Who Was Balaam's God: YHWH El? Or Bull El?
The Torah Portion of Balaam
“Who wrote the Bible?” This is not only the title of a best-selling popular book about the documentary hypothesis but an old question addressed already by the rabbis in the Talmud (b. Bava Batra 14b). What makes this sugya particularly appropriate for this week’s Torah portion is its observation that “the Portion of Balaam” seems to be identified as a singular and independent composition:
משה כתב ספרו, ופרשת בלעם, ואיוב.
Moses wrote ‘his book,’ the Portion of Balaam, and (the Book of) Job.
Explaining the odd line about the portion of Balaam, Rashi writes:
ופרשת בלעם – נבואתו ומשליו אף על פי שאינן צורכי משה ותורתו וסדר מעשיו
And the portion of Balaam – his prophecies and proverbs, even though they do not reflect the purposes of Moses, nor his Torah nor the narratives of his deeds.
Even though Rashi, explaining the Talmud, maintains the traditional view that Moshe wrote the prophecies and proverbs of Balaam and placed them in the Torah, he still views these statements and proverbs of Balaam as originating independently of both the opening narrative of the parasha as well of the rest of the Torah.
This approach to the proverbs of Balaam has its advocates among contemporary academic scholars as well. In his Anchor Bible Numbers commentary, Professor Baruch Levine concludes, “[W]hat is eminently clear is that the poems speak for themselves, and that the narratives are predicated upon a different casting of Balaam.”
Following Levine and Rashi, this Dvar Torah will focus on the understanding Balaam’s poems as independent and foreign to the larger narrative context and uncovering their meaning.
God and El
For the purpose of this exercise, let’s focus on a single verse, a refrain, actually, that occurs twice in our parasha (Num. 23:22; repeated in Num. 24:8, albeit with a small variation):
אֵל מוֹצִיאָם מִמִּצְרָיִם כְּתוֹעֲפֹת רְאֵם לוֹ.
God who freed them from Egypt is for them like the horns of the wild ox (NJPS).
The traditional understanding of the word אל in the poem as a reference to God, i.e, “the One True God.” This is hardly surprising; that is the general meaning of the word in the Bible. However, biblical scholars have long understood that אל is also the proper name of the old chief god in the ancient Canaanite pantheon, El (or Il). The name “Yisra-El”actually contains the theophoric (divine) element, El, which strongly implies that the people of Israel worshiped El during their formative period.
Thus, it is highly likely that, in its original context, the verses we have selected did not look to the generic “God” as the author of Israel’s Exodus from Egyptian slavery, but the god El. If this is correct, we ought to translate our verse as “El brought them/him out of Egypt; like the horns of a wild ox does he have!” Particularly noteworthy is the fact that El’s general epithet was “Bull.”
The Bible itself repeatedly demonstrates that ancient Israelites either acknowledged the existence of, or outright worshipped, more than one god/God, and that, eventually, some of these gods coalesced in the minds of the Israelites into the one God of Israel familiar from the Bible and later Judaism.
Professor Mark Smith of New York University has long studied the process through which the various gods and goddesses that were worshipped in the Bronze and Iron Ages gradually became identified as the God of Israel. Smith calls this process one of convergence, as gods like El came to be identified as identical with Yhwh;  and differentiation, as certain other gods and aspects of their worship came to be rejected as “Canaanite,” and so, excluded from “authorized” Israelite worship.
Balaam and El: The Evidence from Deir ‘Alla
Returning to the character of Balaam, this figure is not only a character in the Bible, but is known from extra-biblical literature as well, specifically in what are known as the Deir ‘Alla inscriptions. Deir ‘Alla is a site east of the Jordan river where, in 1967, archaeologists discovered a series of temple-inscriptions that mention a “seer of the gods” named Balaam son of Beor. Remarkably, the ancient texts depict a prophet very similar to the biblical figure from our Torah portion:
This is the account of Balaam, son of Beor, who was a seer of the gods. The gods came to him in the night, and he saw a vision according to the oracle of El. Then they spoke to Balaam son of Beor: “This he will do… in the future”… And Balaam arose on the next day… and he wept bitterly…
The similarity between the above and some of the key lines that introduce Balaam’s prophecies in the parasha are striking:
נְאֻם בִּלְעָם בְּנוֹ בְעֹר וּנְאֻם הַגֶּבֶר שְׁתֻם הָעָיִן: נְאֻם שֹׁמֵעַ אִמְרֵי־ אֵל…
Word of Balaam son of Beor, Word of the man whose eye is true, Word of him who hears the statements of El… (Numbers 24:3–4; see also 24:15).
Both the ancient inscriptions and the Book of Numbers regard the figure of Balaam as a messenger of the god El.
Learning about God from Balaam and El
Considering the above evidence both internal to the Bible as well as in comparison with other Ancient Near Eastern texts, it seems clear that the simple meaning of Balaam’s statement was that Bull El—his god and the old chief of the Canaanite pantheon—took Israel out of Egypt. The Canaanite texts excavated at Ugarit describe El in such terms as “Bull El his father”; “King, Father of Years”; and “the kindly One, El the Compassionate.”
If the original referent of the verse in Balaam’s prophecy was really El, how are we to make this surprising pre-monotheistic expression of thanks to a deity “Torah”? As Professor Uriel Simon of Bar Ilan University put it so eloquently, “What is the religious significance of the peshat?”
Maimonides and the Philosopher’s God
To address this question, I will begin with an unlikely source: the beginning of Maimonides’ great composition, the Mishneh Torah.
יסוד היסודות ועמוד החכמות לידע שיש שם מצוי ראשון והוא ממציא כל הנמצא.
The foundation of foundations and the pillar of wisdoms is to know that there is a Prime Existence who brought into existence everything that exists.
Maimonides attempts here to describe God without epithets of any kind, in as dispassionate a formulation that he can possibly muster in what he considered to be a popular medium. Typically, we encounter Maimonidean-type depictions of God in such hymns as Adon Olam:
והוא היה, והוא הוה, והוא יהיה בתפארה.
[God] was, is and will be — in glory.
Were we to reflect on these descriptions of God—we often sing these hymns by rote without thinking about their meaning—we would probably agree with them as theological reflections. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that many of us would pray using them, especially in an hour of great need or trauma. Rather, when our needs are greatest, we typically think of God in more descriptive or passionate terms:
אנא, בעל הרחמים
I beseech You, Master of Mercy
Our Father in Heaven
Our Father our King
When we feel our most passionate about prayer, we more naturally gravitate towards thinking about God in more compassionate, and less philosophical, terms — despite any consideration of theological truths. While we have long passed the time when we would consider “praying to El” as a separate divine entity, the imagery associated with God in these prayers resonates much more with the mythic descriptions of El than they do with Maimonides dispassionate descriptions of an unmoved mover.
As modern scholarship and the biblical text both demonstrate, the convergence between Yhwh and El in the minds of ancient Israelites already took place in biblical times. Nonetheless, we still have things we can learn about God, and about ourselves, as we pause to consider how our forebears in Israelite antiquity imaged God, and we can appreciate the ingenuity that they brought to their efforts to understand God, to worship God — and to describe God.
As Rabbi Neil Gillman has taught, all (or at least most) “God-talk” is metaphorical. People tend to describe God in whatever way resonates with them most deeply. The God of Israel is one, but the images of God are many. Some of these images go back to the god El, referenced by the Aramean prophet Balaam and transcribed by the Israelite prophet Moses. These images still have their resonances in the biblical text and in Jewish prayers, where we turn to our father, the merciful one, to save us in times of need, as he once did when he took us out of Egypt.
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June 28, 2014
July 6, 2020
Dr. Rabbi Robert Harris is an associate professor of Bible at The Jewish Theological Seminary, teaching courses in biblical literature and commentary, particularly medieval Jewish biblical exegesis.
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