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Biblical Balaam's Historical Existence Proven, Covered Up
January 14, 2014 4:00 PM   Subscribe

So as not to bury the lede, Dutch archaeologists Found a 2,800 year old document that corroborates the Old Testament story of Balaam. Some background: Balaam was a guy in the bible. He had a talking donkey and, according to some, was constipated.

He was ordered by Balak, the king of Moab, to curse the Israelites. God, apparently, intervened. Instead, he gave them a rather lovely compliment.

Later, he did some freaky stuff to ruin the moral fiber of the Israelites. But here's the crazy thing: An archaeological discovery in 1967 in Deir Alla, Jordan, corroborates the story of Balaam as told in the bible. Names, actions, the whole megilla are described in the 2,800 year-old pagan text. This is 600-800 years older than the Dead Sea scrolls. Both the relevant Dead Sea scroll and the pagan document, are sitting in drawers in the Archaeological Museum of Jordan.

A different famous talking donkey.
posted by bluejayway (68 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Previously

(context)
posted by Flunkie at 4:07 PM on January 14


This is interesting stuff, but I'm always a bit uneasy when anyone uses this kind of "the Bible talks about [foo] and here's this other thing that talks about [foo] and so that means THE WHOLE BIBLE IS TRUE OMIGOD" reasoning. Not that the first link does that, but I get the sense that that's their perspective.

I mean, what we know of as the Bible was written piecemeal by a whole slew of people over the course of nigh unto a thousand years, so it's not that surprising that some of the same names get mentioned by more than one source. But that's only because sometimes that's what writers do. The fact that the Deir Alla text and the Bible both mention Balaam doesn't necessarily prove that what happened in the Bible to be factual, any less than Nixon being an actual person who was used as a character in a Doctor Who episode can be taken as proof that The Doctor actually exists either.

although it'd be so cool if it were
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:08 PM on January 14 [12 favorites]


Corroborates is a little much. At best this is evidence that the writers of the bible and whoever was writing on the wall in ancient Jordan were using the same sources and/or had access to a common cultural tradition. This does not prove that any real person named Balaam actually existed no more than it proves the sky god El exists.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 4:08 PM on January 14 [10 favorites]


"If Balaam was a real person, what about Balak, Moses, Joshua and all of the other persons named in the Biblical narrative? They must have been real as well, and the events described authentic."

By this logic, Abraham Lincoln actually killed vampires.
posted by Atom Eyes at 4:10 PM on January 14 [55 favorites]


There's another series about Abe Lincoln, vampire hunter?!?
posted by Apocryphon at 4:12 PM on January 14 [2 favorites]


I like that dwelling place, O Israel. That is a nice dwelling place.
posted by maryr at 4:12 PM on January 14


Some background: Balaam was a guy in the bible. He had a talking donkey and, according to some, was constipated.

That's one hell of a mini bio.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 4:19 PM on January 14 [17 favorites]


Do not belittle the Sky God El!
posted by Windopaene at 4:20 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


There's another series about Abe Lincoln, vampire hunter?!?

No, but there is a drawing of him killing a vampire on the wall of the bathroom at that gas station near my house.

I mean, now there is.
posted by anazgnos at 4:21 PM on January 14 [26 favorites]


Balaam (Wikipedia)
posted by Brian B. at 4:23 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


Abraham Lincoln actually killed vampires.

Amen, brother, and many other godly acts too... like the felling of the trees and epic constipation. When they used to let me teach calculus, I would explain to the students that great American presidents, when they die, ascend into the heavens and become gods, watching over us and occasionally intervening to save this great nation in times of trouble... I mean, why else would we build pagan temples to them in Washington D.C.?
posted by ennui.bz at 4:26 PM on January 14 [10 favorites]


I can guess what Washington is god of.
posted by maryr at 4:27 PM on January 14 [8 favorites]


'Sew the skies shut with your thick cloud! There let there be darkness and no (7) perpetual shining and n[o] radiance! For you will put a sea[l upon the thick] cloud of darkness and you will not remove it forever!

Aaahhh, so good.

That said the main framing of this in the Elder of Zion blog post is really weird and dubiously sourced.
posted by jetlagaddict at 4:29 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


What is an NHS-bird? Is this some sort of prophecy of the avian flu?
posted by larrybob at 4:30 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


I would explain to the students that great American presidents, when they die, ascend into the heavens and become gods
The US capitol dome agrees.
posted by Flunkie at 4:31 PM on January 14 [4 favorites]


I can guess what Washington is god of.

Saving children (but not the British children)?
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:31 PM on January 14 [4 favorites]


Skinny jeans.
posted by elizardbits at 4:35 PM on January 14 [3 favorites]


Balaam was in charge of sex priestesses made up of Moabite and Midianite women. These women successfully seduced the Israelites in an orgy of sex and idolatry

Wait.. and he's the bad guy?
posted by supercres at 4:36 PM on January 14 [2 favorites]


What is an NHS-bird? Is this some sort of prophecy of the avian flu?


Someone else tackles the grammar here but I have to warn you it's pretty intense.
posted by jetlagaddict at 4:38 PM on January 14


My standard reply when someone claims that "proof that a certain city or person mentioned in the Bible really existed equals proof that the Biblical account is historically accurate" is that the existence of Athens and the ruins of Troy prove the events in the Iliad happened, so all hail Zeus Almighty and grey-eyed Athena. I'm a Christian, but I hate specious reasoning. (To be fair, I also hate the shallow "the Bible says this person did miracles, therefore he must not have existed at all, and there is no historical basis whatsoever. Both are equally sloppy, mirror-image arguments.)
posted by Pater Aletheias at 4:41 PM on January 14 [25 favorites]


The amazing Biblical archaeological find no one talks about

What a load of crap. The blogger continues "I had never heard of this 1967 find..." Oh, you've never heard of it, so ipso facto no one talks about it? As it happens, I'm reading James L. Kugel's How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (Free Press, 2007), and he has a whole section on this (pp. 338-340), beginning "In 1967, an Arab worker at an excavation site at Deir 'Alla', in Jordan, discovered a piece of plaster with writing on it. It turned out to be part of an inscription dating back deep into biblical times..." His discussion is nuanced and interesting, like the whole book, which I recommend to all and sundry. But come on, this has not been "covered up." You just hadn't heard of it.
posted by languagehat at 4:52 PM on January 14 [31 favorites]


Do not belittle the Sky God El

Yeah — it still beats the hell out of waiting on some sketchy corner in the middle of the night for the Sky God Bus to show up.
posted by this is a thing at 4:57 PM on January 14 [19 favorites]


Monorailtheism or GTFO.
posted by Atom Eyes at 5:00 PM on January 14 [16 favorites]


the whole megila

I think that's a different story...
posted by overeducated_alligator at 5:02 PM on January 14 [6 favorites]


I'm kind of intrigued by this Balaam guy on a story level. Most of the Old Testament is about God or His chosen people the Israelites beating up ignorant hicks who didn't understand that they were opposing the creator of the universe. But this Balaam could talk to God, and God talked back. He knew the real story, he got the signs and visions, and still stuck with his pagan idols. That's interesting.
posted by Kevin Street at 5:27 PM on January 14 [10 favorites]


He had a talking donkey

Voiced by Eddie Murphy.
posted by XMLicious at 5:32 PM on January 14 [4 favorites]


EmpressCallipygos: "This is interesting stuff, but I'm always a bit uneasy when anyone uses this kind of "the Bible talks about [foo] and here's this other thing that talks about [foo] and so that means THE WHOLE BIBLE IS TRUE OMIGOD" reasoning. Not that the first link does that, but I get the sense that that's their perspective."

I feel like I've seen more and more of this style of article recently, but I remember seeing them as a kid and uneasily wondering if people just accept this as fact? Blindly?

It's obvious now that of course they do, but at least to me, that's the cause of my unease. I suppose I shouldn't be shocked, "the religious" has been a marketing group for a really long time.
posted by Sphinx at 5:35 PM on January 14


Yeah the style is very much the fundamentalist "isn't it amazing how a banana fights right in your hand" question mark and exclamation point style. It's super obnoxious and I don't know how people fall for it.
posted by empath at 5:39 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


There's another series about Abe Lincoln, vampire hunter?!?

Would you settle for Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies?
posted by straight at 5:41 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


And 'el' was not the god of the Israelites. He was one of the many gods of the Canaanites, and his worship was all over the place. Basically anywhere the Phoenicians went. He was the equivalent of Zeus/Jupiter, more or less. In fact, from what I under stand, the Israelites were more associated with Yahweh, than El, and the Judeans worshipped El.
posted by empath at 5:41 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


Can't believe I left out the other famous talking donkey. Am I going to hear about that when I get back to my tent!
posted by bluejayway at 5:45 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


El is one of the Hebrew names used for God/Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible. It is assumed by folks who know the Ancient Near East that he's the same guy the Canaanites were worshiping, but over time the Hebrews developed some different ideas about him.
posted by chrchr at 5:46 PM on January 14 [2 favorites]


This Wikipedia entry about El in the Hebrew Bible ain't a bad read.
posted by chrchr at 5:50 PM on January 14 [2 favorites]


Mark Twain had some things to say about God and the Midianites.
posted by mullingitover at 5:50 PM on January 14 [2 favorites]


But come on, this has not been "covered up."

But they put it in a drawer. A drawer!
posted by thelonius at 5:52 PM on January 14 [2 favorites]


God and the Midianites.

I liked it better when God was powerful just because he was powerful not because "his Midianite levels were high." Curse you George Lucas!
posted by Joey Michaels at 6:10 PM on January 14 [6 favorites]


wow, that is one hell of a misleading OP. Like nearly "Chariots of the Gods" levels of running with the evidence is going on there.

Very surprisingly, since Wikipedia is often terrible about biblical history (the "neutral point of view" halfway between scholarship and biblical literalists is still fucking crazy), the article on this subject is very succinct:

"The Deir 'Alla Inscription (or Bala'am Son of Be'or Inscription) was discovered during a 1967 excavation in Deir 'Alla, Jordan. The excavation revealed a many-chambered structure that had also been destroyed by earthquake, during the Persian period at the site, on the wall of which was written a story relating visions of the seer of the gods Bala'am, son of Be'or, who may be the same Bala'am mentioned in Numbers 22–24 and in other passages of the Bible. This Bala'am differs from the one in Numbers in that rather than being a prophet of Yahweh he is associated with Ashtar, a god named Shgr, and Shadday gods and goddesses.[1] It also features the word "Elohim", taken to mean "gods" in the plural rather than the Hebrew deity."

Here is the translation given of the text:

(1) [VACAT] The sa]ying[s of Bala]am, [son of Be]or, the man who was a seer of the gods. Lo! Gods came to him in the night [and spoke to] him (2) according to these w[ord]s. Then they said to [Bala]am, son of Beor, thus: Let someone make a [ ] hearafter, so that [what] you have hea[rd may be se]en!" (3) And Balaam rose in the morning [ ] right hand [ ] and could not [eat] and wept (4) aloud. Then his people came in to him [and said] to Balaam, son of Beor, "Do you fast? [ ] Do you weep?" And he (5) said to them, "Si[t] do]wn! I shall inform you what the Shad[dayin have done]. Now come, see the deeds of the g[o]ds!. The g[o]ds have gathered (6) and the Shaddayin have taken their places in the assembly and said to Sh[ , thus:] 'Sew the skies shut with your thick cloud! There let there be darkness and no (7) perpetual shining and n[o] radiance! For you will put a sea[l upon the thick] cloud of darkness and you will not remove it forever! For the swift has (8) reproached the eagle, the voice of vultures resounds. The st[ork has ] the young of the NHS-bird and ripped up the chicks of the heron. The swallow has belittled (9) the dove, and the sparrow [ ] and [ ] the staff. Instead of ewes the stick is driven along. Hares have eaten (10) [ ]. Freemen [] have drunk wine, and hyenas have listened to instruction. The whelps of the (11) f[ox] laughs at wise men, and the poor woman has mixed myrhh, and the priestess (12) [ ] to the one who wears a girdle of threads. The esteemed esteems and the esteemer is es[teemed. ] and everyone has seen those things that decree offspring and young. (15) [ ] to the leopard. The piglet has chased the young (16) [of] those who are girded and the eye ....'"
posted by Riemann at 6:13 PM on January 14 [4 favorites]


The esteemed esteems and the esteemer is es[teemed. ]

I use that joke all the time and nobody ever laughs.
posted by kiltedtaco at 6:20 PM on January 14 [6 favorites]


> "But they put it in a drawer. A drawer!"

On the other hand, I hear they have top men working on it now.

Top. Men.
posted by kyrademon at 6:21 PM on January 14 [13 favorites]


Been poking around the sites listed in the OP some more. Although it might not appear so at first this post is really pushing a particular political point of view as opposed to some "unknown" archeological find (something that is also quite common on Wikipedia talk pages for this kind of subject).

That christiananswers.net site in particular is frikken hilarious if you know anything about the subjects involved. It is seriously moon-landing-hoax type materiel.

btw, just compare the translation of the The Deir 'Alla inscription I posted above with the text from Numbers (NRSV):

Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!” But the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?” And he said, “No.”


Other than the name they have nothing in common




Now, the inscription in question is of course very interesting. It is a very long, very well preserved text (really, compared to most finds it is) and its age is amazing. But trying to shoehorn in Numbers 22 just cheapens it. What I would compare it to in the Tanakh is the tendency for prophets to derive their authority from having observed the assembly of the Gods (monotheism came very late). This inscription has not been homogenized by later monotheistic editors like the Tanakh and so is very interesting in presenting a polytheistic (the use of "pagan" in the first article is so telling of it being crankery) early West Semitic Prophet of the same style as those who made their way into the canon.
posted by Riemann at 6:28 PM on January 14 [7 favorites]


But come on, this has not been "covered up."

But they put it in a drawer. A drawer!


So would you say this has been... cupboard up?
posted by maryr at 6:36 PM on January 14 [17 favorites]


This Wikipedia entry about El in the Hebrew Bible ain't a bad read.
posted by chrchr


Ya, that hurts my brain. Cool stuff.
posted by rosswald at 6:39 PM on January 14


Obligatory Nick Cave reference.
posted by ovvl at 7:01 PM on January 14


It's a little known fact that Balaam was a small, pink horse.
posted by JHarris at 7:17 PM on January 14 [2 favorites]


El is one of the Hebrew names used for God/Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible.

El became a generic word for 'god', over time, but it was originally a distinct entity from Yahweh, and stayed distinct, through a large part of the history recounted in the bible. Wikipedia is a terrible source for pretty much anything touching on biblical history, just because there are so many people with agendas editing it.
posted by empath at 7:28 PM on January 14 [3 favorites]


maryr: "I can guess what Washington is god of."

"Washington was first, and he was perfect..."
posted by IAmBroom at 7:40 PM on January 14


empath: "Yeah the style is very much the fundamentalist "isn't it amazing how a banana fights right in your hand" "

[Cleese]But what would you do if someone came at you with a bowl of raspberries?[/Cleese]
posted by IAmBroom at 7:44 PM on January 14 [2 favorites]


On the other hand, I hear they have top men working on it now.

Good news! They found a Creedence tape!
posted by A dead Quaker at 8:00 PM on January 14


totally meant to say 'fits' there. I have weird typos.
posted by empath at 8:08 PM on January 14


Balaam's ass only hits number four on this top 10 list of talking donkeys.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:36 PM on January 14 [3 favorites]


But they put it in a drawer. A drawer!

IT BELONGS IN A MUSEUM!
posted by xedrik at 8:44 PM on January 14 [2 favorites]


Poking around the wikipedia links leads to gems like this:

The tractate Sanhedrin 64a attributes to Rab through Rabbi Judah the story of a sick Gentile woman who vowed to worship every idol in the world if she recovered. Upon recovery she set out to fulfill her vow, but drew back at Pe‘or as the rites disgusted her: eating beets, drinking strong drink, and then uncovering oneself.

One of these days I'm gonna get religion.
posted by Dr Dracator at 9:38 PM on January 14 [7 favorites]


When they used to let me teach calculus, I would explain to the students that great American presidents, when they die, ascend into the heavens and become gods, watching over us and occasionally intervening to save this great nation in times of trouble... I mean, why else would we build pagan temples to them in Washington D.C.?

Oh come on, do you think those benighted peoples, with their crude tools and primitive construction techniques could build incredible precision architecture such as this? I asked a local native loitering around he base and he admitted they had no idea how it was built! OBVIOUSLY those "Monuments" were built by ancient astronauts marking landing points for their inevitable return!
posted by happyroach at 10:27 PM on January 14 [2 favorites]


empath, I agree that Wikipedia tends to be a terrible source on Biblical matters, but the bit I referred to actually aligns with my understanding of the situation that I've read elsewhere, such as Michael Coogan's footnotes in the annotated NRSV and Dr. Christine Hayes' awesome lectures. I agree with you that El and Yahweh have distinct identities in the Bible. However they seem to have the same origins, since they share a lot of the same attributes. E.g., El lives in a tent on a mountain, and Moses talks to the God of the Bible on Mt. Sinai. Then God is depicted living in the Tabernacle, at least in a figurative sense. Elsewhere in the Bible, Yahweh seems to share some attributes with Baal, which the Wikipedia entry elaborates. To me, that looks like the separate Caananite deities collapsing into one deity under monotheism. This also fits with the current theory of Hebrew origins, which posits that the Hebrew people emerged as a distinct cultural group in the midst of Caananite society, rather than as invaders from outside of it.

This thing at Exodus 6:3 is an interesting part where you see these different identities smashing together:


I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as [EL SHADDAI], but by my name [YHWH] I did not make myself known to them.


That can read like an acknowledgment that the patriarchs worshipped El, and that the new god is simply El under a different name. I don't have any agenda other than that this stuff is interesting and doesn't deserve to be dismissed like that.
posted by chrchr at 11:41 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure we disagree that much. El was a canaanite god that got merged with Yahweh at some point. It seems to me that since Yahweh isn't mentioned much or at all in Canaanite or Phoenician sources that it had to come from somewhere outside. And that the two merged at some point.
posted by empath at 11:52 PM on January 14


If anyone knows of a good reading resource about questioning "biblical" archaeology methodology, I want to read it:

"If you interpret the archaeology in parsimony with the bible, you’re a maximalist; if you interpret the archaeology at variance with the bible, you’re a minimalist. ... In fact, I would argue that the archaeological record provides greater benefit at the interpretation of historical text than the other way around. This is ultimately the crux of biblical minimalism: Finkelstein is using the archaeology to interpret biblical texts; not the biblical texts to interpret the archaeology.... I have a growing concern with the ethical framework in which some Syro-Palestinian archaeological projects are being conducted, and this has to do with many of Finkelstein’s critics for whom biblical texts are not simply invoked as a valid interpretive tool, but are viewed a priori as historically accurate." etc etc etc
posted by Marauding Ennui at 12:30 AM on January 15 [2 favorites]


throughout my school career, I had to sit through 12 years of daily bible reading. Yes, Balaam, I know you from that donkey story. But damn, we missed the part about rotating tents and prostitutes. I want my money back!
posted by ouke at 1:27 AM on January 15


Lo! Gods came to him in the night [and spoke to] him (2) according to these w[ord]s. Then they said to [Bala]am, son of Beor, thus: Let someone make a [ ] hearafter, so that [what] you have hea[rd may be se]en!"

You know, if we just assume those first two brackets enclose the space where "community website" was lost, this could be the lost prophecy of the founding of MetaFilter! It's all so clear....
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:28 AM on January 15


I know Balaam's ass from soup to nuts. I once won a prize for Scripture Knowledge.
posted by Wolfdog at 3:34 AM on January 15 [2 favorites]


If anyone knows of a good reading resource about questioning "biblical" archaeology methodology, I want to read it:

Hector Avalos' The End of Biblical Studies questions that and a whole lot more.
posted by Pararrayos at 4:23 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]


And he (5) said to them, "Si[t] do]wn! I shall inform you what the Shad[dayin have done].

I'm Slim Shaddai / I'm the real Slim Shaddai / All you other Slim Shaddayin / Are just imitatin'.
posted by kewb at 6:07 AM on January 15 [7 favorites]


For the swift has (8) reproached the eagle, the voice of vultures resounds. The st[ork has ] the young of the NHS-bird and ripped up the chicks of the heron. The swallow has belittled (9) the dove, and the sparrow [ ] and [ ] the staff. Instead of ewes the stick is driven along. Hares have eaten (10) [ ]. Freemen [] have drunk wine, and hyenas have listened to instruction. The whelps of the (11) f[ox] laughs at wise men, and the poor woman has mixed myrhh, and the priestess (12) [ ] to the one who wears a girdle of threads. The esteemed esteems and the esteemer is es[teemed. ] and everyone has seen those things that decree offspring and young. (15) [ ] to the leopard. The piglet has chased the young (16) [of] those who are girded and the eye ....

Women mixing myrrh, hyenas listening to instruction, MASS HYSTERIA!
posted by jason_steakums at 8:18 AM on January 15


  the Bible talks about [foo] and here's this other thing that talks about [foo] and so that means …”

… that the Bible is a part of an ongoing cultural tradition trying to explain creation and our place in it? ← this never happens.
posted by scruss at 8:19 AM on January 15 [2 favorites]


Yeah, it's surprising how mad some otherwise-entirely-reasonable people get when you suggest that the bible is an interesting text in the same way that the odyssey is an interesting text. I guess questions about origins and authorship and the motivations and personal ideas of the various authors are just so far out of bounds if you're brought up thinking of it as 100% message from god.
posted by kiltedtaco at 9:18 AM on January 15 [2 favorites]


… that the Bible is a part of an ongoing cultural tradition trying to explain creation and our place in it?

Exactly. But the people who think this don't tend to make breathless "Shocking Proof of God - Click Here" blog posts.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:39 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]


Everybody, stop fighting bananas. It just makes you sticky and the banana likes it.
posted by Omnomnom at 3:11 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


Balaam's ass only hits number four on this top 10 list of talking donkeys.

Bah. They omitted Brunellus, who became Abelard's other muse.
posted by homunculus at 1:32 AM on January 16


OMG, I'd never heard of the Muppet Musicians of Bremen mentioned in that top 10 list of talking donkeys.

By the way, the Wikipedia List of fictional horses excludes donkeys and also mules, such as talking mule Hank from the Oz books.
posted by larrybob at 4:37 PM on January 21


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