HOME 12/08/2003

The Biblical Archaeologist Volume XVIII December 1955

The Nabateans: A Historical Sketch - Jean Starcky
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique

The Nabateans and the Land of Edom

Excerpts and Definitons and Addendums:

The Nabateans are described by Diodorus as completely nomadic [in the beginning of their coming into being]. Under threat of death they abstained from sowing and planting, from drinking wine and from building permanent homes. This race of caravan drivers found its origins as a southern Arabian tribe called Nabatu.

Though of Arabian origin the Nabateans gave up their own dialect in favor of the Aramaic spoken by sedentary peoples with whom they came in contact. This Aramaic [later Syriac] language was indeed the lingua franca chosen by the Persians [to communicate with the Western part of their vast empire].

The end of the Persian era (550 - 330 BC) as Diodorus describes it was a period of decadence and dissolution. The authority of the satraps and governors was no longer exercised over outlying Arab tribes so that Nabatean caravans [for most of the 4th century BC] maintained their freedom of movement unhampered by taxes. They received goods ultimately from South Arabia and transported them to Petra. From Petra they crossed the Palestinian Negev [Desert] to reach the port cities of Gaza or Rhinocolura in Egypt.

The Nabateans first appear in the pages of history in the year 312 BC, some ten years after the death of Alexander the Great. At this time one of his generals, Antigonus, had gained ascendency over a major portion of his empire. We are informed that an unruly Arab tribe called the Nabateans refused to recognize the suzerainty of Alexander's succesor. Though they were few in numbers, a bare ten thousand apparently, their independence was annoying, for they controlled the rich trade which flowed north from Arabia Felix (Yemen).

Antigonus decided to take action against them to insure their integration into the Macedonian Empire. He appointed a first expedition against their capital at Petra to be carried out by a certain Athenaeus. Unfortunately for this liutenant, he had no intelligence of the strength of the Nabatean position. The Nabateans were installed on a huge natural bastion on the summit of an immense rock which could be approached only by a single hand-cut ascent.

In the Bible this Nabatean retreat is none other than the refuge of the Edomites, the famous massif Rock of the prophets mentioned in the Book of Obadiah which includes the prediction of the destruction and ruin of Edom.

Also see for instance Jeremiah 48:28:

O ye that dwell in Moab, leave the
cities, and dwell in the rock, and be
like the dove that maketh her nest in
the sides of the hole's mouth .....

Athenaeus nevertheless managed by a stategem to attack the Rock and pillaged its treasures of myrrh, incense and some 500 talents of silver. His success was short-lived, for the Nabateans managed to overtake the Macedonians and massacred them while they slept.

Later in the same year Antigonus organized a second raid under the command of his own son Demetrius. His first campaign bogged down when his soldiers tried in vain to storm the Rock. He was satisfied to accept the Nabatean offer of tribute and retire.

For two centuries the Nabateans
drop from the pages of history .....

The Early Kings

Aretas I

The earliest Nabatean ruler of which we have knowledge is a certain Aretas, called Tyrant of the Arabs, who appears shortly before the days of the Maccabaean Revolt.

2Maccabees 5:8

In the end therefore he [Jason] had an unhappy return, being accused before Aretas the king of the Arabians, fleeing from city to city, pursued of all men, hated as a forsaker of the laws, and being had in abomination as an open enemy of his country and countrymen, he was cast out into Egypt .....

Aretas held captive for a time the Jewish high priest Jason (as told in 2Maccabees 5) in 169 BC when Antiochus Epiphanes was engaged in a campaign against Egypt. The title of Tyrant gives indication that Nabataea was already an independent principality in the second century BC .....

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