The Mesha Stele.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Balak, the infamous king in the Book of Numbers who attempted to curse the Jewish people in the desert of Moab, may have actually existed, new research by Tel Aviv University (TAU) suggests.
After a new reading into the Mesha Stele, an ancient inscribed stone dating back to 840 BCE, there seems to be a portion of the damaged text that until now was read as the “House of David” but in fact refers to King Balak.
The Mesha Stele, today on display in the Louvre in Paris, tells the story of the territorial expansion and construction endeavors of King Mesha of Moab from the Second Book of Kings. It was found intact by an Anglican missionary in 1868 among the ruins of the ancient town of Dibon, Moab, today Dhiban, Jordan.
A papier-mâché impression of the ancient inscription, called a squeeze, was given to French archaeologist Charles Clermont-Ganneau in Jerusalem. Before he could acquire the inscription for France, however, it was smashed into pieces by a local Bedouin tribe that opposed the stele being sent to Ottoman Turkey’s ally Germany. The squeeze allowed Clermont-Ganneau to piece the fragments back together.
“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 Prof. Israel Finkelstein of TAU’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures. “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and the squeeze indicate that the reading ‘House of David’ — accepted by many scholars for more than two decades — is no longer valid.”
“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,” Prof. Nadav Na’aman, also from TAU, said.
“The biblical story was written down later than the time of the Moabite king referred to in the Mesha Stele,” Prof. Thomas Römer of Collège de France 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.”
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