New evidence suggests Biblical King Balak existed

The Mesha Stele tablet, also known as the Moabite Stone, is on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

The Mesha Stele tablet, also known as the Moabite Stone, is on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

JERUSALEM — One of the earliest recorded stories of anti-Semitism gained more credibility this week.

Balak, the legendary ruler of Moab from the Book of Numbers who asked the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites camping in his kingdom as they journeyed to the Promised Land, was likely a real historical figure, scholars concluded this week in a journal article.

Tel Aviv University archaeologist Israel Finkelstein and historians and biblical scholars Nadav Na'aman, also of TAU, and Thomas Römer of Collège de France in Paris, published their surprising decipherment of line 31 of a 39-line text of a partly broken and illegible tablet called the Mesha Stele, written in Paleo-Hebrew and dating from C. 840 BCE.

The article is published in the current issue of Tel Aviv: The Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University.

Their findings suggest the degraded words previously thought to say “House of David” may in fact read “Balak.”

“With due caution, we suggest that the line refers to the Moabite King Balak, who, according to the Balaam story in Numbers 22-24, was supposed to bring a divine curse on the people of Israel,” Na’aman said.

“We believe Balak was a historical figure like Balaam, who, before the discovery of the famous Deir Alla inscription in Jordan in 1967, was considered an ‘invented’ character,” explained Finkelstein. “The new photographs of the Mesha Stele and the squeeze indicate that the reading ‘House of David’ — accepted by many scholars for more than two decades — is no longer valid.”

The Iron Age stele, also called the Moabite Stone and today on display in the Louvre in Paris, tells the story of the territorial expansion and construction endeavors of King Mesha mentioned in the Second Book of Kings. The stone, measuring 1.15 meters high and 60-68 cm. wide, was found intact by German missionary Frederick Augustus Klein in 1868 among the ruins of Biblical Dibon 20 km east of the Dead Sea, then in the Ottoman Empire and today called Dhiban, Jordan.

Numbers 22:4-6

So Balak son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time, sent messengers to summon Balaam son of Beor .... Balak said:

“A people has come out of Egypt; they cover the face of the land and have settled next to me. Now come and put a curse on these people, because they are too powerful for me. Perhaps then I will be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.”

In the context of the “Great Game” of European imperialism, Germany, France and Britain were vying to fill up their respective national treasure houses – the Altes Museum in Berlin, the Louvre in Paris and the British Museum in London. All three powers sought to acquire the stele.

A hastily-made papier-mâché reverse impression of the ancient inscription, called a squeeze, was given by a local Arab to the French archaeologist Clermont-Ganneau in Jerusalem. But before he could acquire the stele for France, members of the Bani Hamida Bedouin tribe, on whose land the artifact was found, shattered the recently discovered basalt stele by lighting a fire under it and then pouring cold water over it. Using the squeeze impression, Clermont-Ganneau was able to partly restore the inscription.

In 1994, French epigrapher André Lemaire reconstructed the portion of line 31 to read “House of David.” That reading, if correct, would have been the oldest reference to the kingdom of David. (See: André Lemaire "'House of David' Restored in Moabite Inscription" Biblical Archaeology Review 20:03 (May/June 1994).

Using high-resolution photographs of the squeeze, and of the stele itself, Finkelstein, Na'aman and Römer determined there are three consonants in the name of the monarch mentioned in Line 31, and that the first is the Hebrew letter beth (a 'b' sound).

While the other letters are eroded, the most likely candidate for the monarch's name is 'Balak', the authors say. The seat of the king referred to in Line 31 was at Horonaim, a site mentioned four times in the Hebrew Bible in relation to the Moabite territory south of the Arnon Stream, called Wadi Mujib in modern Arabic.

“The biblical story was written down later than the time of the Moabite king referred to in the Mesha Stele,” Römer added. “But to proffer a sense of authenticity to his story, its author must have integrated into the plot certain elements borrowed from ancient reality, including the names Balaam and Balak.”