May 6, 2008

Balaam in the Tell Deir 'Alla Inscription

In 1967 pieces of a plaster inscription was discovered
in some building ruins (generally thought to be an ancient sanctuary)[1] located at Tell Deir 'Alla the Transjordan valley near the Jabbok River. The dating of the ink on plaster inscription has ranged from the eighth century to the Persian period, although most seem to hold an eighth century date.[2] The issue of dating was initially complicated by two problems. First, the text is fragmentary and at least fifteen combinations of the inscription have been proposed.[3] Second, the form of the text is debated (Canaanite, Aramaic, both?).[4] However, it is now generally agreed that the first combination (see below) is the most likely and that the text is Aramaic (at least primarily).

In the first combination, and in the first line, Balaam is described as a “seer of the gods” (zh ˒lhn, I, 1). Interestingly, Yahweh is never mentioned, although El, El Shaddayin (plural), and a goddess (whose name is mostly missing from the fragmentary text) are found in the text. The superscription also mentions that Balaam sees an oracle (wyzh mzh) like a vision (˒). The rest of the text contains material not found in the biblical record (although some of the language is similar).[5] The oracle itself appears to relate to divine punishment and the loss of fertility.[6] A detailed examination of the text is not possible here but such treatments are available.[7]

(1) [VACAT] The sa]ying[s of Bala]am, [son of Be]or, the man who was a seer of the gods. Lo! Gods came to him in the night [and spoke to] him (2) according to these w[ord]s. Then they said to [Bala]am, son of Beor, thus: “Let someone make a [ ] hereafter, so that [what] you have hea[rd may be se]en!” (3) And Balaam rose in the morning [ ] right hand [ ]and could not [eat] and wept (4) aloud. Then his people came in to him [and said] to Balaam, son of Beor, “Do you fast? [ ] Do you weep?” And he (5) said to them, “Si[t do]wn! I shall inform you what the Shad[daying have done]. Now come, see the deeds of the g[o]ds! The g[o]ds have gathered (6) and the Shaddayin have taken their places in the assembly and said to Sh[ , thus:] ‘Sew shut the skies with your thick cloud! There let there be darkness and no (7) perpetual shining and n[o] radiance! For you will put a sea[l upon the thick] cloud of darkness and you will not remove it forever! For the swift has (8) reproached the eagle, and the voice of vultures resounds. The st[ork has ] the young of the NHS-bird and ripped up the chicks of the heron. The swallow has belittled (9) the dove, and the sparrow [ ] and [ ] the staff. Instead of ewes the stick is driven along. Hares have eaten (10) [ ]. Freemen[ ] have drunk wine, and hyenas have listened to instruction. The whelps of the (11) f[ox ] laughs at wise men, and the poor woman has mixed myrrh, and the priestess (12) [ ] to the one who wears a girdle of threads. The esteemed esteems and the esteemer is es[teemed. ] and everyone has seen those things that decree offspring and young. (15) [ ] to the leopard. The piglet has chased the young (16) [of ] those who are girded, and the eye. . .’”

[1] There is some discussion regarding the original placement of the plaster. Some suggest that it was on a wall and other suggest that it may have been part of a stele. See Gerrit van der Kooij, “Book and Script at Deir 'Alla,” in The Balaam Text from Deir 'Alla Re-Evaluated: Proceedings of the International Symposium Held at Leiden 21-24 August 1989, ed. J. Hoftijzer and G. Van Der Kooij (New York: E. J. Brill, 1991), 239-41.

[2] See P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., “The Balaam Texts from Deir 'Alla: The First Combination,” Bulletin of the Schools of Oriental Research 237 (1980): 49-60, J. Naveh, “The Date of the Deir 'Alla Inscription in Aramaic Script,” Israel Exploration Journal 17 (1967): 236-38.

[3] M. W. Chavalas, “Balaam,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), 76.

[4] Dennis Pardee, “The Linguistic Classification of the Deir 'Alla Text,” in The Balaam Text from Deir 'Alla Re-Evaluated: Proceedings of the International Symposium Held at Leiden 21-24 August 1989, ed. J. Hoftijzer and G. Van Der Kooij (New York: E. J. Brill, 1991), 100-05.

[5] Hackett, “Balaam,” 572

[6] Chavalas, “Balaam,” 76.

[7] See Jo Ann Hackett, The Balaam Text from Deir 'Alla, Harvard Semitic Monographs 31, ed. Frank Moore Cross (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1980), 21-89, McCarter, “The Balaam Texts from Deir 'Alla: The First Combination,” 51-9.

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