Balaam and Balak: The Dair Alla Inscription

    The news is full of criticisms against Israel and some well-founded rumors of important agencies working against them. It seems they've never read God's promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3. "I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse those who curse you." Or at least they don't believe it. Well, neither did Balaam and he probably regretted it.

    Balaam is called an Old Testament prophet, but he wasn't a prophet like you may be thinking as we will see. His story is intertwined with a king who ruled over a people the Israelites considered their enemy. At least the people acted like an enemy every chance they got.

    Balak, the king of Moab, saw the Israelites settle in the Jordan Valley at Shittim. He knew how they had defeated Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites and took over their territory. They took Sihon's land and possessed it all the way to the Jabbok River, just south of where they were at Shittim.

    Balak and his people were amazed at how many Israelites there were. They were afraid. Balak did not want to end up like Sihon or Og or even Pharaoh. He decided not to try to fight them. He thought he had a better idea. He would curse them. So, he sent for a man named Balaam.

    Balaam was most likely a prophet of Baal. His god was El, not El Shaddai. When he used the words, Elohim or Yahweh, he used them as a God he was familiar with, as one of a list of gods. Balaam was not an Israelite, and he was not a follower of God.

    He was living in northern Syria (Aram) and had a reputation for bringing curses on people that worked. He was a popular pagan prophet throughout his homeland and Jordan and was skilled in witchcraft and the supernatural. This may be why a talking donkey did not surprise him. Some scholars have pointed out his name may indicate he was a loner. Which makes me think of a creepy, dark warlock, but the Bible doesn't say that.

    Balak knew of Balaam's reputation and sent a group of noblemen from Moab and Midian to ask if he would come to Moab to curse the Israelites. They may have been diviners themselves. Some scholars believe they had with them models of animal organs used in divination. Perhaps they hoped Balaam could change the results they got.

    Balaam told them he would ask the Israelite God. At first, Balaam said God told him no. But eventually he went. Only, he must have planned to disobey what God told him to do because he almost got killed by an angel.

    Apparently persuaded for the time being, he warned Balak that he might not be able to deliver the curse. Who could curse whom God (Yahweh) had not cursed, he told him. He was right. Balaam ended up blessing the Israelites every time he opened his mouth to curse them.

    This account is written in Numbers 22-24. Before the Balaam Inscription was found it was considered a myth. But in the 1960s a Jordanian excavating at a site called Dair Alla discovered plaster fragments with writing on them. They were found in the ruins of a building thought to be a temple. No one knew if the fragments had been part of a stele or perhaps decorating the wall of the building.

    Tell Dair Alla is a mound overlooking a cultivated valley in Jordan, rimmed with rugged brown hills. Buildings sit at its base and a road winds along its side. The site shows evidence of an earthquake that scholars have dated to Amos 1:1. Scholars decided the fragments were part of a framed text decorating a wall that collapsed. They came to this conclusion when another set of inscriptions was discovered on a different wall. Tell Dair Alla is in the region of ancient Gilead. The Bible calls it the valley of Sukkoth.

    The text fragments are displayed in a museum in Amman, Jordan. They are gathered in a glass case with a black frame. The beige fragments of aging plaster are pieced together like a broken puzzle. Faded black ink in an ancient script can be seen on them. Some of the writing is a faded red. Scholars debate the language. It is an ancient Semitic language, perhaps Aramaic or Moabite.

    Not much of the plaster was left. But when the writing was translated it held a big surprise. The first line read, "The sayings of Balaam son of Beor the man who was a seer." Other words used in the texts date the story to the time of the Israelites around 1406 BC. Suddenly Numbers 22 and 23 were no longer myth. Balaam was one of the first people of the Bible to be discovered outside the Bible.

    Balak was so mad at Balaam for blessing Israel he told him to go home. Balaam did leave Moab. But he worked with the Midianites and gave them advice (Numbers 31:16). Peter and Jude said he loved money. "Turning out of the true way, they have gone wandering in error, after the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who was pleased to take payment for wrongdoing" (2Peter 2:15). "They have gone in the way of Cain, running uncontrolled into the error of Balaam for reward" (Jude 1:11).

    Balaam discovered a way Israel would curse itself. He realized disobedience brought on the curse (Numbers 25). He told the Midianites how to lure them into disobeying God. It didn't go well for him though in the next war. "They [the Israelites] put the kings of Midian to death with the rest, Evi and Reken and Zur and Hur and Reba, the five kings of Midian: and Balaam, the son of Beor, they put to death with the sword" (Numbers 31:8).

    Jesus said Balaam's doctrine was compromise (Revelation 2:14). He encouraged people to compromise God's way and take on a little of the world. It weakened them until they failed.

    Balaam's story is a lot older than the fragments of plaster. The temple was decorated to honor Balaam and many date it to around the time of the Assyrian Empire.

    Just like in the Bible, the Dair Alla Inscription says Balaam received a message during the night. But this message was about a great disaster that was about to happen. Many wonder if it was the earthquake he was predicting. He also wrote about the underworld and corpses that included kings and a rejected seer. Some lines of the story almost sound like what happened to him.

    The big take away from Balaam's story is that disaster came to him and his kingly cohorts rather quickly. He learned too late that cursing may pay, but it is a brief victory.


    Image by falco from Pixabay


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