Exactly who were the Nabateans? I bring up the question because of two passages that are found in the New Testament; one that concerns some costly perfumed oil and one that concerns a man by the name of Aretas. Let’s take a look:
Now when Yeshua was in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper (more likely, Shimon the jar‐maker), a woman came up to him with an alabaster jar of costly perfumed oil, and poured it on his head while he was reclining at table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant and said, “Why this waste? It could have been sold for much, and the money given to the poor.” (Mattityahu 26:7‐8)
At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas guarded the city of Damascus, in order to seize me, but I was lowered in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands. (2 Corinthians 11:28)
The Nabateans were an Arab pastoral tribe associated with Kedar (Isaiah 60:7). The theory is that they are down line descendants of the sons of Ishmael, as recorded in Genesis 25:13‐16 and Genesis 37:25
“…and these are the names of the sons of Ishmael, by their names, in the order of their birth: Nebaioth, the first‐born of Ishmael, and Kedar and Adbeel and Mibsam and Mishma and Dumah and Massa, Hadad and Tema, Jetur, Naphish and Kedemah. These are the sons of Ishmael and these are their names, by their villages, and by their camps; twelve princes according to their tribes.”
“…Then they (Joseph’s brothers) sat down to eat a meal. And as they raised their eyes and looked, behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites was coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing aromatic gum and balm and myrrh, on their way to bring them down to Egypt.”
Historically, we know that the Nabateans had kings like Aretas IV – the Nabatean mentioned in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 11:28) in regards to Sha’ul (Paul). They also had an army. But apart from this, we have no written history from them and in fact, we really don’t know much at all about them and anything that we think we know; it is speculation. For sure, they were not Bedouin, as much as some would like to call them that. According to Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, the Nabateans were great builders and King Herod (whose mother’s name was Kypros, a Nabatean) did in fact, use Nabatean builders in his grandiose building projects.
By the time that Herod, King of Judea (Matt. 2) comes into the historical record of Israel, spice trade between southern Arabia and world markets via the Mediterranean was already well established. From the writings of Roman historian Pliny the Elder, he used to say that alabaster jars were the best container to preserve incense resins, from say, Frankincense trees or any number of other resins transported from southern Arabia. Keep this in mind when reading Matthew 26:7‐8 –
“…a woman came up to him with an alabaster jar of costly perfumed oil.”
This costly perfumed oil was likely a product sold by the Nabateans. They used oils, such as from olives, and scented it with certain resins. Out of this manufacturing process, they made very costly perfumes. These mixtures were used daily to anoint idols in the pagan cultures. We know this from Egyptian and Greek sources. They were also used as deodorants; even medicinally. Their products were very popular and demand for their use was high and the associated profits, quite significant. Essentially, their business was to create a market for Arabian spices to meet the demands of the Roman world of their day.
Transporting the costly perfumes and spices was another matter entirely. The Nabateans traveled very specific routes primarily through the Negev of the Land of Israel using camel trains. These “ships of the desert” were essentially the “bank transport vehicles” of the time; loaded down with all kinds of costly products that were being shipped to international markets. One of their camels could comfortably carry 150 kilo (about 330 pounds). Add the costs of sea transport, customs and the profits later taken by Roman merchants, the price of a pound of top‐quality incense in Rome could fetch 6 denarii (more than two weeks’ wages!). The incense carried by each camel, in other words, would have earned them about 2,000 denarii in Rome. Of course, a lot of that went to the Nabateans and it gave them enough of a margin to build their vast kingdom and their prosperity. Once again, this passage of Mattityahu (Matthew) 26:7‐8 gives us a better of idea of why Yeshua’s disciples were so upset about the situation:
“…a woman came up to him with an alabaster jar of costly perfumed oil, and poured it on his head while he was reclining at table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant and said, “Why this waste? It could have been sold for much, and the money given to the poor.”
Archaeologists have discovered in many places of the Roman Empire, specialized bottles that were made in Petra. Again, for the Nabateans, this was big money and big money can naturally attract some that want to control the money, and the trade! Enter: Herod, King of Judea, Cleopatra of Egypt, Marc Antony and Octavian (“Augustus”) of Rome. These people each had financial interests in the spice and perfume market. For “Herod the Great” this was especially significant, because it made him very wealthy and further, he did not have to share any of his gains with Rome in the form of taxes! And Herod beautified the city of Jerusalem and was a master architect and builder when it came to constructing lasting monuments to his name, not only in Jerusalem with the building of the Temple Mount, but also palaces and structures of all shapes and sizes in places like Herodium, Jericho, Caesarea, Alexandrium, Sabastia, and numerous other locations in the Land of Israel. So, the Jewish people benefited from his building projects; and with Herod, money did not seem to be an issue.
Before Herod, there was the Jewish ruler Alexander, who was also called Yanneus. He saw that the Nabateans were crossing the Negev (territory under his control) from Petra to Gaza and then saw the Nabateans exporting their valuables on boats bound for other parts of the world. So, he realized an opportunity to make a horde of money by putting some export controls in place at the port of Gaza and thus, started collecting money on all the Nabatean export! But this is another story entirely.
The Nabateans with their camel trains, traveling for weeks and months through the sometimes harsh desert regions of the Negev, needed water, of course. From Petra in today’s Jordan via Moa, Mamsis, and Avdat to the Gaza port of today’s Israel, the desert regions could be very inhospitable! As a result, these merchants not only knew where the water sources were located (and kept that information secret) but they also built a number of “fill‐up” stations all along the way, based on a day’s walk. These way stations were called Caravansarai or Khans. At each of these desert stations, there was water, food, and shelter.
In 106 CE, Roman Emperor Trajan annexed the Negev for Rome and the Nabateans were then made to become part of a Roman sub section of Palestina; a part of the Roman Empire as its subjects, and they had to pay more taxes than in previous years, digging deeper into their profits and their wealth. For centuries after this annexation of the Negev in 106 C.E., these Khans or way stations still remained in use and their cities were actually populated until the tenth century C.E. During the third and fourth centuries CE, the Nabateans accepted Byzantine Christianity as their religion and built big churches in all their cities. However, their doctrines remained theologically entrenched in syncretism. In traveling through the Negev on some of our study tours, there are plenty of interesting, and I might add, well‐preserved sites to see this important bygone era of Eretz Israel’s history (some biblical and some historical from the 10th century BCE to the late Roman period). One particular day when I was traveling to one of the Nabatean way stations – Moa, there happened to be a very nasty sandstorm. In Hebrew, we call them by the term “Chamsin.” They usually blow into Israel every spring from the desert areas of the east and produce “mud rain.” On this particular day on trying to visit the Nabatean Moa, you can see that it was very bad. But what is more interesting is that the IDF had a reconnaissance aircraft flying above the weather and happened to capture some images of the storm.