So Balak…sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor at Pethor, which is near the River in the land of the people of Amaw, to call him, saying, “Behold, a people has come out of Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they are dwelling opposite me. Come now, curse this people for me.” [Numbers 22:4b-6a (ESV)]
When reading the narratives of the Old Testament, it’s easy to think that some of the stories are more legend than history. Take the story of Balaam: the pagan prophet hired to curse the Israelites who, instead, blessed the Israelites and pronounced disaster on their enemies. Since this took place around 1406 BC, it’s easy to question the story’s accuracy. Balaam’s existence, however, has extra-Biblical non-Israelite back-up. The story of Balaam, “a divine seer,” who pronounced doom to his own people, was written in red and black ink on the plaster wall of a building in the ancient city of Deir Alla in present day Jordan (about 25 miles from where the incident recorded in Numbers 21 took place). Although the building collapsed as the result of an earthquake around 706 BC (an event mentioned in the books of Amos and Zechariah), in 1967, 119 fragments of Balaam’s story were found in the rubble. Probably written about 800 BC, the text begins with the title, “Warnings from the Book of Balaam the son of Beor. He was a seer of the gods.” Two more times in the first four lines, the prophet is referred to as “the son of Beor” just as he is in the Hebrew Bible. Referencing “the Book of Balaam” indicates that the text was copied from an earlier text and that the original material was older than the writing on the wall. While the Deir Alla story mentions pagan gods, the God whose visit caused the prophet to weep bitterly is referred to as “el Shaddai,” which is how the God of Israel was referenced during this time. With much of the text given to the prophet’s curses, it‘s easy to see why Balak would hire Balaam to curse the Israelites. Although the story on the wall, with its mention of other gods and goddesses, doesn’t exactly match the Numbers’ version, one would expect a pagan people to put their slant on it and, with only a portion of the wall existing, we have only part of the story.
When archeologists wondered why Balaam’s book would be written on the wall of a building in Deir Alla, their answer was found in eleven clay tablets found in the same area. Dating from Balaam’s time, they identify Deir Alla as Pethor (Balaam’s home) and speak of the “smiters of Pethor.” If this “divine seer” lived in what is now Deir Alla, it is not surprising that his story would be preserved in his hometown. Scholars speculate that these tablets were written by Balaam himself.
These archeology findings pose a problem for skeptics who’d prefer to think of the exodus, Israel’s wilderness wanderings, and the conquest of Canaan as things of legend. While archeology doesn’t prove Balaam’s story, it certainly backs it up. Balaam was a real prophet, known for cursing, who lived on the east side of the Jordan, and was revered for centuries after his death. There is no doubt that Balaam existed, which leads us to ask skeptics, “If Balaam was real, what about Balak, Moses, Joshua and the Israelites?”