The name of a tribal group that appears to have played a significant role in the premonarchic history of Israel. Very little is known of the Midianites, and even the location and extent of their homeland is a matter of scholarly debate. The only source of information about them is the Bible. No archaeological remains can yet be attributed to them, and, with the exception of references in the inscriptions of Tiglath‐pileser III and Sargon II to Ephah, one of the subtribes of Midian (referred to as a son of Midian, Gen 25.4), they do not appear in extrabiblical inscriptions.
The Midianites are generally portrayed in the Bible as seminomadic and nomadic shepherds and traders. Their eponymous ancestor is said to have been the son of Abraham and Keturah and to have been sent by Abraham to the east, along with his brothers (Gen. 25.1–6). In the narratives of Genesis, Numbers, Joshua, and Judges, groups of Midianites appear all across southern Palestine and Sinai, as well as in Transjordan. This is usually interpreted as an indication of the wide range of their regular migrations.
Although the Midianites are usually portrayed as enemies of Israel (see esp. Num. 22; 25.6–18; 31; and Judg. 6–8), Midian is presented in a more positive light in passages dealing with Moses' sojourn with Jethro/Hobab, a priest of Midian and Moses' father‐in‐law (Exod. 2.15–3.1). The tradition that Moses received his revelation of Yahweh while living with the Midianites and the influential role that Jethro plays in Exodus 18 have led to speculation that the worship of Yahweh may have been adopted by Israel from the Midianites. Such speculations, however, cannot be confirmed.
The battle led by Gideon against the Midianites in Judges 6–8 appears to have been the last time that Midian was a significant political threat to Israel. No conflicts are reported between the two in the monarchic period. Midian, however, continued to survive and play a role in the spice and gold trade from Arabia. In Isaiah 60:6, an early postexilic poem, reference is made to Midianite and Ephaite caravans along the Arabian trade routes.
Wayne T. Pitard