Biblical Studies Midian
Juan Manuel Tebes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0271


Midian was an ancient region located in northwestern Arabia. Compared with other peoples of the ancient Near East, knowledge about Midian and the Midianites is limited and restricted to a few and relatively late written sources, particularly the Hebrew Bible. The exact geographical location of the Midianites is unknown, and although the Midianite “heartland” is traditionally situated east of the Gulf of Aqaba, in some biblical texts the Midianites appear to be present in Transjordan and even invading Canaan itself. The chronological dating is also imprecise, but because biblical references to the Midianites concentrate in the Exodus and Wilderness wandering stories and are not mentioned by name in Neo-Assyrian and later Mesopotamian sources, they are usually considered to be one of the earliest Arabian tribal groups, traditionally dated between the late second and early first millennia BCE—the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages of the Syro-Palestinian archaeological periodization. In the Hebrew Bible there is an ambivalent approach toward the Midianites. While in the Patriarchal and especially in the Exodus/Wilderness traditions they are portrayed as close to the Israelites—even to the extent that according to mainstream biblical scholarship worship of Yahweh originated in Midian, this did not preclude military clashes between Israelites and Midianites at the end of the Wilderness wanderings and during the period of the Judges. Later classical, Jewish, and Christian writers located Midian east of the Gulf of Aqaba, connecting the region with the biblical theophany at Mt. Sinai. The Quranic and early Islamic traditions took the Jewish/Christian allusions to Midian and the Moses story, expanding them with ancient Arabian lore. Attempts to define a Midianite material culture in northwestern Arabia and southern Levant through archaeology remain a thorny issue because of the almost total lack of local written sources naming Midian and the few archaeological excavations carried out in northern Saudi Arabia.

General Overviews

Contrary to the other biblical peoples located to the east and southeast of ancient Israel (Ammon, Moab, and Edom), research about Midian is still largely a matter of biblical scholarship than of archaeology. Unfortunately, few general overviews exist. The standard work is still the monumental book Knauf 1988, and for the related Arabian tribal group of the Ishmaelites, Knauf 1989 (cited under Midian in the Hebrew Bible). Both works are still widely helpful on matters of biblical and extra-biblical references and epigraphy but outdated with respect to archaeology. They should be read together with Eph‘al 1982 and Retsö 2003, monographs on the ancient Arabs but with allusions to the Midianites and related groups, and the important collection of biblical and archaeological studies in Sawyer and Clines 1983. Useful encyclopedia entries are Mendenhall 1992 for the biblical and archaeological aspects and Firestone 2003 on the Islamic traditions. Al-Ghazzi 2010 accepts the few allusions in the Quran as historical facts. For the geography and toponymy of Midian, Musil 1926 (cited under Early Travel and Exploration in Midian), Kerkeslager 1998 (cited under Midian and Mount Sinai), and Robin and Al-Ghabbân 2017 (cited under Archaeology of Midian) are indispensable.

  • Al-Ghazzi, Abdulaziz. “The Kingdom of Midian.” In Roads to Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Edited by Ali I. Al-Ghabban, Béatrice André-Salvini, Françoise Demange, Carine Juvin, and Marianne Cotty, 210–216. Paris: Louvre, 2010.

    Short introductory article in a Louvre Museum exhibition book, adhering literally to the Quranic tradition.

  • Eph‘al, Israel. The Ancient Arabs: Nomads on the Borders of the Fertile Crescent, 9th–5th Centuries B.C. Jerusalem and Leiden, The Netherlands: Magness Press, 1982.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004662155

    The standard study on the ancient Arabs, it focuses on Arabian peoples related to the Midianites and mentioned in biblical and extra-biblical sources.

  • Firestone, Reuven. “Midian.” In Encyclopaedia of the Qur’ān. Vol. 3. Edited by Jane D. McAuliffe, 389–391. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2003.

    Encyclopedia article on the Quranic references to Midian.

  • Knauf, Ernst A. Midian: Untersuchungen zur Geschichte Palästinas und Nordarabiens am Ende des 2. Jahrtausends v.Chr. Abhandlungen des Deutschen Palästinavereins. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 1988.

    The most important study on Midian, immensely erudite and still to be superseded. Since it is in German and not translated into English, Knauf’s book is not cited as often as it should be.

  • Mendenhall, George E. “Midian.” In Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 4. Edited by David N. Freedman, 815–818. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

    Encyclopedia entry on Midian, suggesting the Midianites are peoples of Aegean origin.

  • Retsö, Jan. The Arabs in Antiquity: Their History from the Assyrians to the Umayyads. London: Routledge, 2003.

    Another erudite study on the ancient Arabs that should be read together with Eph‘al 1982. It covers the biblical and post-biblical allusions to Midianite and Midianite-related groups, such as the Ishmaelites.

  • Sawyer, John F. A., and David J. A. Clines. Midian, Moab and Edom: The History and Archaeology of Late Bronze and Iron Age Jordan and North-West Arabia. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement 24. Sheffield, UK: JSOT Press, 1983.

    It includes chapters on biblical allusions to Midian such as Knauf 1983 and Payne 1983 (both cited under Midian in the Hebrew Bible), and the important archaeological and petrographic studies in Rothenberg and Glass 1983 (cited under Midianite/Qurayyah Pottery).

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