Biblical Places on Modern Maps: Saudi Arabia

It all started with a trip my brother took to Saudi Arabia.  It set me thinking about what ancient biblical people might have lived in that region, and which ancient places I’d most like to see if I were to go with him.  Did any biblical history occur in modern-day Saudi Arabia?

We often read the Bible with little understanding of the geography of the region – modern or ancient.  Perhaps this plays a part in the mistaken way many read the Bible more as a story than actual history.  In the forward to Andrew E. Steinmann’s excellent book on biblical chronology, From Abraham To Paul, Nicholas Perrin writes about the problem of “make a virtue of keeping biblical history vague, fuzz and hopelessly muddled in our heads.”  He writes:

Part of this, I think, has to do with the way in which we have been conditioned to think about te bible: not as history, but more as story.  Somehow, somewhere along the line, we became unconsciously convinced the likes of Abraham, David, and Jesus are much closer to the likes of Bilbo Baggins and Luke Skywalker than to, say, Winston Churchill and Osama Bin Laden.  Of course, for those of us whose image of the David and Goliath story conjures up memories of Sunday School flannel-graph figures or brightly-colored children’s storybooks, the slip is easy to make.

I believe the same problem exists when it comes to geography: it’s easy to read stories in Scripture as mythical or allegorical rather than about actual people in real places at a certain time in history if we divorce the text from the land in which it is set.

So I’ve decided to become more a more geographically minded student of the Bible.  Over the next few blogs, I’ll be exploring biblical people, places and events that occurred in the lands of the Bible.  (I use the plural, “lands,” because much of the bible is set outside of the current country of Israel, known to many as the Holy Land).  Since my geographical journey was prompted by my brother’s recent trip, I’ll begin my “Biblical Places on Modern Maps” series with the country of Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as it officially known is located on the Arabian Penninsula, along the eastern shore of the Red Sea.  While the modern country was founded in 1932, the land itself has been inhabited for millennia.

Biblical places and people groups rarely fit neatly into the borders of modern countries.  Many of the ancient people were nomadic and many biblical nations saw their territories expand and shrink due to conflict and vassal allegiances.  Thus, when we look at the biblical people who used to live in the modern country of Saudi Arabia, we need to understand that ancient territories often overlapped several modern countries.  That said, here are some of the biblical people and places once located in present-day Saudi Arabia.

Mecca - Saudi Arabia
Photo Credit: NormanEinstein / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 /
Midian by Janz wikimedia commons
Photo Credit: Janz / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 /

1. The Midianites – These are the ancient people who purchased Joseph from his brothers and then sold him into slavery in Egypt (Gen. 37:28, 36); Moses fled to the land of the Midianites after killing an Egyptian (Ex. 2:15) eventually marrying the daughter of a priest of Midian; and Gideon defeated the Midianites with just 300 men (Judges 7:7ff).  Later the prophet Isaiah would write: “Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD” (Isa 60:6 ).  Much of the Midianite territory extended along the eastern shore of the Red Sea in what is now northern Saudi Arabia.  Midianite pottery, which is identified by its two-colour (bichrome) painting quality craftsmanship, has been found as far away as the Timna Valley in southern Israel.  The kiln where this pottery was made has been discovered in Qurayyah, Saudi Arabia. (http://www.bible.ca/archeology/bible-archeology-midianite-pottery.htm)

2. The Nabateans – While the ancient kingdom of Nabatea is usually associated with their capital of Petra in the country of Jordan, the ancient kingdom actually extended south into the northern part of Saudi Arabia.  In 2 Cor. 11:32-33 Paul writes, “In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.”  Paul is referring to Aretas IV, the king of Nabatea.  Mada’in Salah is an archaeological site in the Al Madinah region of Saudi Arabia.  Like the Nabatean capital city of Petra, it too consists of incredible rock-cut facades.

Madaan-saleh
Photo Credit: رومان / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-4.0 /

3. Mt. Sinai – The children of Israel may have wandered throughout part of Saudi Arabia during their 40 years in the wilderness.  Some have even suggested that Mt. Sinai is the mountain called Jebel al-Lawz in modern-day Saudi Arabia, although that doesn’t appear to be the case. (http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2007/10/Mount-Sinai-is-NOT-Jebel-al-Lawz-in-Saudi-Arabia.aspx)

So the next time you read about Moses marrying a girl from Midian, or Gideon defeating the Midianites, be aware that these people once lived in modern-day Saudi Arabia.

In the next edition of “Biblical Places on Modern Maps” we’ll look at the country of Jordan.

P.S.  For those of you who love geography and the interaction of the Bible and the lands in which the events took place, I recommend the Bible Geocoding website.  It has most biblical places located on Google maps and even has a list of books of the Bible broken down by chapter with maps for each.  https://www.openbible.info/geo/

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