The toponym Ar appears six times in the Bible, three of them in Deuteronomy 2. The meforshim (traditional commentators) debate not only where Ar is, but even the nature of the toponym, offering three possibilities:
Another Name for Moab—R. Joseph Bekhor Shor (Num 21:15):
...ער דהיינו מואב, דכתיב "המואבים היושבים בער."
…Ar, meaning Moab, for it says (Deut 2:29) “the Moabites who dwell in Ar.”
A district in Moab—Rashi (Num 21:15):
ער הוא שם מדינה של מלכות מואב
Ar is the name of a district of the Kingdom of Moab.
A city in Moab—Rashbam (Num 21:28):
עיר מלוכה של מואב נקראת ער.
“The capital city of Moab was called Ar.
The reason for this debate derives from the various verses, some of which point in opposite directions.
1. “The Settled Country of Ar” (שֶׁבֶת עָר)
The first and earliest mention of Ar in the Bible appears in a quote from the ancient scroll of YHWH’s Battles, as the Israelites leave the Moabite Wilderness:
במדבר כא:יד עַל כֵּן יֵאָמַר בְּסֵפֶר מִלְחֲמֹת יְ־הוָה:
Num 21:14 Therefore the Book of the YHWH’s Battles speaks of:
אֶת וָהֵב בְּסוּפָה וְאֶת הַנְּחָלִים אַרְנוֹן. כא:טו וְאֶשֶׁד הַנְּחָלִים אֲשֶׁר נָטָה לְשֶׁבֶת עָר וְנִשְׁעַן לִגְבוּל מוֹאָב.
Waheb in Suphah and the Arnon streams. 21:15 And the slope of the streams stretching along the settled country of Ar hugging the territory of Moab.
According to this, the northern border of Moab stretches along the Arnon River and its tributaries, continuing along the “settled country of Ar.” Ar must therefore refer to a large region that is either part of Moab or coterminous with it. This description matches an area, not a city: cities are not large enough for streams to “stretch along” them, and there would be no reason to specify that a city is “settled.”
2. Ar Moab – A City?
Ar is mentioned again later in this same chapter, in the Bard’s Song about Sihon’s conquest of Moab. Here, however, it seems to be a city:
במדבר כא:כח כִּי אֵשׁ יָצְאָה מֵחֶשְׁבּוֹן לֶהָבָה מִקִּרְיַת סִיחֹן אָכְלָה עָר מוֹאָב בַּעֲלֵי בָּמוֹת אַרְנֹן.
Num 21:28 For fire went forth from Heshbon, flame from Sihon’s city, consuming Ar of Moab, Baalei Bamoth by the Arnon.
Ar here is parallel to Baalei Bamoth, both of which seem to be cities destroyed by Sihon in his campaign against Moab. The Greek LXX (Septuagint), however, does not have the toponym Ar (reconstructed Hebrew in bold):
אכלה עד מואב בלעה במות ארנן.
It devoured as far as Moab and swallowed up the steles of Arnon.
The parallel verbs אכלה and בלעה is an attractive reading, and implies a metathesis of the lamed and ayin (בלע becomes בעל). In this reading, bamoth is a common noun; the LXX steilas (στήλας) means “steles,” but the Hebrew bamoth, which it translates, can also mean “heights” or “worship sites,” often understood to be “high places.”
The first variant, ʿad (“until”) instead of ʿAr, is less convincing; we would expect instead a word that parallels bamoth. Thus, Naphtali Tur-Sinai (1886–1973), an Israeli Hebrew language and Bible scholar, whose commentary focuses on emendations, suggests the following:
אכלה ערי מואב, בלעה במות ארנון
It devoured the cities of Moab, swallowed the high places of Arnon.
It is, therefore, most likely that the toponym Ar does not appear in this verse at all, and thus does not constitute evidence for Ar as a city. A stronger case for Ar as a city can be made from a different verse.
3. Ar-Moab/City of Moab (Isaiah 15)
Isaiah 15 records a pronouncement against Moab (מַשָּׂא מוֹאָב), which opens with:
ישעיה טו:א כִּי בְּלֵיל שֻׁדַּד עָר מוֹאָב נִדְמָה כִּי בְּלֵיל שֻׁדַּד קִיר מוֹאָב נִדְמָה.
Isa 15:1 Ah, in the night Ar was sacked, Moab was ruined; Ah, in the night Qir was sacked, Moab was ruined.
The verse here almost certainly refers to a city:
- Ar here parallels Qir, the Moabite word for “city.”
- Ar is being sacked, something appropriate to cities.
In fact, several scholars recently have suggested that this Ar should be identified with Khirbet el-Balua, and understood as Moab’s capital. This is a reasonable reading of the verse, yet the LXX does not have Ar or any other toponym here at all.
Moreover, the Syriac Peshitta reads קריתא דמואב, “the city of Moab,” implying that the Hebrew it was translating was עיר (not Ar ער), paralleling קיר, both of which mean city. Finally, Ar could still refer to a district here, since its parallel, Qir, is not only the name of Moab’s capital, but also the name of the region in which the city is situated. (The name Kerak Hills derives from this.)
Even if Ar refers to a city here, this cannot be its meaning in Deuteronomy 2, where the toponym is mentioned three times:
דברים ב:ט לִבְנֵי לוֹט נָתַתִּי אֶת עָר יְרֻשָּׁה
Deut 2:9 I have assigned Ar as a possession to the descendants of Lot.
דברים ב:יח אֶת גְּבוּל מוֹאָב אֶת עָר
Deut 2:18 You are now crossing the border of Moab, Ar.
דברים ב:כט וְהַמּוֹאָבִים הַיֹּשְׁבִים בְּעָר
Deut 2:29 and the Moabites who dwell in Ar.
Like the quote from YHWH’s Battles, these verses seem to be picturing a district and not just a city. The nature and location of this district becomes clear when we look at each reference in detail.
4. Avoiding Moab by Travelling in the Wilderness
Deuteronomy 2 retells Israel’s journey north through the Transjordan:
דברים ב:ח וַנַּעֲבֹר מֵאֵת אַחֵינוּ בְנֵי עֵשָׂו הַיֹּשְׁבִים בְּשֵׂעִיר מִדֶּרֶךְ הָעֲרָבָה מֵאֵילַת וּמֵעֶצְיֹן גָּבֶר וַנֵּפֶן וַנַּעֲבֹר דֶּרֶךְ מִדְבַּר מוֹאָב.
Deut 2:8 We then moved on, away from our kinsmen, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir, away from the road of the Arabah, away from Elath and Ezion-geber; and we marched towards the wilderness of Moab.
Here the Israelites skirt Moab to the east, as they do according to Numbers:
במדבר כא:יא ...בַּמִּדְבָּר אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי מוֹאָב מִמִּזְרַח הַשָּׁמֶשׁ. כא:יב מִשָּׁם נָסָעוּ וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּנַחַל זָרֶד. כא:יג מִשָּׁם נָסָעוּ וַיַּחֲנוּ מֵעֵבֶר אַרְנוֹן אֲשֶׁר בַּמִּדְבָּר הַיֹּצֵא מִגְּבוּל הָאֱמֹרִי כִּי אַרְנוֹן גְּבוּל מוֹאָב בֵּין מוֹאָב וּבֵין הָאֱמֹרִי.
Num 21:11 …in the wilderness bordering on Moab to the east. 21:12 From there they set out and encamped at the wadi Zered. 21:13 From there they set out and encamped beyond the Arnon, that is, in the wilderness that extends from the territory of the Amorites. For the Arnon is the boundary of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites.
Similarly, in the book of Judges (11:17‑18), Jephthah retells Israel’s trip through the Transjordan, and describes how Israel skirted Moab to the east. These sources follow the E itinerary, which has the Israelites travel north on the Wilderness Highway, going from the Moabite wilderness south of the Arnon River to the Qedemot Wilderness north of the Arnon River, and avoiding Moab entirely.
And yet, Moses continues by saying:
ב:ט וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֵלַי אַל תָּצַר אֶת מוֹאָב וְאַל תִּתְגָּר בָּם מִלְחָמָה כִּי לֹא אֶתֵּן לְךָ מֵאַרְצוֹ יְרֻשָּׁה כִּי לִבְנֵי לוֹט נָתַתִּי אֶת עָר יְרֻשָּׁה.
2:9 And YHWH said to me: “Do not harass the Moabites or provoke them to war. For I will not give you any of their land as a possession; I have assigned Ar as a possession to the descendants of Lot.”
If the Israelites are travelling to the east of Moab specifically to avoid encountering them, why are they being warned not to fight with them? This is the same language used about Seir in vv. 4–7, where the text states explicitly that they are walking through the inhabited land of the sons of Esau. It is thus unclear whether they are walking through Moabite territory or not. I suggest that the verse is saying that they are traversing the territory of Ar, east of Moab.
Two Districts: The Geography of Moab
While at various times in its history, Moab extended north of the Arnon and even north of Wadi el-Wala/Wadi eth-Themed, well into the area the Bible describes as the holdings of Reuben and Gad, the Bible’s “Moab proper” lies between the Arnon River in the north and Wadi al-Hasa in the south (the latter serves as the border between Moab and Edom).
Southern Moab is cut on a north-south axis by Wadi an-Nukhayla/el-Meheires, and already in the early 1970s, based on the biblical passages in Deuteronomy 2, Israel Ben-Shem identified Ar with the eastern side of this division from the Arnon south to Wadi e-Tarfawiya. His view received critical support later when archaeological surveys of that territory showed that it can be subdivided into two districts based on climate and settlement pattern:
Western Moab—On the whole, as one advances either south or east in the Transjordan, precipitation levels drop. Thus, in the northwest Transjordan, biblical Sihon territory, one may plant olive trees, and the area is also good for cattle. South of the Arnon, i.e., biblical Moab, the land is less fertile. Nevertheless, in the Karak Heights, west of Wadi an-Nukhayla, precipitation is still sufficient to allow for agricultural activity, including the growing of wheat. This area contained cities and towns, including some relatively large/important sites such as Khirbet el-Balua, Kir-Harasset (described as the capital in 2 Kgs 3:25), and Horonaim (mentioned in the Mesha inscription). This area is urban Moab, or Moab proper.
Eastern Moab—As one moves east, precipitation levels drop gradually, and east of Wadi an-Nukhayla is grazing land for sheep and goats, until one gets to the area of the (modern) Desert Highway, after which no agricultural or shepherding is possible. From the eastern tributary of the Arnon south to Wadi e-Tarfawiya, this region was sparsely settled, and the sites we can identify from the Iron Age (=the pre-exilic biblical period) are mostly watch towers. Not a single urban site can be identified from this period in the area east of Wadi an-Nukhayla. This area, Ben-Shem argues, is Ar-Moab, a pastoral area with no agriculture and no cities.
If this is correct, Deuteronomy 2 describes how the Israelites avoid traveling north on the Kings Highway, which would have taken them through the more urban (western) Moab, and instead travel through Ar, Moab’s pastoral, eastern district. It is this area that YHWH warns the Israelites not to conquer, since the land was given to the descendants of Lot as inheritance, not the descendants of Abraham.
5. Avoid the Ammonites After You Cross
The identification of Ar as the name of the eastern district of Moab is confirmed in the next mention of the toponym in Deuteronomy 2, when the Israelites are about to leave Moabite territory and cross the Arnon northward:
דברים ב:יז וַיְדַבֵּר יְ־הוָה אֵלַי לֵאמֹר. ב:יח אַתָּה עֹבֵר הַיּוֹם אֶת גְּבוּל מוֹאָב אֶת עָר. ב:יט וְקָרַבְתָּ מוּל בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן אַל תְּצֻרֵם וְאַל תִּתְגָּר בָּם כִּי לֹא אֶתֵּן מֵאֶרֶץ בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן לְךָ יְרֻשָּׁה כִּי לִבְנֵי לוֹט נְתַתִּיהָ יְרֻשָּׁה.
Deut 2:17 YHWH spoke to me, saying: 2:18 “You are now crossing the border of Moab, Ar. 2:19 You will then be close to the Ammonites; do not harass them or start a fight with them. For I will not give any part of the land of the Ammonites to you as a possession; I have assigned it as a possession to the children of Lot.”
According to the political geography laid out in this chapter, the area north of the Arnon is divided between Sihon’s Amorite kingdom on the west and the Ammonite kingdom on the east. The Israelites are being warned that, when they cross the Arnon after leaving Ar, they should avoid entering Ammonite territory (2:18–23), which they will be facing, and instead, turn west into the territory of Sihon (2:24). This fits the depiction above, that they are east of Moab, opposite the (eastern) territory of Ammon.
6. The Inhabitants of Ar Sell Food and Water to the Israelites
The third and final reference to Ar in this chapter again indicates that Ar is the name of the area through which the Israelites crossed Moab. When the Israelites arrive in Amorite territory, they send a message to Sihon with a request:
דברים ב:כז אֶעְבְּרָה בְאַרְצֶךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ בַּדֶּרֶךְ אֵלֵךְ לֹא אָסוּר יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאול. ב:כח אֹכֶל בַּכֶּסֶף תַּשְׁבִּרֵנִי וְאָכַלְתִּי וּמַיִם בַּכֶּסֶף תִּתֶּן לִי וְשָׁתִיתִי רַק אֶעְבְּרָה בְרַגְלָי. ב:כט כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ לִי בְּנֵי עֵשָׂו הַיֹּשְׁבִים בְּשֵׂעִיר וְהַמּוֹאָבִים הַיֹּשְׁבִים בְּעָר עַד אֲשֶׁר אֶעֱבֹר אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ נֹתֵן לָנוּ.
Deut 2:27 Let me pass through your country. I will keep strictly to the highway, turning off neither to the right nor to the left. 2:28 What food I eat you will supply for money, and what water I drink you will furnish for money; just let me pass through—2:29 as the descendants of Esau who dwell in Seir did for me, and the Moabites who dwell in Ar—until I cross the Jordan into the land that YHWH our God is giving us.” 
This shows that Ar is an area of Moab in the east, which overlaps with the wilderness area, and that it was inhabited, albeit sparsely (no cities, just shepherds).
Regular Moabites and Moabites from Ar
The division of Moab into districts is helpful in solving a sticky problem within Deuteronomy itself. As we have just seen, Deuteronomy 2 tells that Israel bought food and water from the Moabites, and this is what they are requesting from Sihon king of the Amorites as well. And yet, in the Deuteronomic law collection, we are told:
דברים כג:ד לֹא יָבֹא עַמּוֹנִי וּמוֹאָבִי בִּקְהַל יְ־הוָה גַּם דּוֹר עֲשִׂירִי לֹא יָבֹא לָהֶם בִּקְהַל יְ־הוָה עַד עוֹלָם. כג:ה עַל דְּבַר אֲשֶׁר לֹא קִדְּמוּ אֶתְכֶם בַּלֶּחֶם וּבַמַּיִם בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם...
Deut 23:4 No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of YHWH; none of their descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of YHWH, 23:5 because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt…
This picture fits with Jephthah’s claim that Moab did not even allow Israel to pass through their territory at all:
שופטים יא:יז וַיִּשְׁלַח יִשְׂרָאֵל מַלְאָכִים אֶל מֶלֶךְ אֱדוֹם לֵאמֹר אֶעְבְּרָה נָּא בְאַרְצֶךָ וְלֹא שָׁמַע מֶלֶךְ אֱדוֹם וְגַם אֶל מֶלֶךְ מוֹאָב שָׁלַח וְלֹא אָבָה וַיֵּשֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקָדֵשׁ. יא:יח וַיֵּלֶךְ בַּמִּדְבָּר וַיָּסָב אֶת אֶרֶץ אֱדוֹם וְאֶת אֶרֶץ מוֹאָב וַיָּבֹא מִמִּזְרַח שֶׁמֶשׁ לְאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב וַיַּחֲנוּן בְּעֵבֶר אַרְנוֹן וְלֹא בָאוּ בִּגְבוּל מוֹאָב כִּי אַרְנוֹן גְּבוּל מוֹאָב.
Judg 11:17 Israel then sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, “Allow us to cross your country.” But the king of Edom would not consent. They also sent a mission to the king of Moab, and he refused. So Israel, after staying at Kadesh, 11:18 traveled on through the wilderness, skirting the land of Edom and the land of Moab. They kept to the east of the land of Moab until they encamped on the other side of the Arnon; and, since Moab ends at the Arnon, they never entered Moabite territory.
Jephthah’s point here is to counter the claim of the king of Ammon that Israel had appropriated Moabite land. To this, Jephthah replies: Israel was rebuffed by Moab and never even entered their territory. But how does this square with Deuteronomy 2?
The Deuteronomist is making a sharp distinction between Moab proper and the inhabitants of Ar. It is the king of Moab and the people of the western, urban part of Moab, who refuse the Israelites passage and even food and water. Nevertheless, when the Israelites, to avoid fighting with the Moabites, decide to travel on the Wilderness Highway instead of the King’s Highway, the pastoralists in Ar, who in some sense are not “real” Moabites, sell Israel food and water, and the Israelites, in return, make sure not to molest them in any way, as per YHWH’s command.
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Dr. David Ben-Gad HaCohen (Dudu Cohen) has a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from the Hebrew University. His dissertation is titled, Kadesh in the Pentateuchal Narratives, and deals with issues of biblical criticism and historical geography. Dudu has been a licensed Israeli guide since 1972. He conducts tours in Israel as well as Jordan.
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