Midianites and Moabites / Arabians: Josephos and Philo on intermixing and the dangers of acculturation (first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Midianites and Moabites / Arabians: Josephos and Philo on intermixing and the dangers of acculturation (first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified June 9, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=16678.

Ancient author: Numbers 25; Philo, On Virtues 7.34-46 (link); Flavius Josephos (late-first century CE), Judean Antiquities 1.205-206 and 6.126-152 (link).

Comments: These significant expansions of the story relating to Balaam in connection with the alliance between the Moabites and Midianites (based in only limited ways on the Numbers 22-25 in the biblical narrative) provide an opportunity to witness Judeans of a later era telling tales about biblical peoples (also equated with contemporary peoples) to illustrate the dangers of acculturation. The tradition used by both Philo and Josephos (whether oral or written or both) notices that immediately following Balaam’s refusal to curse the Israelites (on behalf of the Moabites and Midianites), there are problems with Israelites sleeping with Moabite and Midianite women. And so a new story of how this came to be was developed, with Balaam offering advice to the Moabites and Midianites. As Josephos clarifies at the end, this story could also be used to justify the Israelite army’s destruction of the Midianites, except their young unmarried women.

Philo of Alexandria’s version in On Virtues presents the expanded story in order to make a point about the virtues of a superior people. Philo expressly identifies the Midianites as predecessors of the Arabians of his own time (likely also presumed by Josephos), which draws out the contemporary relevance about peoples at odds with Israelites or Judeans. In Philo’s work on the Life of Moses (not included here), he once again shows an awareness of this expanded story in connection with Balaam. But there he generalizes about “peoples of Asia” rather than referring to Moabites or Midianites specifically, and there is no reference to Arabians (see the Life of Moses 1.292-294). Pseudo-Philo (18.13-14, not included here) keeps the reference to the women of Midian but is very brief (compared to Josephos) on the matter of Balaam’s suggestion about seducing the Israelite men.

The passages in Philo and Josephos are important for questions of ethnic relations in at least two ways. On the one hand, we have a portrayal of Midianites and Moabites as surrounding peoples (equated with Arabians) intent on undermining the Israelites, depicting tense ethnic relations. On the other hand, we have a cautionary tale about the dangers of acculturation (but also mixed with an emphasis on avoiding “the passions”) in the form of mixing with foreign women and worshipping their foreign gods.

It is noteworthy that the speeches generated by Josephos for the Midianite women have those women enumerating the same complaints or accusations that Judeans faced from Greeks, Romans or others in Josephos’ own era, as a comparison with accusations in Josephos’ Against Apion (link) clearly shows (on which see van Unnik). Judeans were cast as unsocial haters of humanity and impious rejectors of the gods of surrounding peoples, at times. The narrative comes down hard on intermarriage, of course, on which see Jubillees on the Dinah story (link). Less strict are cases relating to Joseph and Aseneth (link) and Moses’ Kushite wife (link). All are interested in the question of how Israelites or Judeans relate to other peoples.

Works consulted: Y, Miller, “Sedition at Moab: Josephus’ Reading of the Phinehas Story,” The Torah.com, 2019 (link); W.C. van Unnik, “Josephus Account of the Story of Israel’s Sin with Alien Women in the Country of Midian (Num. 25:1ff.),” in Travels in the World of the Old Testament, ed. M.S.H.G.H. van Voss, P.H.J.H. Cate, and N.A. van Uchelen (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1974), 241–261.

This post is part of the Biblical peoples redux series:

  • Descendents of Noah’s sons Shem, Japheth and Ham in Josephos and Pseudo-Philo (link)
  • Ishmaelites (Arabians) in Jubilees, Molon and Josephos (link)
  • Edomites (Idumeans) in Josephos (link)
  • Amalekites in Josephos and Philo (link)
  • Canaanites (Phoenicians) in Jubilees (link) and in Wisdom of Solomon (link)
  • Kushites (Ethiopians) in Artapanos, Josephos and others (link)
  • Midianites and Moabites (Arabians) in Philo and Josephos (link)
  • Chutheans or Samaritans in Josephos (link) and in biographies of Jesus / gospels (link)

Source of the translations: Numbers translation from Lexham, with modifications. H.S.J. Thackeray and R. Marcus, Josephus, volumes 1-7, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1926-43), public domain, adapted by Harland.



(25:1-18; cf. 31) When Israel dwelled in Shittim, the people began to have sex with the daughters of Moab. They invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and worshiped their gods. So Israel was joined together to Baal Peor, and Yahweh became angry with Israel. Yahweh said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of the people and kill them before the sun, so the fierce anger of Yahweh will turn from Israel.” So Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you kill his men who are joined together with Baal Peor [i.e. the god considered Lord of mount Peor in Moabite territory].”

Behold, a man from the Israelites came and brought to his brothers a Midianite woman before the eyes of Moses and before the eyes of all of the community of the Israelites, and they were weeping at the doorway of the tent of assembly. When Phinehas son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest saw, he got up from the midst of the community and took a spear in his hand. He went after the man of Israel into the woman’s section of the tent, and he drove the two of them through with the spear, the man of Israel and the woman, into her belly. And the plague among the Israelites stopped. The ones who died in the plague were twenty-four thousand. Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, “Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, turned away my anger from among the Israelites when he was jealous with my jealousy in their midst, and I did not destroy the Israelites with my jealousy. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I am giving to Phinehas my covenant of peace, and it will be for him and his offspring after him a covenant of an eternal priesthood because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the Israelites.’” The name of the man of Israel who was struck with the Midianite woman was Zimri son of Salu, a leader of the family of the Simeonites. The name of the Midianite woman who was struck was Cozbi daughter of Zur, a leader of a tribe of the family in Midian.

Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, “Attack the Midianites and strike them because they were attacking you with their deception, with which they have deceived you on the matter of Peor and on the matter of Cozbi the daughter of the leader of Midian, their sister who was struck on the day of the plague because of the matter of Peor.” . . . [omitted remainder of narrative].



Philo, On Virtues 

[Arabians / Midianites’ hostility to Hebrews]

(7.34-46) A very clear proof of these statements [about the need for virtues in body and soul in the case of war] is included in the sacred books [referring to Numbers 25 and 31]. The Arabians, whose name in old times was Midianites, are a very populous people (ethnos). They were disposed to be hostile to the Hebrews, the main reason being the reverence and honour which that people, dedicated to the creator and father of all, pays to the supreme and primal cause. Accordingly they contrived all possible devices and made all possible attempts to turn the Hebrews away from honouring the One, the truly existent, and to change their devotion into impiety. For if they succeeded in this, they thought they would make an easy conquest. But when after countless efforts of word and action they were utterly exhausted, like men in peril of death, where there is no hope of salvation, they [Arabians / Midianites] as a last resource devised a scheme of the following kind.

[Arabians / Midianites’ scheme]

They sent for the most exquisitely beautiful among their women and said to them:

“You see how unlimited is the number of the Hebrews, but their number is not so dangerous and menacing a weapon as their unanimity and mutual attachment. And the highest and greatest source of this unanimity is their notion of a single God, through which, as from a fountain, they feel a love for each other, uniting them in an indissoluble bond. Now man is easily led captive by pleasure, and particularly by the pleasure of sexual intercourse with women. You are exceedingly attractive. Beauty is naturally seductive, and youth easily lapses into lack of self-control. Do not fear the labels ‘prostitution’ or ‘adultery’ as likely to bring dishonour. Rather set against these labels the benefits arising from your action, benefits which will enable you to convert the transient disrepute into a renown which knows no old age or death. For though in outward appearance you prostitute your bodies to outwit and out-general our enemies, you will keep your souls as virgins and crown them with a chastity which will last into the future. And this war will have a glory without precedent in that it was brought to a successful conclusion by women and not by men. For it is our sex, we confess, which will suffer defeat, because our opponents are more distinguished in all war-like qualities. At the same time, yours will be completely victorious and, in addition to victory, you will also have the high excellence that your exploits have entailed no dangers. For you have merely to be seen, and at that first appearance, without bloodshed or rather without an effort, the day will be yours.”

When they heard these words, the women, who had never even imagined of such a thing as purity of life, nor had a taste of sound education, gave their consent. For their assumed modesty of character up to that point was mere hypocrisy. They decked themselves with costly garments and necklaces, and with everything else with which women are accustomed to decorate themselves and took great pains to make their natural beauty still more attractive. For the prize they aimed at was no small thing: the capture of the youths who had up till then never been uncaptured.

[Hebrews adopt Midianite sacrifices]

So they openly presented themselves, and when they were near at hand, with superficial glances, flattering words and sexually inappropriate attitudes and movements, they set their bait before the weaker-minded part of the younger men, whose character had no ballast or stability. After they used their shameful bodies and had got the souls of their lovers on their hook, they called them to join in offering to the works of men’s hands, sacrifices which were no sacrifices, and libations which brought no peace. In this way they estranged them from the service of the One, the truly existing God, and having effected this, reported the good news to the men.


And they would have enticed others also of the less stable kind had not God the beneficent and merciful, taking pity for their sad condition, lost no time in punishing the mad folly of the offenders, twenty four thousand in total. They also restrained those who were likely to be overwhelmed as by a torrent, but were brought by God to their senses through fear. The leader of the people (ethnos), who was pouring into the ears of his subjects the truths that uphold piety and persuading their souls, selected and enlisted a thousand of the best men from each tribe. He did this in order to exact retribution for the snare which the enemy had contrived with the women for their instrument, and by which they hoped to dash the whole multitude down to destruction from the high pinnacle of holiness, though they were only able to succeed with those mentioned above.

[Meaning regarding a superior people]

The small army [of Hebrews] arrayed against many tens of thousands, with skill and daring combined, each man as it were a company in himself, scorning all thoughts of danger, flew at their close-packed ranks, slaughtered all those who stood in their way. They made a clean sweep of the solid masses of troops and of all the reserves who came to fill the gaps in the lines, so that by the mere onset they laid low many myriads and left none of the enemy’s fighting force alive. They also killed the women, who had been involved in the unholy designs of the men, but gave quarter to the young women in pity for their innocent youthfulness. Although the successfully conducted war was so significant, the Hebrews lost none of their own people, but returned in the same numbers and condition as they had gone forth to fight, unwounded and unscathed. Rather, it may truly be said they returned with redoubled energy. For the strength produced by the joy of victory was no less than what they had had at the first. And the sole source of all this was the zeal which met danger bravely and led them to champion the cause of piety in a fight where God was the foremost combatant, an invincible auxiliary, inspiring their minds with wise counsels and enduing their bodies with irresistible strength. The proof that God was their ally is that so many tens of thousands were defeated at the hands of a few and that none of the enemy escaped, while none of their friends were slain and neither their number nor their bodily force was diminished.


Josephos, Antiquities

[Origin of Moabites]

(1.205-206) Lot’s young daughters, in the belief that the whole of humanity had perished [in the destruction of the Sodomites], had intercourse with their father, taking care to elude detection. They acted in this way in order to prevent the extinction of the descent group. From these unions children were born: the elder daughter gave birth to Moab, as much as to say “of the father,” the younger to Amman, meaning “son of the descent group (genos).” The former produced the Moabites, still a large people (ethnos) today [i.e. among Arabian peoples for Josephos; cf. Antiquities 11.174 and Nehemiah 4:7], and the latter produced the Ammonites (Ammanites), both in Coele-Syria. Such then was the manner of Lot’s escape from the Sodomites.


[Balaam’s plan to help the Moabites and Midianites against the Israelites]

(6.126-152) Balak [king of the Moabites in alliance with the Midianites], furious because the Israelites had not been cursed by Balaam [at the instigation of Moabites and Midianites], sent away Balaam, considering him unworthy of honour. Now when Balaam was already leaving and just about to cross the Euphrates, Balaam sent for Balak and the princes of the Midianites (Madianites) and said:

“Balak and you men of Midian who are present: Since it is necessary to do you a favour despite God’s will, doubtless this descent group (genos) of Hebrews will never be overwhelmed by utter destruction. Nor will this happen through war, pestilence and famine of the fruits of the earth, and neither will any other unexpected event exterminate this descent group. For God is watching over them to protrect them against anything bad and to protect them from experiencing any such disaster which would come upon them to destroy them all. Yet bad things may well happen to them that are of little significance and only for a little while, which will make it appear as though they are being abased even though only they will subsequently flourish once more to the terror of those who inflicted these injuries.”

“So if you desire to gain some temporary victory over them, you may attain that aim by acting in the following way: Take some of your most beautiful daughters who are most capable of overpowering and conquering the self-control of those who see them by means of their beauty. Deck them out to add to their appearance, send them to the neighbourhood of the Hebrews’ camp, and instruct them to have sexual intercourse with their young men. Then, when they see these youths overtaken by their passions, let them leave them. When the young men ask them to stay, let them not consent unless they have made their lovers renounce their ancestral laws and the God to whom they owe them, and to worship the gods of the Midianites and Moabites. For this will make God very angry with them.”

[Plan implemented]

After propounding to them this scheme, Balaam went away. At that point, after the Midianites had sent their daughters in keeping with his advice, the Hebrew young men were captivated by their charms and, meeting with them, begged them not to deny them from enjoying their beauty or habitual sexual intercourse. Accepting their request, they had sex with them. Then, having bound them with the chains of love to themselves, when their passion was at its height, the young women got ready to leave. The young men were in the depths of despondency at the women’s departure. The young men pressured and implored them not to abandon them, but to stay where they were, to be their brides and to be installed as female authority over everything they possessed. This they affirmed with oaths, invoking God as arbiter of their promises, and by their tears and by every means seeking to render themselves an object of the women’s compassion.

When the young women perceived the young men to be enslaved and completely gripped by their relationship, the young women began to address them in this way:

“We, most excellent young men, have our father’s houses, plenty of things, and the positive feelings and affection of our parents and relatives. It was not in quest of any of those things that we came here to have sex with you, nor did we accept your request with intention of trafficking our bodies. No, it was because we considered you honest and just men that we were induced to honour your petition with such hospitable welcome. And now, since you say that you have so tender an affection for us and are grieved at our approaching departure, we do not for our part reject your request. Rather, once we receive from you the only pledge of goodwill which we can consider valuable, we will be content to live our whole lives with you as your wives. For it is to be feared that, becoming satisfied with our company, you may then do us outrage and send us back dishonoured to our parents.”

And the young women begged to be excused in order to protect themselves against the dishonour.

[Young women require the Hebrews worship Midianite gods, with reference to the so-called unusual food and alien customs of Hebrews]

At that point, the youths promised to give whatever pledge the young women chose and denied them nothing because of the depth of their passion for them. The young women said: “Seeing that you agree to these conditions, and that you have customs and a mode of life that is completely alien to all humankind, considering that your food is of a peculiar sort and your drink is distinct from that of other men, it is your responsibility to also revere our gods if you want to live with us. Nothing else will be proof of your declared affection for us and its continuance in the future, except worshipping the same gods as we do. Nor can any man reproach you for venerating the special gods of the country to which you are coming, above all when our gods are common to all humankind, while your god has no other worshipper.”

The young women added that the young men must, therefore, either adopt what everyone else does or look for another world to inhabit, where they could live alone in accordance with their peculiar laws.

[Adoption of foreign customs and threat to Hebrew customs as a source of revolt in the army]

So these young men, being dominated by their love for the young women, considered their speech as excellent and surrendered to their proposal, transgressing their ancestral laws. Accepting the notion of a plurality of gods and determining to sacrifice to them in keeping with the established rites of the people of the country, they enjoyed foreign foods and, to please these women, stopped avoiding things that were contrary to what their [Hebrew] law established.

[Leadership and the case of Zimri]

As a result, the whole army was soon permeated by this lawlessness of the young men and a revolt far more dangerous than the first one [likely a reference to the revolt of Korah] descended upon them, with a danger of complete destruction of their own customs. For once the young men had tasted foreign customs, they became insatiably intoxicated with them. Even some of the leading men, persons conspicuous through the virtues of their ancestors, succumbed to the contagion. Among others Zimri (Zambrias), the chief of the tribe (phylē) of Simeon, who was sleeping with Chozbi the Midianite, daughter of Zur (Souros), a local prince, at the command of this woman devoted himself to the cult that was to her liking instead of the decrees of Moses.

[Moses’ intervention and call for resisting the passions]

Such was the state of things when Moses, fearing that still worse things would happen, convened the people in assembly. Moses did not accuse anyone by name, since he did not want to make desperate anyone who might otherwise repent under cover of obscurity. But Moses said that they were acting in a manner neither worthy of themselves nor of their ancestors in preferring sex over God and a God-fearing life. He said that it was appropriate for them to change their ways while things were still going well, reckoning that courage consisted not in violating the laws but in resisting their passions. He added that neither was it reasonable, after their sobriety in the desert, to relapse now, in their prosperity, into a drunken riot, and to lose through affluence what they had won by poverty. Through his speech Moses tried to correct the youthful offenders and to bring them to repent of their actions.

[Zimri’s response against the laws and tyrranical rule of Moses]

However, after Moses spoke, Zimri stood up and said:

“No, do even you, Moses, keep these laws on which you have bestowed your efforts, having secured confirmation for them only through these men’s simplicity. For, if they were not men of that character, you would have often learned before now through punishment that Hebrews are not duped so easily. But you will not get me to follow your tyrannical orders, because until now you have done nothing except by evil work, under the pretext of ‘laws’ and ‘God,’ to contrive slavery for us and sovereignty for yourself, robbing us of life’s sweets and of that freedom of action which belongs to free men who have no master. By such means, you would prove to be more oppressive to the Hebrews than the Egyptians were, in claiming to punish in the name of these laws the intention of each individual to please himself. No, it is rather you who deserves punishment for having tried to abolish things which all the world has unanimously admitted to be excellent and for having set up, over against universal opinion, your own extravagances. I might fairly be stopped from my present course of action, if, after deciding that it was right, I were then to shrink from confessing it before this assembly. I have married, as you say, a foreign wife. Yes, from my own lips you will hear about my actions, as from a free man. In fact, I had no intention of hiding this. Yes, and I sacrifice to gods that I consider worthy of sacrifice, thinking that it is right to get at the truth for myself from many different people [i.e. rather than just Moses], and not to live as though under a tyrant, hanging all my hopes for my whole life upon one person. And woe be to any person who declares himself to have more mastery over my actions than my own will!”

[Phinehas’ vigilante justice and Moses’ army attacks the Midianites]

After this speech of Zimri concerning the crimes which he and some of the others had committed, the people held their peace, in terror of what might come and because they saw that the lawgiver was unwilling further to provoke the fellow’s frenzy by direct controversy. In fact, Moses feared that Zimri’s unrestrained language might find many imitators to inspire disorder among the crowd. So the meeting was then dissolved. This wicked assault might have gone even further if Zimri had not promptly come to his end under the following circumstances.

Phinehas (Phinees) was a man superior in every way to the rest of the young men, as well as exalted above his fellows by his father’s rank, for he was son of Eleazar the high-priest and grandson of the brother of Moses. Being deeply distressed at the actions of Zimri, Phinehas determined, before Zimri’s insolence gained strength through lack of punishment, to take the law into his own hands and to prevent the violation from spreading further afield, should its authors escape pusnishment. Moreover, Phinehas was gifted with a fearless soul and a courageous body so pre-eminent that, when engaged in any hazardous contest, he never left it until he had conquered and come out victorious. So Phinehas went to the tent of Zimri and killed him with his sword, along with Chozbi. Then all the young men who aspired to make a display of heroism and of a love of honour, imitating the daring action of Phinehas, killed those who were found guilty of the same crimes as Zimri. As a result of their manly character, they killed many of the transgressors. All the rest of the transgressors were destroyed by a plague sent by God. Those among their relatives who, instead of restraining them, instigated them to those crimes were accounted by God their accomplices and also died. Thus fourteen thousand men died from the ranks. That was the reason why Moses was provoked to send that army to destroy the Midianites. . . [omitted narrative on the Israelites’ destruction of the Midianites, except their young women].

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