Balaam in Scripture and in Inscription

By Stern, Philip | Midstream, May-June 2002 | Go to article overview

Balaam in Scripture and in Inscription


Stern, Philip, Midstream


A notable new addition to the noted Anchor Bible series of Biblical commentaries, Numbers 21-36 recently arrived on my doorstep, a gift from its author, Baruch A. Levine. A scholar who bestrides the Biblical field like a colossus, Levine has recently retired after decades of teaching at New York University (he was my mentor). This is not a review of the book, but rather a discussion stimulated by the commentator's coverage of the book of Numbers' jewel, the Balaam story. As far as I'm concerned, the Balaam story is one of the few redeeming sections in what has to be considered one of the "least exciting" books of the Bible--for the most part tedious and lacking in literary interest.

Baruch A. Levine is a proponent of the documentary hypothesis advanced by the 19th-century German savant, Julius Wellhausen (though we live in an era where many Biblical scholars no longer pursue this hypothesis, which divides up the Torah into four or five documentary sources put together like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle). Nonetheless, it makes the Balaam story all the more interesting. Although an unreconstructed source critic, Professor Levine states that the story of Balaam isn't to be traced to any of the major documents or combinations thereof but is an independent unit in the book of Numbers.

For those to whom the name "Balaam" doesn't conjure up anything but a blank, here is a thumbnail sketch of the plot. According to this story, which occupies Numbers 22-24, Balaam was a non-Israelite diviner whom Balak, king of Moab, hired to curse the Israelite host encamped on his border, in order that he might then successfully throw Israel back from his border and scatter the invaders to the four winds. The story portrays Balaam as reluctant to accompany the Moabite king, since the prophet could only speak the words that the God of Israel put into his mouth. And so each time Balaam opens his mouth ostensibly to curse Israel on Balak's behalf, he utters an oracle, worded in verse, that blesses Israel instead of cursing it--much to the chagrin of Balak, king of Moab. The most famous line from these blessings is "How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places. O Israel," which is used as the first line of a prayer, composed of verses from the Psalms, that adorns the morning service of Jewish prayerbooks.

There is also a story within the story, which Baruch Levine sees as a later insertion, the tale of "Balaam and his Ass." When Balaam goes to Balak, God is angered and sends an angel to bar Balaam's way. Balaam's ass sees the angel, but Balaam does not, so he strikes the ass three times, and then finally the ass speaks to Balaam; the animal upbraids the diviner for striking him, and the ass points out the angel to Balaam. This fairy tale may be the best-known section of Numbers 22-24.

Baruch A. Levine administers a thorough Hebrew lesson on each word and phrase of these three chapters. This feature of his commentary would be best skimmed by the lay reader, replete as it is with vocabulary known only to scholars or to people with considerable acquaintance of Hebrew grammar. Yet the general reader will still have access to the scholar's Introductions, Translations, and Comments.

As is usual in Biblical studies, Levine separates the prose narrative from the four oracles or poems, saying further that they reflect different stages in the development of Hebrew monotheism. According to him, the poems reflect a polytheistic outlook, in which there is a pantheon, consisting of the Canaanite god El, and the gods Elyon, Shaddai, and the national god of Israel, YHWH. The narrative in which the poems are couched is the product of a much later, strict monotheist. The god El merged with YHWH, but this process was not complete at the time of the writing of the poems, which the commentator dates to the middle of the ninth century BCE.

Now Baruch Levine is not being capricious. He is basing this reading of the Balaam oracles on the discovery of the Deir Allah inscriptions, Deir Allah being a site in the Transjordan near the Jabbok/Zerqa River. …

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