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Deir 'Alla Inscription


The Tell Deir 'Alla Inscription in the Museum of Amman (Jordan). Photo Marco Prins.
The Tell Deir 'Alla Inscription in the Museum of Amman.
Deir 'Alla Inscription: inscription, found in the Iron Age town of Deir 'Alla, mentioning the Biblical prophet Balaam.

Deir 'Alla is situated in western Jordan, about eight kilometers east of the river Jordan, and about a kilometer north of the Jabbok (satellite photo). The excavators found a very large Bronze Age sanctuary that had suffered in the period of wide-spread destruction in the thirteenth/twelfth centuries. Unlike other settlements, which were abandoned, Deir 'Alla remained in use well into the fifth century BCE. That is remarkable.

Even more remarkable, however, was the discovery of a painted text that contained a prophecy by Balaam, a non-Israelite prophet who is mentioned in the Biblical book of Numbers 22-24 as a servant working for the Moabite king Balak. (The site of Deir 'Alla is, technically, on the Ammonite side of the river Jabbok.) The text refers to divine visions and signs of future destruction, in a language that is close to that of the Bible. For example, we read about the "Shaddai gods", an expression that is close to the Biblical El Shaddai, "God Almighty". On the other hand, the setting is not monotheistic: we read, for instance, about a gathering of a group of gods. The word elohim, which in the Bible (although plural) refers to one God, refers to more than one god in the Deir 'Alla text.

Reconstructing the contents is difficult, but it is clear that Bileam learns from the gods that the world will be destroyed, an apocalyptic event that is described with metaphors from bird life. Somehow, Bileam and his people seem to have averted this disaster. There is also a description of the Underworld.

The text, in a language between Aramaic and Canaanite, can be dated to c.800 BCE. It was discovered in 1967 by Dutch archaeologists, and the first edition, by Hoftijzer and Van der Kooij, is from 1976 (see below). The scholars were able to form two large and ten small combinations of matching fragments. Since then, scholars have been able to improve their readings. The translation offered here is by B.A. Levine, who also inserted the titles. It was published in 2003 and consists of the two main combinations, minus the two first lines of Combination 2.

These two lines, and the small combinations, are offered in the original translation by Hoftijzer and Van der Kooij (1976); to discern them from Levine's translation, these lines have been printed in italics. Their book also contains photos, drawings, and the most detailed description of the fragments. For detailed philological commentary and footnotes, see the literature below.

   

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Combination 1

  Title
i.1 The misfortunes of the Book of Balaam, son of Beor. A divine seer was he.
  The Theophany
i.1 The gods came to him at night.

And he beheld a vision in accordance with El's utterance.

They said to Balaam, son of Beor:

"So will it be done, with naught surviving.

No one has seen [the likes of] what you have heard!"

Balaam Reports his Vision to His Intimates
i.5 Balaam arose on the morrow;

He summoned the heads of the assembly to him,
i.6 And for two days he fasted, and wept bitterly.

Then his intimates entered into his presence,

and they said to Balaam, son of Beor,

"Why do you fast, and why do you weep?"
i.7 Then he said to them: "Be seated, and I will relate to you what the Shaddai gods have planned,

And go, see the acts of the god!"

Balaam Describes the Celestial Vision and Its Aftermath in the Land
i.7 "The gods have banded together;
i.8 The Shaddai gods have established a council,

And they have said to [the goddess] Shagar:

'Sew up, close up the heavens with dense cloud,

That darkness exist there, not brilliance;

Obscurity and not clarity;
i.9 So that you instill dread in dense darkness.

And - never utter a sound again!'
i.10 It shall be that the swift and crane will shriek insult to the eagle,

And a nest of vultures shall cry out in response.

The stork, the young of the falcon and the owl,
i.11 The chicks of the heron, sparrow and cluster of eagles;

Pigeons and birds, [and fowl in the s]ky.

And a rod [shall flay the cat]tle;

Where there are ewes, a staff shall be brought.

Hares - eat together!

Free[ly feed], oh beasts [of the field]!

And [freely] drink, asses and hyenas!"

Balaam Acts to Save the Goddess and the Land
i.12 Heed the admonition, adversaries of Sha[gar-and-Ištar]!

... skilled diviner.

To skilled diviners shall one take you, and to an oracle;
i.14 To a perfumer of myrrh and a priestess.

Who covers his body with oil,

And rubs himself with olive oil.

To one bearing an offering in a horn;
i.14 One augurer after another, and yet another.

As one augurer broke away from his colleagues,

The strikers departed ...

The Admonitions are Heeded; The Malevolent Gods are Punished, the Goddess Rescued, and the Land Saved
i.15 They heard incantations from afar 

...

Then disease was unleashed
i.16 And all beheld acts of distress.

Shagar-and-Ištar did not ...
i.17 The piglet [drove out] the leopard

And the ... drove out the young of the ...

... double offerings

And he beheld ...


     

Combination 2

ii.4 ... a girl those who were used? to be saturated with love ...
ii.5 ... a blinded one and the whole moistened? soil? ...

(A) El Builds a Necropolis
ii.6 El satisfied himself with [lovemaking]

And then El fashioned an eternal house;

[A house ...]
ii.7 A house where no traveler enters

Nor does a bridegroom enter there
   

(B) A Half-existence in Sheol
ii.8 Worm rot from a grave.

From the reckless affairs of men.

And from the lustful desires of people.

 

(C) The Rejection of a Seer
ii.9 If it is for counsel, on will not counsel with you!

Or for advising him, one will not take advice!

 

(D-E) More on Conditions in Sheol
ii.10 From the bed they cover themselves with a wrap.

If you hate him, he will be mortally afflicted.

If you ...

---

[Worm rot] is under your head.

You shall lie on your eternal bedding,

To pass away to ...

 

(F-G) Kings and Other Corpses in Sheol
ii.12 ... in their heart.

The corpse moans in his heart,

He moans ...

---

... a daughter.

There, kings behold ...
ii.13 There is no mercy when Death seizes a suckling.

And a suckling ...

And a suckling ...

A suckling ...

There ... shall be.
ii.14 The heart of the corpse is desolate

As he approaches [Sheol].

...

To the edge of She[ol],

And the shadow of the hedge ...

 

(H-I) An Oracle: The Quests of Kings and Seers Come to Naught
ii.15 "The quest of a king is moth rot,

And the quest of ...

... seers.
ii.16 Your quest is distant from you.

To know how to deliver an oracle to his people.

You have been condemned for your speech
ii.17 And [banned] from pronouncing words of execration.

 

Lines ii.18-29 are incomprehensible.

 
ii.30 El will be wrathful ...
ii.31 ... he will eat ...
ii.32 ... my heart is a heart? ...
ii.33 (Incomprehensible)
ii.34 ... for three?...
ii.35 She? will drip of abundant? rain ...
ii.36 She? will drip of dew and ...
ii.37 ... look for fodder amd he? will eat ...

Other combinations

iv.a.3 ... for heat? ...
iv.g.i ... green herbs ...
v.c.3 ... she? will faint ...
v.c.4 ... he was pulled down? ...
v.d.2 ... sprinkle ...
v.d.3 ... they came in crowds ...
v.f.2 ... hasten ...
v.q.1 ... horse and ...
vii.c.3 ... bone/strong/strength...
viii.b.1 ... head ...
viii.b.2 ... desire ...
viii.d.2 ... and Balaam, the son of Beor ...
ix.a.3 ... he is not cursed, his hands ...
x.b.1 ... is my lady?, Shagar? ...
x.d.2 ... for? him/her, his/her hands will wither. Take? ...
x.d.3 ... brother and chieftain? ...
xi.b in the depths ...
xii.c.2 ... Balaam, the son of Beor, saying you/she will...

Literature

  • J. Hoftijzer and G. van der Kooij, Aramaic Texts from Deir 'Alla (1976)
  • B.A. Levine, "The Deir 'Alla Plaster Inscriptions", in: W.W. Hallo (ed.), Context of Scripture, vol.2 (2003), 140-145.
Online 2009
Revision: 19 July 2013
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