Ataroth in the Bible

Following yesterday’s post on the discovery of the Moabite temple at Ataroth, I thought it might be helpful to note the biblical significance of this site.  It’s not a very well-known place, but I was
surprised just how much we know from the Bible and extrabiblical sources.

In the time of Moses, Ataroth was one of the cities requested by the tribes of Reuben and Gad following the conquest of the land of Sihon the Amorite (Num 32:3).  You may recall that at first Moses was upset with this request, thinking that they were afraid to enter the Promised Land with its formidable enemies (as was the previous generation).  But after some clarification, Moses granted their request and the Gadites fortified the city (Num 32:34).

The presence of the Gadites at Ataroth is confirmed in the Moabite Stone about 550 years later. King Mesha claims to have conquered the city: “Now the men of Gad hadMesha Stele, Moabite Stone, tb060408127dxo always dwelt in the land of Ataroth, and the king of Israel had built Ataroth for them; but I fought against the town and took it and slew all the people of the town as a satiation (intoxication) for Chemosh and Moab” (ANET 320).

Mesha ruled in the middle of the 9th century, so unless King Uzziah of Judah regained the land, the area around Ataroth may have remained Moabite for several centuries.  Perhaps the recently discovered temple was built in the aftermath of Mesha’s conquest. 

An obscure note in the genealogies of 1 Chronicles may indicate that the Gadites had moved further north by the 8th century (1 Chr 5:17).

Scholarly consensus locates biblical Ataroth at Khirbet Attarus/Ataruz. There is also a Rujm Attarus and a Jebel Attarus. Khirbet Attarus is located 8 miles (14 km) northwest of Dhiban on the west slope of Jebel Attarus. MacDonald gives a list of more than a dozen scholars who agree on this identification (“East of the Jordan,” 113).


Ataroth is east of the Dead Sea and north of the Nahal Arnon, which constituted Moab’s northern border (map from biblos.com)

MacDonald writes, “Khirbat ‘Atarus is a good example for the location of biblical Ataroth, agreeing with both biblical information and the Mesha Inscription. The preservation of the biblical name at the site and archaeological remains from the Iron Age are also evidence for this choice” (114).

MacDonald’s excellent work is available, along with other ASOR titles, in restricted pdf format from Boston University’s website.  (Only viewing is allowed.)

For more on the Hadad figurine discovered in the temple, see Ferrell Jenkins’s post.


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