The Jews had a strange love-hate story with the Midians. The Midians cursed the Jews in Num 22, but heavily intermingled with them in Num 25.

Midian priests Jethro and Balaam worshiped no one less than God. Moses certainly learned religious practices from Jethro, his father-in-law. The Midians practiced circumcision: in fact, it was not Moses, but rather his Midian wife who circumcised their son.

We don’t know for sure about the Midians’ religious practices. The notion of Jethro being a priest of God rather than some local deity could have appeared to cover Moses marriage to a pagan priest’s daughter. The Torah, however, has no qualms about the patriarchs marrying pagans and Joseph marrying an Egyptian priest’s daughter, so such an editorial alteration is unlikely. The other piece of evidence comes from Balaam. Testifying to folk nature of the story of Balaam inadvertently blessing the Jews instead of cursing them, the Torah relates that the Jews killed him later; no problem with assassinating a hostile priest. The anecdote of Balaam blessing the Jews necessitated his transformation into a prophet of God to give weight to his blessing. That, again, is open to doubt, as the Torah treats pagan curses matter-of-factly, and Balaam’s blessing Jews in the name of a local deity would be no less funny. Overall, strong evidence suggests that the Midians worshipped God.

Jewish law is connected to the Midians. Moses judged people before the law was given on Sinai, and recorded the law for the elders at Jethro’s suggestion. Since he spent his entire adulthood with the Midians, Moses could only have learned that law from them.

Midian and Moab seem to be the same: the Midianites were defeated “in the field of Moab” (Gen 36:35) and cursed Israel together (Num 22:4,7). In Num 25, the account switches abruptly from Moabites to Midians, suggesting they are the same. There is no firm evidence of the allegedly widespread Midian culture, but plenty of archaeological evidence for Moab. The Torah uses the name Midian interchangeably with Moab, and we know that the Moabite language is a carbon copy of Hebrew.

Midian pathfinders led Hebrews through the Sinai steppe, which Jews, arriving from fertile Egypt, could not traverse on their own. Jews heavily associated and intermarried with Midians.
The Egyptian Merneptah stele mentions “YHW in the land of Shasu,” which is the land of Midian. Karnak reliefs differentiate between Shasu and Israelites. It follows that Jews lived for a long time in the land of Shasu Midians, and assimilated much of their habits and beliefs.

The Torah condemns the Midians for no apparent reason: other nations, such as Edom, also did not welcome Jews on their way through Sinai. The fact that the Midians did not welcome Jews to encroach on their land is hardly condemnable. No other nation welcomed Jews, either, then or now, but the marriage prohibition singles out Moabites/Midians. Contrary to Sam Huntington’s idea, most clashes occur between neighbors and culturally similar tribes.

Moses took a Kenyan wife, perhaps in place of the controversial Midian spouse. Aaron and Miriam lashed out at him in connection with the incident, but their reasons remain unknown. They criticized Moses for abandoning his Midian wife. They claimed cryptically that Moses was wrong because God had spoken with them, too. Moses invoked a divine order to divest from the Midians, and Aaron and Miriam protested that they had heard no such order.

Following Moses’ lead, Jews at some point began intermarrying heavily with Midians. The details are murky, but suggest excellent relations between the two nations. To justify later hostilities, the Torah relates an account of Midians hiring the prophet Balaam to curse the Jews. The story is odd: few would be privy to conversations which took place between Midian kind Balak and Balaam. If the Midians were so hostile to Jews, why did they act as indispensable pathfinders and intermarry with them? Straining credibility, the Torah explains intermarriage as a deliberate Midian policy aimed at driving the Jews away from God—which is odd, given that the best Midian prophet sacrificed to God. What is certain is that both nations lived side by side for considerable time, courtesy of Moses’ Midian relatives.

Moses’ authority was not unchallenged. At one point, he had to defend himself by claiming that he received no money or cattle from anyone; the implication here is that some had accused him of corruption. Members of Korah’s rebellion resisted him on political grounds, claiming irregularities in the distribution of priestly offices. Though the Torah speaks of the total destruction of the Korahites, his descendants emerged as prominent priests. Like in the stories of Amalek, Amorites, and many others, the announcement of total annihilation is a hyperbole, perhaps wishful thinking. After a bloody civil conflict with the Korahites, Moses was careful to settle the next trouble amicably.

A zealous Jew named Pinchas went out and killed a nice interfaith family: a nice Jew and a Midian lady of a good standing. There was no prophecy or Sanhedrin decision; he just figured out that interfaith marriage was bad for Jews. Pinchas’ assault on Moses’ authority was very well calculated. Zimri, the intermarried Jew whom Pinchas had killed, challenged Moses. Since Moses possessed a Midian wife himself, he was in no position to criticize Zimri. By killing Zimri, Pinchas positioned himself as more righteous than Moses. The Torah recognizes his trick: in return for the killing, Pinchas received an eternal blessing of peace; the ancients understood that peace comes through zealotry rather than negotiations.

Pinchas’ blessing thus exceeded anything offered to Moses’ descendants, who indeed fell into oblivion—which fact alone testifies to his marriage being problematic. Add that Moses was tongue-tied; he could not speak Hebrew fluently. Add his suspect birth, which seems like a later explanation for his pharaonic upbringing, and Moses looks like an alien to the Jews, a dead-end figure in the biblical narrative.

With Korah war in mind, Moses accepted Pinchas as the chief zealot, and appointed him to lead an exterminatory expedition against the Midians. Naturally Moses wanted no part in in the massacre of his relatives and friends, but he framed Pinchas. When Pinchas spared the Midian women, Moses proved himself more zealous than Pinchas by commanding them to be murdered.

The extermination of the Midians was so important that it became Moses’s last divine assignment on earth. Married to a Midian woman, Moses was commanded to send Pinchas, the anti-Midian zealot, to kill his, Moses’s, own relatives. Still, after the alleged genocide the Midians continued to dwell alongside the Hebrews, and King David’s biography insists on his rather objectionable descent from Midian Moabites. It seems that over generations Jews kept a tradition of regarding Midians as their older brothers, respected hosts, or cultural sources, and thought it appropriate to trace David’s descent to them.