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Near East Kingdoms

Ancient Levantine States


Midianites (Canaan)
Incorporating the Kenites

In the mid-third millennium BC, city states began to appear in Syria as people benefited from interaction with Sumer and from improvements in irrigation. Within five hundred years, around 2000 BC, the same process was happening farther south and west, in the Levant, along the Mediterranean coast. Semitic-speaking Canaanite tribes occupied much of the area, creating a patchwork of city states of their own. The Phoenicians (more Canaanites) also occupied parts of this region, eventually founding their own mighty seaborne trading empire.

The Midianites were mentioned in the Old Testament in terms of the native rulers and citizens of a minor group of 'city states' which lay on the southern borders of Edom, along the Gulf of Elath. To their south they were bordered by Arab tribes. The Midianites were nomads, which suggests that their city states were nothing like as established or permanent as those in the north of Canaan, and may have been little more than sophisticated seasonal enclosures. The Midianites are also mentioned in the Qur'an, as the Madyans.

They controlled parts of the Arabah, the Negeb, and the Sinai, the latter forming the frontier with Egypt during periods in which the Egyptians were forced to abandon their Levantine dominance. They engaged in pastoral pursuits, caravan trading, and banditry (the extent of the last of these may depend upon who was recording their existence).

The Midianites are thought to have been connected to the Moabites through their religious practices, but little else seems to be known about them. One sub-tribe is mentioned in the Old Testament: the Kenites, who were led by their priest-king, Jethro. One reasonable suggestion classes them specifically as Arabs rather than generalised Semitic-speakers, although the earliest-confirmed Arab states only formed in the first millennium BC in the shape of the Kidarites and Nabataeans.

Akkadian sources which date to the beginning of the second millennium BC mention nomadic groups along the Trans-Jordanian highlands whom they term the Shutu. These groups extended deep into Mesopotamia, with speculation that the name may be a variant of the Egyptian term 'Shasu'. While the historical identity of these Shutu is unknown, they have been linked to the Moabites, Ammonites, and Midianites, and may well have been amongst those groups which were labelled as habiru.

Phoenicians shifting cedarwood from shore to land

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Sean Bambrough (on the Amarna letters), from The Amarna Letters, William L Moran, 1992, from A Test of Time, David Rohl (Arrow, 2001), from Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, David Noel Freedman, B E Willoughby, & Heinz-Josef Fabry (G Johannes Botterweck & Helmer Ringgren, Eds, William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), from A History of Israel: From the Bronze Age through the Jewish Wars, Walter C Kaiser Jr (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), from Jewish War & Jewish Antiquities, Flavius Josephus, from the NOVA/PBS documentary series, The Bible's Buried Secrets, first broadcast 18 November 2008, and from External Link: Encyclopædia Britannica.)

fl c.1740 BC


Son of Abraham. Claimed as ancestor of the Midianites.

c.1740 BC

According to the Old Testament, the Midianites are descended from Midian, the son of the Hebrew patriarch Abraham by his second wife, Keturah. Each of Abraham's sons is given land to settle (perhaps in the form of colonies).

This slightly fanciful view of the migrating Israelites does show a surprisingly small number of participants (more are cropped off from the left, but even so their numbers are very finite), something which chimes with the 'ruling elite' theory of migration detailed in the introduction on the Israelites page

Little else is known of Midian, but his eldest son is Ephah, with the name later being used to describe a land rather than an individual. However, a tribe of Ephah is also mentioned outside of the Old Testament, in eighth century BC Assyrian inscriptions.

c.1230 BC


Priest-king of the Midianite sub-tribe, the Kenites.

c.1230 BC

According to the Old Testament, and dated to this approximate point by calculating back from more certain events, Moses begins to lead the loose confederation of Israelite tribes out of Egypt, shortly after his marriage to a Midianite woman named Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro the Midian priest whom he had met in the Sinai.

It is Jethro, priest-king of the Midianite sub-tribe, the Kenites, and his daughter who influence early Hebrew thought. Yahweh, the lord of the Midianites, is revealed to Moses as the Hebrew god.

Strangely, and perhaps not coincidentally, the Old Testament has Moses first encountering his god, Yahweh, in the form of a burning bush when he reaches the land of the Midianites. Egyptian records mention that the Midianites (whom they know as Shasu) are found at a place called YHW (probably pronounced 'yahoo') in the deserts of southern Jordan. The name seems to be picked up by the Israelites and passed on to others they meet in Canaan.

Map of Anatolia and Environs 1550 BC
Small cities and minor states which had been founded by the Hittites littered the meeting point between Anatolia and Syria around 1500 BC (click or tap on map to view full sized)

c.1200 BC

There is general collapse in the region as instability grips the Mediterranean coast for some decades, with the first, and biggest victim being the Hittite empire. It is quite possible that the habiru play some part in this. One theory holds that they unite as an identifiable Canaanite people around this time and begin to attack and conquer many of the local city states under the collective name of 'Israelites'.

This is the most appropriate window for the traditional Israelite settlement after the exodus from Egypt. The settled Canaanites begin to be reduced to owning the shores of what is now Lebanon (eventually to become the sea traders known as the Phoenicians), the Philistines and other Sea Peoples are first settling on the lower coast of the Levant, and various neo-Hittite city states are arising in northern Syria, many of which come into contact with the Israelites.

In the same period, the language of the Amorites disappears from southern and central Mesopotamia. However, in Syria and Canaan it becomes dominant (in Bashan, for example), with perhaps Ammon being the southernmost state to have an Amorite influence (which excludes Moab and the Midianites from having been converted).

Habu relief at Medinet
Attacks by the Sea Peoples gathered momentum during the last decade of the thirteenth century BC, quickly reaching a peak which lasted about forty years

c.1198 BC


Earliest-known Midianite ruler? Killed in battle.

c.1198 BC

Balaam of the Midianites is a contemporary of Balak of Moab. This would seem to make it possible to equate him with the Old Testament's Balaam son of Beor, although perhaps not as he is labelled an Aramaean. Balak's plea to Balaam to curse the Israelites is refused. Instead he blesses them.

However, a little later in the Book of Numbers another Balaam appears. Generally he is presumed to be the same person, but while the 'good' Balaam above will not curse anyone who does not deserve to be cursed even when ordered by a regionally powerful king, this Balaam is slain in battle against the Israelites, alongside five kings (tribal leaders?) of the Midianites. The possibility exists that they are two different people.

c.1198 BC


A king of the Midianites. Killed in battle against Israelites.

c.1198 BC


A king of the Midianites. Killed in battle against Israelites.

c.1198 BC


A king of the Midianites. Killed in battle against Israelites.

c.1198 BC


A king of the Midianites. Killed in battle against Israelites.

c.1198 BC


A king of the Midianites. Killed in battle against Israelites.

c.1198 BC

Moab is defeated and subjugated by the Israelites, as are a number of minor city states. Included amongst these are the cities of the Midianites (or settlements, if 'cities' is too grand a word for them), and various other Canaanite cities. All five 'kings' of the Midianites are killed, as is a certain Balaam who, by implication, could also be a Midianite 'king'.

Mount Nebo
Mount Nebo in the north of Moab is reputedly the spot at which Moses died, within sight of the promised land on the other side of the Dead Sea

c.1170 BC

The Canaanite king of Shalem leads the fragmented Jebusites against Joshua of the Israelites. Instead it is the Jebusites who are defeated and conquered, with their cities being incorporated into the Israelite state. Shalem becomes the Israelite capital of Jerusalem.

c.1120 BC

Gideon of Israel defeats the Midianites after what appears to be an attempt to cattle-rustle and steal crops by the Midianites and their allies, the Amalekites. Following seven years of such treatment, the Midianites are driven into western Palestine, after which their appearances in the Old Testament are limited to one further event.

This must be a last 'hurrah' for the Midianites as they are not directly mentioned again in any known source material. Instead they are probably dispersed into other populations perhaps, principally, that of the coastal Philistines of western Palestine.

Relief from Medinet Habu
Shown here is a relief from Medinet Habu which details Philistines with their distinctive feathered headdresses, making them an unusual sight on the battlefield

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