Few landscapes in the world prove as inhospitable as the desert lands to the south of Israel. Nevertheless, tribes of people have lived and even thrived in the land of Arabia throughout time.
“Arabia” generally refers to the Arabian Peninsula, the large strip of land extending south of Israel and Mesopotamia between the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. Throughout recorded history the majority of this territory has been desert, able only to sustain nomadic tribes of pastoralists which we often call the “Bedouin.” Only the areas in the southern Arabian Peninsula in modern day Yemen and Oman featured more rainfall and a more pleasant climate; Yemen was thus known to the Romans as Arabia Felix, and these regions were the main provider of frankincense used throughout the ancient world in religious rituals. In Solomon’s day Yemen was ruled by the Kingdom of Saba, from which the Queen of Sheba would come and visit him (cf. 1 Kings 10:1-10).
For our purposes we will focus upon the northwestern portion of the Arabian Peninsula: the lands directly south of Israel and Edom, which is in modern day northwestern Saudi Arabia, parts of southern Jordan, and the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. All of these lands receive very little precipitation; only on oases could anyone maintain permanent dwellings. Since the people were mostly nomadic, it is difficult to speak of the “land of Midian” or the “land of Amalek” like we would speak of Egypt or Israel or Assyria; their “lands” would be the areas in which they would roam to find places to feed their animals and survive.
People have dwelt in Arabia for a very long time. According to the Scriptures the tribes the Israelites encountered in Arabia descended from Abraham: Midian was Abraham’s son through Keturah; Ishmael would become known as the father of the Arabian tribes; Amalek was a grandson of Esau (Genesis 25:2, 12-18, 36:10). These Bedouin tribes in the Sinai and northwest Arabian Peninsulas feature prominently in pre-monarchic Israelite history.
The Amalekites proved a concern because of their proximity, dwelling in the Negev, the southern part of Judah which would not have maintained a firm boundary out in the desert (cf. Numbers 13:29). We know of them only through the Biblical witness; descended from Esau, yet deemed by Balaam as among the first of the nations (Numbers 24:20). The Amalekites attacked Israel while they were wandering in the Wilderness, yet Israel was able to defeat them through YHWH’s help (Exodus 17:8-16); because of this Moses will compel Israel to destroy Amalek (cf. Deuteronomy 25:17-19). YHWH charged Saul to complete this task, and he did kill many in Amalek (1 Samuel 15:1-9, 33), but not everyone. The Amalekites would continue to harass and attack the southern reaches of Judah and Philistia, including Ziklag when David was king over it; David attacked and killed that band of Amalekites (1 Samuel 30:1-31). We hear nothing more of Amalek after this, although it would seem Haman, enemy of Israel in the days of Xerxes of Persia, as an Agagite, might descend from Agag king of Amalek (1 Samuel 15:33, Esther 3:1, 10).
Midian and the Midianites are generally strongly associated with the areas to the east and southeast of the Gulf of Aqaba in modern day northwestern Saudi Arabia. It is not known whether we can speak of Midian as a tribe or a confederation of tribes. In Exodus 2:13-22 Moses fled from Egypt to Midian; Reuel (named Jethro in Exodus 18:1) was deemed a priest of Midian, and Moses married his daughter Zipporah. Since Moses is shepherding Reuel’s flock when he comes to Horeb/Sinai, it might well be that Sinai is not the traditionally accepted mountain in the Sinai Peninsula, but instead Jebel al-Lawz in northwestern Saudi Arabia; if that is the case, then Israel spent a lot of time in Midianite territory while wandering in the Wilderness. It would seem that Balak king of Moab was in a strong alliance with the Midianites, since he plotted with the Midianite elders against Israel and hired Balaam son of Beor to prophesy against them (Numbers 22:3-7). The idolatry of Baal of Peor was primarily about Israelites taking Moabite women, but Cozbi, killed by Phinehas, was a Midianite princess, and YHWH commanded them to destroy Midian for this offense (Numbers 25:1-18). Israel struck Midian violently and killed Balaam son of Beor who was among them in Numbers 31:1-24). Yet the Midianites endured. Zebah and Zalmunna, kings of Midian, oppressed Israel in the days of Gideon and maintained a mighty army; Gideon, his associates, and the Ephraimites struck the Midianites strongly and thoroughly defeated them (Judges 6:1-8:28). We do not hear of the Midianites in any significant capacity afterward.
The Kenites seem to be either a family within or a tribe among the Midianites. The Judges author identified the Kenites as the descendants of Reuel/Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, and spoke of them as living in the Negev of Judah (Judges 1:16). Heber the Kenite’s wife Jael would become famous for being the one to drive a tent peg through the head of Sisera, army commander of the Canaanites (Judges 4:11-22). Balaam prophesied that the Kenites would be consumed and taken away by the Assyrians (Numbers 24:22); nevertheless, Rechab the Kenite and the Rechabites also dwelled in tents in Judah throughout the monarchic period, receiving commendation from YHWH for their faithfulness to their father’s decrees in Jeremiah 35:1-19. Some Kenites, therefore, would assimilate into the population of Judah and likely remain thus to this day.
We can notice that the Scriptures speak less of these Arabian tribes once the Israelite monarchy is well established; from this we can conclude that they took advantage of political instability and caused distress and grief to the Levantine peoples until a strong centralized government held sway and kept them at bay. Whoever might remain among them would have continued to dwell as the Bedouin of the area.
A great power would arise in these parts of Arabia in the wake of the collapse of the Kingdom of Judah: the Nabataeans. The Nabataeans might descend from Nebaioth, son of Ishmael (Genesis 25:13); they seem to be an Arabic tribe which came out of an Aramaic cultural milieu. As the Edomites encroached upon Judahite territory during the days of the exile, it would seem the Nabataeans encroached on Edomite territory. With the local powers decimated, the Nabataeans took over the trade routes leading deeper into Arabia and its frankincense and myrrh. The Persians left them alone since they let Cambyses travel to Egypt in peace, but the Seleucid Macedonians constantly, and unsuccessfully, attempted to overcome the Nabataeans in order to secure those trading routes. The heyday of Nabataean power came in the first centuries BCE and CE: they conquered parts of Syria and ruled over Damascus and most of the Transjordan, as was prophesied by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 25:1-10). The “Arabia” to which Paul fled would have been this Nabataean Kingdom, perhaps even to Petra its capital (Galatians 1:17); the King Aretas of 2 Corinthians 11:32 is Aretas king of Nabataea, whose daughter had been married to Herod Antipas until the latter divorced her to marry his sister (cf. Matthew 14:3-5). In anger Aretas fought against Herod and destroyed his army. Over the next century the Nabataeans ceased their warlike spirit and took to the life of trading and agriculture, developing extremely complex engineering to allow them to maintain continual sources of water at Petra, a city which remains one of the great architectural masterpieces of antiquity. The Nabataeans would be conquered by the Roman emperor Trajan in 106, converting their land into the Roman province Arabia Petraea.
The desert lands to the south of Judah and Edom proved harsh and difficult but not entirely inhospitable. The Israelites met their God in those lands; YHWH might well have been served by some of those desert nomads. May we all seek to honor and glorify God in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry