In Numbers 31 and 32, the action takes place east of the Jordan River basin. In Numbers 31, Israel takes revenge on the Midianites, killing five kings of Midian and Bilaam ben Beor. In Numbers 32, the tribes of Reuben and Gad request to stay east of the Jordan, as the land was suitable for their livestock. Moses agreed to the arrangement provided those tribes contributed fighters to the anticipated invasion of Canaan. “Then Moses gave to the Gadites, the Reubenites and the half-tribe of Manasseh son of Joseph the kingdom of Sihon king of the Amorites and the kingdom of Og king of Bashan, the whole land with its cities and the territory around them. The Gadites built up Dibon, Ataroth, Aroer, Atroth Shophan, Jazer, Jogbehah, Beth Nimrah and Beth Haran as fortified cities, and built pens for their flocks. And the Reubenites rebuilt Heshbon, Elealeh and Kiriathaim, as well as Nebo and Baal Meon (these names were changed) and Sibmah. They gave names to the cities they rebuilt. The descendants of Makir son of Manasseh went to Gilead, captured it and drove out the Amorites who were there. So Moses gave Gilead to the Makirites, the descendants of Manasseh, and they settled there. Jair, a descendant of Manasseh, captured their settlements and called them Havvoth Jair. And Nobah captured Kenath and its surrounding settlements and called it Nobah after himself.”
In 2 Kings 3, the kings of Israel and Judah were called back to this land, to suppress a revolt by King Mesha of Moab. They entered through the Desert of Edom and at the outset succeeded in battle. However, as the chapter finishes it appears to show a reversal. “When the king of Moab saw that the battle had gone against him, he took with him seven hundred swordsmen to break through to the king of Edom, but they failed. Then he took his firstborn son, who was to succeed him as king, and offered him as a sacrifice on the city wall. The fury against Israel was great; they withdrew and returned to their own land.”
In Numbers 32, some of the areas that the Reuben and Gad request are “Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo and Beon.” In the Mesha Stele, the Moabite king records that “the men of Gad dwelled in the country of Ataroth from ancient times, and the king of Israel fortified Ataroth. I assaulted the wall and captured it, and killed all the warriors of the city for the well-pleasing of Chemosh and Moab, and I removed from it all the spoil, and offered it before Chemosh in Kirjath; and I placed therein the men of Siran, and the men of Mochrath.”
Khirbat Ataruz is an archaeological site located 15 miles southwest of Madaba, a city east of the northern edge of the Dead Sea. Based on name and location, the site is identified as ancient Ataroth.
At Khirbat Ataruz, archaeologists discovered an inscription on a stone altar pedestal. Based on stratigraphy, the stone altar would be dated to roughly the 9th century BCE. The inscription is written in the distinctive Moabite language and script and appear to refer to “scattered foreigners.” It is unclear if this is referring to the event recorded in the Bible and in the Mesha Stele, but the fact that the language and script are both Moabite is perhaps another indication that the Moabites eventually held this city.
The image above is a sample of an altar stand.