Who Were the Moabites in the Bible?

Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites, Amorites, termites, oh my! The Bible has no shortage of ites, so who on earth were the Moabites? The dark origin of these people is found in Genesis 19. After Lot and his two daughters escaped the divine destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, they eventually took refuge in some nearby mountains. Discouraged by the recent destruction which consumed both their fiancés, coupled with the isolation in the caves, the oldest daughter convinced the younger daughter to join her in an incestuous relationship with their father to perpetuate the family lineage. Both daughters conceived sons by their father by getting him drunk. The son of the youngest daughter was named Ammon, father of the Ammonites. The son of the oldest daughter was named Moab, the father of the Moabites. These two half-brothers would become two powerful nations.

Both the Moabites and the Ammonites occupied the surrounding land on the eastern border of Israel, east of the Dead Sea. The land of Moab was sandwiched between two other nations, their brother tribe of Ammon in the north, and Edom in the south (descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau). Most likely, the city of Zoar (which means small or little), which was nestled by the southern tip of the Dead Sea, incubated the inception of the Moabites. In Genesis 19, when God sent His angels to Sodom to rescue Lot and his family from the oncoming destruction, one of the angels told Lot to flee toward the mountains. Out of fear and panic, Lot pled with the angel to allow him and his family to flee instead to the small city within their sight (Zoar) because Lot feared they would not make it to the mountains in time. God granted Lot’s request and spared the city of Zoar (which was set to be judged with all the other wicked cities). Although Lot and his daughters initially settled in the mountains above the city, it is not unreasonable to think Lot or his descendent soon took residence in the city. Either way, Scripture does reference the city of Zoar as a Moabite city (Jeremiah 48:34).

It was by God’s hand the Moabites occupied their land (Deuteronomy 2:9). When settling into their land, the Lord enabled the Moabites to drive out the Emim (Deuteronomy 2:9-11). This was significant because the Emim were like the Anakim, the people the Israelites had feared when they scouted the Promised Land (Numbers 13:33). The history of the Moabites served as an example to the Israelites to demonstrate how God can overcome any people He chooses.

What Were the Characteristics of the Moabites?

The Moabites were a pagan nation, which means they did not worship or serve YHWH. Idolatry was one of the innate characteristics of all the nations surrounding Israel, and Chemosh was the national god of the Moabites (Numbers 21:29). But like all other pagan nations, the Moabites were polytheistic (Judges 10:6), and through much of their history, they were hostile toward Israel. Their proximity proved a continuous threat to the eastern borders of Israel, and the pagan religious practices they followed tempted the Israelites to commit idolatry. Also, the Moabites’ lust for power and conquest threatened Israel’s possession of the Promised Land. They were wealthy, powerful, and proud, and in the days of the prophet Jeremiah, the Moabites had conquered the portion of the Promised Land originally allotted to the tribe of Reuben. Jeremiah 48 reveals the proud disposition of these people along with God’s disgust with them and His plan to judge them.

Who Were Famous Moabites in the Bible?

King Balak ruled the Moabites during Israel’s journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land. When the Israelites came to the plains of Moab, a dread befell the Moabites because the Israelites were numerous, and the Lord had just granted them victory over the Amorites. For fear of being conquered, Balak hired the prophet Balaam, from the land of Midian, to implore the Lord to curse the Israelites. Balak tried three times at three different locations to receive the desired response from the Lord. However, on each occasion when the Lord spoke to the prophet Balaam, He blessed the Israelites.

Ruth. God’s redemptive plans have always been open to all people, not just the direct descendants of Abraham (Genesis 17:12; Exodus 12:48-49). No doubt, of the four Moabites mentioned in this article, Ruth is the most well-known. The book of Ruth takes place during the time of the judges. It begins with a man named Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons who traveled to the land of Moab because famine had consumed the land of Judah. In time, Naomi’s husband and her two sons died, and no one was left to continue their family name. Naomi’s sons had both married Moabite women: Ruth and Orpah, and these two women were all that remained of Naomi’s immediate family. Eventually, word reached Naomi the Lord had given food in the land of Judah, so she decided to return to her homeland. In the process, she told each of her daughters-in-law to return to their families since she had nothing left to offer them because she had no more sons to offer in marriage. Through much grief, Orpah finally conceded; however, Ruth refused to leave Naomi. Ruth demonstrated incredible virtue as she pledged her loyalty to Naomi and acknowledged YHWH as her God (Ruth 1:16-17). In the providence of God, when the women returned to Judah, Ruth married a noble Jewish man named Boaz. In accordance with the Law, Boaz agreed to dedicate their firstborn son to carry the name of Ruth’s former husband, Mahlon, so his family name would not be cut off (Deuteronomy 25:5-6; Ruth 4:10). Ruth then gave birth to a son who was named Obed. King David and eventually Jesus came through the family lineage carried by Ruth.

King Eglon was one of the Moabite rulers during the time of the judges. After God’s deliverance from the Mesopotamians by the hand of Othniel, Israel enjoyed 40 years of peace (Judges 3:9-11). However, after the death of Othniel, the Israelites rebelled against the Lord and once again invoked His wrath (a common theme in this book). This time, the Lord allowed King Eglon to rise to power and, as judgment, He brought Israel under the rule of the Moabites. King Eglon was notably obese, a sign of luxury, wealth, and gluttony in those days. The Israelites served King Eglon for 18 years until they finally cried to the Lord for deliverance from the Moabites (Judges 3:12-14). The Lord raised up Ehud, who struck down King Eglon and delivered the Israelites from the Moabites (Judges 3:15-30).

King Mesha. Found in 2 Kings 3, King Mesha lived during the split reign of Judah and Israel. As a sheep breeder, he paid a tribute from his flocks to Israel. However, after the death of King Ahab, King Mesha rebelled and stopped paying his tribute. As a result, the Israelite king, Jehoram, united with the king of Judah, Jehoshaphat, and the king of Edom to fight against the Moabites. After receiving favorable counsel from the Lord, by the word of Elisha, the three kings overtook the army of King Mesha. The three kings then pursued the Moabites deep into the land of Moab until King Mesha, in an act of desperation, publicly sacrificed his oldest son on the city wall to rally his people against the encroaching armies. The abhorrent act worked, and the Moabites rallied to stop the assault of the three kings. Each king returned to their own land.

Why Is it Important That We Know about Them?

If you do not understand who the Moabites are in relation to God’s covenant people in the Old Testament, you will fail to grasp the significant theological overtones when Scripture mentions them. They were enemies of Israel (Judges 3:28). Yet, God used them in various ways to accomplish His divine plans, including the coming of the Messiah through Ruth. The Moabites serve as one of many examples in Scripture of how our great God moves, not just through individuals, but also through entire nations to work His will. He truly is King of kings and Lord of lords.  

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Stephen BakerStephen Baker is a graduate of Mount Union University. He is the writer of a special Scripture study/reflection addendum to Someplace to Be Somebody, authored by his wife, Lisa Loraine Baker (End Game Press Spring 2022). 

He attends Faith Fellowship Church in East Rochester, OH where he has given multiple sermons and is discipled by pastor Chet Howes.