Midian, Midianites

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MIDIAN, MIDIANITES (Heb. מִדְיָנִים, מִדְיָן Gen. 37:28, מִדְיָנִים), name of a people or a group of (semi-) nomadic peoples in the Bible (lxx, Madian, or Madiam; 1qIsa 60:6, מדים). The Midianites are among the sons of Abraham and Keturah who were sent to "the land of the East" (Gen. 25:1–6). "Midianite traders" are mentioned in the episode about the sale of Joseph (Gen. 37:28). *Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, was a Midianite priest living in the land of Midian (Ex. 2:15–3:1); he met Moses in the wilderness of Sinai (Ex. 18: 1–5), and the members of his family accompanied the Israelites in their wanderings in the desert (Num. 10:29–32). The elders of Midian displayed hostility toward the Israelites on the plains of Moab (22:7) and the Israelites fought the Midianites, killing many of them (31:1–20).

This episode was connected with the attempt to entice the Israelites to worship Baal-Peor, in which the daughters of Midian participated (25:6–18). In the period of the Judges, the Midianites exerted harsh pressure on Israel (Judg. 6:1–7), and Gideon defeated them far from the borders of Ereẓ Israel, in Karkor (8:10), which was probably in Wadi Sirḥān in Transjordan, on the border of the desert. After this war, the Midianites ceased to be a political or military factor.

The range of the Midianites' wanderings was very broad: from the neighborhood of Moab (Gen. 36:35; Num. 22:4, 7; 25:1, 5, 15) and the kingdom of Sihon the Amorite (Josh. 13:21) in the border region of Transjordan, along the border of the Arabian desert (cf. Judg. 8:21, 24) west of Edom (i Kings 11:18), to the Sinai Desert and the trade route between Ereẓ Israel and Egypt (Gen. 37:28). In Greek-Roman and Arabic sources Midian is mentioned in Arabia, as well as on the shore of the Red Sea, and, according to Josephus (Ant., 2:257), this is the biblical Midian (cf. Eusebius, Onom. 124:6). This Midian is identified, according to the tradition of the Arabic geographers, with modern Maghāyir Shuʿayb (= the caves near Akaba). It appears that the Midianites' settlement in Arabia occurred in a later time, when their living area was reduced, but it is possible that the settlement in North Arabia during the Hellenistic-Roman period was a continuation of the biblical settlement. Among the sons of Keturah are mentioned tribes which inhabited North Arabia – Ephah and Dedan (Gen. 25:3–4) – and it is also possible that from there the Midianites spread to the north, the east, and the west. In the Bible the Midianites are also designated by the inclusive typological title "Ishmaelites" (Judg. 8:24). Some scholars discern a connection between the Midianites and the Kushu tribes mentioned in the Egyptian Execration Texts from the 18th century b.c.e., who wandered in the southern deserts of Ereẓ Israel (cf. Cushan, Hab. 3:7). This may be hinted at in the story of the "Cushite woman" whom Moses married (Num. 12:1).

The name Midian is attributed to groups of tribes or peoples (cf. Gen. 25:4), as is attested by the nature of the monarchy in Midian. The Bible mentions "the five kings of Midian" during the war in the wilderness (Num. 31:8) and Zebah and Zalmunna in the war of Gideon (Judg. 8:1ff.). The Midianite kings are called "chieftains" (nesiʾim) and "princes" (nesikhim; Josh. 13:21; Ps. 83:12), very fitting titles for a tribal organization united in groups; Zur, a prince of Midian, is explicitly called "the tribal head of an ancestral house in Midian" (Num. 25:15). Their typically (semi- and eventually complete) nomadic character made them close to other similar tribes – Amalekites and Kedemites. The Midianites in Transjordan followed the cult of the Moabite Baal-Peor, while those who inhabited the Negev and the Sinai became close to the Kenites or even identified with them (cf. Num. 10:29; Judg. 1:16; 4:11) and the Hebrews. The Midianites were known as shepherds (Ex. 2:17) and traders (Gen. 37:28, 36). From time to time, they, together with neighboring tribes, broke into the permanent settlements around them. The Bible describes them as robbers (Judg. 6:5). During the Monarchy the Midianites lived within the confines of their place of origin, North Arabia, and they were known as middlemen in the frankincense (levonah) and gold export from Sheba in South Arabia (cf. Isa. 60:6). During the Hellenistic period the Nabateans mined much gold in the land of Midian and exported it via the port of Macna (Strabo, Geographica, 17:784). There has been no systematic scientific research of Midian in North Arabia.

[Samuel Abramsky]

In the Aggadah

Midian and Moab had always been enemies but, fearing that Israel would subdue them, they composed their differences and entered into an alliance (Sanh. 105a). They succeeded in inducing the Israelites to commit fornication with the daughters of Midian only by first making them drunk. For this reason, Phinehas forbade the drinking of gentile wine (pdre 47). The hatred of the Midianites for Israel was solely on account of the observance of the Torah by Israel (Num. R. 22:2). The Midianites are sometimes identified with the Moabites, who lost their claim to special consideration as descendants of Lot (Deut. 2:9), the nephew of Abraham, because they tried to induce Israel to sin (Yelammedenu in Yal. 1, 875). The command to Moses to make war upon the Midianites before his death was because, having no reason for their hatred against Israel, they nevertheless joined the Moabites and outdid them in their enmity. Moses did not lead the war in person because he had found refuge in Midian when he was a fugitive from Egypt. He delegated the command to Phinehas as he had been the first to take action against them by slaying the Midianite princess, Cozbi (Num. R. 22:4).


R.F. Burton, The Gold Mines of Midian (1897); idem, The Land of Midian (1898); E. Glaser, Skizze der Geschichte und Geographie Arabiens, 2 (1890), 261ff.; E. Meyer, Die Israeliten und ihre Nachbarstaemme (1906), 326ff., 381–2; H. Grimme, in: olz, 13 (1910), 54–59; H. Gressmann, Mose und seine Zeit (1913), 416ff.; A. Musil, The Northern Hegâz (1926), 109ff., 267ff., 278–98, 321ff.; W.J. Phythian-Adams, in: pefqs (1930), 193ff.; L.E. Binns, in: jts, 31 (1930), 337–59; A. Reuveni, Shem, Ḥam, ve-Yafet (1932), 16–18, 68–69; Albright, Stone, 195–6; idem, in: basor, 83 (1941), 36, n. 8; M. Noth, in: zaw, 60 (1944), 23ff.; B. Mazar, in: Eretz-Israel, 3 (1954), 20; S. Abramsky, ibid., 118–9; Y. Kutscher, Ha-Lashon ve-ha-Reka ha-Leshoni shel Megillat Yeshayahu (1959), 82; G.W. van Beer, in: ba, 23 (1960), 3, 70–95; A. Grohman, Arabien (1963), 21, 38–92. in the aggadah: Ginzberg, Legends, 7 (1938), 313; A. Rosmarin, Moses im Lichte der Aggadah (1932), index.