Balaam, the son of Beor (Numbers 22)

“The misfortunes of the Book of Balaam, son of Beor. A divine seer was he.” These are the first words of a remarkable fragmentary inscription discovered in 1967 at Deir Alla, Jordan, about 49 km north of the plains of Moab, where the Israelites camped. Written in black and red ink on a plaster wall, this fragmentary inscription dates to between 800 and 700 B.C.

The prophet Balaam was active on the eastern side of the Jordan River at the time the Israelites entered Canaan. He was referred to hundreds of years later not only by the author of the Deir Alla inscription but also over a wide range of time by various Biblical writers (see Nehemiah 13:2, Micah 6:5, 2 Peter 2:15, Revelation 2:14).

There is no doubt that this is the same Balaam mentioned in Numbers. The distinctive name “Balaam son of Beor” is rendered identically in both contexts. In addition, the inscription was found in the same general area as the events described in Numbers 22-24. Reflecting the activities of the Biblical Balaam and using language similar to that found in the Numbers account, the Deir Alla inscription speaks of divine visitations and visions, signs, admonitions, destruction and death.

Yet, except for including the name Balaam and describing him as a “seer”, The Deir Alla inscription does not mention any details found in the account in Numbers 22-24. Nor does it speak of Yahweh, although it does refer to gods as shaddayyin, a word similar to the Hebrew el shaddai, usually translated “God Almighty”. So it is unlikely that either author borrowed from the other. Both seemed to have gone back to independent traditions.

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