Exegetical Approaches


As Tanakh does not provide accompanying maps, we must piece together different textual and archaeological clues in order to identify geographic locations. The case of Midyan is particularly intriguing because the evidence points in three different directions, to places which today are located in three separate countries (Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan).

The stories of Moshe and Yitro appear to place Midyan in close proximity to Mount Sinai, which would support a site south of Israel. In contrast, most of the other Biblical stories which mention Midyan connect them to Moav and Central Israel, suggesting a more northeastern location. Finally, extra-biblical evidence points to a southeastern locale, near the Gulf of Aqaba.

This apparent contradiction can be resolved by positing either that the Midianites were a nomadic people which settled in different areas at various points in history, or that the Midianites were a broad confederation of tribes which lived in several regions simultaneously under assorted foreign rulers.1

Possible Locations

Below is the evidence for a Midianite presence in the various possible regions:

A Midyan located south of Israel, in the southern region of the Sinai Desert.

Moshe's flight from Egypt – A southern location would allow Moshe to escape to a relatively nearby land.
Midyan and Mount Sinai – Yitro was the kohen of Midyan, and Moshe shepherds Yitro's sheep at Mt. Sinai (Shemot 3:1). If Mt. Sinai is situated in the Sinai Desert2, this would argue for a similar placement of Midyan.3
Hadad the Edomite – In Melakhim I 11:17-18, Hadad the Edomite flees from Edom to Egypt, via Midyan and Paran. Such a route suggests that Midyan lies in the South, somewhere between Edom and Egypt.
Midyan and Moav – This possibility does not account for all of the stories which connect Midyan and Moav (see below).

A Midyan situated on the eastern side of the Jordan River, near Moav.

Keturah's descendantsBereshit 25:1-6 lists Midyan as one of the children of Keturah who were sent "to the east" by Avraham.
Bereshit 36:35 speaks of Hadad b. Bedad smiting Midyan in the field of Moav.
Midyan and Moav – In both the stories of Bilam in Bemidbar 22-24 and of Baal Peor in Bemidbar 25, the Midianites and Moabites work in tandem against Israel. See TanchumaMatot 3About the Tanchuma which raises the possibility that Midyan in these stories is located near Moav, and is not the same place to which Moshe fled.
Sichon's Midianite vassalsYehoshua 13:21 records that the "princes of Midyan" were vassals of Sichon and lived in the territory on the Eastern side of the Jordan which the Israelites had conquered from Sichon (who had previously captured it from Moav).4
Gidon's battle with Midyan – In the story of Gidon in Shofetim 6-8, the Midianites plunder the land of Ephraim and Menashe (on the western side of the Jordan). Zevach and Zalmuna, the two Midianite kings, seek refuge from Gidon in Karkor (Shofetim 8:10), which is identified as a city in the Great Desert, near Moav.
Midyan and Mount Sinai – This approach does not account for the proximity of Midyan to Mt. Sinai (see above).
Geographical works – Eusebius in his Onomasticon notes that there are ruins of a site called Midyan near Arnon (in the land of Moav).5
Archaeological evidence – For a survey of some of the possible sites for Midian in the land of Moav, see ‏ח' בן דוד, 'אתרי "מדינה" על יובלי הארנון – "מדיין שבצד מואב"?!', בתוך: בהר ובשפלה ובערבה, ירושלים תשס"ח, עמ' 88-78‏.

A Midyan lying to the southeast of Israel, in the Arabian Desert, on the coast of the Gulf of Aqaba.

Historical sourcesArtapanusEusebius Ch. 27About Artapanus (cited by Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica, Ch. 27) places Midyan in Arabia.6
Geographical works – Ptolemy7 mentions a place called Madiana in the Arabian Desert, and Eusebius' Onomasticon identifies Biblical Midyan as the city of Madian in Arabia. A site called Madyan, associated with the prophet Shu'aib (identified with Yitro – see Yitro in Other Religions) is referred to in Arabic sources as a rest stop on the way from Eilat to Mecca and Medina (a five day journey from Eilat). This site has been identified with the ruins in the Caves of Shu'aib, east of the Gulf of Aqaba.8
Biblical evidence – While there are no Biblical verses which show a direct connection between Midyan and this region, this approach may be able to bridge the conflicting evidence (see above) for the eastern and southern locations by creating a contiguous Midianite presence stretching from the Jordan River to the Sinai Desert.
Keturah's descendantsBereshit 25:2 lists Midyan as one of the children of Keturah who were sent "to the east" by Avraham. Since other descendants of Keturah, Eifah and Dedan, have been identified as living in Northern Arabia, near the Red Sea, some scholars propose that Midyan dwelled there as well. It is also possible that the tribe of Midyan spread out over a large area, with some going to the northeast and some to the southeast.
Midyan and Mount Sinai – According to this approach, Mount Sinai is situated in present day Saudi Arabia – see Mount Sinai.9

Related Topics

Midyan and KushanChavakkuk 3:7 sets up a parallel between Kushan and Midyan, implying that the two are identical. There are different identifications of Kushan which support the different possible locations of Midian. Albright10 cites Egyptian texts that refer to the Kushu tribes which lived near the Shutu tribes, an ancient name for Moav. Others disagree, identifying Kushan instead with a place named Derom Kushu lying on the southwest outskirts of Israel.11