A Waterless Place

If Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon, had somehow won the war with the Medes and Persians, Mesopotamians would naturally have credited the gods for the deliverance of Babylon. Instead, Babylon fell without a fight a few days after the Chaldean army was beaten at the Battle of Opis, which was fought at a strategic site on the Tigris River about fifty miles north of modern Baghdad. This dropped a magnificent propaganda opportunity into the Persian king’s lap: Cyrus scored major PR points with his new subjects by returning their gods to their home cities, no doubt to the relief of a conquered people who felt spiritually naked without their patron deities. Then Cyrus poured it on by accusing “the deposed king (Nabonidus) with having brought them to the capital against their will.”[1]

In other words, Cyrus took advantage of Nabonidus’ desperate effort to line up divine protection to show how he, the great and beneficent Cyrus, had freed the gods from captivity and sent them home.

Jews and Christians, here’s a key point: The decree of Cyrus that sent the Jewish exiles home in 538 BC was no doubt part of this propaganda campaign. In his mind, Cyrus allowed Yahweh to return to Jerusalem!

But that doesn’t matter. Remember, God knew this would happen. And He had revealed it to Isaiah more than a century earlier.

What was the result of Nabonidus’ long sojourn in the desert? The king lived a long way from Babylon, at the oasis of Tayma in what is today northwestern Saudi Arabia, between about 553 BC and 543 BC. Scholars are divided on whether he was there to personally oversee Babylon’s control of the profitable spice trade or just seeking prophecies from the moon-god.

If you’ve ever been to the land that was once called Edom, the area southeast of the Dead Sea in present-day Jordan, you can be forgiven for wondering why anyone in their right mind would move there, especially the king of one of the most powerful nations on earth. Edom is well-named; it means “red,” and the rocks and sand of Edom certainly are that.

Tayma, however, is a well-watered oasis that’s been occupied for thousands of years. Nabonidus recognized its strategic value; Tayma sits at the north end of the spice road, an ancient caravan trail that ran along the east side of the Red Sea. In the days before reliable sea travel, caravans were the most economical way to transport the valuable spices from southern Arabia, especially after domesticated camels were introduced to the region around 1400 BC.[2] The frankincense and myrrh brought to Jesus by the Magi were probably carried by camel through Tayma, which was on the route that branched northeast toward Babylon and Persia.

The wealth produced by this valuable trade route financed the powerful kingdom of the Nabataean Arabs, which emerged in the second century BC and carved the fabulous city of Petra out of the red sandstone of Edom. Nabataean sites keep archaeologists busy to this day. The Saudi government, seeing an opportunity, is spending billions of dollars to develop Al-Ula, the wealthy biblical kingdom of Dedan mentioned by Jeremiah and Ezekiel, into a tourist site to rival Petra in Jordan.[3]

Like all good politicians, Nabonidus recognized a big source of revenue when he saw one. So, around 551 BC, he moved to take control of the three key north Arabian oases along the caravan route: Tayma, Dedan, and Dumah.

First, the king had to break the power of Edom, which controlled the routes to the port at Gaza and had extended its authority as far south as Tayma. Scholars date the destruction of Edom’s largest city, Bozrah, to the time of Nabonidus’ campaign,[4] which was apparently a prelude to setting up shop at Tayma.[5]

Teman, a placename that refers to Edom in the Bible (Amos 1:12 and Habakkuk 3:3), may be one and the same as Tayma.[6] This suggests that ancient Edom extended much farther south in the days of the prophets than is shown on most Bible atlases. It would explain why Nabonidus destroyed Bozrah before moving on to Tayma, Dedan, and Dumah.

Bad Moon Rising

It also adds a layer of meaning to the verse in Habakkuk. If Teman was Tayma, then it was linked to Mount Sinai by the prophet, who called Sinai by its alternate name, Paran. That means Tayma was a center of the cult of Sîn for about a thousand years before Nabonidus made it his base of operations.

While Nabonidus was at the oasis, it’s a good bet that the moon-god was the main deity of the local pantheon. After the fall of Babylon in 539 BC, the chief god was Salm or Salam, the sun-god.[7] During the Persian period that followed, Salm was depicted as a bull, sometimes with a solar disc between his horns. On a stela found at the oasis in 1877, Salm was described as one of “the gods of Tayma” alongside Ashima, possibly equated with Ishtar/Astarte, and Sangila, a deity whose name may derive from Sîn, the moon-god. No surprise there; we noted earlier that the sun, moon, and Venus (Ishtar) were commonly worshiped together as an astral triad in Mesopotamia.

Getting a handle on the rest of the gods of Arabia between the fall of Babylon and the rise of Islam in the early seventh century AD is a challenge. Trying to pin down precise one-to-one correlations across times, places, and tribes is an exercise in frustration. For our purposes, the best approach is to draw some general conclusions.

It appears there were several deities that were most prominent throughout Arabia, although they were worshiped under different names. The other oases in northern Arabia, Dedan and Dumah worshiped a pantheon headed by Attarshamain, the “queen of heaven.”[8] The name of the goddess is a composite: Attar + shamain (“Attar of the skies”);[9] in other words, she was the Canaanite Astarte and Babylonian Ishtar by a slightly different name.

Dedan, seventy miles southwest of Tayma, was the center of a tribal confederacy that included the powerful Qedarites, a tribe named for Kedar, son of Ishmael.[10] Attarshamain, represented by the planet Venus, was part of an astral triad with Nuhā and Rudāʾu, the sun-god and moon-god.[11]

In southern Arabia, modern-day Yemen and Oman, over one hundred deities have been attested but only one was worshiped throughout the region—the war-god Athtar, the male aspect of the dualistic Canaanite god/dess Astarte/Attar.[12] Other important south Arabian gods included the moon-god Syn or Sayin (a variant of Sîn); Wadd, another name for the moon-god; the sun-goddess Shams (variant of Shapash, the Ugaritic version of Shamash, the sun-god); ʿAmm (“paternal uncle”), a god whose name suggests ancestor worship; and a trio of goddesses named al-Lāt (“the goddess”), al-ʿUzzā (“the most powerful”), and Manāt.[13] Scholars are divided on the origins of those three, other than to note that they appear to have been brought to Arabia in the second century BC.[14]

We’re painting with a broad brush here. To draw a general conclusion: As we look at the religions of Arabia in the eleven hundred years or so between the fall of Babylon in 539 BC and the rise of Islam in the AD 620s, the deities who survived were the old Mesopotamian astral triad—sun, moon, and Venus—and the male aspect of Astarte, the war-god Athtar. Remember, we noted in a previous article that Astarte/Athtar may have been seen as separate entities as early as the ninth century BC, with the war-god identity linked to Moab’s national deity, the ancient war-god Chemosh.

But there is one more conclusion we can draw that seems solidly grounded in history: While the worship of Jesus Christ spread widely in the centuries after the Resurrection, reaching as far east as China and as far west as Britain, there is one land frequently mentioned in the Bible where Christianity never gained a firm foothold—Arabia.

Extrapolating from that bit of history, we offer this theory: The gods of the ancient world, stunned and alarmed by the Resurrection, withdrew, like the unclean spirit of Matthew 12:43–45, to a waterless place—Arabia.

And there they planned their counterstrike.

[1] Ibid., 243.

[2] “Subsistence Pastoralism,” Near Eastern Archaeology: A Reader. Susanne Richard (ed.) (Winona Lake, In.: Eisenbrauns, 2003), 120–121.

[3] Neil King, “Saudi Crown Prince Launches Tourism Mega-project in Al Ula.” Gulf Business (Feb. 11, 2019), https://gulfbusiness.com/saudi-crown-prince-launches-tourism-mega-project-al-ula/, retrieved 2/12/19.

[4] Bradley L. Crowell, “Nabonidus, as-Silaʿ, and the Beginning of the End of Edom.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 348 (2007), 75–88.

[5] The conquest of Edom by Nabonidus may have fulfilled prophecies of its destruction in Isaiah 36:5–17 and Amos 1:11–12.

[6] Brand, C., Draper, C., England, A., Bond, S., Clendenen, E. R., & Butler, T. C. (Eds.). “Teman.” Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 1560.

[7] Wenning, op. cit., 336. Note that scholars don’t all agree on this point; some believe Salm was the moon-god (which would be consistent with the bull imagery from ancient Mesopotamia) and Sangila was the sun-god.

[8] Ibid., 335–336.

[9] Eric M. Orlin, The Routledge Encyclopedia of Ancient Mediterranean Religions (New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2016).

[10] Genesis 25:13.

[11] Wenning, op. cit., 336.

[12] D. T. Potts, “The Arabian Peninsula, 600 BCE to 600 CE.” Coinage of the Caravan Kingdoms (New York: The American Numismatic Society, 2010), 42.

[13] Christian Julien Robin, “Religions in Pre-Islamic South Arabia.” Encyclopedia of the Quran, Volume Five.Jane McAuliffe (ed.) (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2006), 86–87.

[14] Ibid., 87.


  1. Derek:
    Great article and info. This period and place is of particular interest to me and my writing on Moses as he fled from Egypt Arabia.
    Are any of the oases you mentioned Al Bad by a different name? Or was it farther south than the 3 you mentioned? Of course, I take Jabel al Lawz to be Mount Sinai in Arabia as does Joel Richardson.

    I love following your and Sharon’s ministry and writing. So thankful you were able to go to Israel and make it home. I look forward to another “travelogue DVD” as I have your previous ones.

    Continued Blessings to you both!

    Pastor Ruth

  2. Wowzers is all i can say
    The many layers r mind blowing
    No wonder God is allowing
    Elijah and Enoch or it moses to stand before him
    Elijah comes back before the great and terrible day of the Lord.
    Gospel angels
    Never mind seals bowls and trumpets in the book of Revelation
    Unvieling of Christ Jesus
    Our Lord

    Israel needs all the help they can get

    I mean no disrespect but all of this is a nail biter

    I know we win b/c of Jesus Christ blood and righteousness

    But it is a showdown for sure

    Lord keep me from deception and unclean spirits.

    Thank you


  3. Thank you for sharing this! Always enjoy reading.

    Maybe this dovetails nicely with a rabbit hole I found specific to a footnote in Chapter 37 of The Unseen Realm from Michael Heiser, “Daniel 10 and the Notion of Territorial Spirits,” Bibliotheca Sacra 157 (2000): 410-431. The angelic princes are a sociopolitical influence and are not limited to a specific geographic territory. It makes sense of an aggressive counterstrike. Original context for my study is that of the gods in ancient cultures of North America.

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