This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Balaam the Prophet*

Based on the information supplied by the Bible, it is not immediately apparent why Jewish tradition has been so hostile to poor old Balaam.

Admittedly, at his worst moments, he comes across as a pathetic, almost comical creature, a weak-willed man who is subjected to a humiliating argument with a talking ass.

Yet the same individual is acknowledged to be an authentic prophet who obeys the directives of the God of Israel, in whose name he blesses Israel with some of the Bible's most inspired poetic outpourings.

In light of the above considerations, it is hard to comprehend why the Bible considered him such a formidable antagonist that he had to be executed by Joshua's army.

Our understanding of this non-Hebrew prophet has been enriched in recent years by a remarkable inscription that was unearthed in 1967 in archeological excavations at the Deir 'Alla site in Jordan, not far from the scene of Balaam's activities in the book of Numbers. The text in question, which was probably composed around 700 B.C.E., was written in Aramaic (or Ammonite) on plaster slabs that might have formed part of a sanctuary or cultic monument. From it we learn of the existence, some six hundered years after Balaam's lifetime, of a religious movement that continued to revere Balaam as its great prophet and spiritual mentor.

Several features in this memorial reveal uncanny resemblances to the familiar Biblical story of Balaam, whose role is depicted in terms that are reminiscent of the Hebrew prophets.

Thus, "Balaam bar Be'or" is said in the inscription to be a "seer of the gods" and is the one to whom those gods reveal their intentions in "visions of the night."

The names of the gods who speak to the pagan prophet are also familiar to us from the Bible, including "El" and a council of deities called "Shaddayin" (mighty ones). Balaam is informed in a dream that the people are about to be punished by darkness, drought and other natural disasters, and he must urge the people to placate the angry divinities.

It is clear however that these surface similarities to Jewish religious concepts only serve to enhance the fundamental contrast between the pagan seer and the Prophets of Israel.

We must not lose sight of the fact that Balaam's gods are referred to in the plural, signifying a world governed by disharmony and conflict. In fact some scholars have suggested that the Bible, in order to prevent any confusion between the divine epithet "Shaddai" and its profaned use among the pagans, deliberately altered its pronunciation, turning it into "shed[im]," the common word for "demons."

The most glaring differences between the perceptions of prophecy in the Torah and in Balaam's cult become apparent when we read in the inscription how the heathen leader responded to the warnings of doom.

Now, we are all familiar with the typical Jewish responses to impending catastrophes: The people are urged to examine their spiritual states, and to take special care to improve their standards of morality, social justice and the welfare of the poor.

Not so Balaam. Although the concluding lines of the inscription have been poorly preserved, and several different conjectural reconstructions have been proposed for the Aramaic text, one very persuasive interpretation reads that Balaam exhorted his people to placate their gods by deepening their commitment to the promiscuous activities that were carried out, with the assistance of sacred prostitutes, in the name of the local fertility cult. According to this theory, it is likely that the structure that once housed the inscription had been just such a cultic brothel.

If this hypothesis is correct, then it also sheds light upon the Biblical account of how, immediately following the Balaam episode, the Israelites were enticed into commiting harlotry with Moabite and Midianite women. That transgression, which brought divine punishment upon the people, is ascribed by Jewish tradition to Balaam.

From the Deir `Alla inscription we learn that from Balaam's perspective such behaviour might not have been intended as a deliberate affront to God, so much as it was a pious pagan "mitzvah."

All these details might help explain why Balaam, ostensibly speaking in the name of the same god, but representing a religious world-view diametrically opposed to Jewish moral values, came to be regarded as such a serious threat to the Biblical ideals of spirituality.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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[1]First publication: Jewish Free Press, July 5 1995, p. 10.