The Story of Balaam by Jo Ann Hackett

Balaam son of Beor is known to us not only from the Hebrew Bible but also from an inscription, found in 1967 in Jordan, that can be dated to the eighth century B.C.E.

According to the lengthy account in the biblical book of Numbers (chapters 22–24), which likely consists of two or more combined literary traditions, Balak, the king of Moab, is frightened by reports of the approaching Israelites and decides to hire Balaam to pronounce a curse upon Israel so that he will be able to defeat them in war. Ancient Near Eastern kings often expected prophets and diviners to pronounce such maledictions upon their foes before battle, and Balaam was apparently known as a famous seer or prophet. God (here called “Elohim”) appears several times to Balaam in a dream and forbids him to curse Israel. Eventually, however, the deity grants Balaam permission to accept Balak’s assignment. What follows is the well-known scene of a talking donkey and a messenger from Yahweh blocking Balaam on his way to proclaim the curse. Finally, Balaam arrives at his destination, yet he ends up arousing the indignation of the Moabite king by repeatedly pronouncing upon Israel several lengthy, beautifully formulated poetic blessings.

Curiously, most other biblical references to Balaam are negative. Though the account described above reports that he refused to curse Israel and rejected the handsome payment offered by the Moabite king, other texts denounce him as a prophet for hire (Josh 13:22, Josh 24:9, and Neh 13:2) and report his execution (Num 31:8) as punishment for involvement in the Baal Peor incident (Num 25), where he is blamed for inciting Moabite women to entice Israelite men to sin.

As for the nonbiblical inscription found in Jordan, it consists of a plaster text found on the wall of a house at the site of Tell Deir Alla (perhaps to be identified with biblical Sukkoth). The text refers to the same Balaam son of Beor, who receives a terrifying message from the gods. The next morning he cannot eat and weeps aloud. When his people demand an explanation, he tells them he has learned that the so-called Shadday gods have convened a council and decreed to seal the skies with perpetual darkness. (A related name, El Shadday is also used in the Hebrew Bible to refer God; it is usually translated as “God Almighty.”) Although the text is difficult to decipher, what seems to have provoked the gods to bring about this calamity is the pervasive reversal of the natural and social orders (for example, the text reports that hyenas listen to instruction, while the fox’s whelps laugh at wise men.)

Although the biblical story of Balaam was written long after it was thought to have occurred, this nonbiblical inscription witnesses to the tradition of a Transjordanian diviner/prophet named Balaam who answered to gods called Shadday.

Jo Ann Hackett, "Story of Balaam", n.p. [cited 24 Sep 2022]. Online:


Jo Ann Hackett

Jo Ann Hackett
Professor, University of Texas

Jo Ann Hackett has taught Hebrew Bible and Biblical Hebrew since 1979 and has been professor of Middle Eastern studies and of religious studies at the University of Texas, Austin, since 2009.

The supreme male divinity of Mesopotamia and Canaan.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

The Transjordan is the region east of the Jordan River in the Southern Levant, described in Numbers 34:15 as home to the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and half of Manasseh. The Transjordan was also home to the Ammonites and the Moabites.

Josh 13:22

22Along with the rest of those they put to death, the Israelites also put to the sword Balaam son of Beor, who practiced divination.

Josh 24:9

9Then King Balak son of Zippor of Moab, set out to fight against Israel. He sent and invited Balaam son of Beor to curse you,

Neh 13:2

2because they did not meet the Israelites with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them—yet our God turned the curse into a blessing.

Num 31:8

8They killed the kings of Midian: Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian, in addition to others who were slain by them; and they also killed B ... View more

Num 25

Worship of Baal of Peor
1While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab.2These invited the people to the ... View more

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