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Balaam the Prophet - Eliezer Segal

Balaam the Prophet - Eliezer Segal

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Published by: api-3811809 on Oct 19, 2008
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03/18/2014

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Balaam the Prophet1
Based on the information supplied by the Bible, it is not immediately apparent why
Jewish tradition has been so hostile to poor old Balaam.

Admittedly, at his worst moments, he comes across as a pathetic, almost comical creature, a weak-willed man who is subjected to a humiliating argument with a talking ass.

Yet the same individual is acknowledged to be an authentic prophet who obeys the directives of the God of Israel, in whose name he blesses Israel with some of the Bible's most inspired poetic outpourings.

In light of the above considerations, it is hard to comprehend why the Bible considered
him such a formidable antagonist that he had to be executed by Joshua's army.

Our understanding of this non-Hebrew prophet has been enriched in recent years by a remarkable inscription that was unearthed in 1967 in archeological excavations at the Deir 'Alla site in Jordan, not far from the scene of Balaam's activities in the book of Numbers. The text in question, which was probably composed around 700 B.C.E., was written in Aramaic (or Ammonite) on plaster slabs that might have formed part of a sanctuary or cultic monument. From it we learn of the existence, some six hundered years after Balaam's lifetime, of a religious movement that continued to revere Balaam as its great prophet and spiritual mentor.

Several features in this memorial reveal uncanny resemblances to the familiar Biblical story of Balaam, whose role is depicted in terms that are reminiscent of the Hebrew prophets.

Thus, "Balaam bar Be'or" is said in the inscription to be a "seer of the gods" and is the
one to whom those gods reveal their intentions in "visions of the night."

The names of the gods who speak to the pagan prophet are also familiar to us from the Bible, including "El" and a council of deities called "Shaddayin" (mighty ones). Balaam is informed in a dream that the people are about to be punished by darkness, drought and other natural disasters, and he must urge the people to placate the angry divinities.

It is clear however that these surface similarities to Jewish religious concepts only serve
to enhance the fundamental contrast between the pagan seer and the Prophets of Israel.

We must not lose sight of the fact that Balaam's gods are referred to in the plural, signifying a world governed by disharmony and conflict. In fact some scholars have suggested that the Bible, in order to prevent any confusion between the divine epithet

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