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SBL e-journal

Carl S. Ehrlich





Balaam the Seer: From the Bible to the Deir ʿAlla Inscription





APA e-journal

Carl S. Ehrlich





Balaam the Seer: From the Bible to the Deir ʿAlla Inscription








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Balaam the Seer: From the Bible to the Deir ʿAlla Inscription

What we know about where he lived, the language he spoke, and the gods he worshiped.


Balaam the Seer: From the Bible to the Deir ʿAlla Inscription

The Prophet Balaam, Tommaso Porlezza della Porta, 1575 - 1577. Rijksmuseum.nl

Balaam in Parashat Balak

Until half a century ago, our only sources for information about the non-Israelite seer Balaam were the Tanakh and the various traditions derived from it in Judaism,[1] Christianity,[2] and Islam.[3] And most of what the Tanakh has to say about Balaam is found in Num 22:2-25:9, i.e., Parashat Balak.[4]

The basic outline of Balaam’s story is relatively simple: Balak hires him to curse the Israelites, whom he sees as a threat to Moab; but instead Balaam blesses them in a series of four poetic oracles, since he can only say the words that God puts into his mouth.

The story presents Balaam as a worshipper of the Israelite God, who appears to him in dreams and visions. Once both his expansive blessing of Israel and his cursing of Israel’s enemies are over, he proceeds on his way.

Balaam in the Bible Beyond Parashat Balak

Outside this story, Balaam is alluded to a handful of times in the Tanakh. Some of these references appear to be allusions to the Balaam’s curse/blessing story. For example,

  • Deuteronomy includes an injunction not to allow the Ammonites and the Moabites into the Israelite fold (Deut 23:4-7). One of the two reasons given for this prohibition is that they hired Balaam to curse Israel, but God changed the curse to blessing (vv. 5-6).

  • Joshua’s valediction in Joshua 24 refers to God’s salvation of the Israelites from the threat posed by Balak by turning Balaam’s attempted curses to blessings (vv. 9-10).[5]

  • Micah 6:5 alludes to the Balak/Balaam story, but in a manner that contrasts Balak’s initiative with Balaam’s (presumably positively evaluated) response.[6]

  • One of the justifications Nehemiah 13:2 offers for the exclusion of the Ammonites and the Moabites from the divine congregation is, as in Deut 23, their having tried to curse the Israelites through Balaam’s agency.

The picture that emerges from a perusal of these passages is decidedly an ambivalent one.[7]On the one hand Balaam wants to curse Israel to fulfill Balak’s request; but on the other hand, he listens to God and blesses them instead.

In contrast, a decidedly negative story about Balaam, which is no longer extant, may lurk in the background of other biblical references. Numbers 31:16 makes Balaam responsible for the Israelites’ sinning with the Midianites at Baal Peor (Num 25:1-9), referencing Balaam’s “word” or “advice” (דבר בלעם). Ostensibly, this is the reason that Balaam’s grim fate was to be killed during Israel’s fight against the Midianites (Num 30:8; Josh 13:22). Thus, the Bible is working with at least two portraits of Balaam; common to them is that his power resides in his words.

Whence Balaam?

In Numbers, the eponymous king of Moab sends his men to fetch Balaam for him. The implication seems to be that Balaam does not reside far from Moab. But where is he from?


In the biblical text, as we now have it, Balaam’s hometown is given as “Pethor, which is by the Euphrates” (Num 22:5), which has been identified with the Mesopotamian city of Pitru and lies at some distance from Moab.

Deuteronomy 23:5 is somewhat more explicit in identifying it as “Pethor of Aram-naharaim.” This latter term refers to that area of Aramean settlement that lay between the “two rivers (naharaim),” namely the Tigris and Euphrates. This certainly fits the location of Pitru and lies in one of the major regions of Aramean habitation, known today as the Jezirah, in other words upper Mesopotamia.[8]

This would have made Balaam an Aramean in the biblical view, as were also Israel’s ancestors according to some biblical texts (e.g., Gen 25:20, Deut 26:5). But why would a Moabite king living in Transjordan have contacted an Aramean magician (הקוסם according to Josh 13:22), who lived so far away in Mesopotamia?[9] Thus, some have speculated that in an older version of the Balaam story, he was local to Transjordan.


Some scholars have pointed to the text of Num 22:5 in the Samaritan Pentateuch, which says that Balak sent for Balaam “in the land of the Ammonites” (ארץ בני עמון) instead of the MT’s “land of his people” (ארץ בני עמו). Ammon borders on Moab, and thus sending for a famous Ammonite magician would not require excessive travel.


Alternatively, Balaam can be connected to another part of Transjordan, namely, the Gilead region, because of the Balaam inscription that was found there.[10] In 1967, a team of archaeologists under the direction of H.J. Franken of the University of Leiden uncovered fragments of a plaster inscription in a destruction level dating to around 800 B.C.E. at the site of Tell Deir ‘Alla in the eastern Jordan Valley. The site is near the confluence of the Jordan and Jabbok (Zerqa) Rivers, and is identified by many scholars as either biblical Sukkot or Penuel.[11]

Deir ‘Alla Inscription. livius.org

These fragments are part of an inscription that had been written in red and black ink on plaster affixed to a wall that had collapsed during an earthquake, possibly the one mentioned in Amos 1:1 as having occurred during the reign of King Uzziah of Judah in the early eighth century B.C.E.[12] According to this theory, Balaam would have been a local “celebrity” whose words were preserved in the Deir ‘Alla inscription and whose memory was preserved in the Hebrew Bible in a manner disparaging of his efficacy.[13]

The Tanakh’s attribution of an upper Mesopotamian homeland to him could then be a case of indicating the general direction from which he came – according to the geographical orientation of the Judean authors and editors of the biblical text – rather than a specific location. And his appearance in the wilderness narratives of Numbers could be a retrojection into the distant past of a figure who may have lived centuries after the alleged exodus from Egypt.

Balaam in the Deir ʿAlla Inscription

The archaeologists were able to fit together two “combinations” of running text, of which the first is better preserved and much easier to interpret than the very fragmentary second.[14](The language of the inscription is discussed below.) The first combination tells of a divine seer (חזה אלהן) named Balaam son of Beor,[15] in other words the same person known from the biblical text. It opens with the words:

יסרי ספר בלעם ב[רבע]ר
אש חזה אלהן הא.[16]
The misfortunes of the book of Balaam s[on of Beo]r.
A divine seer was he.

The text speaks of a divine vision of woe to which he is privy one night:

ויאתו אלוה אלהן בלילה
[ו]יחז מחזה כמשא אל
The gods came to him at night
And he beheld in a vision in accordance with El’s utterance.
ויאמרו לב[לע]ם ברבער
כה יפעל בלא אחראה
אש לר[א]ה מה שמעת
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.”

Although we are not yet told the vision, we learn that Balaam reacts to this vision very strongly:

ויקם בלעם מן מחר
הן […]לת
יזמן ראשי קהל [א]לוה
ולימ[ין יצ]ם מבקה יבכה
ויעל עמה אלוה
ויאמ[רו] לבלעם ברבער
למ תצם ולמ תבכה
ויאמר להם
שבו אחוכם
מה שדין ח[שבו]
ולכו ראו פעלת אלהן.
Balaam arose on the morrow,
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 son of Beor:
“Why do you fast and why do you weep?”
And 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.”

Balaam then explains that a council (מועד) of gods who oppose El have commanded Shagar (or Sheger or Shamash) and Ishtar (or Ashtar or Astarte) to sew up the heavens so the world will be always dark. This will cause havoc on earth, which Balaam describes poetically. The rest of the account has more missing elements, and is thus harder to follow, but Balaam apparently finds a way of undoing the plans of the anti-El faction and saving the world.

Even though the stories and the oracles tell a different tale than the inscription, his name and his function as a human conduit for divine messages make it clear that both the Tanakh and this extra-biblical and – possibly if not probably – non-Israelite text are telling tales about the same person. Moreover, certain elements of the biblical story, such as the poetic oracles and the night time visions reported in the morning to others, are so similar to the Deir ʿAlla inscription, that clearly the biblical authors knew what a “proper” Balaam account or poem should sound like and perhaps even knew the inscription itself.

What Language Did Balaam Speak?

The Tanakh does not refer to any specific language associated with Balaam. Like a Hollywood movie in which everyone throughout time and space speaks English, the Tanakh rarely implies knowledge of other languages.[17] Just about everyone is presented as speaking Hebrew; even non-Israelites such as the Pharaoh of the exodus, Laban, and Abimelech. Were it not for the fact that Balaam is presented as a non-Israelite in the biblical text, we would never imagine that he may have been a native speaker of another language.

If one assumes that the Deir ‘Alla inscription is written in Balaam’s mother-tongue, then it may hold the key to his provenance. Unfortunately, while the script can be read and much of the text translated, scholars do not agree on its language. There are features of the text that point to Aramaic, such as the indication of the masculine plural by means of a suffixed nunrather than the Hebrew mem or the use of qof to indicate the letter that in Hebrew is represented by tzadi.[18]

On the other hand, there are also some features of the text that preserve linguistic features that are closer to Hebrew/Canaanite, and absent in Aramaic, such as the use of the waw-consecutive. Hence, some advocate for distinctive dialects of Aramaic, and others for Hebrew, perhaps evidence of the Hebrew dialect of the northern kingdom of Israel. Some even claim it is a hybrid language lying between the Hebrew/Canaanite sphere and the Aramaic one. The best that we can say with certainty is that the language of the Deir ‘Alla inscription is close to but unlike anything else thus far discovered.[19]

What God(s) Did Balaam Worship?

The Tanakh presents Balaam as one who is familiar with and presumably worships YHWH, the God of Israel. Both in his responses to Balak and in his oracles, he mentions YHWH. The conclusion seems likely that the Tanakh chooses to present him as a Yahwist, i.e., as worshipper of Israel’s God (in the biblical vein).

And yet, a completely different picture emerges in the Deir ‘Alla inscriptions. Whereas only YHWH appears to the biblical Balaam, the Balaam of Deir ‘Alla has visions of a panoply of gods, none of whom is referred to as YHWH. In addition to El, the chief god of the Canaanite pantheon, the Deir ‘Alla inscription mentions the Shaddai-gods (Shaddayin), who are the ones who bring misfortune on humanity in this text.[20] The text also appears to reference the gods Shagar[21] and Ishtar,[22] though this is less certain.[23] Clearly, the Balaam of Deir ‘Alla was a polytheist.

Israel’s God – Composite?

The references to El and the Shaddayin are of particular interest to biblical history, since it has long been theorized that the character of the Israelite god is a composite of various deities that have been combined into one. Scholars use this to explain the profusion of names of God in the Tanakh, among which are El and Shaddai.

El (in some dialects pronounced Il) is both the name of the traditional head of the Canaanite pantheon and the generic word for a god. As such, it migrated to become one of the main designations for Israel’s God, the God par excellence. It is oftentimes paired with Shaddai in a construct relationship that is frequently translated as “God Almighty.”[24]

In addition to YHWH, both El and Shaddai appear as designations for God in the Balaam story, for instance in Numbers 24:4, in which the two terms appear in a nice poetic parallelism:

נְאֻם שֹׁמֵעַ אִמְרֵי אֵל
אֲשֶׁר מַחֲזֵה שַׁדַּי יֶחֱזֶה
Word of him who hears El’s speech,
Who beholds visions from Shaddai…

While the traditional English translation of Shaddai is based on the Greek pantokrátōr (παντοκράτωρ “almighty/all powerful”), which is the standard translation of the terms El-Shaddai and YHWH Tzeva’ot in the Septuagint, the Hebrew epithet Shaddai (שדי) has been understood by most scholars as deriving either from “mountain” (Akkadian šadû) or “field/wilderness” [25](Hebrew שדה). Hence, El-Shaddai should more correctly be understood as the “God of the Mountains” or the “God of the Wilderness” and not as “God Almighty.”[26]

But biblical El-Shaddai reflects a stage when El and Shaddai have merged into one god. The Deir ‘Alla text refers to a plurality of Shaddai-gods, apparently a type of god and not a personal name like El or YHWH. These references represent another building block in the edifice of understanding how the monotheistic God of the (later) Israelites developed out of and ultimately absorbed the names and aspects of the polytheistic world in which ancient Israel was born and grew up.[27]

What We Learned About Balaam from Deir ʿAlla

What can we then claim about Balaam with some measure of certainty?

  • If the literary character of Balaam is based on an actual person, he probably lived sometime around or even before 800 BCE, presumably in the region of Gilead in Transjordan.
  • Balaam was a well-known local seer, whose fame spread beyond his own community.
  • Balaam spoke a language that seems to lie near the intersection of Aramaic and Canaanite, of the latter of which Hebrew is a dialect.
  • Balaam’s words were considered worthy of being preserved by his followers, just as those of the biblical prophets were considered worthy of preservations by their disciples.
  • Balaam was a polytheist, as presumably were his contemporaneous Israelite neighbors.

The Deir ‘Alla inscription allows us to flesh out the picture of Balaam obtained from the Balaam story in Numbers and scattered other biblical texts. He is no longer simply a seer used as a tool in YHWH’s sole power, but an independent actor functioning in a polytheistic world.

In addition, the depiction of Balaam’s pantheon in Deir ‘Alla presents incidental information that is important for understanding the development of Israelite religion. Thus, by comparing the accounts of Balaam as recorded in the Tanakh and in the Deir ʿAlla inscription, we not only are privy to more information about Balaam himself, but may also deduce much that helps fill in the gaps in our knowledge of the development of the beliefs of ancient Israel.


June 26, 2018


Last Updated

April 11, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Carl S. Ehrlich (Ph.D. Harvard ’91) is University Professor of History and Humanities and former Director of the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies at York University in Toronto. Among his more recent publications are the (co-)edited collections From an Antique Land: An Introduction to Ancient Near Eastern Literature (2009), Purity, Holiness, and Identity in Judaism and Christianity: Essays in Memory of Susan Haber (2013), and Israel and the Diaspora: Jewish Connectivity in a Changing World (2022).