The unedited full-text of the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia


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Geographical Position.

Midian was the son of Abraham and Keturah. His five sons, Ephah, Epher, Hanoch, Abidah (R. V. "Abida"), and Eldaah, were the progenitors of the Midianites (Gen. xxv. 1-4; I Chron. i. 32-33). The term "Midian" (), which seems to be derived from the Arabic root (= "place of judgment"), denotes also the nation of the Midianites, the plural form, , occurring only in Gen. xxxvii. 28, 36 (in the latter passage seems to be a scribal error for ) and Num. xxv. 17, xxxi. 2. Their geographical situation is indicated as having been to the east of Palestine; Abraham sends the sons of his concubines, including Midian, eastward (Gen. xxv. 6). But from the statement that Moses led the flocks of Jethro, the priest of Midian, to Mount Horeb (Ex. iii. 1), it would appear that the Midianites dwelt in the Sinaitic Peninsula. Later, in the period of the Kings, Midian seems to have occupied a tract of land between Edom and Paran, on the way to Egypt (I Kings xi. 18). Midian is likewise described as in the vicinity of Moab: the Midianites were beaten by the Edomite king Hadad "in the field of Moab" (Gen. xxxvi. 35), and in the account of Balaam it is said that the elders of both Moab and Midian called upon him to curse Israel (Num. xxii. 4, 7). Further evidences of the geographical position of the Midianites appear in a survey of their history.


In the time of Moses the Midianites are first mentioned as having had a priest by the name of Reuel or Jethro, who became afterward Moses' father-in-law. Toward the close of the forty years' wandering of the children of Israel in the wilderness, the Midianites were allied with the Moabites in the attempt to exterminate the Israelites. For this reason Moses was ordered by God to punish the Midianites. Moses, accordingly, despatched against them an army of 12,000 men, under Phinehas the priest; this force defeated the Midianites and slew all their males, including their five kings, Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba. It may be noted that these five princes of Midian are called by Joshua (xiii. 21) the vassals of Sihon, the king of the Amorites. It is possible that Sihon had previously conquered Midian and made it a dependency, and that after his death the Midianites recovered their independence. The Israelitish soldiers set on fire all the cities and fortresses of the Midianites, carried the women and children into captivity, and seized their cattle and goods. The Israelites were afterward ordered by Moses to slay every Midianite male child and every woman, sparing only the female children (Num. xxxi. 2-18). It appears from the same account that the Midianites were rich in cattle and gold. The narrative shows that each of the five Midianite tribes was governed by its ownking, but that all acted together against a common enemy; that while a part of each tribe dwelt in cities and fortresses in the vicinity of Moab, another part led a nomadic life, living in tents and apparently remote from the seat of the war. For, after the Midianites had been "exterminated" by the army of Phinehas, they reappear some hundreds of years later, in the time of Gideon.

The Biblical account of the battle between the Midianites and Gideon (Judges vi.-viii.) asserts that the Israelites suffered at the hands of the Midianites for a space of six years. The Midianites seem to have been then a powerful and independent nation; they allied themselves with the Amalekites and the children of the East, and they oppressed the Israelites so severely that the last-named were obliged to seek refuge in caves and strongholds; they destroyed their crops and reduced them to extreme poverty (ib. vi. 1-6). The allied army of Midianites and Amalekites encamped in the valley of Jezreel (ib. vi. 33) after having crossed the Jordan. Gideon with his army encamped by the fountain of Harod, the Midianite army being to the north of him. With 300 men Gideon succeeded in surprising and routing them, and they fled homeward across the Jordan in confusion (ib. vii. 1-24). A point worth noting is that here only two Midianite kings, Zebah and Zalmuna, and two princes, Oreb and Zeeb, are mentioned (ib. vii. 25; viii. 3, 5, 10, 12, 18, 21). This would show that only two tribes bore the name "Midianites," while the remaining three probably were merged with other Arabic tribes, their kinsmen, and perhaps partly with the Israelites also. Midian is stated to have been "subdued before the children of Israel, so that they lifted up their heads no more" (ib. viii. 28). In fact, aside from allusions to this victory (Ps. lxxxiii. 10, 12; Isa. ix. 4, x. 6; Hab. iii. 7), Midian is not mentioned again in sacred history except in Judith ii. 16, where the term "Midianites" seems to be a mistake for "Arabians."

The first recorded instance of a Midianite tribe surrendering its identity by attaching itself to another people appears in Judges i. 16. In this instance, which occurred in the period of the Judges, the Kenites, descendants of Jethro the Midianite, attached themselves to the Israelites in the wilderness of Judah, south of Arad. Later, in the time of Tiglath-pileser (745-727 B.C.), a tribe, called in the cuneiform inscriptions "Ḥayapa" and identified by Friedrich Delitzsch ("Wo Lag das Paradies?" p. 304) with the tribe of Ephah, is said to have dwelt in the northern part of the Hejaz. Isaiah (lx. 6) speaks of Midian and Ephah as of two distinct peoples. The second son of Midian, Epher, is identified by Knobel with the Ghifar, an Arabic tribe which, in the time of Mohammed, had encampments near Medina. Traces of the Midianites existed in post-Biblical times. Ptolemy ("Geography," vi. 7) mentions a place called Modiana, on the coast of Arabia; according to his statement of its position, this place may be identified with the Madyan of the Arabic geographers, in the neighborhood of 'Ain 'Una, opposite the extremity of the Sinaitic Peninsula, and now known under the name of "Magha 'ir Shu'aib" (= "the caves of Shu'aib" ["Jethro"]).

  • Cheyne and Black, Encyc. Bibl.;
  • Sir Richard Burton, The Gold Mines of Midian, London, 1878;
  • idem, The Land of Midian Revisited, ib. 1879.
S. M. Sel.
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