Moab, ancient nation located in the uplands E of the Dead Sea, now part of Jordan. The area is unprotected from the east, hence its history is a chain of raids by the Bedouin. The Moabites were close kin to the Hebrews, and the language of the Moabite stone is practically the same as biblical Hebrew. The relations of Moab with Judah and Israel are continually mentioned in the Bible. As a political entity, Moab came to an end after the invasion (c.733 B.C.) of Tiglath-pileser III. Its people were later absorbed by the Nabataeans. The Moabite religion was much like that of Canaan. Archaeological exploration in Moab has shown that settlements first occurred in the 13th cent. B.C.

Moab (; Greek Μωάβ ; Arabic مؤاب, Assyrian Mu'aba, Ma'ba, Ma'ab ; Egyptian Mu'ab) is the historical name for a mountainous strip of land in modern-day Jordan running along the eastern shore of the Dead Sea. In ancient times, it was home to the kingdom of the Moabites, a people often in conflict with their Israelite neighbors to the west. The Moabites were a historical people, whose existence is attested to by numerous archeological findings, most notably the Mesha Stele, which describes the Moabite victory over an unnamed son of King Omri of Israel. Their capital was Dibon, located next to the modern Jordanian town of Dhiban.


The etymology of the word is uncertain. The earliest gloss is found in the Septuagint which explains the name, in obvious allusion to the account of Moab's parentage, as ἐκ τοῦ πατρός μου. Other etymologies which have been proposed regard it as a corruption of "seed of a father," or as a participial form from "to desire," thus connoting "the desirable (land)." Rashi explains the word Mo'ab to mean "from the father", since "ab" in Hebrew and Arabic and the rest of the semitic languages means father. He writes that as a result of the immodesty of Moab's name, God didn't command the Jews to refrain from inflicting pain upon the Moabites in the manner in which He did with regards to the Ammonites. Fritz Hommel regards "Moab" as an abbreviation of "Immo-ab" = "his mother is his father."


Moab occupied a plateau about above the level of the Mediterranean, or above the Dead Sea, and rising gradually from north to south.

It was bounded on the west by the Dead Sea and the southern section of the Jordan River; on the east by Ammon and the Arabian desert, from which it was separated by low, rolling hills; and on the south by Edom. The northern boundary varied, but in general it may be said to have been represented by a line drawn some miles above the northern extremity of the Dead Sea.

In Ezekiel xxv. 9 the boundaries are given as being marked by Beth-jeshimoth (north), Baal-meon (east), and Kiriathaim (south).

That these limits were not fixed, however, is plain from the lists of cities given in Isaiah xv.-xvi. and Jeremiah xlviii., where Heshbon, Elealeh, and Jazer are mentioned to the north of Beth-jeshimoth; Madaba, Beth-gamul, and Mephaath to the east of Baalmeon; and Dibon, Aroer, Bezer, Jahaz, and Kirhareseth to the south of Kiriathaim. The principal rivers of Moab mentioned in the Bible are the Arnon, the Dimon or Dibon, and the Nimrim.

The limestone hills which form the almost treeless plateau are generally steep but fertile. In the spring they are covered with grass; and the table-land itself produces grain.

In the north are a number of long, deep ravines, and Mount Nebo, famous as the scene of the death of Moses. The rainfall is fairly plentiful; and the climate, despite the hot summer, is cooler than the area west of the Jordan river, snow falling frequently in winter and in spring.

The plateau is dotted with hundreds of rude dolmens, menhirs, and stone-circles, and contains many ruined villages, mostly of the Roman and Byzantine periods. The land is now occupied chiefly by Bedouin, though it contains such towns as al-Karak.

The territory occupied by Moab at the period of its greatest extent, before the invasion of the Amorites, divided itself naturally into three distinct and independent portions: The enclosed corner or canton south of the Arnon, (referred to as "field of Moab") the more open rolling country north of the Arnon, opposite Jericho, and up to the hills of Gilead(called the "land of Moab") and the district below sea level in the tropical depths of the Jordan valley.



The Moabites were likely pastoral nomads settling in the trans-Jordanian highlands. They may have been among the raiders referred to as Habiru in the Amarna letters. Whether they were among the nations referred to in the Ancient Egyptian language as Shutu or Shasu is a matter of some debate among scholars. The existence of Moab prior to the rise of the Israelite polity can be seen from the colossal statues erected at Luxor by Pharaoh Ramesses II (reigned c.1279 - 1213 BC). On the base of the second statue in front of the northern pylon of Rameses' temple, Mu'ab is listed among a series of nations conquered by the pharaoh. The capital of Moab was Kir-Hareshet (modern day Kerak).

Moabite and Israelite Relations

According to Genesis, the Moabites were relatives of the Israelites, both peoples tracing their descent back to a common ancestor, Terah.

The Moabites had kinship ties to Jacob’s first-born son, Ruben. The clan of Ruben settled in the Transjordan region of Moab. Unfortunately, this also meant that Ruben’s descendents were killed when David waged war on the Moabites. Therefore it was said of Ruben’s descendents: “May Ruben survive and not die out, survive though his men be few!” (Deut. 33:6)

The Moabites were friendly with the Egyptians, having kinship ties with them through Joseph. The principal shrine in Moab was Beyt-baal-me’on, which means “house/shrine of the god of On.” The principal shrine of On was in the sacred city of Heliopolis in Egypt and Joseph married one of the daughters of the high priest of On. Mesha, the King of Moab, built a reservoir at Beth-baal-me’On (II Kings 3). On the Moabite or Mesha Stone (discovered in 1868 at Dibon) it is recorded that King Mesha “reigned in peace over the hundred towns which he had added to the land. And he built Medeba and Beth-diblathen and Beth-baal-me”On, and he set there the … of the land.” The stone is defaced at this point so we do not know what the King set up, but it was likely an image of his god, Ashtar-Chemosh.

The Moabites welcomed Egyptian protection provided by a chain of border fortresses that enables Egypt to control the Sinai. One of these forts was at Ir-Moab, on the Arnon River. During Joseph’s era Egypt traded with Damascus, moving goods through Moab.

According to one theory, disputes arose between the descendents of Jacob who had been in Egypt and their cousins who had remained in Canaan. One of these disputes focused on the shrine at Beth-baal-me’On. The priest Phineas received assurances that the Moabites were faithful to Yahweh and that the shrine was “not for burnt offerings or other sacrifices but as a witness between us and you and between our descendents after us, attesting that we too have the right to worship Yahweh, in his presence, with our burnt offerings.” (Josh. 22:26,27) This dispute apparently led to the expunging of the place name “Beyt-baal-me’On” from the text in Joshua 22. The place name was also altered in Numbers 32:38, which deletes the word “beyt.” (It should be noted, however, that it is difficult to argue from something which, apparently, has been expunged from the text which is supposed to prove its existence! The passage in Joshua attributes the building of the disputed altar to the two and a half tribes who remained on the East Bank, and it was these Israelites, not the Moabites who had been severely depleted in a war of extermination, who gave assurances of orthodoxy. The location is given as the - unidentified - place "Geliloth", not Beyt-baal-me'On".)

The Moabites were to be excluded from the assembly of worshippers, because: “They did not come to meet you with food and drink when you were on your way out of Egypt, and even hired Balaam, son of Beor, to oppose you by cursing you.” (Deut. 23:5) This also reflects the dispute between those who were in Egypt and those who remained in the land. Those who remained in the land had contacted the Aramean diviner, Balaam (a descendent of Abraham’s brother, Nahor) to discern for them the Israelites intentions in coming to Moab. The Israelites made the Moabites nervous because of what they had “done to the Amorites” and “because there were so many of them” (Num. 22:1). Balaam refused to curse the Israelites, telling the King of Moab that he would do only as Yahweh directed.

The claim that the Moabites refused hospitality to the Israelite clans is doubtful, according to Scriptural evidence. The clans that left Egypt journeyed by stages, making contact with kinsmen at each stage. The first people to help them were their cousins the Midianites (descendents of Abraham by Keturah) in the region of the Midianite sacred mountain of Horeb (Deut. 29:1). The second people were the Edomites (descendents of Abraham by Sarah) in the region of the Edomite sacred mountain, Paran (Deut. 33:2). Crossing through Edomite territory, the Israelites moved northeast into Moab. They visited the Town of Moab, where Lot’s descendents lived, and Beyt-baal-me’On, where they had kin also. Finally, they worshipped on Mount Nebo (Deut. 32:49), where Moses died. At each of these sacred sites, the reunion of the clans was celebrated by a covenant that included a night-long feast. These covenants likely resembled the covenant made between Jacob and Laban at Mizpah (Gen. 31:44-54).

Biblical Narrative (through the conquest by Israel)

The conflict between the Israelites and the Moabites is expressed in the biblical narrative describing the Moabites' incestuous origins. According to the story, Moab was the son of Lot, through his eldest daughter, with whom he had a child after the destruction of Sodom. The Bible then explains the etymology of Moab as meaning "of his father". Nevertheless, there was considerable interchange between the two peoples, and the Bible in the Book of Ruth traces King David's lineage to a Moabite woman.

According to Genesis 19:30-38, Moab was the son of Abraham's nephew Lot by his elder daughter, while Ben Ammi was Moab's half-brother by a similar union of Lot with his younger child. The close ethnological affinity of Moab and Ammon which is thus attested is confirmed by their subsequent history, while their kinship with the Israelites is equally certain, and is borne out by the linguistic evidence of the Moabite Stone. They are also mentioned in close connection with the Amalekites, the inhabitants of Mount Seir, the Edomites, the Canaanites, the Sethites and the Philistines. The story of Moab's incestuous conception may be intended to relegate the Moabites to a lesser status than that of the Israelites.

The Moabites first inhabited the rich highlands at the eastern side of the chasm of the Dead Sea, extending as far north as the mountain of Gilead, from which country they expelled the Emim, the original inhabitants, but they themselves were afterward driven southward by warlike tribes of Amorites, who had crossed the river Jordan. These Amorites, described in the Bible as being ruled by King Sihon, confined the Moabites to the country south of the river Arnon, which formed their northern boundary.

The Israelites, in entering the "promised land", did not pass through the Moabites, (Judges 11:18) but conquered Sihon's kingdom and his capital at Heshbon. After the conquest of Canaan the relations of Moab with Israel were of a mixed character, sometimes warlike and sometimes peaceable. With the tribe of Benjamin they had at least one severe struggle, in union with their kindred the Ammonites and the Amalekites. The Benjaminite shofet Ehud ben Gera assassinated the Moabite king Eglon and led an Israelite army against the Moabites at a ford of the Jordan river, killing many of them.

The story of Ruth, on the other hand, testifies to the existence of a friendly intercourse between Moab and Bethlehem, one of the towns of the tribe of Judah. By his descent from Ruth, David may be said to have had Moabite blood in his veins. He committed his parents to the protection of the king of Moab (who may have been his kinsman), when hard pressed by King Saul. (1 Samuel 22:3,4) But here all friendly relations stop forever. The next time the name is mentioned is in the account of David's war, who made the Moabites tributary. Moab may have been under the rule of an Israelite governor during this period; among the exiles who returned to Judea from Babylonia were a clan descended from Pahath-Moab, whose name means "ruler of Moab".

Reassertion of Independence

At the disruption of the kingdom under the reign of Rehoboam, Moab seems to have absorbed into the northern realm. It continued in vassaldom to the Kingdom of Israel until the death of Ahab, when the Moabites refused to pay tribute and asserted their independence, making war upon the kingdom of Judah.

After the death of Ahab the Moabites under Mesha rebelled against Jehoram, who allied himself with Jehoshaphat, King of Kingdom of Judah, and with the King of Edom. According to the Bible, the prophet Elisha directed the Israelites dug a series of ditches between themselves and the enemy, and during the night these channels were miraculously filled with water which was as red as blood. Deceived by the crimson color into the belief that their opponents had attacked one another, the Moabites became overconfident and were entrapped and utterly defeated at Ziz, near En Gedi, which states that the Moabites and their allies, the Ammonites and the inhabitants of Mount Seir, mistook one another for the enemy, and so destroyed one another). According to Mesha's inscription on the Mesha Stele, however, he was completely victorious and regained all the territory of which Israel had deprived him. The battle of Ziz is the last important date in the history of the Moabites as recorded in the Bible. In the year of Elisha's death they invaded Israel. and later aided Nebuchadnezzar in his expedition against Jehoiakim.

Although allusions to Moab are frequent in the prophetical books and although two chapters of Isaiah (xv.-xvi.) and one of Jeremiah (xlviii.) are devoted to the "burden of Moab," they give little information about the land. Its prosperity and pride, which the Israelites believed incurred the wrath of God, are frequently mentioned; and their contempt for Israel is once expressly noted.

In the Nimrud clay inscription of Tiglath-pileser III the Moabite king Salmanu (perhaps the Shalman who sacked Beth-arbel in Hosea x. 14) is mentioned as tributary to Assyria. Sargon II mentions on a clay prism a revolt against him by Moab together with Philistia, Judah, and Edom; but on the Taylor prism, which recounts the expedition against Hezekiah, Kammusu-Nadbi (Chemosh-nadab), King of Moab, brings tribute to Sargon as his suzerain. Another Moabite king, Mutzuri ("the Egyptian" ?), is mentioned as one of the subject princes at the courts of Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal, while Kaasḥalta, possibly his successor, is named on cylinder B of Assurbanipal.

Decline and Fall

Sometime during the Persian period Moab disappears from the extant historical record. Its territory was subsequently overrun by waves of tribes from northern Arabia, including the Kedarites and (later) the Nabataeans. In Nehemiah iv. 7 the Arabs instead of the Moabites are the allies of the Ammonites. Their country, however, continued to be known by its biblical name for some time; when the Crusaders occupied the area, the castle they built to defend the eastern part of the Kingdom of Jerusalem was called Krak des Moabites.


The country of Moab was the source of numerous natural resources, including limestone, salt and balsam from the Dead Sea region. The Moabites occupied a vital place along the King's Highway, the ancient trade route connecting Egypt with Mesopotamia, Syria, and Anatolia. Like the Edomites and Ammonites, trade along this route gave them considerable revenue.


References to the religion of Moab are scanty. Most of the Moabites were polytheists like the other early Semites; and they induced the Israelites to join in their sacrifices. Their chief god was Chemosh, so that the Israelites sometimes referred to them rhetorically as the "people of Chemosh". At times, especially in dire peril, human sacrifices were offered to him, as by Mesha, who gave up his son and heir to him. Nevertheless, King Solomon built, for this "abomination of Moab," on the hill before Jerusalem, a "high place which was not destroyed until the reign of Josiah. The Moabite Stone also mentions (line 17) a female counterpart of Chemosh, Ashtar-Chemosh, and a god Nebo (line 14), probably the well-known Babylonian divinity Nabu. The cult of Baal-peor or Peor seems to have been marked by sexual rites, though this may be exaggeration.

In Jewish law

Since the Moabites had opposed the invasion of Canaan, they, like the Ammonites, were excluded from the congregation unto the tenth generation. This law was violated during the Exile, however; and Ezra and Nehemiah sought to compel a return to the ancient custom of exclusion. The Diaspora usage had had royal sanction; the harem of Solomon included Moabite women.

On the other hand, the marriages of the Bethlehem Ephrathites (of the tribe of Judah) Chilion and Mahlon to the Moabite women Orpah and Ruth, and the marriage of the latter, after her husband's death, to Boaz who by her was the great-grandfather of David, are mentioned with no shade of reproach. The Talmudic explanation, however, is that the language of the law only applies to Moabite and Ammonite men (Hebrew, like all Semitic languages, is gendered). Another interpretation is that the Book of Ruth is simply reporting the events in an impartial fashion, leaving any praise or condemnation to be done by the reader.

Moabit in Berlin

One of the explanations offered for the name of the Moabit area of Berlin is that the name is derived from the name of the Biblical Moab and was given to the area by its first urban inhabitants, Old Testament-minded Huguenot refugees from France.

See also



  • Routledge, Bruce. 'Moab in the Iron Age:Hegemony, Polity, Archaeology,' 2004. The most comprehensive treatment of Moab to date.
  • Bienkowski, Piotr (ed.) Early Edom and Moab: The Beginning of the Iron Age in Southern Jordan (1992).
  • Dearman, Andrew (ed.) Studies in the Mesha inscription and Moab (1989).
  • Jacobs, Joseph and Louis H. Gray. "Moab." Jewish Encyclopedia. Funk and Wagnalls, 1901-1906, which cites to the following bibliography:

*Tristram, The Land of Moab, London, 1874;
*George Adam Smith, Historical Geography of the Holy Land, ib. 1897;
*Clermont-Ganneau, Recueil d'Archéologie Orientale, ii. 185-234, Paris, 1889;
*Baethgen, Beiträge zur Semitischen Religionsgeschichte, Berlin, 1888;
*Smith, Rel. of Sem. Edinburgh, 1894. J. L. H. G.
*Hertz, J.H., The Pentateuch and Haftoras: Deuteronomy, Oxford, 1936, Oxford University Press.

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