From Balaam to Balak

Wed, 14/08/2019 - 10:30 -- James Oakley
Plains of Moab

Since visiting Israel, I've had a fresh alertness to, and interest in, the geography of the Bible. Things that a first-century reader would instinctively pick up.

So it was that I found myself re-reading Numbers 22-24, in which Balak King of Moab feels threatened by the people of Israel camped on his land. He hires a man called Balaam to curse them, but the curse is turned into a blessing, because these are the people God has decided to bless so as to cause a sceptre to arise from them to crush all evil and bless every nation on earth.

Balak was in Moab, and the Israelites were on the plains of Moab opposite Jericho. At Jericho, the Jordan river travels some distance from the eastern wall of the Rift Valley, so this is those plains at the foot of the Moabite mountains.

There's a fair bit of to-ing and fro-ing. Balak sends messengers to Balaam (Numbers 22:4-5). Balak won't curse them, so the messengers return to Balak (Numbers 22:14). Balak sends more distinguished messengers (Numbers 22:15). At God's displeasure, Balaam fancies his fee and eventually returns back with the men (Numbers 22:20-23).

When I've read this before, I've pictured Balam's house and Balak's palace as being a few miles apart.

So where was Balak from? Numbers 22:5 has him from "Pethor, near the River Euphrates". The word "Euphrates" isn't there - but "the River", when unspecified, usually means the Euphrates, when context doesn't make it clear that, say, the Nile is meant. Deuteronomy 23:4 is clearer: "Pethor in Aram Naharaim", or Mesopotamia.

This makes the traditional site likely. Wikipedia tells me that Pethor is "the same place as Pitru, a town mentioned in ancient Assyrian records". There have been references found to Balaam Son of Beor of Pethor at Deir Alla in modern-day Jordan, but as Wikipedia points out that just proves Balaam was known there not that this was his home.

So where's Pitru? Answer: Where the Sajur river flows into the Euphrates. We have this corroborated by ancient texts uncovered that were written by Shalmaneser III, who was quite explicit as to where this town was.

So we're in the northern-most part of Syria, near the Turkish border. Here, in fact:

What's the distance from there to the Plains of Moab? Glad you asked: 360 miles.

This illuminates the story in several ways. We see how well-known Balaam was, to have this reputation in Moab so far from his home. We see how determined Balak was, sending messengers twice over this great distance. We see how the story focuses on the discussions between God and Balaam, Balaam and the messengers and on his oracles, skipping out large tracts of time while people travel from one region to the next.

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