Arabia is a large, predominately arid peninsula bounded on the east by Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf, on the north by the Mediterranean coastal highlands of Syria and Palestine, and on the west and south by the Red Sea and Indian Ocean (Maps 1, 2: G–K 4–6). Northwest Arabia is mountainous, stony desert. Like the neighboring Negeb, it is desolate but habitable for sheep/goat nomads. The sandy deserts of interior Arabia remained impenetrable until domestication of the camel allowed its scattered oases to be linked by means of caravan routes in the first millennium BCE. Southern Arabia (Yemen) is, by contrast, a well‐watered highland where terraced agriculture has supported permanent settlement from at least the second millennium BCE.
The Bible reflects close familiarity with the desert places and nomadic peoples of northwestern Arabia, and southern Arabia (Sheba, 1 Kings 10.1; Job 6.19; or Seba, Gen. 10.7; Ps. 72.10; Isa. 43.3) was also known as a source of camels, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Some places, like Dumah (Josh. 15.52; Isa. 21.11; modern Jawf) and Tema (Gen. 25.15; Job 6.19; Isa. 21.14; Jer. 25.23; modern Tayma), can be identified with sites in northern Arabia; however, recent attempts to relocate the ancestral narratives wholesale from Palestine to northern Arabia must be rejected. The Hebrew word ʿărābâ means “desert,” but in one form it also means “nomad” (Isa. 13.20; Jer. 3.2). The phrase “all the kings of Arabia” (1 Kings 10.15; 2 Chron. 9.14; Jer. 25.24) can mean “all the kings of the Arabs” or “all the kings of the nomads.” Few of the numerous nomadic peoples mentioned in the Bible are called “Arabs,” and only rarely is their territory called “Arabia.” Rather, they are identified by their geographic or ethnic origin: Amalekites (1 Sam. 15.6–8; 30.1; Judg. 6.5; 7.12), Ishmaelites (Gen. 37.25), Midianites (Judg. 6.5; 7.12).
In the New Testament, “Arabians” (denoting probably Arabic speakers) were among the polyglot crowd gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost (Acts 2.5–11). For a time after his call, Paul “went away into Arabia,” perhaps to eastern Syria or Transjordan (Gal. 1.17).
Joseph A. Greene