The non-Israelite prophet Balaam is mentioned a number of times throughout the Bible (Numbers 22–24, 31:8, 16; Deuteronomy 23:4, 5; Joshua 13:22; 24:9, 10; Nehemiah 13:2; Micah 6:5; 2 Peter 2:15; Jude 11; and Revelation 2:14). In Numbers 22, Balaam was summoned by Balak, the king of Moab, to curse the Israelites, who were camped on the east side of the Jordan river about to make their historic entry into the promised land. But through God’s intervention Balaam was obliged to bless the Israelites rather than curse them (Numbers 22–24). Shortly thereafter, Balaam was killed when Moses sent the Israelites against the Midianites (Numbers 31).
Balaam seems to have been the cause of the Israelites’ sin in Numbers 25 when they took Moabite women and worshipped the Moabite god Baal-Peor. This is indicated by Moses after the defeat of the Midianites in Numbers 31, when he said of the Midianite women, “Behold these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor.” Balaam is further condemned in scripture in 2 Peter 2:15 (he loved the wages of unrighteousness), Jude 11 (ungodly men ran greedily after the error of Balaam for reward) and Revelation 2:14 (he taught Balak to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication).
In an unprecedented discovery, an ancient text found in Deir Alla, Jordan, in 1967 tells about the activities of a prophet named Balaam. Not only is this text important because it apparently is
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about an Old Testament figure, but also because it represents the first prophecy of any scope from the ancient West Semitic World to be found outside the Old Testament. The responsiblity for translating the text is in the hands of Jacob Hoftijzer of the State University of Leiden, the Netherlands. He first made the contents of the text public in a report (in Dutch) to the Oriental Society in the Netherlands in 1973. Recently, an English translation of his report has been made available (see the reference at the end of the article).
The text was written in ink on a plaster surface which was probably part of an object in the shape of a stele (an upright stone slab). The language is Aramaic which, based on its characteristics. Dr. Hoftijzer dates to about 700 B.C. Fragments bearing the inscription were found outside a building thought to be a sanctuary. They no doubt ended up here as the result of an earthquake which toppled the building in antiquity. A fire caused by the earthquake damaged a portion of the plaster and those fragments which survived the fire are greatly damaged because of the surrounding conditions.
In attempting to assemble his complex jig-saw puzzle (one with many missing pieces, at that!), Dr. Hoftijzer has divided the fragments into twelve “fragment-combinations” (aside from a small group which cannot be fitted in anywhere). Of these fragment-combinations, two are central; they are referred to as the “first combination” and the “second combination.” Their importance lies in the fact that they contain the greatest quantity of text and that all the remaining combinations can be located with respect to either of the two.
The first combination contains a prophecy in the name of the prophet Balaam. At the beginning of the prophecy, there is a sort of title, which is unfortunately preserved only in part. In this, Balaam is named seer of the gods. The story is told of the gods appearing to him in the night with the central deity (probably a goddess) speaking to him. Then follows a description of Balaam’s reaction: the following morning he gets up weeping. This attracts the attention of others, and under the leadership of an uncle, people go to him and ask him what is the matter. At this point he does not give a word-for-word reproduction of the message of the goddess, who had threatened to destroy the land (?) with fire. Rather, he outlines the situation in much greater detail, employing his own images, and he inserts appeals to repentance. He depicts an assembly of the gods, at which the gods attempt to make the goddess change her mind. In the fragments
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A portion of the “second combination” of the Deir Alla text.
that remain (a good many!) there is no reference to fire, but there is a request not to break the bolts of heaven (?), evidently a request not to let a sort of deluge take place; and, beyond this, a request not to envelop the world (or the land) in darkness. Further, there is a description here of many animals, particularly a large number of birds, which are known in the Old Testament (and elsewhere) as symbols of destruction. Some appeals to repentance then follow.
The second combination contains —so far as it is intelligible — a series of curses. The curses appear to have been uttered by Balaam with reference to some specific remarks (not preserved) of his audience. It is plain that the grevious curses which he utters have not been to the liking of his hearers. They reproach him for stupidity and ignorance (which reproach often carries a hint of depravity): he has taken a poisonous word (or a curseword?) on his tongue. They intend to judge him. Though it is plain that discord has reached a high pitch, one gets the impression that everything ultimately has ended in peace and concord once more.
The words by which his hearers reject Balaam’s curse-speech (or at least the beginning of them) are written in red ink instead of
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black ink. Also written in red ink are the title, important turns in the story, the superscription above the prophecy, and the beginning of the words of the goddess.
The first question that comes to mind regarding this text is, is this the same Balaam as in the Old Testament or simply another prophet using the same name? Dr. Hoftijzer believes that there is only one Balaam. He refers to the text as “a prophecy in the name of the prophet Balaam, the son of Beor, known in the Old Testament.”
There is a wide divergency, however, between the date of the Deir Alla text and the date of the Balaam in the book of Numbers. Based on a conservative chronology, the events in Numbers took place around 1400 B.C., whereas Dr. Hoftijzer dates the Deir Alla text to about 700 B.C. But it is possible that Balaam was highly revered as a holy man in Transjordan and that his words were preserved down through the centuries.
On the other hand, there are several interesting similarities between the Deir Alla text and the activities 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 poised on the east bank of the Jordan river, in the plains of Moab, ready to cross and attack Jericho. Deir Alla is located only about 25 miles north of the plains of Moab.
Balaam was evidently well known as a “cursing prophet,” for Balak, king of Moab, specifically summoned Balaam for the purpose of cursing Israel (Numbers 22:6). Much of the Deir Alla text was given to Balaam’s curses.
Dr. Hoftijzer points out that the gods who question the goddess at the divine assembly are called s̆dyn, a word which can be rendered as “Shadday-gods.” Shadday is one of the names used for God in the Old Testament, although it is used rarely outside of the book of Job. But Balaam uses this word twice in his blessing speeches, in Numbers 24:4 and 24:16, where it is translated Almightly.
These similarities tend to support Dr. Hoftijzer’s contention that the Balaam of the Deir Alla text is the same as the Balaam of the Old Testament.
(“The Prophet Balaam in a 6th [sic] century Aramaic Inscription,” by Jacob Hoftijzer, in the Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 39, No. 1 (March 1976), pp. 11-17.)
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