Biblical King, Starts With a B: 3,000 Year-old Riddle May Have Been Solved

New research on the Mesha Stele suggests that King Balak, the Moabite leader who according to the Bible tried to curse the Israelites, may have been a historical figure

A detail of the bottom of the Mesha stele. The enigmatic line 31 is in the white rectangle.
Wikimedia Commons//Ariel David

King Balak, a biblical archenemy of the ancient Hebrews, may have been a historical figure, a group of researchers says after possibly identifying the name of the Moabite ruler in an ancient inscription written 2,800 years ago.

That inscription is known as the Mesha stele, a stone monument that was discovered 150 years ago in the desert of Transjordan. It has proven to be a treasure trove of information on the history of ancient Israel, as well as a constant source of fuel for the debate over the accuracy of the Bible. 

In the text, dated to the second half of the 9th century B.C.E., the Moabite King Mesha boasts of defeating the northern Kingdom of Israel and its deity, YHWH, in what is the first certain extra-biblical reference to the God of the Jews. The inscription also attests to the historicity of several biblical figures, including Mesha himself (who appears in 2 Kings 3) as well as the Israelite king Omri and his son Ahab.

All this has long been known and accepted by most scholars. But there are parts of the stele that are damaged or barely readable – and their interpretation has been the subject of heated discussion among experts.

Now, a study published Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal publication Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University proposes a new and surprising reading of one of these obscure sections in the Mesha stele.

The study was done by archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, historian Nadav Na’aman – both from Tel Aviv University – and biblical scholar Thomas Römer from the Collège de France and the University of Lausanne.

The new interpretation is based on new fresh high-resolution photos of a “squeeze” – a paper impression of the text – that was made shortly after the discovery of the stele in 1868 and which, in some cases, has preserved the ancient letters better than the original inscription. That’s because local Bedouin broke up the stone shortly after it was found, and even though most of it was pieced together, some parts remain missing. (Both the stele and the squeeze are now housed at the Louvre Museum in Paris.)

The new analysis of the squeeze suggests that Balak, a Moabite ruler who is a key character in a biblical parable in the book of Numbers (chapters 22-24), may be mentioned in the stele as a rival to Mesha for supremacy over Moab.

In the Bible, Balak appears much earlier in the story of the Hebrews, ostensibly centuries before the time of Mesha.

Forty years after the Exodus, when the Israelites, still led by Moses, emerge from the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land, they pass through Moab. Scared by their sheer multitude, King Balak hires a prophet and seer called Balaam son of Beor to curse the Hebrews.

The Moabite king repeatedly implores Balaam to work his mojo against this enemy people, but, inspired by God, the prophet can only bless the children of Israel, and prophesize the defeat of Moab, much to Balak’s frustration.

If the new interpretation of the Mesha stele is correct, it would mean that Balak could join the ranks of characters from the Bible who have made it into the history books. But at the same time it would also show that the biblical episode in which he appears is anachronistic and mythological in nature. It would be yet another confirmation that the holy text was written centuries after the purported events it narrates and that its authors had a penchant for taking known historical figures and then projecting them into a different time and weaving them into stories and parables for their own theological purposes.

Sounds confusing? Well, hopefully things will be clearer in just a bit.

But before we can talk more about King Balak, we need to talk about King David.

One man’s House of David is another’s Balak

At the bottom of his victory stele, in the 31st line of the text, Mesha tells us that after defeating the northern Kingdom of Israel, which had conquered part of Moab’s ancestral territories to the northeast of the Dead Sea, he moved south to vanquish a place called Horonaim and someone or something who “dwelt therein.”

Horonaim is a location mentioned in the Bible several times. Researchers identify it with today’s Jordanian city of Kerak, southeast of the Dead Sea.

Balak (wearing a crown) from the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustrations
Philip De Vere / Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, the letters in the stele that spell out the name of the person or entity that ruled Horonaim are almost impossible to identify, making this issue the subject of much debate.

One of the most authoritative, and controversial, interpretations of line 31 was published in the 1990s by the French epigraphist André Lemaire, who claimed those faded letters should be read as BT [D]WD. Since ancient Moabite is pretty much the same language as ancient Hebrew, this could only mean one thing: Bet David – the House of David.

Together with the Tel Dan inscription, this interpretation would make the Mesha stele one of only two known extra-biblical mentions of the biblical David, used as an alternative name for the Kingdom of Judah.

This reading inevitably fueled the loaded debate on the historicity and extent of the united monarchy ruled by David and his immediate successors. If Judah had been occupying territory so far into Transjordan as early as the 9th century B.C.E., surely, one could argue that there was some truth to the biblical accounts of a fabulous and vast kingdom in the time of David and Solomon a century earlier.

Finkelstein and the other authors of the new paper have long been leading voices in an opposing school of thought, arguing that there is little archaeological or textual evidence in Jerusalem or elsewhere of the great Israelite empire described in the Bible. 

And while David may well have been a historical figure, they say, he likely was the ruler of a small city-state in the Judean highlands, which certainly did not extend all the way into today’s Jordan.

Map showing states around Israel and Judah circa 830 BCE.
Wikimedia Commons

In their new study of the Mesha stele, Finkelstein and colleagues dismiss Lemaire’s interpretation. The new images they studied show that the name of the ruler of Horonaim is composed by just three consonants, and only the first is clearly legible as the letter “beth.”

But the researchers go further and suggest that the name should be read as B[LK] – that is, Balak.

“The hypothesis is based on checking for Levantine proper names starting with B and having three letters,” explains Römer. “From this research, Balak appears to be the best candidate.”

Meanwhile, north of Horonaim

The name gels with the biblical description of Balak’s kingdom, described as lying south of the Arnon river, which in fact flows toward the Dead Sea some 30 kilometers north of Kerak, that is, the Horonaim of the Mesha stele, Finkelstein says.

There are also other clues that point to the fact that the chapters of the Book of Numbers that include Balak’s story originated in the 9th-8th centuries B.C.E., as many of the toponyms listed in the biblical verses can be traced back to this period, the archaeologist says.

For example, the city of Heshbon, which according to Numbers 21 the Israelites conquered just before their encounter with Balak, was in fact found by archaeologists to have been uninhabited in the supposed time of the Exodus, but to have been an important settlement from the time of the Israelite kings Omri and Ahab.

Another point that favors the identification of Balak as a real person from this period is that we already have a separate and almost contemporaneous inscription that points to the possible historicity of Balaam, the prophet unsuccessfully employed by the king of Moab to curse the Israelites in the biblical narrative. 

Back in 1967, archaeologists at Tell Deir Alla, on the eastern side of the Jordan valley, uncovered an inscription, dated to the early 8th century B.C.E., which lists the prophecies of one “Balaam s[on of Beo]r, a seer of the gods.”

“Whether the Tell Deir Alla inscription is speaking of a known person or a legendary one we don’t know, but it certainly makes Balaam more tangible, he was certainly a known figure,” Finkelstein tells Haaretz. “So if you combine all this evidence together I think the identification of Balak in line 31 of the Mesha stele is solid.”

Lemaire, the French epigraphist, disagrees with that conclusion and stands by his own interpretation. While he does not rule out the historicity of Balak, the appearance of his name in the Mesha stele “is obviously not only conjectural but also unlikely,” Lemaire writes in an email to Haaretz. On the other hand, reading the contested text as House of David “fits not only the traces of the letters but also the context,” he says.

Balak and Balaam travel back in time

But what if Finkelstein and colleagues are right? If Balak, just like Balaam, can be identified as a historical figures from the 9th-8th centuries B.C.E., how did they end both end up in a biblical story that supposedly happened centuries earlier?

Based on the biblical chronology, the Exodus and subsequent conquest of Canaan must have happened in the Late Bronze Age, between the 15th-13th centuries B.C.E. – depending on who you ask. 

Even before their new study, it was clear that the story in the book of Numbers was anachronistic, because in the time of the purported Exodus there would have been no kingdom of Moab for Balak to rule, the researchers say.

“The Exodus tradition is based on later realities,” Finkelstein notes. “In the Late Bronze Age, the area south of the Arnon was sparsely populated; there were probably pastoral nomads, but there is no evidence for sedentary activity in what would much later become the core of the kingdom of Moab.”

If Balak was indeed the ruler mentioned in the Mesha stele this only highlights the incongruences with his biblical counterpart. In the book of Numbers, Balak is the one and only ruler of the kingdom of Moab – whereas in history it would seem that he was a losing rival of Mesha in vying for supremacy over the region east of the Dead Sea.

Scholars have also noted that the biblical Balaam is just as different from the seer who appears in the Deir Alla text. In the Bible he is a prophet who worships the God of Israel, whereas in the inscription he comes off as polytheist who receives visions from multiple deities, including Shagar, Ishtar and El, the head of the Canaanite pantheon.

This makes sense, given that in the 9th-8th centuries B.C.E. even the Israelites (let alone neighboring peoples) are known to have worshipped multiple deities. For example, inscriptions from the 8th century B.C.E. found at Kuntillet Ajrud, an Israelite site in the Sinai desert, have shown that at this time the now invisible deity known as YHWH was depicted anthropomorphically and was believed to have a divine wife or companion named Asherah. 

The strictly monotheistic Judaism that we know today only formed in the subsequent centuries, as biblical scribes began to collect, redact and merge age-old traditions, memories and texts from multiple origins and sources to create a shared story for a single people with one God. The Balak narrative, with its parable of the prophet who came to curse Israel and found himself blessing it instead, was certainly part of this process of establishing and aggrandizing the power of YHWH.

“It is the work of later authors, but there were memories of these historical personalities in that area, and these memories found their way into the story of the crossing of Transjordan into the land of Israel,” Finkelstein explains. “This is a typical situation in the Bible, where realities from more than one period find their way into a story composed in a later time.”

By then, he says, there was probably only a distant memory of a Moabite king named Balak and a famous seer named Balaam – and the biblical authors decided to use those historical figures to give their narrative that extra touch of authenticity that every good story needs.

A 'squeeze,' or a paper impression, of the Mesha stele.
Musée du Louvre, dist. RMN-GP /