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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Arabia, Arabs

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ARABIA, ARABS . In the present article we have to do not with the part played by the Arabs in history, or with the geography of the Arabian peninsula, but only with the emergence of the Arab name and people in Bible times.

‘Arâb (for which we should have expected rather ‘ârâb ) is scarcely at first a proper name, but stands merely for ‘waste,’ ‘desolation.’ So in Isaiah 21:13 (which may really belong to Isaiah himself, but should perhaps be ascribed to a later hand): ‘Bivouac in the copse [made up of thorn-bushes, something like an Italian macchia ], in the waste, ye caravans of Dedan.’ In this passage the title massâ ba’ râb , which in any case is late and wanting in the ancient Gr. version, incorrectly takes ‘arâb as a proper name [we need not stop to notice the false interpretation of this word adopted by the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] here and in other passages]. More commonly the word used for ‘waste’ is the fem. form ‘arâbâh ( e.g. Isaiah 35:1 , Job 24:5 ; Job 39:6 etc.), which, preceded by the art. ( hâ-‘Arâbâh ), stands for the deep gorge which, commencing to the north of the Dead Sea and including the latter, stretches to the Red Sea ( Deuteronomy 2:8 etc.). Whether ‘arâbî in Isaiah 13:20 and Jeremiah 3:2 means simply an inhabitant of the desert, or should be taken as a proper name, is uncertain; but at bottom this distinction has no Importance, for the two notions of ‘Bedouin’ ( Badawî , which also = ‘inhabitant of the desert’) and ‘Arab’ were pretty much identical in the mind of civilized peoples. It may be noted that here the Massoretes appear to assume the appellative sense, since they point ‘arâbî , whereas for ‘Arab’ they use the form more akin to Aramaic than Hebrew, ‘arbî ( Nehemiah 2:19 ; Nehemiah 6:16 ). The plural ‘arbîm in Neh 21:16, 22:1 and 2 Chronicles 26:7 Qerç, from ‘arbî’îm (Kethibh of the last passage) may also be justified from the standpoint of Hebrew usage. The form in 2 Chronicles 17:11 can hardly be original; it is due to attraction from the following mebî’îm. ‘Arâb is certainly a gentilic name in we’çth kol malkç ‘Arâb of Jeremiah 25:24 [the following words we-çth kol malkç hâ-‘ereb , which are wanting in the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] , are of course a pure dittography; for, although the Massoretes, for the sake of distinction, point in the second instance hâ-‘ereb , this has no value] and in Ezekiel 27:21 . In these passages ‘Arâb can hardly be taken as the name of a single clan quite distinct from Dedan and the rest. The prophetic authors do not speak with the exactness of a prose narrator, and in point of fact were perhaps not very well informed about the various branches of the Bedouins, of whose territory the Israelite peasant and townsman thought only with a shudder. It is possible, indeed, that the rise of the name ‘Arab’ among the Hebrews ( c [Note: circa, about.] . b.c. 700) is connected with the circumstance that the ancient clans of Ishmael, Midian, Amalek, etc., had by that time disappeared or at least lost all significance. In the desert there goes on a constant, if for the most part a slow, interchange in the rise and fall of tribes and tribal names. A brave tribe may be weakened by famine or defeat; it may be compelled to migrate or to adopt a settled mode of life, and thus its name becomes lost among a peasant population; or it may become otherwise broken up and its fragments attached to other tribes, so that small clans by assimilating foreign elements become great tribes. So it was millenniums ago; so it is still.

The Assyrian sources name the Arabs as early as the 9th cent. b.c. (see the passages cited by Bezold in his Catalogue , vol. v. 1964). King Darius I., in his inscriptions, enumerates Arabâya among the countries subject to him. The name always follows Babylonia, Assyria (which as a province included Mesopotamia proper and also probably N. Syria), and precedes Egypt. We shall have to understand by this name the great desert region not only of Syria, but also of Mesopotamia as well as the peninsula of Sinai. About this same time at the latest the name of the Arabs became known also to the Greeks. Æschylus ( Persœ , 316) names an Arab as fighting in the battle of Salamis, and his contemporary, from whom Herodotus borrowed his description of the host of Xerxes, enumerated Arab archers as forming part of the latter (Herod. vii. 69). But while Æschylus ( Prom . 422) has quite fabulous notions about the dwelling-places of the Arabs, Herodotus is well acquainted with them. His account of the situation of the Arabian peninsula is approximately correct, but he has specially in view those Arabs who inhabit the region lying between Syria and Egypt, i.e. the desert lands with whose inhabitants the ancient Israelites had frequent relations, peaceful or warlike. Xenophon appears to use the term ‘Arabia’ in essentially the same sense as King Darius. He too gives this name to the desert to the east of the Euphrates, the desert which separates Babylonia from Mesopotamia proper ( Anab . VII. viii. 25), the same region which was still called ‘Arab by the later Syrians. This tract of country, so far as we can learn, has always been peopled by Arab tribes.

In the 5th cent. b.c. we find, in the above-cited passages from the Memoirs of Nehemiah, repeated mention of an Arabian Geshem or Gashmu, whose real name may have been Gushamô who gave Nehemiah no little trouble. About this time, perhaps, the Arab tribe of Nabatæans had already pressed their way from the south and driven the Edomites from their ancient seats. Towards the end of the 4th cent. they were firmly established at least in the ancient Edomite capital, Petra; and they gradually extended their dominion widely. The First Book of Maccabees clearly distinguishes the Nabatæans from other Arabs, whereas the Second Book simply calls them ‘Arabs’ ( 2Ma 5:8 ), as do also other Greek and Latin writers. The Nabatæan kingdom counted, indeed, for so much with Westerns that they could regard it as ‘the Arabs’ par excellence . The Apostle Paul ( Galatians 4:25 ), like profane writers, reckons the Sinaitic peninsula, which was part of the Nahatæan kingdom, as belonging to Arabia. Again, the part of Arabia to which he withdrew after his conversion ( Galatians 1:17 ) must have been a desert region not far from Damascus, which then also was under the sway of the king of the Nabatæans. By the ‘Arabians’ mentioned in Acts 2:11 , in connexion with the miracle of Pentecost, the author probably meant Jews from the same kingdom, which, it is true, had in his time (?) become the Roman province of Arabia (a.d. 105).

We do not know whether the name ‘Arab originated with the Arabs themselves or was first applied to them by outsiders. In any case, it first extended itself gradually over the northern regions and the great peninsula. Uncivilized and much divided peoples recognize their national unity only with difficulty, whereas this is more readily perceived by their neighbours. In the first case a man knows only his own tribe, and regards even the neighbouring tribe, which speaks the same language, as strange. But the wide wanderings of the Arab nomads, due to the nature of their country, brought them readily into contact with peoples of other language and other customs, and this could awaken in them the consciousness of their own nationality. Perhaps the recognition of Arab unity was favoured also by the trading journeys of the civilized Arabs of the south and of other parts of Arabia. But be that as it may, the ancient Arab epitaph of Namâra to the S.E. of Damascus, dating from the year a.d. 328, concerns Maralqais, ‘king of all Arabs.’ And from the oldest documents of classical Arabic that have come down to us it is a sure inference that at that time ( i.e. in the 6th cent. a.d.) ‘Arab had been for an inconceivably long period known as their national designation. But the close connexion between this common name and the meaning ‘desert’ still reveals itself in the circumstance that the plural form ‘Arâb (later more freq. ‘Urbân ) stands especially for the Bedouins as opposed to Arabs who live in towns, and that afterwards in common speech, as had been the case even in the Sabæan inscriptions, ‘Arab is often used simply for ‘Bedouin,’ ‘inhabitant of the desert.’

Th. Nöldeke.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Arabia, Arabs'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/a/arabia-arabs.html. 1909.

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Tuesday, October 15th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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