Balaam and the Text at Deir Alla

According to the Hebrew Bible, Balaam a non-Israelite prophet, had been summoned by the king of Moab to curse the Israelites, who were marching through Transjordan into the land of Canaan. Through God’s intervention Balaam was obliged to bless the Israelites rather than to curse them.

In rabbinic literature Balaam son of Beor is represented as one of seven gentile prophets; the other six being Beor (Balaam’s father), Job, and Job’s four friends (Talmud, Baba Batra 15b).

Balaam is a major religious functionary in the Transjordan region. For centuries that was about all we knew until our modern age when a archeological discovery helped us fill in several more details regarding this mysterious figure.

An ancient text was discovered at Deir Alla, Jordan, in 1967 regarding the activities of a seer of the gods named Balaam. There is no doubt as to the identity of this Balaam. Three times in the first four lines of this ancient text he is referred to as “Balaam son of Beor,” exactly as in the Bible. The text represents the first prophecy of any scope from the ancient West Semitic world to be found outside the Old Testament, and the first extra-Biblical example of a prophet proclaiming doom to his own people.

The Deir Alla site is very ancient. The site of  is on the Ammonite side of the river Jabbok. During the 1964 season of excavations a Hyksos scarab was discovered in a storeroom adjacent of the Late-Bronze-Age temple on the site, along with eleven clay tablets from the floors of two storerooms, Rooms IX and X, referencing Pitom Egypt of Exodus 1:1, a store city built by the Israelites.

The fascinating text consists of 119 fragments of plaster inscribed with black and red ink. It was among the rubble of a building destroyed in an earthquake. It seems to have been one long column with at least 50 lines, displayed on a plastered wall. According to the excavators’ dating, the disaster was most likely the severe earthquake which occurred in the time of King Uzziah (Azariah) and the prophet Amos in about 760 BC (Amos 1:1; Zec 14:5). The lower part of the text shows signs of wear, indicating that it had been on the wall for some time prior to the earthquake.

From Deuteronomy 27:2-4 we learn that the children of Israel were to set up stone monuments in Mount Ebal when they inherited the land of Canaan.  They were to overlay them with plaster. In the plaster was to be inscribed the words of the Torah. This passage reflects a custom of monument-making which was frequent in the ancient East.

Balaam the Sorcerer
The Deir Alla text presents a problem for biblical sceptics who believe the Exodus, Wilderness Wanderings and Conquest are legendary, as is the trend in scholarship today. It is clear that Balaam was a real person who operated on the east side of the Jordan river. He was known as a cursing prophet and continued to be revered hundreds of years after his death. His persona as revealed in the Deir Alla text precisely matches that of the Balaam of Numbers 22-24. In the Deir Alla text he is a high ranking functionary, – He summoned the heads of the assembly to him… his intimates entered into his presence, possibly making him a high priest or other notable. Jewish mystic tradition  holds that Balaam was a Sorcerer of the Black Arts. The text makes it clear that Balaam was a representative of Ishtar and a god named Shagar. This explains why the Israelites felt compelled to kill Balaam (Numbers 31).

There are a number of similarities between the text and the account of Balaam in the Book of Numbers. To begin with, the events described in Numbers 22-24 took place in the same general area where the text was found. At the time of the Numbers 22-24 incident, the Israelites were camped on the Plains of Moab, across the Jordan river from Jericho. Deir Alla is located about 25 miles north of this area, where the Jabbok river flows into the Jordan valley. Balaam was, according to the Torah,  from Pethor, near “the river” (Num 22:5), in “Aram” (Num 23:7; Dt 23:4). Most scholars have concluded, based on this passage, that Balaam was from northern Syria, in the vicinity of the Euphrates river. However, William Shea has proposed, based on his reading of the name Pethor in an inscribed clay tablet found at Deir Alla (1989:108-11), that his home was in Deir Alla. In this case, the river of Numbers 22:5 would be the Jabbok river and the naharaim (two rivers) of Deuteronomy 23:4 would be the Jabbok and Jordan rivers.

With regard to the references to Aram, ancient Aram had a border on the Jabbok River. Jewish tradition tells us that Balaam was related to Laban the Aramean.

Written in Aramaic, the Deir Alla text begins with the title Warnings from the Book of Balaam the son of Beor. He was a Chozeh Elohim. Chozeh means seer and Elohim can be referring to one god or to gods in the plural. It is in red ink, as are other portions of the text where emphasis is desired. The reference to the Book of Balaam indicates that the text was part of a pre-existing document and therefore the original date of the material is much earlier than the plaster text itself. Balaam goes on to relate a vision concerning impending judgment from the gods, and enters into a dispute with his listeners.

Balaam evidently was well known as a cursing prophet, for Balak specifically summoned Balaam for the purpose of cursing Israel (Num 22:6). Much of the Deir Alla text was given to curses uttered by the prophet.

Reconstruction of the text shows that Balaam learns from the gods that the world will be destroyed, an apocalyptic event. The text refers to divine visions and signs of a future destruction, in a language that is close to that of the Torah. The term “shaddai-gods” is used on two occasions in the text. Shaddai is one of the names for God in the Old Testament, used mainly in the book of Job. Since the account of Job is set in Aram/Transjordan (Job 1:1-3), it seems that Shaddai was a name used for deity in this region. Balaam used the name twice in his blessing speeches where it is translated Almighty (Num 24:4, 16).

The text references The gods have banded together, The Shaddai gods have established a council, which closely matches the Divine Council of Psalm 82 and the council of the gods legend of the surrounding peoples, notably in Ugarit. Also within the text is the phrase El Builds a Necropolis, which is an obvious reference to the Giza plateau which is known as a city of the dead which supposedly houses the tomb of Osiris. This in fact is what many people now believe – that the ancient structures, such as the Giza pyramid, the Abyddos complex and other sites were built by the gods.

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