In 1967, a Dutch expedition under the archaeologist H. Franken, after several seasons of excavations, discovered inscriptions on plaster at Tell Deir ʿAlla, a site located about eight kilometers east of the Jordan, not far from the northern bank of the Yabbok/Zerqa river, which flows into the Jordan. The discovery was made in a stratum known as Level IX, dated in the late ninth to eighth centuries B.C.E. In these texts, the name blʿm brbʿr “Balaam, the son of Beor” appears once, fully and legibly, and several more attestations of the name may be restored with certainty.1
In addition to the stratigraphic context, the inscription is dated to ca. 800 BC on the basis of paleography and lingusitics.
The original publishers identified the text as Aramaic, and some scholars still hold to that identification. Others have noted the text’s affinities with (South) Canaanite. The linguistic debate still continues, and may, in fact, show that the division of Semitic languages into Aramaic and Canaanite branches is a concept that needs revision, since the Balaam text clearly shows affinities with both branches. It is clear that the language of the text is archaic, i.e., it conserves many features found in the supposed Northwest Semitic parent language, and a literary language, i.e., formulaic, poetic, and traditional. The script is also unique, but has close affinities with Ammonite.2
The fragmented plaster sections have been pieced together into twelve combinations, only two of which are substantial enough to conjecture a translation. Though Combinations I and II have a number of lacunae, several conclusions can be drawn from the contents. One Balaam son of Beor, who is described as a “seer of the gods”, had a frightening night vision that he shared with his colleagues in the midst of his fasting and grief. He foretells a period of drought and darkness, of mourning and death, and in which the natural order is upended. Small birds like the swift and the sparrow attack larger ones like the eagle and the pigeon; the deaf hear at a distance, and fools have insightful visions. Balaam then perhaps exercises his prophetic-divination expertise to confront or curse the gods and goddesses who have brought on this calamity, and he implores the goddesses Ashtar (consort of Chemosh in Moab) and Sheger (known from Ugarit and Phoenician sources) to bring light, rain, and fertility to the land.3
Baruch Levine offers the following translation of Combination I:4
- The misfortunes of the book of Balaam, the son of Beor; a divine seer is he.
- Then the gods came to him at night, and he beheld a vision in accordance with El’s utterance.
- They said to Balaam, son of Beor:
- “So will be done, with naught surviving;
- “No one has seen [the likes of] what you have heard!”
- Balaam arose on the morrow, behold [
- He summoned the heads of the assembly unto him,
- And for two days he fasted, and wept bitterly.
- Then his intimates entered into his presence, and they said to Balaam, the son of Beor:
- “Why do you fast, and why do you weep?”
- Then he said to them:
- “Be seated, and I will tell you what the Shadday-gods have planned,
- “And go, see the acts of the gods!
- “The gods have banded together, and the Shadday-gods have established a council.
- “And they have said to [the goddess] Shagar:
- ‘Sew up, close up the heavens with dense cloud,
- ‘That darkness exist there, not brilliance, Obscurity and not clarity;
- ‘So that you instill dread in dense darkness.
- ‘And–never utter a sound again!’
- “It shall be that the swift and crane will shriek insult to the eagle,
- “And a nest of vultures shall cry out in response.
- “The stork, the young of the falcon and the owl,
- “The chicks of the heron, sparrow and cluster of eagles;
- “Pigeons and birds, [and fowl in the s]ky.
- “And a rod shall [flay the cat]tle; where there are ewes, a staff shall be brought.
- “Hares–eat together!
- “Free[ly feed, ]oh the beasts [of the field]!
- “And [freely] drink, asses and hyenas!”
- Heed the admonition, adversaries of Sha[gar-and-Ishtar]!
- [ ] skilled diviner.
- To skilled diviners one shall take you, and to an oracle, [to] a perfumer of myrrh and a priestess.
- [Who] covers his body [with oil], and rubs himself with olive oil.
- To one bearing an offering in a horn; one augurer after another, and yet another.
- One augurer broke away from his colleagues;
- And the striking force departed [
- And they heard incantations from afar.
- [ ]
- Then disease was unleashed [ ], and all beheld acts of distress.
- Shagar-and-Ishtar did not [
- The piglet [drove out] the leopard;
- And the [ ] drove out the young of [the ].
- [ ] double offerings.
- And he beheld–
A few points of contact can be made between Numbers 22-24 and the Deir ʿAlla texts:
- Jewish tradition holds that the biblical stories about Balaam entered Israelite tradition from the outside and the Deir ʿAlla texts appear to confirm that position. Baruch Levine cautions that an Israelite who was not a monotheist could have written the texts. Idolatry was well known within ancient Israel.
- Both writings depict Balaam as a diviner/seer, as opposed to a sorcerer who tries to change the future.
- Both writings use similar terms for God/the gods.
- In both writings Balaam receives revelation at night (Num 22:8-9, 14-20; Combination I.2).
Ashley, Timothy R. The Book of Numbers. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.
Cole, R. Dennis. Numbers. Kindle Edition. The New American Commentary. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.
Levine, Baruch A. Numbers 21-36. The Anchor Yale Bible. New York: Yale University Press, 2008.
Milgrom, Jacob. Numbers. The JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.
Wenham, Gordon J. Numbers. Kindle Edition. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP Academic, 2015.