The Ammonite Balaam Story

In Friday’s reading of Joseph Bleckinsopp’s A History of Prophecy in Israel, the following stood out to me (page 41):

An inscription roughly contemporary with Isaiah written in ink on plaster, discovered at Deir ‘Alla in what was then the Ammonite Kingdom north of Moab, presents a “visionary of the gods” named Balaam who receives an ominous revelation from on high.  Some connection with “the one enraptured and with eyes unveiled” of the biblical Balaam cycle (Numbers 22-24) is certain, though the homeland of the biblical Balaam is said to have been somewhere in Upper Mesopotamia (Num. 22:5; 23:7).

Jacob Milgrom’s Jewish Publication Society commentary on Numbers offers more detail (pp. 473-476).  He says that the inscription was “written on wall plaster inside an Iron Age II (900-600 B.C.E.) temple,” and dates to the eighth century “on both stratigraphic and epigraphic grounds.”  Stratigraphy studies rocks, whereas epigraphy is about inscriptions. 

Milgrom includes the content of the inscription in his excursus.  He summarizes its story as follows:

Balaam, having learned in a dream that the gods intend to reverse nature, bringing blight to the land and death to its inhabitants, presumably intercedes with them (in the missing 2.19-34) to revoke their decision.  Alternatively, or sequentially, Balaam’s intercession may, in the manner of his biblical counterpart, have implored the gods by means of sacrifice (Num. 23:1-2, 14, 29-30).  Perhaps the temple on whose walls this inscription was written was founded to honor the gods (Sheger and Ashtar?) who heeded Balaam’s plea/sacrifice.

Balaam was a well-known figure, even in the non-Israelite region of Ammon.  According to Milgrom, “the accusation that Balaam devised the scheme to have the Moabite women seduce Israel into worshipping Baal-peor (Num. 31:16…) may be traceable to Deir ‘Alla’s assertion that Balaam founded a pagan (fertility?) cult.”  Like the inscription, the story in Numbers regards Balaam as a legitimate prophet; the Ammonite inscription even mentions El, the chief Canaanite God, whose name the biblical God bears in the Hebrew Bible.  But the Numbers story also criticizes him, one reason being that he encouraged idolatry.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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