F. Albright's assessment, based on contemporary texts and limited faunal remains, that dromedary camels became important to the caravan trade only toward the final centuries of the second millennium BCE, is still valid.

In Sheba grew the best aromatics in the world. Frankincense is a white resin obtained from trees that grow in abundance on the mountainous south coast of the Arabian Peninsula, in the Hadhramaut and Dhofar. It was burned as a pungent aromatic incense or as a compound in other fragrant offerings to the gods. Myrrh, harvested from bushes growing in the steppes of Punt (modern Somalia) and Sheba, was another aromatic in great demand for its use in cosmetics, perfumes, and medicines.

By the Late Bronze Age, the aromatics trade had become the most lucrative business in the ancient Near East thanks to the dromedary camel. Not only did the merchants become rich; so did the camel breeders, the escorts who provided protection for caravans through hostile territory, and the rulers who exacted tolls from caravaneers passing through their kingdoms (see 1 Kings 10.15 ).

As J. David Schloen has recognized, it was the disruption of this lucrative caravan trade under the aegis of the Midianites and the protection of the Israelites that sparked the battle between Canaanites and Israelites, celebrated in the Song of Deborah, when:

In the days of Shamgar ben Anat, In the days of Jael, Caravans and trailblazers held back, Caravans traveled by circuitous routes, Village tribesmen in Israel held back. They held back until you arose, Deborah, Until you arose, a mother in Israel.

(Judg. 5.6–7 ; my translation)

The heroine of the victory was Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, who drove a tent peg into the temple of the Canaanite commander Sisera (Judg. 5.24–27 ). In one tradition Moses' father-in-law is identified with the Kenites (Judg. 1.16 ), whose descendants dwell among the Amalekites in the northern Negeb near Arad (1 Sam. 15.5–6 ). Moshe Kochavi has plausibly suggested that the main Amalekite center was located at Tel Masos. Apparently the Kenites and the Amalekites were part of the large confederation of Midianites, who in the twelfth century BCE were still on friendly terms with the Israelites. Genealogical traditions identified Kenites with Cain (qayyan means “metalsmith” in Aramaic) and Tubal-cain “who made all kinds of bronze and iron tools” (Gen. 4.22 ).

The date and distribution of “Midianite painted pottery,” also called “Hijaz painted pottery,” corroborates and clarifies some of the Midianite traditions adumbrated above. The key site is a large urban oasis known today as Qurayyah in northwestern Arabia, in the heartland of ancient Midian. The site awaits systematic excavation, but using intensive surface surveys Peter Parr has been able to provide many details about it. The citadel of this center is extremely large, encompassing about 35 hectares (86 acres), below which lies a fortified settlement of another 15 hectares (37 acres). As many as ten to twelve thousand inhabitants lived in this caravan city. Some local subsistence for the large community was provided by an elaborate system of irrigation farming utilizing seasonal floodwaters.

The most striking artifact from the survey is a beautiful painted pottery, found at Qurayyah in abundance. It is decorated with painted geometric designs (probably imitating textiles) and zoomorphic motifs, such as the desert ostrich. Pottery kilns at the site and petrographic analysis of this “Midianite painted pottery” leave no doubt that Qurayyah was a major production center for it, exporting it southeast as far as the great oasis at Tema and north as far as Amman and Hebron. Small amounts of this ware have also been found in the northern Negeb at Tel Masos and at Tell el-Farah (S), and in the foothills of Canaan at Lachish; another sherd has been found at Tawilan in Edom.

The date of this pottery and its association with copper metallurgy has been confirmed by excavations at Timna in the Wadi Arabah, 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of Qurayyah. There, in an Egyptian sanctuary nestled beneath a cliff, Midianite painted pottery made up about 25 percent of the pottery assemblage. Associated objects inscribed in Egyptian dated to the thirteenth to twelfth centuries BCE. In its final stages the sanctuary was appropriated and rededicated by iconoclastic Midianites. Three hundred kilometers (186 miles) north of its production center Qurayyah, Midianite painted pottery has been found in quantity in the greatest copper mining district of the Bronze and Iron Ages—at Khirbet Feinan, known in the Bible as Punon (Num. 33.42 ), one of the stopping points of the Israelites during their desert wanderings.

Thus the distribution of Midianite painted pottery, from its production center(s) in northern Arabia (Midian) to a wide range of settlements in the Negeb, the Arabah, and beyond, fits rather nicely the locale and routes of a people known for their metalsmithing and caravaneering. The floruit of this distinctive pottery is precisely the era in which most biblical historians (quite independently of this ceramic evidence, which has only recently come to light) would date the Israelite Exodus from Egypt, their sojourn through Midian and Transjordan, and their settlement in Canaan in the late thirteenth and twelfth centuries BCE.

Circumstantial evidence of time and place suggests Midianite antecedents and contributions to Yahwism. Such formal elements as the proper name Yahweh, his sacred mountain in Midian as the locus of Moses' theophanies, and the prominent roles of Moses' father-in-law (priest and sheikh of the Midianites) and his wife Zipporah provide tantalizing hints about the relationship. But until more is known about Midianite religion, these connections will remain tentative at best.

What is known, however, is that only a century before the “Mosaic era” and the advent of Yahwism, Egypt experienced a brief episode of radical monotheism during the so-called Amarna Revolution. The pharaoh Akhenaten (1352–1336 BCE; formerly Amenhotep IV) proclaimed Aten—the luminous, numinous power of the sun disk—the sole and universal god of Egypt and its empire (including Canaan). Atenism was suppressed by succeeding pharaohs, who reinstated the traditional pantheon; nevertheless, the memory of this radical monotheism survived in some circles, and centuries later the Israelite poet who composed Psalm 104 borrowed directly from the sublime Egyptian “Hymn to the Aten.” Thus, by the latter part of the second millennium BCE, the Egyptians had had a brief experiment with monotheism that may have had repercussions beyond Egypt and affected other Near Eastern cultures.

In more complex societies like Egypt and Mesopotamia, whether there were one or many intracosmic deities, rulers were either the incarnated or the designated “sons” of the deity, intermediaries between heaven and earth, between the divine ruler and the ruled. The populace identified with its geographical territory and its rulers, who interceded on its behalf with the patron deities.

There is a sense in which Yahwism represents a radical break with the past and a breakthrough in the history of religions and in human consciousness. The philosopher and political scientist Eric Voegelin has analyzed this change in the following terms: the pragmatic escape of the Hebrews from Egypt becomes, at the same time, a “spiritual exodus from the cosmological form of imperial rule. The sonship of god is transferred from the pharaoh to the people of Israel in immediate existence under Yahweh” (The Ecumenic Age, 26). It is the constitution of a “people” or “kindred” directly under the patrimonial authority of Yahweh that forges a new relationship between deity and community and a new identity for those who participate directly in this new order.

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