Midianites were a people dwelling south and east of Palestine, in the desert north of the Arabian Peninsula. The most accurate accounts of Midian are Biblical. Midian was the fourth son of Abraham by Keturah (Genesis 25:1, 2), apparently one of the children shipped to the east with gifts from Abraham so not to interfere with Isaac. According to the Arab account by El, Makreezee, Khitat, “Medyen are the offspring of Shu’yeb, and are the offspring of Medyan (Midian), the son of Abraham, and their mother Kantoora, the daughter of Yuktan (Joktan), the Canaanite.” “Medyen is the city of the people of Shu’eyb,” who is “generally supposed to be the same name as Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses,” though some deny it.
In the time of Joseph the Midianites were so closely associated with some Ismaelites that it is difficult to define their relationship; perhaps they were a group of Midianite merchantmen in an Ishmaelite caravan (Genesis 37:25, 27, 28, 36). In all likelihood the descendants of Ishmael
and Midian, as well as the other exiled children of Abraham, intermarried. In Judges 8:24 the Midianite appear to be called Ishmaelites. But, perhaps this latter term came to be applied to that particular type of trader, just as the term Canaanite came to mean merchant.
In the land of Midian was where the young Moses fled after killing and Egyptian task-master, a crime for which he knew the Pharaoh would sentence him to death (Genesis 2:15, sq.). He became a shepherd for the priest Jethro whose daughter he later married. It was at Horeb, in the peninsula of Sinai (Exodus 3:11) that Moses received the call to lead his people out of captivity. However, in all probability the true land of Midian, according to the Arabians and Greeks was on the Arabian side of the Arabian Gulf, where the city of Midian was situated, and the peninsula previously mentioned was just a temporary station for pasturage, unless the land was more fertile than it is now.
Midian is next seen in the time of Balaam, when Balak, son of Zipor, ruled Moab and confers with the Midianite leader concerning the Israelites. As a result Balaam is sent for (Numbers 23, 24). The relations between the Moabites, Midianites and Israelites are described in Numbers 25, 31:1-16. Balaam sides with the Midianites and perishes.
The Midianites next appear (Judges 6:1-8, 21) as joining the Amalekites and others against the Israelites. They had transformed themselves into camel-riding nomads; apparently they were the first people to domesticate the camel on a large scale, which gave them greatly increased desert mobility. They chose to attack the Israelites when the harvest was ripe, “like grasshoppers” and destroying “the increase of the earth.” This is the final mentioning of the Midianites in scripture (Judges 6:1-8, 28), as it is the story of a mob, formidable its numbers and its hunger. The people were no longer a source of terror.
It is thought that from the beginning the Midianites and Ishmaelites intermarried, roaming the northern part of the Arabian Desert. With their final absorption they were generally known as Arabs. A.G.H.
Unger, Merrill F., Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Chicago, Moody Press, 1966, pp. 729-730