Arabs

Shadows of caravan moving up Mt. Sinai.
Coming out of the narrow access road (the Siq) into the city of Petra.

ARABIAN, ARABIANS, ARABS (עֲרַב, H6851, עַרְבִ֨ים; ̓Άραβες). In the Bible, Arabians refers to the nomads who live in the deserts of Arabia, esp. in the northwestern part. They are also known by the general term “people of the East” (Judg 6:3). Some Arabian tribes mentioned in the Bible are: Amalekites, Buzites, Dedanites, Hagrites, Ishmaelites, Kadmonites, Kedarites, Kenites, Meunim or Meunites, Midianites, Naamathites, Sabeans, and Shuhites.

History of the Arabs in relation to the Bible.

In the time of the patriarchs—Arabian tribes.

The Arabs first appear in the Bible in the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 and in other early genealogies. Among the descendants of Cush (10:7), the following are located in Arabia: Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Sheba, and Dedan. The descendants of Joktan, who was of the line of Shem, include the following names which have been attached to places in Arabia: Hazarmaveth, Uzal, Sheba, Ophir, and Havilah (10:25-29). The names of some of the descendants of Nahor are associated with tribes or areas in N Arabia: Uz, Buz, Chesed (the sing. of the name whose pl. is tr. Chaldeans), and Hazo (22:20-23). Of the descendants of Abraham by Keturah (25:1-4), Sheba is usually associated with S Arabia and the following with N Arabia: Medan, Midian, Shuah, and Dedan. Most of the names of the descendants of Ishmael (25:13-16) refer to tribes or places in NW Arabia, namely: Nebaioth, Kedar, Dumah, Massa, Tema, and Kedemah. The Arab genealogists also trace their own ancestry back to Ishmael and Abraham.

The earliest Biblical incident involving Israelites and Arabs is the selling of Joseph by his brothers to Arab merchants, who took him to Egypt and sold him there (37:25-28; 39:1). These merchants are called Ishmaelites, which is a general name for Arabs, and they also are called Midianites (37:28), their specific Arab tribe (cf. Judg 6:1; 8:24).

In the time of Moses—the Midianites.

Moses, after killing an Egyp., fled to Midian, an area and a tribe in NW Arabia, and stayed there many years (Exod 2:15). There he married Zipporah, the daughter of Reuel (also called Jethro), the priest of Midian. As a typical Arab, Reuel had flocks (2:16), and Moses adapted to Arab life by tending these flocks (3:1). After the Exodus, the Israelites in the wilderness had to fight Arab tribes such as the Amalekites (17:8-15).

At Rephidim, Jethro came to visit Moses and acknowledged: “Yahweh is greater than all the gods” (18:11, Jerusalem Bible). That he participated in sacrifice to Yahweh and a sacred meal (18:12) is not sufficient evidence to prove, as some have held, that Yahwism was derived from the Midianites or the Kenites. Jethro did advise Moses to appoint subordinate administrators and judges to hear ordinary cases, presumably as was done among the Midianites (18:13-23). Therefore, the administrative and judicial organization of Israel had an Arab model.

Hobab, the son of Reuel, finally consented to accompany the Israelites to guide them through the wilderness (Num 10:29-32). Hobab and his descendants among the Israelites are called Kenites (Judg 1:16; 4:11), a tribe, perhaps of metal workers, associated with the Midianites. Later Midianites joined with the Moabites in opposing the passage of the Israelites through Trans-Jordan (Num 22:4). Phinehas, a priest, killed Cozbi, a Midianite princess, and the Israelite who had taken her into his tent (ch. 25). The Israelites defeated the Midianites and killed their five kings (31:8).

In the time of Gideon—Midianite raids.

The Midianites, with Amalekites and “people of the East” (that is, people of the Arab country E of Pal.), made raids in Israel with camels (Judg 6:1-6). As in the later Arab ghazw, or razzia (“raid”), the Midianites seized animals and produce and then returned to the semi-desert land E and S of the Jordan. Gideon and his band chased the Midianites away and killed two of their princes (7:25) and two of their kings (8:21). The two princes Oreb (Raven) and Zeeb (Wolf) had animal names, which were common among pre-Islamic Arabs.

During the United Kingdom of Israel—Sheba.

Both Saul (1 Sam 15:1-33) and David (30:1-20) defeated the Amalekites, who were making raids into southern Pal. It was natural that David should choose an Arab, Obil, to take care of his camels and another Arab, Jaziz the Hagrite, to superintend his flocks (1 Chron 27:30).

In the 10th cent. b.c. the S Arabian kingdom of Saba, Biblical Sheba, controlled the trade between Arabia and the countries of the eastern Mediterranean. The Sabean trading caravans carried not only the spices of Arabia but also products of Africa and India. The capital of Sheba was Mar’ib.

Since Pal. was a natural northern terminus for the Sabeans’ trade, Solomon had important commercial relations with Arabia. From Eziongeber he sent out fleets to Ophir, perhaps in S Arabia. These trading vessels returned with gold, almug wood, and precious stones (1 Kings 9:26-28; 10:11). The Queen of Sheba (named Bilqīs in Arab tradition) visited Solomon (1 Kings 10:1-13), not only to hear his wisdom, but also to trade. The spices, gold, and precious stones which she brought on camels, were typical Sabean merchandise. The text says that she “gave” these things to Solomon, but she received things in return, and therefore it amounted to a commercial transaction except in name. Assyrian sources refer to several Arabian queens, who evidently occupied an important place in Arabian society. Solomon received tribute in gold and silver from “the kings of Arabia” (2 Chron 9:14), prob. chiefs in the northwestern part of the peninsula.

During the kingdoms of Judah and Israel—Kedar.


Conquests of N Arabian tribes by the Assyrians is implied in Isaiah 21:13-17. Records of the Assyrian kings, Tiglath-pileser III, Sargon, and Sennacherib, tell of their victories over the Arabs and tribute from them.

During the period of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah, Kedar was the dominant Arab tribe in N Arabia (21:16). In the Assyrian records of this period “Arabs” and “Kedarites” are interchangeable. The Kedarites made raids in Pal.-Syria, but Asshurbanipal, king of Assyria (669-627), repulsed them. Jeremiah (49:28, 29) predicted that Nebuchadrezzar, king of Babylonia (605-562 b.c.), would subjugate Kedar, and recently discovered portions of the Babylonian Chronicle record this conquest of N Arabia.

Persian Period—Kedar, Mineans, Qataban, Hadramaut.

According to Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, VII. 4. 16, Cyrus, king of Persia, subdued the Arabs, and there were Arab soldiers in Cyrus’s army which took Babylon in 539 b.c. (VII. 5. 13; cf. Dan 5:30, 31). The Behistun inscr. of Darius I lists Arabia as one of the Pers. provinces. Arabs furnished camel-riding troops for the expedition against Greece organized by Xerxes I, the Ahashuerus of the Book of Esther (Herodotus, VII. 86).

In the time of Nehemiah, Geshem the Arabian tried to prevent the Jews from rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem (Neh 2:19; 6:1, 2, 6). At el-Ula, Biblical Dedan, deep in northern Arabia, an inscr. is dated in Geshem’s time. An inscr. on a silver bowl from Tell el-Maskhūṭah, near the northeastern border of Egypt, calls Geshem the king of Kedar, a title implying suzerainty over northwestern Arabia.

During the Pers. period the economic and political dominance of Saba (Biblical Sheba) in S Arabia came to an end, and other kingdoms rose to power and controlled the spice trade. About 400 b.c. the Mineans, perhaps the Biblical Meunim, were dominant in S Arabia. Their capital was Qarnaw, now called Ma’īn. Another kingdom in S Arabia was Qataban, whose capital was Timna’. The kingdom of Hadramaut, corresponding to Hazarmaveth in Genesis 10:26, extended along the southern coast of Arabia. Its capital was Shabwat, present-day Shabwah.

Fifth century B.C. to first century A.D.—Nabateans.

The Nabateans were the dominant tribe in northwestern Arabia from the 4th cent. b.c. until the 1st cent. a.d. Obadiah 7 and Malachi 1:3, 4 prob. reflect the expulsion of the Edomites from Sela, later called Petra, by the Nabateans.

Arabs helped in the defense of Gaza against Alexander (Arrian II. 25. 4). Alexander went on to subdue Arabia, that is the NW portion (Livy XLV. 9). According to Polybius V. 71, Arabs helped Antiochus III to win Pal. from the Ptolemies in 198 b.c. (cf. Dan 11:15, 16).


The Nabateans frequently clashed with the later Maccabean rulers of the Jewish state. About 90 b.c. the Nabatean king Obedas I defeated Alexander Janneus at Gadara in Gilead when the latter was trying to conquer Arab territory (Jos. Antiq. XIII. xiii. 5). Under Aretas III (87-62 b.c.) the Nabatean kingdom reached its greatest extent. He forced Alexander Janneus to give him Moab and Gilead (XIII. xiv. 2), took over Damascus (XIII, xv, 2), and intervened in Jewish affairs, supporting Hyrcanus II as the Jewish ruler against the latter’s brother, Aristobulus II (XIV, i. 4; XIV. ii. 1-3). The Nabateans opposed the Rom. intervention in Pal. under Pompey, and a Rom. general, Scaurus, blockaded Aretas in Petra until he paid money to the Romans (XIV. v. 1). In 31 b.c. Herod the Great fought battles against the Arabs and finally defeated them (XV. v.).

During much of NT times Aretas IV (9 b.c.-a.d. 40) was the Nabatean king. Herod Antipas married the daughter of this Aretas, but divorced her to marry Herodias (XVIII. v. 1; Matt 14:3). Because of this and a disputed boundary between their dominions in the country of Gamalitis, Aretas attacked and defeated Herod Antipas. The Arabians who heard Peter at Pentecost (Acts 2:11), were prob. Jews from Nabatean areas, SE of Pal. The governor of Damascus under Aretas set guards at the city gates to seize Paul, prob. at the request of Jewish leaders, but the apostle escaped over the city wall (2 Cor. 11:32, 33).

During the second half of the 1st cent. a.d., the Romans gradually took over the areas that had been controlled by the Nabateans. The Romans forced Malichus II, the Nabatean king (a.d. 40-70), to give up control of Damascus. Malichus also was obliged to contribute Arab soldiers to help the Romans in suppressing the Jewish revolt in a.d. 67 (Jos. War III. vii. 9).

Arab culture and the Bible.

The Arabs speak Sem. languages, as indicated by their descent from Shem (Gen 10:25-30). The angular S Arab. script developed from the Sinaitic alphabet, and the earliest datable Sabean inscr. comes from the 8th cent. b.c. From S Arab. the following scripts developed: Lihyanic, beginning in the 7th cent. b.c.; Thamudic, beginning in the 5th cent. b.c.; and Safaitic, beginning about a.d. 100. The Nabatean script was derived from Aram. and led to the N Arab. writing which prevails today.

Genesis 16:12 predicts that Ishmael will be “a wild ass of a man.” The wild ass wandered in the Syrian desert, as did the Arab Ishmaelites, “over against,” or E of, their Aram. and Heb. kinsmen. Ishmael’s “hand” will be “against every man,” perhaps referring to the many raids of the Arabs on the fertile lands bordering the Syrian desert.


The Arabs, called “the people of the E” in 1 Kings 4:30, were famous for their wisdom. The wise sayings of Agur and of Lemuel, two kings of Massa in N Arabia, are preserved in the last two chs. of Proverbs. The homes of Job and his friends and most of the animals mentioned in that wisdom book are located in NW Arabia. The sons of Hagar, that is the Ishmaelites, are called “seekers of wisdom” in Baruch 3:23.

Recent excavations have uncovered impressive monuments illustrating the material culture of S Arabia. Noteworthy are the great temple of the Sabean moon-god Ilumquh at Marib, large dams and canals for irrigation, statues in stone and bronze and jewelry. On the stone monuments of S Arabia are carved thousands of memorial, historical, and religious inscrs.

The Nabateans carved spectacular tombs and temples in Greco-Rom. style from the colored sandstone at Petra. Some of their pottery was remarkably thin and beautifully painted. Their inscrs. are found on rocks in many parts of NW Arabia.

Ancient Arab religion.

The general Arabian word for god was il (like Heb. El) or ilah (like Heb. Eloah), but the ancient Arabians were polytheists. One of their most important deities was the moon-god called Ilumquh by the Sabeans, Wadd by the Mineans, ’Amm by the Qatabanians and Sin by the Hadramautians. The moon-god’s consort was the sungoddess Shamsi, and their son was ’Athtar, the morning star. The gods of Adumatu (Biblical Dumah) in the 7th cent. b.c. as noted by the Assyrians were: Atarsamaim, Dai, Nuhai, Ruldaiu, Abrillu, and Atarquruma. Atarsamaim is perhaps the same Arabian goddess called Alilat (“the goddess”) by Herodotus (I. 131), and hanilat (also meaning “the goddess”) in a 5th cent. Kedarite inscr. According to the Babylonian Talmud (Taanith, 5b), the Kedarites also worshiped water. This may refer to the veneration of sacred wells, such as Zamzam at Mecca. Deities of the Nabateans included: Dushara, the supreme god; Allat, the mother goddess; Hadad, the storm-god; Atargatis, the fish-goddess; and Gad, the god of luck. Gods in Safaitic inscrs. include: Dushara, Allāt, Gad-’Awidh, and Ba’alsamīn. Pagan Arab gods mentioned in the Qur’ān are: al-Lāt, al-’Uzza, and Manāh, considered as three daughters of Allah, the supreme god (53:19, 20), Wadd, Suwā', Yaghūth, Ya’ūq, and Nasr (71:23). Arabians fear demons called jinn (Qur’ān 72).

Some of the religious practices of the ancient Arabians were similar to those of the Hebrews. Both people practiced circumcision and pilgrimage. The Arab priest (kāhin), like the Heb. kōhēn, not only performed sacrifices, but also used the sacred lots (cf. Heb. Urim and Thummim) to learn the divine will and the future. Some think that the lw’ who served in the temple at Dedan is related in name and function to the Biblical Levite. The Arabian mslm sacrifice is from the same root as the Heb. šlm, “peace offering.” The Arabian incense used in worship included several spices, like the sacred incense of Exodus 30:34. A pillar before the temple at Sirwah was called knt, “firmness,” like the pillar called Jachin, “it is firm,” before Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 7:21).

Bibliography

D. H. Müller, “Arabia,” Pauly’s Realencyclopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, N.B., III (1895), cols. 244-259; al-Tabari, Ta’rīkh al-rusul w-al-mulūk (1879-1901); J. A. Montgomery, Arabia and the Bible (1934); G. Caton-Thompson, The Tombs and Moon Temple of Hureidha (Hadhramaut) (1944); W. F. Albright, “The Chronology of Ancient South Arabia in the Light of Excavation in Qataban,” BASOR, 119 (1950), 5-15; G. Ryckmans, Les religions arabes préislamiques (1951); G. W. Van Beek, “Recovering the Ancient Civilization of Arabia,” BA, XV (1952), 2-18; W. F. Albright, “Dedan,” Beiträge sur historischen Theologie, XVI (1953), 1-12; Jawad ’Ali, Ta’rīkh al-’arab qabl al-islām, I-III (1950-1953); C. Rathgens, Sabeica I (1953); O. Eissfeldt, “Das Alte Testament im Lichte der Safatenischen Inschriften,” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, CIV (1954), 88-118; F. M. Cross, “Geshem the Arabian,” BA, XVIII (1955), 46, 47; A. L. Oppenheim, “Babylonian and Assyrian Historical Texts,” ANET (1955), 263-317; W. Phillips, Qataban and Sheba (1955); J. Starcky, “The Nabataeans: A Historical Sketch,” BA, XVIII (1955), 84-106; G. Ryckmans, “L’Arabie antique et la Bible,” L’Ancien Testament et l’orient (1957), 89-109; R. L. Bowen, F. P. Albright, Archaeological Discoveries in South Arabia, II (1958); S. Moscati, Ancient Semitic Civilizations (1960), 181-219; J. Pirenne, Le royaume sud-arabe de Qataban et sa datation (1961); G. W. Van Beek, “South Arabian History and Archaeology,” The Bible and the Ancient Near East (1961), 229-248; A. Jamme, Sabaean Inscriptions from Mahram Bilqīs (Mārib) (1962); R. L. Cleveland, An Ancient Arabian Necropolis, Objects from the Second Campaign (1951) in the Timna’ Cemetery (1965); N. Glueck, Deities and Dolphins: The Story of the Nabataeans (1965); B. Abd al-Malik, J. A. Thompson, “Arabia,” The Biblical World (1966), 45-50; R. deVaux, “Sur l’origine kénite ou madianite du Yahvisme,” Eretz-Israel, IX (1969), 28-32; P. K. Hitti, History of the Arabs, 10th ed. (1970).