The extreme northwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, immediately east of the Gulf of ῾Aqaba, was associated by the classical and medieval Arab geographers with the place name Madian or Madiama. It is generally agreed that these preserve the name of Midian, the son of Abraham and Keturah and the ancestor of the Midianites of the Hebrew Bible. It was to Midian that Moses fled after murdering an Egyptian overseer, and it was Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite shepherd and (possibly) priest, variously named Jethro, Reuel, or Hobab, whom he subsequently married (Ex. 2–4, 18; Nm. 25, 31). According to one tradition (Nm. 10:29–32), Jethro helped guide the Israelites through the desert after their exodus from Egypt. The good relationship initially enjoyed by the two peoples is illustrated by the fact that Moses invited the Midianites to join in the journey to the Promised Land—an offer which was, however, declined. Relations soon deteriorated and, following an incident at Ba῾al-Peor in Moab, when an Israelite zealot killed some Midianite princes apparently involved in a fertility rite, the two groups became implacable foes. In Judges 6–8 an account is given of an unsuccessful attack by Midianite raiders on the Israelite tribes in northern Canaan led by Gideon, followed by further military action in Transjordan. These events are conventionally dated to the eleventh century BCE. The last mention of the Midianites as a people probably refers to an episode a few decades later, when they are said to have been defeated by the king of Edom (Gn. 36:35). After this, the name occurs in the Hebrew Bible only as a geographical expression; it does not appear, either as a gentilic or a locality, in any other ancient texts prior to the classical period.

The Midianites are portrayed in these traditions as nomadic sheep and camel herders, caravaneers, and raiders, ranging over a wide territory to the south and east of Canaan. There is no reason to suppose that this portrayal is not essentially correct, at least in part. However, recent archaeological survey in northwestern Arabia—the heartland of Midian—has indicated that this is not the whole story. There also existed, during the final centuries of the second millennium BCE, sedentary communities that should, in all probability, be included among the Midianites. The evidence lies in the discovery at a number of sites of a distinctive type of painted pottery, stylistically related to certain types of Late Bronze Age pottery of the eastern Mediterranean region. The pottery may ultimately be derived from the Mycenaean pottery of the Aegean, by way of Canaan or Egypt. At the site of Qurayyah a number of kilns used in the manufacture of this pottery have been identified. [See Qurayyah.] There is also strong evidence at this site of fortification walls and an irrigated field system contemporary with the pottery. Identical pottery has been excavated at the copper mining and smelting installations at Timna῾, in the southern Wadi ῾Arabah north of modern Eilat in Israel. That pottery is dated by inscribed Egyptian objects to the nineteenth dynasty (thirteenth–twelfth centuries BCE)—precisely the time to which most authorities ascribe the Hebrew traditions mentioned above. [See Timna῾ (Negev).] There can be no doubt that the Egyptians were engaged, presumably in a controlling capacity, in the ῾Arabah mines and that they employed workers from Qurayyah and perhaps from elsewhere in Arabia. There is no evidence for metallurgical activities at Qurayyah itself, however, or at Tayma', where sherds of the same pottery have also been found. [See Tayma'.] This suggests that other activities, perhaps the incense trade with Southwest Arabia, played a part in Midian's economy. The field system at Qurayyah indicates that agriculture was also economically important.

It has been suggested that the development of what has been termed oasis urbanism in Midian at this time was largely the result of Egyptian involvement in the economy of the region. This interpretation is controversial, primarily because of the complete lack of evidence in Egyptian texts for such involvement, other than at Timna῾. For the Egyptians, the inhabitants of the arid regions of Sinai, the Hijaz, and Transjordan seem to have been subsumed under the term shasu and depicted as pastoralists and raiders, much as the Midianites are depicted in the Hebrew Bible. In the present state of research, all further attempts to reconstruct the history of Midian must remain speculative.

Bibliography

  • Mendenhall, George E. The Tenth Generation: The Origins of the Biblical Tradition. Baltimore, 1973. Chapter 6, “The ‘Sea Peoples’ in Palestine,” contains a stimulating, though very controversial, discussion of the Midianites, suggesting an Anatolian origin.
  • Parr, Peter J., et al. “Preliminary Survey in North West Arabia, 1968.” Bulletin of the Institute of Archaeology, University of London 8–9 (1970): 219–241, pls. 21–42. The first account of the archaeological discoveries which began to challenge the conventional view of the history of Midian.
  • Parr, Peter J. “Pottery of the Late Second Millennium B.C. from North West Arabia and Its Historical Implications.” In Araby the Blest: Studies in Arabian Archaeology, edited by Daniel T. Potts, pp. 72–89. Copenhagen, 1988. Succinct account and possible interpretation of the recent archaeological discoveries, with full references.
  • Sawyer, John F. A., and David J. A. Clines, eds. Midian, Moab, and Edom: The History and Archaeology of Late Bronze and Iron Age Jordan and North-West Arabia. Sheffield, 1983. Conference papers; see in particular the essays by E. J. Payne (“The Midianite Arc”), E. Axel Knauf (“Midianites and Ishmaelites”), and Beno Rothenberg and Jonathan Glass (“The Midianite Pottery”).

Peter J. Parr