David and I are once again in Israel, the “Beautiful Land,” as the prophet Daniel described it.
As part of our experience of Ein Gedi and the Negev, Dave and I first stayed in an Airbnb belonging to an Israeli family in Arad (We had a very enjoyable time with them, he is a “Found Art” artist, and wonderful cook, and she is retired from the Israeli army), situated about a half an hour’s drive from Masada, and about an hour’s drive from the Dead Sea.
One of the distinctive features of Arad is their lookout points giving a view of the vast valleys and grand mountain ranges surrounding the area. It was an admitted thrill to stand in the foothills of what was once Judah and gaze across to the mountains of Moab.
A map of ancient Israel often includes the inland nations of Ammon to the north and Moab to the south, on the eastern side of the Jordan. Edom is to the far south.
When the twelve tribes of Israel were crossing the wilderness to enter the Promised Land, God had told them. “Do not harass Moab or engage them in battle, for I will not give you any of its land as a possession, since I have given Ar as a possession to the descendants of Lot.”
As the Lord had with the Edomites (descendants of Esau), God called the kingdoms of Ammon and Moab brothers to Israel because they shared Abraham as their relative. Abraham’s nephew Lot was the progenitor of the Moabite and Ammonite kingdoms by his two daughters, a sad and depressing story found in Genesis 19.
It is in the plains by the Dead Sea, by Moab, where God judged five cities including Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot’s wife was turned to a pillar of salt that day because she turned back and stood transfixed as her city was destroyed. As Dave and I drove through that plain, we saw a pillar of salt.
Balak and Balaam
Balak, king of Moab seemed to have had no idea God was protecting his nation from the otherwise unstoppable Israelite juggernaut. In a desperate move, he hired the famous seer Balaam to call down curses from heaven onto the tribes filling the valley below Moab’s mountain range. But God would not permit it. Instead, Balaam spoke only powerful blessing and prophecy over God’s people.
Nevertheless, the king of Moab found a way to undermine Israel’s armies. He sent a large number of Moabite women down into the Israelite camp with the invitation to come back and feast with them. One thing led to another, and soon Israel’s fighting men were in their cups, engaging in illicit sex with Moabite women, and otherwise involving themselves in festivities associated with the worship of Ba’al. By luring Israel away from their powerful God, Balak hoped to weaken them, and he succeeded. 24,000 Israelite men died as a result of God’ great wrath.
In response to Moab’s treachery, God commanded,
“No Ammonite or Moabite shall come into the assembly of the Lord even to the tenth generation. None of their descendants shall come into the assembly of the Lord forever.Deuteronomy 23:3 (NRSV)
Perhaps the most famous Moabite, however, was Ruth, the forebear of King David, and later of Jesus. Her story is unusual in that she gave up her own life in Moab in order to be counted among the people of God, saying to her mother-in-law,
Where you go, I will go;Ruth 1:16-17 (NRSV)
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die,
and there will I be buried.
She became a type of Christianity, for she died to her old life and entered fully into her new life, no longer as a Moabite but as one attached to God through her mother-in-law.
One of the more well-known Moabite artifacts is the Meshe Stele, describing victory over Israel, an event also recorded in the Bible, during King Jehoram’s reign. Interestingly, the Biblical account indicates Moab (in cooperation with Edom) was losing the battle until King Mesha of Moab
took his firstborn son who was to succeed him and offered him as a burnt offering on the wall. And great wrath came upon Israel, so they withdrew from him and returned to their own land.2 Kings 3:27 (NRSV)
Theologians have been puzzling over this enigmatic verse for thousands of years! But the ending syncs with the Meshe Stele in that Israel was indeed defeated by Moabite forces.
Plunder and Prophecy
The nation of Moab remained in conflict with the Hebrew people, then became a vassal state to Israel for generations until the death of King Ahab in around 853 BCE, when they refused to continue paying tribute. They were able to successfully repel Israelite domination, and later joined in the looting and pillaging of Jerusalem when Babylon conquered the Judahites and hauled them off into captivity.
As you can imagine, God spoke out against Moab for this treachery as well, through numerous prophets.
Concerning Moab. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Alas for Nebo, it is laid waste! Kiriathaim is put to shame; it is taken; the fortress is put to shame and broken down; the renown of Moab is no more. In Heshbon they planned evil against her: “Come, let us cut her off from being a nation!” You also, O Madmen, shall be brought to silence; the sword shall pursue you. Listen! A cry goes up from Horonaim: “Desolation and great destruction!”Jeremiah 48
Each of these prophets gave forth the word of the Lord, declaring Moab’s end, all of which was fulfilled.
Malachi on Moabite Marriages
Perhaps in nostalgia for the Book of Ruth, when the Judahite exiles returned to Jerusalem to rebuild, many of the men married Moabite women. It would most likely not have been issue, even with God’s Deuteronomic injunction against Moab, except that a good number of these wives did not renounce their old gods, nor worship the One True and Living God. Their children did not even learn how to speak Hebrew.
Malachi, one of the post-exilic prophets, spoke poignantly about what was happening, and both Nehemiah and Ezra passionately intervened. After months of interviews and review of each marriage, many men found themselves in the calamitous position of having to send their wives and children back to their country of origin.
As Dave and I stood in the mountains of the Negev, gazing across the ravines and into the distance where Moab’s mountains range across the horizon, we imagined together the stories of these ancient people.