Examining the figure of Balaam in archaeology
Although mentioned only a few times in the Hebrew Bible, Balaam son of Beor remains an extraordinary and intriguing figure and one of the earliest to be referenced outside the Bible. In the first part of our series on Balaam, we discussed his brief appearance in the Book of Numbers, while Part Two focused on the various ways this figure was interpreted in later sources, including the New Testament and the Dead Sea Scrolls. For the third and final part of the series, we focus on what we learn of Balaam through archaeology, especially the discovery of an enigmatic text from the site of Deir Alla in Jordan that contains one of the earliest references to any figure known from the Bible.
After more than half a century, the Deir Alla inscription remains one of the most fascinating and mysterious references to a biblical figure ever found in archaeology. The inscription, discovered at the site of Tell Deir Alla in the central Jordan Valley, recounts a vision received by “Balaam son of Beor, a seer of the gods.” This vision consists of a message from the gods, championed by the head deity El, who warn Balaam of an impending disaster. While the exact language of the inscription remains debated (see below), it is written in a high literary style, reminiscent of similar texts known from the Hebrew Bible and Ugarit. Indeed, scholars have pointed out that many of the inscription’s phrases, terms, and titles are also found in the Hebrew Bible and even in the story of Balaam found in Numbers.
Archaeological and epigraphic evidence suggests the inscription was written towards the end of the ninth or first half of the eighth century BCE. This dating is supported by the fact that the sanctuary in which the inscription was found was destroyed by a large earthquake, which some scholars connect to the one mentioned by the prophet Amos (1:1), generally dated to the mid-eighth century. Evidence for this quake has been found at several other sites in the region, including Jerusalem.
Given the inscription’s date, location, and content, there is little doubt that its main character can be identified with the Balaam son of Beor known from the Bible. However, while the character is the same, it is important to note that the inscription does not reflect an earlier or alternate version of the biblical story, as the two texts recount decidedly different events. Rather, the similarities seem to demonstrate a shared narrative tradition, one in which the character and various stories of Balaam were known and communicated throughout Transjordan, from where both the Deir Alla inscription and the biblical story of Balaam found in Numbers seem to originate.
Scholars debate when the Balaam narrative first developed. Although it is possible that Balaam stories began to circulate around the time of the writing of the Deir Alla inscription (i.e., the eighth century), an oral tradition likely predated the written one, and various scholars have suggested that the Deir Alla inscription itself was copied from earlier texts. The inscription’s first line, for example, references the “book of Balaam,” which suggests it was taken from an older . Of additional note are the divine names and terms used within the text, which situates El as the head of a divine council of the Shaddayin and ilahin. This is noteworthy, specifically because it seems to reflect an older form of the Levantine cult, more in line with that of the Late Bronze Age (1550-1200 BCE), which corresponds with the period in which Balaam is placed within the Hebrew Bible. Although other explanations are possible for the presence of the older form of the pantheon as well.
What does all of this mean for the character of Balaam Son of Beor? While the literary nature of the text prohibits adding Balaam to the list of biblical people confirmed through archaeology, it does open a window onto the culture and traditions of the southern Levant during the biblical period. Despite the Bible’s antagonistic view of the region’s other kingdoms, the Deir Alla inscription demonstrates how connected ancient Israel was to the stories, languages, and cultures of neighboring peoples. During the Iron Age, the lines of cultural, social, and ethnic demarcation were far more fluid than we tend to imagine.
On March 17, 1967, the Dutch expedition to Tell Deir Alla made a remarkable discovery. As the team dug, Ali Abdul-Rasul, a Jordanian excavator, noticed traces of letters written on tiny pieces of plaster. This discovery has since come to be known as the Deir Alla inscription. The plaster fragments were collected and the work of reconstruction began.
The plaster inscription was poorly preserved and only a few large fragmentary sections could be recovered. After years of work, scholars were able to connect and read two large sections of the text, dubbed combination I and II. The exact relationship between these two combinations remains unclear. In addition, it is unknown how the inscription was originally displayed and presented. Some scholars think it was plastered onto a stela, while others propose that it was written directly onto a wall of either a sanctuary or classroom. What is clear, however, is that it was an important inscription, written by a professional scribe. The entire text is framed by a painted red outline, and while most of the text is in black ink, the important lines are written in red.
The site of Deir Alla, located barely a mile north of where the biblical river Jabbok meets the Jordan River, functioned as a trade hub and religious sanctuary during the Iron Age, and has at various times been identified as the biblical site of Succoth or Penuel, although neither of these identifications is widely supported. Located within the region of Gilead, the site would have likely changed hands numerous times during the Iron Age, as Gilead was controlled at various points by the Israelites, Ammonites, Arameans, Moabites, and Assyrians.
The location and nature of the site makes it difficult to determine the text’s cultural background. Adding to the problem, the exact language of the inscription has yet to be identified. Although it is clearly Northwest Semitic, scholars debate whether it should be considered Aramaic, Canaanite, or something else. The script appears to be an offshoot of Aramaic and a precursor of Ammonite, but the language of the text does not easily fit into any known category, with some features linking it to Aramaic and others to languages like Hebrew or Moabite. This has led some to conclude that it was written in a purely local dialect. Thus, while much can be learned by studying the text and its archaeology, the Deir Alla inscription’s precise relationship to the biblical story of Balaam Son of Beor—and the literary and cultural connections between the authors of the respective texts—remains obscure.
Read part one “examining the figure of Balaam in the Bible” and part two “examining the figure of Balaam in later traditions.”
 P. Kyle McCarter, “The Dialect of the Deir ‘Alla Texts,” The Balaam Text from Deir ‘Alla Re-Evaluated, ed. J Hoftijzer and G. Van Der Kooij (Leiden: Brill, 1991), pp. 87–99.
 Andreas Schüle, “Balaam from Deir Allā,” in Wandering Arameans: Arameans Outside Syria, ed. A. Berlejung, A. Maeir, and A. Schüle (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2017), pp. 69–80.
 Joel Burnett, “Prophecy in Transjordan: Balaam son of Beor,” in Enemies and Friends of the State: Ancient Prophecy in Context, ed. C. Rollston (University Park, PA: Eisenbrauns, 2018), pp. 135–204.
 Na’ama Pat-El and Aren Wilson-Wright, “Deir ‘Allā as a Canaanite Dialect,” Annual AOS meeting 225 (2015), pp. 1–5.
 Jo Ann Hackett, “The Dialect of the Plaster Text from Tell Deir ‘Alla.” Orientalia 53.1 (1984), pp. 57–65.
 See note 3.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.