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Moab, Moabites

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In the Old Testament, the word Moab designates (1) a son of Lot by his elder daughter (Genesis 19:37); (2) the people of whom this son of Lot is represented as the ancestor (Exodus 15:15, etc.), and who are also called "the Moabites" (Genesis 19:37); and possibly (3) the territory occupied by the Moabites (Numbers 21:11). Its etymology: "from my father", which is added by the Septuagint to the Hebrew text in Genesis 19:37, is more probable than any derivation suggested by modern scholars. The origin and race of the Moabites need not be discussed here, since according to Genesis 19 they are the same as those of the Ammonites, which have been examined in the article AMMONITES.

From the mountainous district above Segor (Zoar), a town which lay in the plain near the south-eastern end of the Dead Sea (cf. Genesis 19:30), Lot's children forcibly extended themselves in the region of eastern Palestine. Ammon settled in the more distant northeast country, Moab in the districts nearer to the Dead Sea. These were inhabited by the Emims, a gigantic people, whom, however, the Moabites succeeded in expelling. (Deuteronomy 2:9, 10). Moab's territory was at first of considerable extent, some fifty miles long by thirty broad. It comprised the highlands east of the Dead Sea and the Jordan as far as the mountains of Galaad, together with the level stretch between the highlands and the river, and the well-watered and fertile land at the south end of the Dead Sea. On three sides, it had natural boundaries: on the west, the Dead Sea and the southern section of the Jordan; on the south, the Wady el-Hasy, separating the uplands of Moab from those of Edom; on the east, the Arabian desert. Only on the north, were there no natural features conspicuous enough to form a fixed boundary, and hence Moab's northern frontier fluctuated at different periods between the Arnon, and a diagonal running south-east from the torrent now called Wady Nimrin to the Arabian desert.

The highlands are the great bulk of this territory. They form a table-land about 3000 feet above the Mediterranean, or 4300 feet above the Dead Sea, rising slowly from north to south, having steep western slopes, and separated eastward from the desert by low, rolling hills. The geology of this almost treeless plateau is the same as that of the range of western Palestine; but its climate is decidedly colder. In spring, its limestone hills are covered with grass and wild flowers, and parts of the plateau are now sown with corn. It is traversed by three deep valleys, the middle of which, the Arnon, is the deepest, and it abounds in streams. It is dotted with dolmens, menhirs, and stone circles, and also with ruins of villages and towns, mostly of the Roman and Byzantine periods. In Old Testament times, Moab was an excellent pasture land (2 Kings 3:4), and its population was much more considerable than at the present day, as is proved by the numerous cities, such as Ar Moab, Gallim, Kir Moab, Luith, Nemrim, Segor, Nophe, Oronaim, Qiriat Hussot (A.V. Kiriath-husoth), Aroer, Baalmeon, Beer Elim, Bethgamul, Bethsimoth, Bethphogor, Bosor, Cariath, Dibon, Eleale, Helon, Hesebon, Jasa, Medaba, Mephaath, Sabama etc., which the Bible mentions as at one time or another Moabite.

Shortly before Israel's final advance towards Palestine, the Moabites had been deprived of their territory north of the Arnon by the Ammorrhites, coming probably from the west of the Jordan (Numbers 21:13, 26). Moab's king at the time was Balaac who, in his unfriendliness towards the Hebrew tribes, hired Balaam to curse them, but who failed in this attempt, the expected curses being divinely changed into blessings (see BALAAM). Another fiendish attempt in a different direction was only too successful; the daughters of Moab enticed the Israelites into their idolatry and immorality, and thereby brought upon them a heavy retribution (Numbers 25). Moab's subsequent relations with the Hebrew tribes (Ruben, Gad) who had settled in its ancient territory north of the Arnon, were probably those of a hostile neighbour anxious to recover his lost territory. In fact, in the early history of the Judges, the Moabites had not only regained control of at least a part of that land, but also extended their power into western Palestine so as to oppress the Benjamites. The Moabite yoke over Benjamin was finally put an end to by Aod, the son of Gera, who assassinated Eglon, Moab's king, slaughtered the Moabites, and recovered the territory of Jericho to Israel (Judges 3:12-30). To this succeeded a period of friendly intercourse, during which Moab was a refuge for the family of Elimelech, and the Moabitess Ruth was introduced into the line from which David was descended (Ruth 1:1, 4:10-22). Saul again fought against Moab (1 Kings 14:47), and David, who, for a while confided his parents to a Moabite king (xxii, 3, 4), ultimately invaded the country and made it tributary to Israel (2 Samuel 8:2). The subjugation apparently continued under Solomon, who had Moabite women in his harem and "built a temple for Chamos the idol of Moab" (1 Kings 11:1, 7). After the disruption, the Moabites were vassals of the northern kingdom; but on the death of Achab, they broke into an open revolt the final result of which was their independence, and the full circumstances of which are best understood by combining the data in 2 Kings 1:1 and 3:4-27, with those of the "Moabite Stone", an inscription of Mesa, King of Moab, found in 1868 at the ancient Dibon, and now preserved in the Louvre.

It seems that after this, they made frequent incursions into Israel's territory (cf. 2 Kings 13:20), and that after the captivity of the trans-Jordanic tribes, they gradually occupied all the land anciently lost to the Amorrhites. Their great prosperity is frequently referred to in the prophetical writings, while their exceeding pride and corruption are made the object of threatening oracles (Isaiah 15-16; 25:10; Jeremiah 47; Ezekiel 25:8-11; Amos 2:1-3; Zephaniah 2:8-11; etc.) In the cuneiform inscriptions, their rulers are repeatedly mentioned as tribute-payers to Assyria. This was indeed the condition of their continuous prosperity. It can hardly be doubted, however, that they sided at times with other Western countries against the Assyrian monarchs (Fragment of Sargon II; opening chapters of Judith). In the last days of the Kingdom of Juda, they transferred their allegiance to Babylon, and fought for Nabuchodonosor against Joakim (2 Kings 24:2). Even after the fall of Jerusalem, Moab enjoyed a considerable prosperity under Nabuchodonosor's rule; but its utter ruin as a state was at hand. In fact, when the Jews returned from Babylon, the Nabathean Arabs occupied the territory of Moab, and the Arabians instead of the Moabites were the allies of the Ammonites (cf. Ezra 4:7; 1 Maccabees 9:32-42; Josephus, "Antiq.", 13:13, 5, 14:1, 4)

As is shown by the Moabite Stone, the language of Moab was "simply a dialect of Hebrew". Its use of the waw consecutive connects most intimately the two languages, and almost all the words, inflections, and idioms of this inscription occur in the original text of the Old Testament. The same monument bears witness to the fact that while the Moabites adored Chamos as their national god, they also worshipped Ashtar as his consort. Besides these two divinities, the Old Testament mentions another local deity of the Mobaites, viz. Baal of Mount Phegor (Peor: Beelphegor) (Numbers 25:3; Deuteronomy 4:3; Hosea 9:10; etc.). The Moabites were therefore polytheists. And although their religion is not fully known, it is certain that human sacrifices and also impure rites formed a part of their worship (2 Kings 3:27; Numbers 25; Hosea 9:10).


TROSTRAM, "Land of Moab" (London, 1874); CONDER, "Heth and Moab" (London, 1884); BAETHGEN, "Beitrage x. semitischen Relitionsgeschicte" (Berlin, 1888); W. R. Smith, "Religion of the Semites" (London, 1894); BLISS, "Narrative of an expedition to Moab and Gilead" (London, 1895); G. A. Smith, "Historical Geography of the Holy Land" (New York, 1897); LAGRANGE, "Etudes sur les Religions Semitiques" (Paris, 1903).

About this page

APA citation. Gigot, F. (1911). Moab, Moabites. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Gigot, Francis. "Moab, Moabites." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by John Looby.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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