BALAAM (Heb. בַּלְעָם, בִּלְעָם), son of Beor, a non-Israelite diviner famous for his effectiveness, enlisted by Balak, king of Moab, to pronounce curses over the Israelites. The pronunciation Balaam reflects the Greek rendering of the name in the Septuagint. Balaam's exploits are related in Numbers 22:2–24:25, known in modern research as "The Balaam Pericope," and traditionally recognized as a distinct literary unit within the book of Numbers. There we read that the numerous Israelites, encamped in the Steppes of Moab on their way to the land of Canaan, were feeding off the land, causing great apprehension in Moab. Balak despaired of driving them away by force, and he hoped to achieve victory by means of Balaam's execrations. To Balak's chagrin, however, Balaam refused to succumb to his offers of reward, and surprisingly, pronounced blessings over Israel instead of curses, predicting Israelite victories. His orations represent some of the most beautiful examples of early Hebrew poetry. Balaam's firm obedience to God's will is viewed with great favor. Similar praise is expressed in Micah 6:5, where Balaam's role in thwarting the design of one of Israel's enemies is evoked as a sign of God's providence over his people.
In contrast, Balaam is seen in a hostile light in several other biblical sources where he is mentioned. In a certain sense, the derogation of Balaam begins in the Tale of the Ass (Num 22:22–35), which mocks his reputed gifts as a seer (see further). And yet, as the tale unfolds, Balaam falls into line, and ends up obeying God's instructions. The attitude toward Balaam is decidedly unfavorable, however, in Numbers 31:8, 16, which report that Balaam's counsel had led to Israelite worship of Baal Peor, and that he was slain by the Israelites together with the kings of Midian in the course of the war against the Midianites. A resonance of the same episode is found in Joshua 13:22, where, in addition, Balaam is referred to as ha-qôsem ("the diviner"), as if to discredit him. In Joshua 24:9–10, within a narration of Israel's history, we read that God protected Israel, refusing to allow Balaam to curse the people, The underlying assumption is that Balaam had intended to do just that. Finally, according to Deuteronomy 23:5–6, the mere fact that Balaam had been retained by Balak, king of Moab, to curse Israel is adduced as a basis for prohibiting marriage with Ammonites and Midianites (cf. Neh. 13:2). It is difficult to explain this negativity toward Balaam against the background of the Balaam Pericope. Rather than following traditional explanations that Balaam's allegiances changed, it is more likely that subsequent Israelite misfortunes at the hands of neighboring nations, with whom Balaam was identified, brought him into disrepute.
Recent archaeological discoveries have added significant information about Balaam. In 1967, a Dutch expedition under H. Franken discovered fragments of inscriptions written on plaster at a Transjordanian site named Tell Deir 'Alla, located about 5 mi. (8 km.) east of the Jordan, not far from the northern bank of the Jabbok (Zerqa) river that flows into the Jordan. In the Hebrew Bible this area is known as cēmeq Sukkôt, "the valley of Sukkoth" (Ps. 60:8, 108:8, cf. Gen. 33:17, Judg. 8, I Kings 7:46). Many of the plaster fragments were restored in the manner of a jigsaw puzzle, and the resulting "combinations" were published by J.A. Hoftijzer and G. van der Kooij in 1976. Composed in a language similar to biblical Hebrew, and dated in the late ninth to early 8th centuries B.C.E., the inscriptions attest the name of a seer, blʿm brbʿr – "Balaam, son of Beor"– for the first time in an extra-biblical source of the biblical period. Previously, Balaam had been known outside the Hebrew Bible solely from post-biblical sources (Baskin 1983).
The Deir 'Alla inscriptions relate how a certain blʿm brbʿr, referred to as "a divine seer" ('zh < lhn), was visited at night in a dream by gods who revealed to him that an impending misfortune would devastate the land. The seer, greatly distressed at this news, assembles his people to disclose to them what he has learned. In these inscriptions Balaam is depicted as an heroic figure, who strove to save his people and the land. In content and style, the inscriptions noticeably resemble the Balaam Pericope of Numbers, and other biblical sources as well, so that any discussion of the role of Balaam in biblical literature must henceforth take the Deir 'Alla inscriptions into account.
The Name Bil'am and the Identity of the Person
There are essentially two ways of parsing the name Blʿm: (a) Bil+ʿam, whereby the component ʿam is a kinship term, and bil would represent the divine name Bel, yielding the sense: "Bel is my kinsman." As such, the Hebrew/Deir 'Alla name has been compared with Akkadian Bill-am-ma and Amma-baʾli "Bel is a kinsman," or: "a kinsman of Bel" (HALAT 130, S.V. Bilʿam I). (b) A name incorporating the verb b-l-ʿ "to swallow up, destroy," + m, an affix that can be represented as åm (elsewhere also ån and –ôn), and that characterizes the actor of the verb, hence: "the swallower, destroyer." Reference would be to the potency of Balaam's spells and execrations. This understanding of the name gains support from its uncanny similarity to the name of the first Edomite king, Belaʿ, son of Beʿôr, as recorded in Genesis 36:32. This resemblance can hardly be coincidental, and may argue for the identification of Balaam as a nearby Ammonite, Moabite, Midianite, or Edomite by origin, rather than as a more distant Aramean.
In fact, there appear to be two traditions concerning Balaam's homeland. One identifies Balaam as an Aramean, an extraction explicit in the opening verse of his first oration (Num. 23:7): "From Aram did Balak import me/ the king of Moab – from the mountains of Qedem." At the same time,
there are indications that Balaam was perceived as a Transjordanian, or son of an inland nation. It is noteworthy that both the Vulgate and the Samaritan versions read in Num 22:5 ʿereṣ benê ʿAmmô [n] "to the land of the Ammonites." in place of Hebrew benê > ammô, "the land of his people." The attribution to a seer named Balaam of the inscriptions found at Deir ʿAlla which were, given their language and exposition, composed in the immediate area, would further endorse his identity as a figure who came from a neighboring, inland country. It is best, therefore, to allow for alternative traditions regarding Balaam's place of origin (Levine, 2000, 145–48).
The Structure and Contents of the Balaam Pericope
The Balaam Pericope consists of prose narratives that serve as a rubric for the poems of the pericope and poetic compositions.
(A) THE POETIC REPERTOIRE
There are four major orations, followed by a series of three, brief prophecies. Each oration is introduced as a mashal "balanced verse." Only the third and fourth orations explicitly identify Balaam as the speaker, though the first and second refer to Balak by name, making it virtually certain that Balak is the speaker. In the first oration (Num. 23:7–10), the speaker relates that he was called from Aram by Balak to pronounce curses over Israel, but was powerless to do so because Israel had been blessed by El/YHWH. Overlooking the Israelite encampment from the heights, Balaam was awed by its vast expanse, impressed that the Israelites needed no allies, and were capable of achieving victory on their own. He would willingly share the fate of such heroes! In the second (Num. 23:18–24), the speaker addresses Balak directly, insisting that El will not renege on his promise to bless Israel, and consequently his own mission could not be countermanded. YHWH would not countenance any misfortune overtaking Israel, a people strong as a lion and protected by a powerful deity who directly informs them of the future, thereby rendering divination unnecessary. In the third oration (Num. 24:3–9), entitled "The speech (Hebrew ne'um) of Balaam. Beor's son," the speaker's professional gifts are enumerated. He is "one who hears El's utterances," and "who beholds the vision of Shadday" (the fourth oration adds: "who is privy to Elyon's knowledge"). Balaam describes the beauty of the Israelite encampment in words that have become part of Jewish liturgy: "How lovely are your tents, oh Jacob/ your dwellings, oh Israel." Alluding to Saul, king of Israel, he predicts that Israel will prevail over the Amalekite king, Agag (I Sam. 15). In the fourth oration (Num. 24:15–19), similarly entitled, Balaam alludes to David's conquests of Moab and Edom.(II Sam. 8:2, 12–14), characterizing that king dramatically as a shooting star, as a meteor. In the three brief orations that follow (Num. 24:20–23) Balaam assumes the role of a "prophet to the nations" and predicts the ultimate downfall of the Amalekites and Kenites, and possibly of Assyrians, west of the Euphrates.
Viewing the Balaam orations in their entirety, it is clear that the agenda changes after the second poem. Having proclaimed Israel's victorious destiny on the way to the Promised Land, Balaam proceeds in the third and fourth orations to predict Israelite victories over the Canaanite peoples and over hostile neighboring peoples in the interior. This purview is expanded in the brief prophecies to the nations. It is also the case that after the second oration Balaam ceases to justify his refusal to carry out Balak's wishes, and, invoking his preeminent status as a seer, predicts without apology dramatic Israelite victories, including the subjugation of Moab itself.
The poetic sections employ several designations of divinity, in addition to YHWH and ʾelōhîm, namely, Shadday, Elyon, and most frequently, El. It has been customary to interpret these names as epithets of YHWH. Although originally the names of discrete deities, they had, so the argument goes, been synthesized with YHWH, thereby becoming merely another way of referring to the God of Israel. On this basis, we would translate Numberss 23:7 as follows: "How can I curse whom the deity has not condemned? How can I doom whom YHWH has not doomed?"
Though the El-YHWH synthesis (Eissfeldt, 1956) is indeed evident in biblical literature, it remains to be determined whether it is expressed in the Balaam orations, or in other poems that may hark back to a stage in the development of Israelite religion when the worship of the Syro-Cannanite deity, El, was regarded as acceptable. It is in this spirit, after all, that the worship of El, sometimes registered as El Shadday, is imputed to the Patriarchs (Gen. 28:3, 31:13, 35:11, 46:3), an attribution explained in so many words in Exodus 6:2–3. This is the view most recently adopted by Levine (2000, 217–34), who sees evidence of an El archive in biblical literature, parts of which were redacted so as to conform to the El-YHWH synthesis. In Levine's view, some of the El poems, most notably the Balaam orations, themselves were retained in their unredacted form, so that their references to El, in particular, should be understood as designations of the Syro-Canaanite deity by that name, not as epithets of the God of Israel. As will be observed, it is likewise El who presides over the gods in the Balaam inscriptions from Deir ʿAlla. Read in this manner, the biblical Balaam orations present a distinctive view of Israelite religion: YHWH is acknowledged as Israel's national God, their divine King, who is present in their midst to assure them victory. At the same time, it is powerful El who liberated Israel from Egypt, and who has blessed Israel irreversibly, keeping faith with them. This earlier religious outlook would be precisely what Exodus 6:2–3 was aimed at disavowing.
This understanding of the religious predicates of the Balaam orations, and of the posture of Balaam, explains why there is no battle projected between YHWH and the gods of Moab, and why Balaam is powerless to curse Israel. It is not only YHWH who is providential over Israel, but El, Shadday, and Elyon, as well. It is as if to say that Moab's own gods, members of the traditional West-Semitic pantheon, were arrayed against them. Most scholars, however, view the Balaam orations as expressing the El-YHWH synthesis, in essence proclaiming YHWH's exclusive providence over Israel, as well as
his dominance over pagan seers like Balaam. In this perspective, the poetic orations are understood to express the same religious outlook as do the prose sections of the Balaam Pericope.
Just as the divine appellations in the Balaam orations are unusual, so are the designations of the Israelite collective. With only one exception (Num. 24:18–19), the consistent classification is (a) Jacob, (b) Israel, expressed in parallelism (Num. 23:7, 10, 21, 23, 24:5, 17). This nomenclature recalls the change of Jacob's name from Yacaqôb to Yisra'el after his combat with the angel, which, appropriately, occurred at Penuel, in the Valley of Sukkoth (Gen. 32), where the Deir ʿAlla inscriptions were found!
There has been considerable progress in the exegesis of the Balaam orations, which because of their relative antiquity and the dialectal features they manifest have resisted interpretation. They employ rare, even unique forms that afford little basis for comparison. W.F. Albright (1944) achieved a breakthrough by reducing the Masoretic text to its consonantal base, and reading the poems as West-Semitic epigraphy. Sh. Morag (1981) sought to shed light on unrecognized meanings through linguistic analysis. More recent attempts are presented in commentaries on the Book of Numbers by Milgrom (1990) and Levine (2000).
(B) THE PROSE NARRATIVES
The prose sections pursue a sequential narrative, except for the tale of the ass (Num. 22:22–35), which derives from a separate source. It was undoubtedly inserted as a satire, poking fun at Balaam's reputed clairvoyance as a seer. In a mode familiar to us from Aesop's fables, and from ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature, as well, it depicts Balaam as being blind to what even the ass he was riding was able to see! Its theme is that the God of Israel initially objected to Balaam's willingness to accompany Balak's messengers to Moab, and sent an angel to block his path. The ass made several attempts to avert the angel, and each time Balaam struck her, until God gave speech to the ass, so that she could explain to Balaam what was going on. Ultimately, God opens Balaam's eyes, as well, and he submits to God's will, offering to return home. Balaam is then told by the angel that he is permitted to accompany Balak's emissaries on condition that he speak only what YHWH communicates to him.
The Tale of the Ass is preceded in Numbers 22:2–21 by a narrative of Balak's invitation to Balaam to pronounce curses over Israel on his behalf. Balaam at first refuses, insisting that he is under the authority of Israel's God. However, God appears to him at night and authorizes him to accompany the men, but to speak only what he is told. The intervening tale effectively brings us back to this point, in Numbers 22; 35. In the ensuing narrative (Num. 22:36–23:6), we read that Balaam arrives in Moab and is welcomed by Balak, who offers him great rewards. After a feast prepared by Balak, Balaam proceeds to the mountain-top of Bamoth-Baal, where he is afforded a view of part of the Israelite encampment. There he pronounces his first blessings of Israel (Num. 23:7–10). When the prose narrative resumes, we read that Balak is furious, but Balaam repeats that he can speak only what YHWH instructs him to say. In an effort to achieve greater efficacy, Balaam is advised to move to a more propitious site, the peak of Pisgah, where he erects altars and offers sacrifice. YHWH encounters Balaam and places an oracle in his mouth. Balak asks him: "What has YHWH spoken?" which indicates that he now accepts Balaam's subservience to Israel's God (Num. 23:11–17). Then follows Balaam's second oration (Num. 23:18–24). At this point, Balak is all but ready to give up, but again suggests moving to a different site, the summit of Peor, where altars are erected and sacrifices offered, prior to a third attempt by Balaam, who now realizes that it pleases YHWH to bless Israel. Without further ado, he prepares to declaim his third oration (Num 23:25–30, 24:1–2), which predicts Israel's victory over the Amalekites of Canaan (Num. 24:3–9). When the prose narrative resumes, we read that Balak dismisses Balaam in anger, but that before returning to his own land, Balaam tells him that he will reveal what the Israelites will do to Moab (and Edom) in the future (Num. 24:10–14). This is the theme of Balaam's fourth oration (Num. 24:15–19). Numbers 24:20–29 present the three brief prophecies against neighboring nations.
Throughout the prose sections, YHWH and ʾelohim alternate exclusively as designations of the God of Israel, who is perceived as totally controlling the activities of Balaam from the outset. In fact, in Numbers 22:18 Balaam already refers to YHWH as elohai "my God," and in a manner not dissimilar from that of Pharaoh in the Moses sagas, Balak also becomes increasingly aware of YHWH's power, and of Balaam's subservience to it. In contrast to the Egyptian sagas, however, which repeatedly refer to the gods of Egypt, the prose sections of the Balaam Pericope nowhere refer to any other divine power, or use what would be regarded, in context, as epithets of YHWH or ʾelohim.
The Balaam Texts from Deir ʿAlla
Notwithstanding their poor state of preservation, the plaster texts from Deir ʿAlla add to our understanding of the Balaam Pericope, and in a reciprocal manner, the biblical sources enlighten us as to the meaning of the Deir ʿAlla texts. Like most new discoveries, the Deir ʿAlla texts raise problems of a literary and historical nature. The inscriptions were restored from plaster fragments that had fallen to the ground from the walls of a regional distribution center, where some cultic activity took place. (For transcriptions, translations, archaeological background and commentary see Levine, 2000, 241–75; idem, COS II, 140–45.)
COMBINATION I OF THE INSCRIPTION
Combination I relates that Balaam was visited at night by gods sent to convey to him a message from the high god, El. The message consisted of a celestial omen of disaster. A council (mwʿd = Hebrew moʿed)) of deities who opposed El had ordered the goddess Shagar-we-Ishtar, a Venus figure of light and fertility, to sew up the heavens, thereby producing darkness and dread. Upon
hearing this, Balaam became greatly distressed, and took to weeping and fasting. He assembled his people and described the content of this revelation to them. Vultures will fly about shrieking, and wild beasts will occupy grazing lands. Although at this point the text becomes less clearly comprehensible, it is reasonable to read it as a recounting of Balaam's heroic attempt to free the goddess from the decree of the evil council, thereby saving the land from misfortune. Balaam admonishes the adversaries of Shagar-we-Ishtar, and takes the goddess to various diviners, oracles, priestesses, and magical practitioners to safeguard her from the punishment decreed upon her. His efforts were successful, and order was re-established in the land, which accounts for the commemorative installation of the inscriptions on the walls of the building at Deir 'Alla.
Combination II, which is even more fragmentary, vividly describes a necropolis (byt ʿlmn) erected by El, a "house" where no traveler enters, nor any bridegroom. The portrayal recalls the Sheol oracle of Isaiah 14, and speaks of an unnamed, wise counselor, who will no longer be consulted, and who will be punished by being deprived of his ability to pronounce oracles and execrations. Although the name of Balaam does not occur in Combination II, it is suggestive to relate this text to Balaam. The opening title of Combination I, "The misfortunes of the Book of Balaam, the son of Beor," undoubtedly included Combination II, as well as additional compositions which may have been lost, or whose fragments have not as yet been restored in coherent form
Both Combinations exhibit shared vocabulary and diction with the biblical Balaam orations, and with other biblical poems of the El archive. Indeed, the Deir ʿAlla inscriptions resonate with biblical imagery.
The Phenomenology of Balaam's Performance
Now that we possess information from the Deir 'Alla inscriptions, we can draw up a more complete profile of Balaam. Albright (1971), and others have compared him with the Mesopotamian barû ("diviner"). The parallel West Semitic functionary would be the qosem, a title given to Balaam only in Joshua 13:22, although Numbers 22:18 does in fact report that the elders of Moab (and Midian) brought to Balaam payment for qesamim ("divination"), indicating that he practiced that art. We are also told in Numbers 24:1 that for a time, Balaam also engaged in nehashimā ("augury"), but eventually gave that up (Num. 24:1).
For the most part, the biblical poems inform us that Balaam beholds visions, both while awake and asleep; he hears divine utterances, and possesses secret knowledge. He sees into the future and predicts events, and has a reputation for pronouncing effective curses. We may conclude that Balaam was expert at pronouncing effective blessings, which is what he actually did. The narratives provide additional information on Balaam's techniques: He offers burnt sacrifices as a means of attracting YHWH to particular sites, while also perambulating, walking around in search of an encounter with YHWH, and possibly in search of omens, as well. In this connection, one notes that visual access is a factor in Balaam's praxis. In the preparations for what Balak hoped would be effective curses, sites were sought out that afforded a partial, or complete, view of the Israelite encampment, which was the target of the curses.
There are two additional points to be made about Balaam's performance. First, as is true of ritual experts, polytheistic and monotheistic, Balaam acted under divine authority. Balaam could only do what he was authorized to do by the divine power, or powers, that controlled him. It was only after the gods signaled their approval that diviners and exorcists and other ritual experts could undertake the prescribed operations. Secondly, both the poems and the prose narratives portray Balaam in personal terms. In the poems, he is said to be awed by the strength and heroism of the Israelites, and by a realization, based on his own observation, that this people had been blessed and protected, and was not marked for misfortune. In the prose narratives and in the Tale of the Ass, Balaam is depicted as one given to anger and frustration, who is not tempted by wealth, and, above all, who is honest in accepting the limitations of his own powers. Balaam is also reactive; his acceptance of subservience to the God of Israel increases as his encounters with YHWH progress, until he becomes more than willing to bless Israel. Thus, the fourth, and final oration was not requested by Balak, but offered to him voluntarily, as were the three, brief prophecies.
The Deir ʿAlla texts shed further light on the performance of Balaam. We read more about his divinatory crafts, most notably his ability to interpret celestial omens, and of his admonitions directed at malevolent divine powers Although the atmosphere of the Deir ʿAlla inscriptions is polytheistic, and affords more attention to specific ritual practices, the difference between the Deir ʿAlla inscriptions and the biblical pericope is more a matter of degree than of kind, especially if we accept the interpretation that in the biblical Balaam orations, El, Elyon, and Shadday are proper names of West Semitic gods and not merely epithets of YHWH and ʾelohim.
The Sitz-im-Leben of the Balaam Pericope
According to the internal, Biblical chronology, the encounters related in the Balaam Pericope would have occurred during the late 13th century B.C.E., or thereabouts, but we must be careful not to confuse temporal setting with time of composition. There are problems in attempting to assign both the poetic and narrative sections of the Balaam Pericope to the usual documentary sources, J and E, as pointed out most clearly by A. Rofe (1981). It would be preferable to seek clues in the poems themselves as to their time and place of composition. As for the Balaam narratives, it is safe to say that they postdate the poems.
The Deir ʿAlla inscriptions help us to fix the context of the Balaam poems in more than one respect. For one thing, they raise the possibility that the biblical Balaam poems were also composed in Gilead, in central Transjordan, where an
active Israelite community lived for several centuries until driven out after the Assyrian invasions of the late eighth century B.C.E. The Valley of Sukkoth, where Deir ʿAlla is located, figures notably in certain biblical traditions, such as the narratives of Genesis 32–33 and Judges 8. There is also a basis for seeing the Deir ʿAlla inscriptions themselves as Israelite compositions, notwithstanding the absence of any mention of the God of Israel, and despite their polytheistic character (Weippert 1991). In this connection, the highlighting of El in the Balaam poems fits in well with the veiled references to El worship in Hosea 6:8, 12:12 by the Israelites of Gilead. Perhaps these very Transjordanian Israelites, regarded as sinful by Hosea, were the ones, or similar to the ones, who installed the Balaam plaster inscriptions on the walls of the building at Deir 'Alla.
Historically, the Balaam orations reflect a situation of conflict between Israel and Moab, wherein Israel is declared victorious. This context would suit conditions in the early to-mid-ninth century B.C.E., under the Omride dynasty, when northern Israel exercised hegemony over northern Moab. This would have been prior to Mesha's successful reconquest of that territory in the mid-ninth century, as recounted in the famous stele of that Moabite king. This is also the period during which the Heshbon Ballad of Numbers 21, which depicts the Israelite conquest of North Moab, would have been composed. As such, the biblical Balaam poems might have antedated the Deir ʿAlla inscriptions by about 50 years.
Thanks to the Deir ʿAlla discoveries we can now speak of Balaam as a biblical personage also known from external, Transjordanian sources. We know him better than we did before, whether we regard him only as a figure of legend or as an historical personage of legendary proportions.