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Women of Moab

Salvador Dali
Salvador Dali

We know very little about the women of Moab, a neighboring kingdom located just across the Jordan River from ancient Israel. The main source of information is the Hebrew Bible, which refers to a number of Moabite women, both general and specific, named and unnamed. Many of these references are polemical, meant to illustrate a particular political or theological point. As such, they are of little help in reconstructing real Moabite women’s lives.

The biblical traditions reflect a close relationship between Israel and Moab and suggest that Israelite men frequently married Moabite women. (Israelite women marrying Moabite men would have been less of a concern, as these women would have been removed from the Israelite lineage through their marriages.) Even King David had Moabite ancestry, according to the book of Ruth.

The biblical view of the relationship between Israel and Moab, and especially between Israelite men and Moabite women, is varied. It begins in Gen 19:30-38, where Moab and his sibling Ben-ammi (the ancestor of the Ammonites) are said to be the offspring of incest between Lot and his daughters, suggesting an overall contempt for the Moabite people. Moabite women are often depicted negatively, as in Num 25:1-5, where they are blamed for causing the Israelites to worship Baal-Peor (perhaps a local Moabite manifestation of the god Baal). Likewise, Solomon’s many foreign wives, including Moabite women, are blamed for leading Solomon into worship of foreign deities, including the Moabite god Chemosh (1Kgs 11:1-8). The Moabite maternity of a royal assassin in 2Chr 24:26 may also be an attempt to disparage the assassin’s character.

Although in reality intermarriage between Israelites and Moabites was probably quite common, several texts (Deut 23:3, Ezra 9, and Neh 13) forbid it. The polemics against foreign marriage in such texts may be less about Moabite women in particular and more about concerns over loss of land through marriage to outsiders, especially among the small Judahite community in Ezra and Nehemiah’s time.

Aside from these negative portrayals, we see more positive depictions of Moabite women in the Hebrew Bible, especially in traditions associated with the tribe of Judah. The genealogy in 1Chr 4:21-22 presents one of Judah’s grandsons marrying “into Moab.” Noting foreign marriages within such an illustrious Israelite lineage suggests that the text’s author did not view these marriages negatively. The most positive depiction of a woman of Moab appears in the Book of Ruth, where the book’s namesake is a Moabite. Not only does Ruth come across as an admirable character, one who has the best interests of an Israelite family at heart, but the story also makes her a very close ancestor of King David. Ruth marries Boaz, a descendant of Judah and Tamar, whose lineage is sprinkled with Canaanites, thus indicating that the Book of Ruth does not share the same attitude toward intermarriage as the book of Ezra-Nehemiah.

  • Sarah Shectman

    Sarah Shectman is a scholar and editor living in San Francisco, California. She is the author of Women in the Pentateuch: A Feminist and Source-Critical Analysis (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2009). Her current research focuses on gender in the priestly material of the Pentateuch. She is the cofounder of SBAllies (