|MOAB AND THE MOABITE STONE |
(moh' ab, moh' uh bite) Personal and national name and monument the nation left behind. The narrow strip of cultivable land directly east of the Dead Sea was known in biblical times as “Moab,” and the people who lived there, as “Moabites.” Moab is rolling plateau (averaging approximately 3,300 feet elevation), bounded on the west by the rugged escarpment which drops down to the Dead Sea (itself almost 1,300 feet below sea level), on the east by the desert, and running through it the steep Wady Mujib canyon (the Arnon River of biblical times). The Mujib/Arnon, which flows essentially east-west and enters the Dead Sea approximately mid-way along the latter's western shore, separates northern Moab from Moab proper.
Relatively few springs appear on the Moabite plateau, and the waters of the Mujib/Arnon are virtually inaccessible because of the steepness of the river canyon. Still, the area is well watered by winter rains brought by winds from the Mediterranean. The porous soil holds enough of the moisture for the villagers to grow cereal crops and to find good pasturage for their sheep and goats. Moab's agricultural productivity is illustrated by the biblical passages pertaining to Ruth and King Mesha, surely the two best-known Moabites from the Bible. The Book of Ruth opens with a time of famine in Judah; thus Elimelech, Naomi, and their two sons emigrated to Moab where food was still available (Ruth 1:1-5). King Mesha, we are told, “was a sheep breeder; and he had to deliver annually to the king of Israel a hundred thousand lambs, and the wool of a hundred thousand rams” (2 Kings 3:4 RSV).
The chief cities of northern Moab were Hesbon, Medeba, and Dibon. Since this region was somewhat cut off from Moab proper by the Arnon, it was more vulnerable to international pressures and often changed hands during biblical times. In fact, the Ammonites made claim to all the territory as far south as the Arnon (Judges 11:13), while the Book of Joshua makes the same claim for Israel (Joshua 13:15-28). Other biblical passages which pertain to the region immediately north of the Arnon clearly recognize it as Moabite territory (Isaiah 15:1;
Jeremiah 48:1), as does the inscription of the Moabite Stone (see below). A crux passage for understanding the whole matter is
Numbers 21:25-30, which explains that King Sihon of the Amorites took northern Moab from the Moabites and that the Israelites took it from him. Unfortunately, this passage is open to various interpretations (especially when the essentially parallel version in
Jeremiah 48:45-47 is taken into account).
Moab proper was more isolated from the outside world, bounded by the Dead Sea escarpment on the west, the desert on the east, the Mujib/Arnon on the north, and a second river canyon on the south—called today Wady el-Hesa, probably, but not certainly, the River Zered of biblical times (Numbers 21:12). The chief cities of Moab proper were Kir-hareseth (present-day Kerak) and a place called Ar Moab (possibly to be identified with the present-day village of Rabbah approximately nine miles northeast of Kerak).
2 Kings 3:1 describes a military campaign undertaken by King Jehoram of Israel and supported by King Jehoshaphat of Judah which penetrated Moab proper and culminated in a siege of Kir-hareseth. The siege was lifted when King Mesha of Moab sacrificed his oldest son on the city wall.
In addition to biblical passages such as those indicated above and occasional references in Assyrian texts, our major source of information about ancient Moab is the so-called Moabite Stone. This stone, which bears an inscription from the reign of the same King Mesha mentioned in
2 Kings 3:1, was discovered in 1868, near the ruins of ancient Dibon, by a German missionary. Known also as The Mesha Inscription, the monument reports the major accomplishments of King Mesha's reign. He boasts especially of having recovered Moabite independence from Israel and of having restored Moabite control over northern Moab.
Since they were neighbors, the history of the Moabites was intertwined with that of Israel. Moreover, the Israelites regarded the Moabites as close relatives, as implied by
Genesis 19:30-38. We hear of peaceful interchange as well as conflicts between the Israelites and Moabites already during the time of the Judges. The story of Ruth illustrates peaceful relations, while the episode of Ehud and Eglon illustrates conflict (Judges 3:12-30). Saul is reported to have fought against the Moabites (1 Samuel 14:47). David, a descendant of the Moabitess Ruth according to the biblical genealogies (Ruth 4:18-22), placed his parents under the protection of the king of Moab while he was on the run from Saul (1 Samuel 22:3-4). Yet he is reported to have defeated the Moabites in battle later on and to have executed two-thirds of the Moabite prisoners by arbitrary selection (2 Samuel 8:2). Moab was represented among Solomon's wives, and the worship of Chemosh, the Moabite god, accommodated in Solomon's Jerusalem (1 Kings 11:1-8).
Our most detailed information about Moabite-Israelite relations comes from the mid-ninth century B.C., the time of the Omri dynasty of Israel and King Mesha of Moab (1 Kings 16:15–2 Kings 10:18). At this point the inscription of the Moabite Stone supplements the biblical record. We learn that Omri conquered northern Moab and gained some degree of domination over Moab proper. Ahab continued Omri's policies. King Mesha ascended the throne of Moab approximately midway during Ahab's reign, however, and eventually succeeded in throwing off the Israelite yoke. Mesha apparently began the struggle for Moabite independence during the turbulent years following Ahab's death (2 Kings 1:1). Ahaziah, who succeeded Ahab to the throne of Israel, was unable to respond to Mesha's challenge because of an accident which led to his premature death (2 Kings 1:1). Later, when Jehoram followed Ahaziah to the throne of Israel and attempted to restore Israelite control over Mesha, he was unsuccessful (2 Kings 3:1).
Eventually, by 700 B.C., Moab fell under the shadow of Assyria as did Israel, Judah, Ammon, and the other petty Syro-Palestinian Kingdoms. Thus Moab and Moabite kings are mentioned in the records of Tiglath-Pileser III, Sargon II, Sennacherib, and Esarhaddon. Also, prophetic oracles such as
Isaiah 15:1; and
Jeremiah 48:1 pertain to these last, waning years of the Moabite kingdom. See Kir-hareseth; Arnon River; Transjordan; King Mesha; Ruth; Jehoram (of Israel); Jehoshaphat.