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Balak and Balaam - context


The purpose of this page is to consider the episode of Balak king of Moab and Balaam son of Beor given in Numbers 22-24 from several points of view. There are two main parts - a geographical study of the coutries mentioned, and a linguistic study of the names of God used in the passage. The geographic study, by investigating which nations are mentioned and which are omitted, suggests a composition date in the Middle or Late Bronze Age, and certainly before the rise of the Iron Age nations and the consequent change of the international world.

For a translation of this passage, please refer to Numbers 23 and 24 - The oracles of Bil‘am.


The places mentioned in the passages are as follows:

Placenames mentioned in the passage

The Midianites and Kenites mentioned may be resident in their homeland, somewhat to the south of the area in question, or alternatively may be a migrant or nomadic group living in Moab. Eber has been marked with a question mark to the north, on the basis that a similar name has been found in the Ebla tablets. Although these are rather earlier than the period in question, it is possible that the name persisted in its use. The exact location is not crucial to this study.

The important feature of the placenames is as follows. Balaam was evidently familiar with nations and people around the Fertile Crescent, and he names key places from the borders of Egypt round to Assur. He does not mention any Canaanite groups (except for the Amalekites based between the Egyptian border and Edom). His apparent lack of knowledge of the peoples west of the Jordan makes the omission of the Phoenicians and Hittites understandable. His mention of the Amalekites rather than the Philistines (in the sense of the warlike invaders who arrived in connection with the Sea Peoples in Rameses III year 8) strongly suggests that the passage was composed before the late Judges era.

The other interesting omission is the Babylonians. The lack of mention suggests a period after the high-point of the Old Babylonian era, and before their resurgence of importance in the Iron Age. The Mitanni are not mentioned, but the Biblical writers typically ignore these people (though the Horites, who are mentioned at various places, originate from a geographically similar area). It is, however, extremely unlikely that a late writer inventing the episode would omit mention of the Babylonians.

The following two diagrams summarise the chronological implications for both the conventional and New schemes. Green vertical bands indicate a period providing a good fit regarding the groups Balaam names - in other words the groups he names are strong or thriving at the time. Red vertical bands indicate a period providing a poor fit for the passage - the groups he does not name are strong, and their omission would be surprising. The Philistines are shown as gradually increasing, to reflect the steady incursion leading up to the main arrival event in the reign of Rameses III, as described in a companion page. The yellow bands show the time frame where strongest support for the passage is found in comparison to the strength or weakness of the people in question. Darker shades of yellow - just before 1500 to just after 1400 conventionally, or towards 1100 in the New Chronology - are "ideal" situations, but the paler bands in the years preceding this are acceptable. This, of course, provides a good match with the date suggested on internal grounds. What is unacceptable (in terms of the nations and peoples named) is to hypothesise a date of origination rather after 1000 BCE.

Conventional chronology setting for Balaam New Chronology setting for Balaam

Balaam's use of country names should be compared to the use in some of the Psalms reflecting the situation in the time of David:

Psalm 60:6-8
"Shechem... Valley of Succoth... Gilead... Manasseh...Ephraim... Judah
Moab is my washbasin, upon Edom I toss my sandal, over Philistia I shout in triumph"
Psalm 83:6-8
"the tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites, of Moab and the Hagrites, Gebal, Ammon and Amalek, Philistia, with the people of Tyre, even Assyria has joined them..."
So here we have two rather similar lists, the first focused around the immediate shores of the Dead Sea and River Jordan, and the second looking further afield, to Phoenicia and Assyria. Both share the feature with the Balaam list of avoiding mention of Babylon. However, both mention the Philistines as a key group in the region, in the case of Psalm 83 at a time when both Amalekites and Philistines were present. Hence it is entirely reasonable that the Balaam account originates earlier, before the Philistines had established a major foothold on the coastal plain.

The names of God used

This provides an interesting insight into the way the Biblical text uses the divine names, especially as neither Balak nor Balaam were Israelites. A more thorough investigation into the OT use of the various names of God may be found elsewhere (Under construction). The main narrative passage runs from the start of chapter 22 through to the end of 25, The story of Balaam's donkey (22:22-35) will be ignored in this analysis. It is disjoint from the main narrative flow, and the question of whether it is a later interpolation or a contemporary additional source will be left for the moment. Other than once at the start, the phrase angel of Yahweh is used throughout this part. The section is neatly bracketed by the repetition of the phrase "go with them but do/speak only what I tell you". The names of God are found in each of the following areas:
  1. The main narrative, unattributed to any speaker
  2. Balak, king of Moab
  3. Balaam son of Beor in normal speech
  4. Balaam as part of an oracle
Each of these shows rather different tendencies. The main narrative prefers to use Elohim except when directly referring to an oracle being given in which case Yahweh is used. Balak tends to speak only in terms of magic, divination, curses and blessings, not directly about deity. He does use Yahweh twice when speaking to Balaam about his god (thus suggesting the idea "your god says/does..."), and Elohim once, but most of his speech does not refer to God in any way. Balaam, in his own speech, overwhelmingly tends to use Yahweh. His only use of Elohim is on first meeting Balak, when one can imagine him accomodating his words to Balak's understanding. However, when he is speaking his oracles, El predominates, with a variety of other names occasionally.

Name usedNarrativeBalak Balaam (speech)Balaam (oracle)
Elohim61 1-
Yahweh32 92
Yahweh Elohim-- 11
El-- -8
Shaddai (Almighty)-- -2
Elyon (Most High)-- -1

What does this tells us? There are two interesting contrasts here. One is the considerable difference in usage between the narrative and Balaam's words. In the narrative, the only times Elohim is not used is in connection with the actual giving of the oracles - ie specific moments of interaction between God and man. In the things Balaam says, however, this word is quite rare. This suggests either a deliberate choice on the part of the narrator to give variety, or genuine reportage of Balaam's turn of phrase, or a careful distinction between God in the generally accepted sense (Elohim) and God in the sense of a personal revealer and initiator of relationship (Yahweh).

Equally interesting is the quite different use of the divine names in the oracles themselves, where El predominates but a wide range of other names also appears. It seems that Balaam's phraseology when speaking prophecy is rather different than his everyday speech. It could, of course, also mean that the oracles were remembered in a more exact way (being poetic and so perhaps easier to commit to memory) whereas his other attributed words are (as it were) faithful in a general way as to events, but not necessarily accurate to the word that was spoken.

It is also interesting to consider how likely it is that Balaam would know of and use the personal name Yahweh for God. (As explained above, Balak's use is only after he has heard Balaam use it several times). We have no real way of identifying with certainty Balaam's country of origin, though he was apparently living in Syria (Aram). However, his father Beor has the same name as the father of the first Edomite king in the list of Genesis 36. Thus there is the possibility that Balaam was an Edomite. An Aramaic inscription from the Jordan Valley refers to an individual named Balaam as a "seer of the gods" who had visions. For the time being this link between Balaam and Edom will be assumed. The ancestry of the various people-groups east of the Jordan is attributed to Abraham, through Ishmael intermarrying into local families. Thus it is entirely credible that knowledge of the name Yahweh would be known to these people. Indeed, Egyptian texts from the reigns of Amenhotep III and Rameses II refer to "Yahweh of the land of the Shasu" in connection with Midian and Edom. Thus, Balaam's use of the name Yahweh is credible.

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