The Deir 'Alla inscription

An oracle of Balaam

Translation and Notes: Gildas Hamel


In Numbers 22-24, Balaam ben Beor comes across as a comical, helpless, though inspired figure who strangely enough can't help but accept the divine word and ends up repeatedly blessing the people of Israel as they are trekking throught the plains of Moab. He is to king Balak what his ass who sees the "angel of the Lord" is to him: being a stumbling, hapless visionary whom no amount of physical or psychological pressure can turn away from his path.

Why would such a story be inserted in the book of Numbers?

One of the reasons has come to light in 1967, with the discovery of a remarkable inscription in Aramaic (or Ammonite dialect) in Deir-Alla, Jordan, not far from the "plains of Moab." The text of the inscription is dated to about 700bce, that is to say at the time of well-known prophetic activities not only in the kingdoms of Israel and Juda but also in Aramaean states just North of Israel, as well as in Neo-Assyria. This inscription shows that traditions about Balaam were well known at the time (and probably for a long period of time at that) in the area (Ammon / Moab, Jordan valley, probably Israel and Juda too).

The text (translation given here, line by line) was found written on plaster slabs in what may have been a cultic center where sacred prostitution was practiced. Translation follows, line by line. The text was written with red and black ink on the plaster. Red letters below correspond to the words found written in red on the plaster. The translation is adapted from Hoftijzer, J., and G. Van der Kooij, eds. "The Balaam text from Deir 'Alla re-evaluated" (1991), p. 295, and from Lemaire, p. 97:

1 Scroll of [Ba]laam [son of Beo]r, the man seeing the gods; behold, the gods came to him at night, and [spoke to] him 2 according to these words, and they said to [Balaa]m son of Beor thus: “The last flame has appeared; a fire for judgment has appeared.

3 And Balaam arose in the morning, [2] days, [...] [ ], and cou[ld not eat], and he wept 4 abundantly.

And his people came up to him and they [said] to Balaam son of Beor: “Why are you fasting and why are you weeping?”

And he 5 said to them: “Sit! [1] I'll show you what the Sh[addayin] [2] are [. . . . . . . . . . . . .], and come, consider the doings of the gods.” 6 The gods have gathered together, and the Shaddayin have held an assembly, and they have said to Sh[ama]sh[3]: ‘Sew up, close the sky with your cloud! [Let] darkness be there, and not bright7ness, shadow and not radiance; For you'll strike terror [with the cl]oud of darkness, and do not make noise ever but [instead??] the passer, b- 8 -at, eagle, and peli[can], vultures, ostrich, st[ork], young of falcons, owl, chicks of heron, dove, bird-of-prey, 9 pigeon and sparrow. [every bird of the s]kies ... [on earth?] below where the stick led the ewes, hares have eaten 10 [tog]ether [fr]eely….’”

From- Comparing Mari, Neo-Assyrian, Aramaean, and Biblical prophetic texts
©Gildas Hamel, January 2004

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[1] or "Return!" (as in "Repent!").

[2] The Shaddayin = the Powerful ones?  Cf. the appellation "El Shadday" in the Bible.

[3] Shamash is a female deity of rain.