What Happened at Peor? Part 2

The Balaam Inscription

Outside of the Hebrew Bible, the only other related textual source is what scholars have called the Balaam Inscription. During the 1967 archeology season at Tell Deir ‘Allā,[1] a worker was shoveling away debris out of a temple complex when he noticed a piece of plaster with some ancient text on it. He called the leading archeologist, H. J. Franken, to come look at what he found. Quickly, Franken knew that this was a significant find, so he ordered the area tented off and began to carefully gather all the pieces of the plaster, documenting them as the workers gathered them. In his brief notes after the season ended, he said that “nearer to the summit of the tell we found a great amount of wall plaster, partly written with a text in black. The text escaped destruction in the fire by the fell after a second earthquake shock, traces of which were found at various place.”[2] Franken sent the text[3] to Dr. J. Hoftijzer to translate and analyze. What they found was remarkable. The inscription opens with “The account of [Balaam, son of Beo]r, who was a seer of the [gods].”[4] Apparently this inscription records a story of Balaam, who is correlated with the Balaam of Numbers 22-24 by the phrase “son of Beor.”

Dating of the Balaam Inscription

Numbers 25 and the Balaam text are, however, not from the same time period. Based on the form of the script and the archeological evidence, the text was created sometime in the eighth century,[5] while the Numbers 25 account dates back to the fourteenth or fifteenth century. How are the texts connected? The answer lies in the opening words “the account.” This implies that there is a tradition or record of Balaam that was kept in the Deir ‘Allā temple. It is reasonable that, upon the death of the well-known prophet Balaam, someone collected his prophecies and recorded them. This was probably similar to the collection of the writings of the Hebrew prophets. And later, another person read the prophecies and then had them painted on a plaster wall.[6]

The Content of the Balaam Inscription

The text is a doomsday oracle from the mouth of Balaam. In the first section,[7] Balaam pronounces that gods have ordered another god, whose name is missing, to shut up the sky and bring darkness and confusion on the earth.[8] The second section is in worse condition, where El seems to be building a Necropolis at Sheol in which rot and death are rampant.[9] Although there is insufficient evidence to connect the second section of the oracle with a death cult, the tangential connection between the sacrifices of the dead to Baal Peor (cf. Ps. 106:28) and the death-scene recorded about El are intriguing.

The Gods of the Balaam Inscription

A connection to the Numbers 25 account comes from the gods recorded in the text. Although the text does not describe Baal himself, the text records the name of the chief god El, who in the traditional Canaanite pantheon is the father of Baal. Second the text mentions a goddess by the name of Šagar-and-Ištar (or Šagar wa-Ištar), a compound name which is not unusual in Canaanite mythic literature. Balaam has a devotion to this goddess, defending her against her advisories.[10] Thus, it appears that Balaam had a personal connection with the goddess Ištar, whose connection to fertility cults is evident in the ANE context.

The Šaddayyin in the Balaam Inscription

The final and most striking reference to the gods of Balaam is the mention of the Šdyn, vocalized as Šaddayyin. These Šaddayyin are part of the counsel of the gods, and they issue a decree that a goddess, probably Šagar wa-Ištar, should shut up the heavens and bring doom on the earth.[11] Though Numbers 25 does not reference the Šaddayyin, two other passages in the Hebrew Bible do. Deuteronomy 32 traces the history of Yahweh people as he protected them in the wilderness. But the people rebelled and sacrificed to Šdym, vocalized Šediym (Deut. 32:17).[12] Given the context of rebellion to other gods, it is best to take this reference as the rebellion at Peor, because up to that point in their history, they had not followed other gods as a nation.[13]

The only other reference to Šdym in the Hebrew Bible is in Psalm 106:37, where the people offered their sons and daughters to the Šdym. In context, verses 28-31 describe the sin of Peor, then verse 32-33 describe the sin at Meribah, and verses 34-39 describe the sin of the people during the time of the judges.

Balaam’s Gods at the Worship of Baal Peor

In Numbers 25:2, the Moabite women invite the men of Israel to come and sacrifice to their gods (אֱלֹהֵיהֶן). If the word here should be translated as a true plural, rather than a majestic plural, it would fit the context of the Balaam inscription. If the Hebrew Bible and Balaam can be connected in this way, it suggests that the worship of Baal Peor is similar to the worship of the other traditional Canaanite pantheon.

[1] Tell Deir ‘Allā is located about 25 miles north of the traditional site of Shittim, the location of the Baal Peor narrative.

[2] H. J. Franken, “Texts from the Persian Period from Tell Deir ’Allā,” Vetus Testamentum 17, no. 4 (1967): 480–81.

[3] Jo Ann Hackett, The Balaam Text from Deir ’Allā, Harvard Semitic Monographs 31 (Chico: Scholars Press, 1980), 123. The text is one of the most curious finds in recent times. Though the language is translatable, the exact nature of the language is not easily identifiable. The script appears to be Aramaic, but much of the structure of the text does not conform to any known dialect of Aramaic. However, it does not agree with any known Semitic language. Jo Ann Hackett argues that the text should be classified as a South Canaanite language.

[4] Hackett, 29.

[5] P. Kyle McCharter, “The Balaam Texts from Deir ʿAllā: The First Combination,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 239 (1980): 50.

[6] This proposal may also be substantiated by the confusion of the text. While the script is early Aramaic, the language seems to be a south Semitic dialect. It could have been that the painter was reading the old account and painting it on the wall with a new script and some slight changes in vowels to accommodate the text to the reader.

[7] The sections are called “combinations,” because the pieces of the plaster had to be combined to form a whole. These combinations are reasonably certain. The term combination does not mean that the text one direction you would get one reading, if you rearrange the text you get another reading. The two major combinations are two different sections of the prophecy, not different arrangements of the same plaster pieces. Here, the term section is used to avoid this confusion.

[8] Hackett, The Balaam Text from Deir ’Allā, 29–30.

[9] “Deir ’Alla Inscription” (Livius.org, 2016), http://www.livius.org/sources/content/deir-alla-inscription/.

[10] “Deir ’Alla Inscription.” “[i.12] Heed the admonition, adversaries of Sha[gar-and-Ištar]! … skilled diviner. To skilled diviners shall one take you, and to an oracle; [i.14] To a perfumer of myrrh and a priestess. Who covers his body with oil, And rubs himself with olive oil. To one bearing an offering in a horn; One augurer after another, and yet another. As one augurer broke away from his colleagues, The strikers departed …”

[11] “Deir ’Alla Inscription.” “The gods have banded together; [i.8] The Shaddai gods have established a council, And they have said to [the goddess] Shagar: ‘Sew up, close up the heavens with dense cloud, That darkness exist there, not brilliance.” In the inscription itself, only the first letter š of the name of the goddess is left, thus, Shagar is interpolated as the goddess here, though the interpolation is not definite.

[12] While many commentators in the past compare the Šediym to the Še’ȋrīm in Leviticus 17:7, the linguistic connection only comes through the English translation of both words as demons. Cf. Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, vol. 1 (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 141.

[13] The Golden Calf incident was rebellion as well, but not to another god. It was an idol of the true god who brought them out of Egypt.

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